Newly unsealed documents show that Snapchat played an unexpected role in the investigation of an apparent drug murder in Colorado in 2016. Devon Smeltz disappeared in August 2016, shortly after a late-night disturbance was captured on surveillance video near his home in Fort Collins. Eight days after the incident, Smeltz’s body was discovered in a rural county one hour east of the city, launching an investigation by Fort Collins police.
The prime suspects in the disappearance were a group of five associates from Cincinnati. Shortly after Smeltz’s disappearance, the group was stopped by Illinois highway police driving a white Mercedes sedan registered to Smeltz. A subsequent search of the car turned up a loaded firearm, traces of blood, and 115 grams of cocaine. According to police interviews with friends, the group had traveled from Cincinnati to Fort Collins with roughly $60,000 in cash, intended for purchasing drugs. Smeltz’s mother had separately heard that her son was preparing to meet with “some people from Cincinnati.”
Police weren’t able to find any calls or texts between Smeltz and the suspects, but in an audio recording taken from one of the suspect’s phones, a voice makes reference to a “snap,” leading investigators to believe the deal was arranged over Snapchat.
It’s unclear how much data Snapchat produced, but the company’s retention policy may have prevented much of the relevant information from being disclosed. Snapchat policy is to retain chats and user access logs for only a month, according to the company’s law enforcement guide. This court order was filed on November 8th, 2016 — more than two months after Smeltz’s body was discovered by police. Court records make no indication of a preservation order filed before that time. A later filing indicates that Snap complied with the warrant, but the relevant chats and access logs may have already been destroyed if Smeltz didn’t actively save them before his death.
Snapchat declined to comment when reached by The Verge. According to the company’s most recent transparency report, it receives roughly 370 search warrants per month and produces data for 86 percent of those requests.
US v. Snapchat by Russell Brandom on Scribd