A Millsboro man accused of kidnapping an elderly Rehoboth Beach couple wants to suppress evidence against him obtained after Delaware State Police traced his cellphone to find him.
Steven Snell, 29, is facing kidnapping, robbery, home invasion and assault charges in connection with a July incident in which police say he entered the home of an elderly couple in Rehoboth Beach Yacht and Country Club, assaulted an 82-year-old man and his 81-year-old wife, robbed them and then forced them into their black BMW to head to an M&T Bank, where the woman withdrew an additional $500. In addition, police said, Snell tied up the man and left him in the trunk of the BMW, then fled the scene. He was arrested two days later.
Police tracked Snell after obtaining his cellphone number from his mother. Police obtained emergency authorization to use cellphone-tracking technology to hone in on Snell’s location while he was on the run. Within 75 minutes of receiving authorization to use the phone-tracking equipment, police were able to find and arrest Snell.
Following Snell’s arrest, police found a box cutter-style knife used in the robbery, $172 in cash and Snell’s cell phone. A subsequent warrant allowed police to search Snell’s cell phone, and later, police found a bag with rope and duct tape that the victims said Snell had at the time of the robbery.
Snell’s attorney, Rob Robinson, is challenging evidence gathered as a result of the phone-tracking, saying police did not use proper procedure to obtain authorization to track the cellphone, so evidence obtained from the Long Neck- area location where Snell was arrested should be thrown out.
Deputy Attorney General Adam Gelof called three Delaware State Police detectives during the May 14 suppression hearing to testify that the use of the phone-tracking technology was justified because Snell was a fugitive with an arrest record who had previously stolen from the same elderly couple. The key police witness, lead Det. David Kristunas, said the victims feared for their safety; following the robbery, Kristunas said the man asked whether he should get a gun for protection.
Kristunas testified that Snell had previously been to the victims’ home with his grandfather to do electrical work. During that visit, the victims told Kristunas that Snell had stolen $180 from the woman’s purse.
The day of the home invasion, Kristunas testified, Snell had been out of prison for a day, on a previous burglary conviction, when he went to the victims’ home. He was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses. Seeing Snell outside his garage, the man thought he was a painter scheduled to come to the home that day. Snell said his phone was dead and asked if he could use the telephone inside. The elderly man later told Kristunas that during his phone call, Snell referred to himself as, “Steve, I mean, Mike.”
Snell then asked the elderly man for a glass of water, and when the man turned his back to fill a glass, Kristunas testified, Snell held a box cutter to his throat. A struggle ensued and the elderly man fell and cut his chin. His wife, who did not hear the commotion, came down the stairs, Kristunas said, but when she got to the end of the steps, Snell grabbed her and threw her to the ground.
Kristunas said Snell tied the man up with rope he had brought and took $60 from his wallet. He then forced the woman to give him $200, her ATM card and the PIN number, and then led them out to the car to get more money from the bank. The man was put in the trunk and the woman was forced to ride in the front seat. The victims told police Snell said he also had a gun.
They then went to the ATM and withdrew $500. During Kristunas’ testimony, Gelof showed pictures taken from the ATM’s internal camera, showing Snell and the woman. Snell was identifiable because of three stars tattooed on his forearm.
As they left the ATM, Kristunas said, the woman struggled and held on to a railing. Another bank customer intervened; Snell got back in the car and fled the scene. Kristunas said Snell drove the car to the rear of a Subway store adjacent to the bank and left the car, with the man still in the trunk. Kristunas said the man managed to jimmy the trunk open and get himself out.
Kristunas said police interviewed the victims, who mentioned that their kidnapper had shaky hands, as if he had Tourette’s syndrome. During his hearing, Snell could be observed twitching his eyes and face in a manner similar to those who suffer from Tourette’s. Kristunas said when police searched their database for offenders with Tourette’s, Snell’s name popped up.
Sensing that Snell’s crimes were escalating, that he kidnapped the couple with seemingly no exit strategy and was still armed, Kristunas said Snell was a danger to the community and needed to be caught as soon as possible.
“There was an urgency to locating this person,” he said.
Police visited Snell’s mother, who cooperated with police and sent a text message to her son. Snell answered that he was at Indian River Inlet. While Snell was not at the inlet, Kristunas said police had his cellphone number and learned the phone was active.
The next problem for detectives, Kristunas said, was that the crime took place on a Saturday, so getting a warrant for Snell’s cellphone would be difficult, as it would require a Deputy Attorney General, a Superior Court judge and cooperation from the cell carrier, T-Mobile.
Kristunas asked his superiors for emergency authorization to use cellphone-tracking equipment to find Snell. Lt. John McColgan approved the authorization, and Kristunas got additional approval from Lt. Daniel Sponaugle, head of Troop 4’s Intelligence Section, the officer who would make the final call to go ahead.
Sponaugle testified that he authorized the use of the equipment based on the violent nature of the crime, that Snell had victimized this same couple before and the couple’s stated fear for their safety. Sponaugle said under normal procedure, they wouldn’t be able to get a warrant until Monday morning, and without a stated emergency, it could take days or longer to get authorization from T-Mobile.
Sponaugle granted emergency authorization and stated official warrants could be filed later.
“We don’t do this for every case,” Sponaugle said.
He said the equipment allows police to track a phone’s location; they cannot view data, text, pictures or email. Sponaugle said the rural nature of the Long Neck area made it easier to track Snell’s cellphone.
Robinson questioned the police procedure in authorizing the cellphone track. He asked why police did not go through Justice of the Peace Court to obtain a proper warrant, since JP Court is open 24/7. Kristunas said JP Court cannot issue warrants for out-of-state companies and that such authorization could only come from Superior Court. Sponaugle said it was state police procedure to always go through Superior Court for such a warrant.
When police did file warrants later, Robinson said they did not mention that Snell was in custody by that point. Kristunas said the warrants were mainly for the cellphone carrier’s paperwork, and that the warrants were filed as if he was writing them the day of the crime.
In his closing remarks, Gelof said the police were justified in getting emergency authorization, as they had reason to believe Snell was dangerous and could harm someone else. He said Robinson’s motion questioning how the cell phone search was handled amounted to “Monday morning quarterbacking” because no one else got hurt.
Robinson said the cell site-location technology is a powerful tool police can use on citizens, and the use of such a tool should not be left to the discretion of a few police officers. He said the male victim was released before police sought use of the phone-tracking equipment, so by the time they did use it, this was no longer a hostage or kidnapping situation, where such a tool would more typically be used.
Judge E. Scott Bradley announced he would deliberate before issuing a ruling. Snell has a case review scheduled for Monday, May 20, in Delaware Superior Court in Georgetown.