Apple refutes FBI, says it reached out to help unlock Texas church shooter's phone

By Lucia I. Suarez Sang

Published November 09, 2017

A fight between Apple and the FBI seems to be brewing once again following the massacre at a Texas church that left 26 people dead on Sunday.

Christopher Combs, head of the FBI’s San Antonio field office, said on Tuesday that a cellphone belonging to Devin Kelley was sent to a crime lab in Quantico, Virginia and they have been unable to unlock it. He did not identify what phone Kelley owned, however, the Washington Post reported it was an iPhone.

Combs did not mention Apple by name, but seemed to cast blame on the company’s encryption technology preventing them from accessing the phone.

“Law enforcement, whether it’s at the state, local and federal level, is increasingly not able to get into these phones,” he said. “We’re going to keep working on that phone and other digital media we have.”

Apple was quick to refute the blame, saying in a statement to Fox News that it contacted the FBI after it saw Tuesday’s press conference.

“Our team immediately reached out to the FBI after learning from their press conference on Tuesday that investigators were trying to access a mobile phone,” an Apple spokesman said. “We offered assistance and said we would expedite our response to any legal process they send us.”

It continued: “We work with law enforcement every day. We offer training to thousands of agents so they understand our devices and how they can quickly request information from Apple.”

FILE - This undated file photo provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety shows Devin Kelley, the suspect in the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. A short time after the shooting, Kelley was found dead in his vehicle. Federal investigators say they are trying to get into Kelley's cellphone. The inability to access Kelley's phone highlights a longstanding frustration of the FBI, which said it has been unable to retrieve data from half the mobile devices it tried to access in less than a year. Technology companies have insisted they must protect customers' digital privacy. (Texas Department of Public Safety via AP, File)

Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, of New Braunfels, Texas as pictured in his driver license photo.  (Texas Department of Public Safety)

Apple told Fox News on Thursday that the the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have not reached out to the company for help to unlock Kelley's phone or associated online accounts.

Had law enforcement reached out to Apple within 48 hours after the deadly rampage, there could have been a possibility of unlocking the phone.

According to Apple, if Kelley has used a fingerprint to lock his iPhone, officials could have used the dead man’s finger to unlock the device as long as it had not been powered off and restarted.

Any iPhones with a fingerprint lock require a pass code if they have not been unlocked for 48 hours.

Investigators may have other means to get the information they seek. If the Texas gunman backed up his phone online, they can get a copy of that with a legal order — usually a warrant. They can also get warrants for any accounts he had at server-based internet services such as Facebook, Twitter and Google.

The FBI has had a longstanding frustration with cellphone companies, claiming encryption technology has stymied investigations of everything from sex crimes against children to drug cases, even if they obtain a warrant for the information.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said last month that agents have been unable to retrieve data from half the mobile devices – more than 6,900 phones, computers and tablets – that they tried to access in less than a year.

Much of the frustration stems from the 2016 standoff between the FBI and Apple over the phones used by the shooter in the San Bernardino terror attack nearly two years ago.

The FBI took Apple to court in February 2016 to force it to unlock the San Bernardino shooter's phone, arguing the device held clues about whom the couple communicated with and where they may have traveled.

The company refused, saying doing so would create a security weakness for every customer.

The FBI ultimately paid an unidentified vendor for a hacking tool to access the phone without Apple's help, averting a court battle.

Fox News' Matt Finn and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lucia I. Suarez Sang is a Reporter for

Follow her on Twitter @luciasuarezsang