The woman shot dead in the basement of her suburban Connecticut home had struggled with an intruder, her husband told the police just before Christmas in 2015. But over time, the story fell apart as investigators began to rely on a silent witness — a Fitbit exercise tracker that recorded the woman’s last movements and may be the key to solving her murder.
The case that began at the house of Richard and Connie Dabate in Ellington, a town of about 15,000 people north of Hartford, and unfolded over the last year highlights the latest example of how exercise devices have become increasingly part of investigators’ tool kits.
Fastened to the body, the exercise devices have a unique proximity as witnesses. They transmit heartbeats, sleep schedules, locations and distances, documenting their host’s life events, from innocent mishaps to criminal encounters. A Fitbit factored into a Pennsylvania sexual assault case in 2015 and a personal injury case in Canada in 2014. A Garmin Vivosmart GPS recorded a young woman’s struggle with an attacker in a Seattle park in March.
The devices are incorporated alongside the more conventional use of searches of sniffer dogs and gunshot residue tests, both of which came up inconclusive in the Dabarte case.
When Connecticut police arrived at the home on the morning of Dec. 23, 2015, Mr. Dabate spoke of a violent struggle with a masked intruder who zip-tied him to a chair, demanded his wallet and credit cards, cut him with a knife and then fatally shot his wife in the basement, according to an arrest warrant.
But over time, the narrative that Mr. Dabate told investigators started to unravel when compared with a timeline pieced together using digital data from the family home, the warrant said. Most importantly, a Fitbit on Ms. Dabate’s waistband recorded that she had walked 1,217 feet around the house during the time her husband said they were being attacked.
The Fitbit showed her last living movement was at 10:05 a.m.
Mr. Dabate, 40, was charged in Superior Court in Rockville on April 14 with murder, tampering with evidence and providing false statements, court documents showed, partly based on information from the Fitbit device.
He was released on $1 million bond and was expected to return to court this week. His lawyer, Hubert Santos, could not be reached on Thursday. But The Hartford Courant quoted him as saying that Mr. Dabate was “innocent of these charges, and he looks forward to being vindicated after a trial.”
As with computers and smartphones before them, the growing popularity of personal exercise trackers has presented lawyers and prosecutors with both privacy challenges and investigative advantages. In 2014, a Calgary, Alberta, law firm used a Fitbit device as part of a personal injury case to show that their client was less active than she was before a car accident, according to Canadian Lawyer magazine.
“It is definitely something we are going to see more of in the future,” said Detective Christopher Jones of the East Lampeter Township Police Department in Pennsylvania in a telephone interview on Thursday. “As people continue to provide more and more personal information through technology, they have to understand we are obligated to find the best evidence, and this technology has become a part of that.”
“By itself it is not going to be that useful, but in collaboration with everything else, it can be a very useful tool,” he said.
In March, a Garmin exercise device worn by Kelly Herron, a Seattle runner, amplified the ordeal of her frantic struggles as she fought off an attacker in a park restroom. An aerial photograph of the tangle of red trace marks documented by the device was shared widely online, where it became an emblem of women’s self-defense on T-shirts, in domestic violence fund-raising and an inspiration for self-defense classes.
Detective Jones worked on a case in 2015 in which a 43-year old woman said she was sexually assaulted during a break-in. But her Fitbit showed she was walking around at the time she had told investigators she had been sleeping, he said.
After the woman was charged with making false statements and tampering with evidence, Craig Stedman, the Lancaster County district attorney, said in an interview with WGAL-TV that her Fitbit “sealed the deal.”
He added, “We had other evidence that we were looking at, we were suspicious, but the Fitbit made all the difference.”
Heather Pierce, a spokeswoman for Fitbit, declined to comment on the Connecticut case. But she said the company only provides content and data from the devices when there is a warrant. Otherwise, she said, settings and data from the trackers or their online apps are not shared.
“It is the user’s choice when and where and with whom they share their data,” she said in an email.
In this month’s Connecticut murder case, the amount of walking recorded by Ms. Dabate’s Fitbit exceeded the 125 feet that she would have been limited to in her husband’s account that she went from the garage of their house to the basement, investigators concluded.
The warrant said questions arose about the timing as investigators dug through a slew of fully wired activity at the house that morning, involving text messages, door movements, alarm settings and Facebook postings, the warrant said.
It said Ms. Dabate, who was 39, was shot dead in the basement with a revolver owned by her husband and had gunshot wounds in her head and stomach.
The warrant said Mr. Dabate had a pregnant girlfriend, and had tried to make a claim for Ms. Dabarte’s $475,000 life insurance policy five days after her murder.
Mr. Stedman, the Pennsylvania prosecutor, said in an interview on Thursday that the Fitbit case has now been incorporated in prosecutors’ training sessions. “It is a whole different aspect of law enforcement,” he said. “There is far more data out there than we can keep up with.”