DENVER (KDVR) — With a family of five dead in an unsolved house fire, night-vision images of the masked suspects haunted the Denver area for months — until Google led police to the accused killers.
At age 16, Kevin Bui and Gavin Seymour — along with another teen charged as a juvenile — were arrested on counts of first-degree murder and more in the August 2020 killings in the city’s Green Valley Ranch neighborhood. It took months before a break in the case, with many in the community fearful it was a targeted hate crime against the Senegalese immigrants who lost their lives.
But newly released arrest documents show how police connected the teens to the crime scene through their Google searches, placed them at the fire through their Snapchat location data and read their messages to conclude the arson was a case of misdirected revenge in a drug trafficking scheme.
Months of Google search history pins suspects
Just before 3 a.m. on Aug. 5, 2020, someone set fire to a Green Valley Ranch home.
A baby, a toddler and three adults, all family members, were killed. Another three people — a man, woman and child — jumped from the second floor of the burning home and survived.
Police soon released night-vision surveillance images showing three suspects at the scene wearing hoodies and masks.
Through those images and evidence from the scene, investigators quickly realized the fire was the work of intentional arsonists, according to the affidavit. Neil Baker, the lead detective in the case, recognized “that there is a reasonable probability that one or more of the suspects searched for directions to the victim’s address prior to the fire.”
More than three months after the fire, on Nov. 19, 2020, a Denver County Court judge approved a search warrant for Google.
Google data going back to 2009 shows government requests for user data in the U.S. have been on a steady incline, with the number of requests more than doubling since 2017. Police can submit their information requests through the “Law Enforcement Request System,” known as LERS.
In the Green Valley Ranch case, police uploaded the warrant to the LERS database, compelling the company to find out who looked up certain search terms related to the crime scene’s address. The warrant included “specific search terms that Google would look for and compile a list” for the police, according to the affidavit.
Within six days, the first results were in.
The affidavits redact a lot of what exactly the results produced, but by Dec. 4, the detective had asked for another warrant: “to obtain the subscriber and account information for the anonymized Google identifiers for five (5) Google accounts that had been resolved to Colorado.” In the warrant, the detective was also looking to “obtain location information and IP activity.”
Google produced more results on Dec. 9 and Dec. 23, according to the affidavit, with police ultimately looping in a digital evidence expert with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — the ATF — for a take on what Google had found.
By this point, police had connected Bui to the crime. The results showed that days before the crime, “the account subscribed to” Bui searched for Truckee Street addresses days before the fire — on July 23, July 28 and July 29 — even pegging the specific times that he had done so.
Seymour and the third suspect had been connected to the case, as well. The detective began to look into the three. Police got a warrant on Dec. 31 for Seymour’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, which led them to his phone number, and they scoured social media, finding the three were “known associates” who lived in the Lakewood area.
“Numerous photos have been located on these platforms with these individuals, or some combination of these individuals, in them,” the affidavit reads. Another Google warrant was requested, this time to pull data specific to their accounts.
By Jan. 5, 2021, Google had provided the search histories for the teens dating back to July 1, 2020. The histories showed they had searched the targeted address, according to the bits of unredacted information in the affidavit. It also showed searches for news stories relating to the fire in the hours after the crime.
Snapchat messages, location data strengthen evidence
As the detective closed in on the suspects, a search warrant was granted on Jan. 12, 2021, for Bui’s and Seymour’s Snapchat accounts.
Snapchat location data placed Bui and another person near a Party City store near his home on the evening before the killings, and the store showed up in search data around the same time, according to the affidavit. Store surveillance video showed Bui’s car pull in the parking lot, and store logs showed someone paid cash for three masks like the ones used in the crime.
Hours later, according to the affidavit, Snapchat and cell site location data showed them leaving Lakewood around 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 5, 2020, entering the victims’ neighborhood around the time of the crime, and going back to the Lakewood area around 3:15 a.m.
Although the location data further tied the teens to the crime, it’s what police read in Snapchat messages that created a clearer picture of what led up to it.
In the Snapchat messages, police found much of Bui’s conversations were “narcotics-related” and determined that he was “engaged in a drug trafficking business.” One message, just three weeks before the killings, showed Bui telling Seymour “I got robbed.”
The two carried on a conversation about it. And just days before the crime, on Aug. 1, 2020, Bui messaged Seymour: “#possiblyruinourfuturesandburnhishousedown”
1 year since the arrests
Police announced the arrests on Jan. 27, 2021.
“Investigators believe that Kevin Bui somehow attributed the [crime scene] address to the people who robbed him,” the detective concludes in the affidavit. “Investigators believe that Kevin Bui recruited Gavin Seymour and [redacted] to help him seek his revenge against the people that robbed him by setting fire to their house.”
As the lead detective, Baker testified in the November probable cause hearing for the teens. He said that on the day of the arrest, Bui admitted to planning and executing the crime with Seymour.
A year after a judge signed their arrest warrants, a judge denied Bui’s and Seymour’s requests to transfer to juvenile court. Their arraignments are scheduled for March. The district attorney is pushing to move the third suspect, who was 15 at the time of the crime, to adult court with his co-defendants.