In July 2015, 14-year-old Austin Stephanos and his friend and neighbor Perry Cohen, also 14, launched a single-engine vessel on a fishing expedition off the coast of Palm Beach County, Florida. The boys never returned, and despite a Coast Guard-led eight-day search of the Atlantic covering 50,000 nautical miles, their bodies were never found.
Last month, their abandoned boat was discovered by a Norwegian crew 100 miles off the coast of Bermuda, along with a locked box inside of which was Stephanos' heavily water-damaged and inoperable iPhone 6.
Cohen had borrowed Stephanos' phone to communicate with his family the day they disappeared, and the Cohens wanted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to treat the phone as evidence in an open missing persons case, but the agency insisted on returning the phone to Stephanos' family, according to a local television report.
Cohen's mother, Pamela Cohen, sued Stephanos' family to have the iPhone returned to the state, to allow her access to its contents, and if necessary, have the phone turned over to law enforcement as evidence in a possible criminal investigation.
In the emergency hearing yesterday, Cohen's attorney pointed to an accident investigation report that suggested foul play in the boys' disappearance. According to the court file, Cohen's stepfather, Nick Korniloff, contacted the FBI in the belief that the boys had been abducted, but no official criminal investigation was undertaken.
Both families have now consented to turn over the phone to Apple, which "has already agreed to take in the phone" and analyze it for answers, according to a lawyer representing the Stephanos family. It will be sent to Cupertino via FedEx for forensic examination in-house. Apple has not commented on the lawyer's claim, although the company has previously acknowledged that it was asked to look at the device.
It's unclear whether the iPhone was passcode-protected when it was in working order, nor is it known what methods Apple will employ in its attempts to recover data from such a damaged device, therefore comparisons between this case and Apple's dispute with the FBI over its refusal to unlock the San Bernardino shooter's phone are premature. In the event that anything is found that sheds light on the circumstances of the boys' disappearance, the data will be given to a judge, who will consider if it is evidence and whether it may be shared with the families.
The phone "potentially holds the key to answer a question that a mother desperately needs answered," the Cohens' lawyer told the judge presiding over the hearing. "And let's be clear, your honor, the boys are not declared dead."
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