iPhone of Missing Teen Lost at Sea Could Hold Answers to Disappearance

Austin Stephanos and his friend Perry Cohen, both 14, went missing last summer.

ByEMILY SHAPIRO
April 25, 2016, 3:54 PM

— -- A newly recovered iPhone may hold the key to what happened last summer when two Florida teens disappeared on a boating trip.

Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, both 14, were last seen July 24, 2015. The Coast Guard led an eight-day search in the Atlantic for the boys, covering 50,000 nautical miles. The Coast Guard suspended its search July 31. The boys' bodies were never found.

Their boat was found abandoned off the coast of central Florida two days after they went missing. It was initially secured, but then drifted away. It was found again last month about 100 miles off the coast of Bermuda -- and on board was Austin's iPhone, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma told ABC News.

PHOTO: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provided photos from a recovered boat that belonged to two teenage boys who went missing at sea in the summer of 2015.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provided photos from a recovered boat that belonged to two teenage boys who went missing at sea in the summer of 2015.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Austin's father, Blu Stephanos said in a statement today released by ABC affiliate WPBF in West Palm Beach: "We’ve been working with the phone’s manufacturer who seems willing to help us try to get the phone operational again. That would be the first order of business, since Austin’s phone has been submerged in salt water for over eight months. We’ve also had an IT expert access the phone’s Cloud backup and, unfortunately, found that it had never been enabled."

"Of course, any relevant information that might be retrieved from Austin’s phone will be shared with the Cohen family and the proper authorities," Stephanos continued.

PHOTO: Blu Stephanos released these images of the recovered phone that he says belonged to his son, Austin Stephanos.
Blu Stephanos released these images of the recovered phone that he says belonged to his son, Austin Stephanos.
Blu Stephanos via WPBF

Stephanos told WPBF in an email, "Every IT professional that I’ve contacted warned me that there is a very, very slim chance that anything can be recovered from this phone ... but I’m not giving up hope."

According to WPBF, the iPhone was discovered in a compartment on the boat.

Two forensic experts not associated with this case weighed in on the likelihood of recovering the information.

Jonathan Zdziarski, an independent forensics expert, told ABC News that while salt water "is definitely corrosive...there are a number of companies out there that specialize in data recovery, and part of that involves salvaging damaged hardware," from situations including water and even fire.

Zdziarski warned that the amount of information recovered on the phone could be limited.

"If the device didn't have any connectivity, the likelihood someone would try to use it to communicate is probably low," he explained. "There's no reason that someone couldn't have written a note on it or attempted to send text messages...if there were messages on the device [that] information could potentially be useful."

Zdziarski concluded there's "probably a high likelihood, with the right expertise, they could restore functionality to that device. However, it's not a guarantee that they'll be able to restore the data on that device."

Bob Knudsen, a forensic analyst at Global Digital Forensics, told ABC News that potential photos taken by the boys may allow investigators to extract their GPS coordinates.

"If location services are enabled [they] would be able to extract from those images GPS coordinates. And many of the forensic tools that we use allow you to upload that directly to Google maps so you'd be able to at least see where those pictures were," he said.

As for the likelihood of recovering information, "there are definitely some challenges," he said, but added, "you don't know until you try."

According to WPBF, Perry's mother, Pam Cohen, and stepfather Nick Korniloff, are desperate to learn the boys' last communications and reached out to Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg to request a warrant to search the phone.

"I don't know his last moments and it's haunting and it's terrifying," Cohen told WPBF on Sunday.

Aronberg's office did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Rob Klepper of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission declined to comment on what could potentially be learned from the phone but told ABC News in a statement, "The personal effects that were on board the boat will be returned to the families of the victims, and subsequent information retrieval efforts from any of those items will be at their discretion."

Klepper said the boat is scheduled to arrive in the United States by shipping container on May 16.

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