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Utah Startup Keeps Tabs on Accused Astronaut

Utah Startup Keeps Tabs on Accused Astronaut

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SANDY, Utah (AP) -- On his computer screen, Randy Olshen traces the movement of Lisa Nowak, the fired NASA astronaut facing charges of trying to kidnap a rival for a space shuttle pilot's affections.

"She may have been at the mall. She goes to the mall occasionally," said Olshen, president of SecureAlert, a Utah company that deployed the GPS tracking device Nowak was ordered to wear pending a trial scheduled for September.

"It looks like she's going home. This is her neighborhood. She's traveling down this road," said Olshen, zooming in on Nowak's tidy Houston-area subdivision. "She's back in her neighborhood right now. She's at home."

SecureAlert, a division of RemoteMDx, says the sky's the limit for sales of its "21st century ball and chain." The so-called TrackerPAL combines global positioning system transmitter, cellular telephone, computer processor and earsplitting alarm that triggers when offenders go astray. It can be activated for two- and three-way communication, and permits active monitoring 24 hours a day.

The technology is a leap ahead of the radio-frequency monitor that domestic diva Martha Stewart had to wear under house arrest for lying to investigators about a stock sale.

Those ankle devices, a crude electronic tether, can't track offenders on the run or provide voice communications, and Stewart often complained it irritated her skin. She once claimed she knew how to remove it, but it isn't known if she tried. SecureAlert says its unit is tamperproof, comfortable and non-allergic.

"They're fantastic, the best on the market," said Tom Eberly, jail and justice director for the Mecklenburg County, N.C., sheriff's office, which is renting 85 TrackerPALs. "We can see in real-time where they're at. It's pretty cool. You can buzz them at any moment and talk to their ankle: 'Hey, what are you up to?"'

The TrackerPAL is the only device that meets specifications of the Adam Walsh Child Safety Act, a law passed by Congress in 2006 that provides states with money to track sex offenders.

SecureAlert got the specifications written into the bill by hiring a trio of former top Utah officials to lobby Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. But when the company dumped the lobbyists, including Utah's former parole board chairman, last summer, they sued, claiming they were owed millions of dollars in compensation.

Olshen said it was a misunderstanding quickly settled out of court for 100,000 shares of stock -- now trading for about $2 a share -- plus an undisclosed amount of cash.

SecureAlert has a half-dozen competitors, but none that can match its proprietary technology. The company is trying to keep ahead, working to miniaturize its palm-sized device to wristwatch size. It also plans to add alcohol or drug use sensors that would record skin temperature and pulse rates.

The company staffs an Offender Monitoring Center in this Salt Lake City suburb around the clock, keeping tabs on the 3,000 TrackerPAL issued so far. It is deploying more units every day for courts, law enforcement agencies and even bail bondsmen, charging $8 a day for each offender, less than the typical $65 a day it costs to keep somebody locked up in jail.

The cost of more conventional electronic monitors until recently was $10-$12 a day, but those prices are falling under pressure from better technology. "We're starting to see them in the $5-$6 range," Olshen said of his competitors.

The TrackerPAL signals SecureAlert's operators when an offender goes astray, so the company doesn't have to keep constant track of people wearing the device.

On his computer, Olshen displays Nowak's no-go zone: all of Florida and its offshore waters. "She can't go there by land or sea," he said.

Nowak, 43, drove 900 miles in February to confront Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman at an Orlando airport parking lot. By her lawyer's account, she pepper-sprayed Shipman, who was dating astronaut Bill Oefelein. Shipman was able to get away.

Police said Nowak also was packing a BB gun, steel mallet, knife and rubber tubing. She has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted kidnapping, burglary with assault and battery.

A Navy captain, Nowak took a new assignment this week in curriculum development for the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, 220 miles from her home in a Houston suburb. According to a computer display of her travels, however, she hasn't been in Corpus Christi. The display leaves a trail of digital icons over aerial images superimposed with a map.

An air station spokesman said she was "telecommuting" from home.

Nowak didn't return a message left by The Associated Press on Wednesday, when her TrackerPAL indicated she was motoring 50 miles to Galveston on the Gulf Coast.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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