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Instead of telling Native American students about her job as a code breaker for the FBI, Deneen Hernandez had them give it a try.

A Native American who grew up in Gowanda and started her law enforcement career with the Seneca Marshals, Hernandez was the guest Thursday at a “Success Looks Like Me” program in the Erie County Public Safety Building in downtown Buffalo.

Her appearance was the third event this year by the Cultures of Giving Legacy Initiative, which provides opportunities for low-income youth of color to meet and talk with successful adults.

“I look at coded communication,” said Hernandez, who has worked for the FBI for almost 10 years as a forensic examiner. “I look at letters from individuals … pictures … tattoos … graffiti.”

Hernandez presented the approximately 40 students assembled in a basement classroom at the Elm Street building an enciphered message of numbers and mathematical symbols.

The first sequence of components was: x3 -5 -5 +1 x3 -5 -1 +1.

Hernandez talked the students through the deciphering process, using a variety of methods. Early in the exercise, they were instructed to do a “frequency count” of how often each individual component, such as x3 and -5, appeared.

As the process evolved into the use of established ciphers, she offered encouragement and empathy.

“They had to teach me how to do this. I would never be able to figure out how to do this by myself,” said Hernandez, who works at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

When students started calling out the words in the message, the three components were revealed as “meet me at.”

“When I retire, you guys can all get hired,” Hernandez told the students.

“These are the types of things that we get every day at the office,” she said, noting that attempts are made to solve them in one day.

“Sometimes we can; sometimes we can’t,” she said.

One notable success of the Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit, where Hernandez works, occurred in 2005.

Forensic examiners deciphered a message written by Joseph Smith of Florida, who was charged with kidnapping and murdering 11-year-old Carlie Brucia the year before. The deciphered letter was among evidence presented at trial.

“He was telling his brother all the terrible things he did and where he hid the evidence,” Hernandez said.

Smith was convicted and remains on death row in a Florida prison.

email: jhabuda@buffnews.com