©1996 Vernon J. Geberth, Practical Homicide Investigation
LAW and ORDER Magazine, Vol. 44, No. 2, February 1996
The purpose of this article is to alert investigators to the phenomena of The Staged Crime Scene. Staging a scene occurs when the perpetrator purposely alters the crime scene to mislead the authorities and/or redirect the investigation. Staging is a conscious criminal action on the part of an offender to thwart an investigation.
The term "staging" should not be used to describe the actions of surviving family members who cover or redress a loved one, who is found nude or has died in an embarrassing situation. These activities are certainly understandable considering the shock experienced by a relative who encounters the sudden and violent death of a loved one. In my experience investigating suspicious deaths I have often times had a "gut" feeling that something was amiss. (Actually, that "gut" feeling is your subconscious reaction to the presentation, which should alert you to the possibility that, things are not always what they appear to be, consistent with equivocal death investigations). EXAMPLES OF HOMICIDES MADE TO APPEAR TO BE A SUICIDE OR ACCIDENT
Equivocal Death Investigations
Equivocal death investigations are those inquiries that are open to interpretation. There may be two or more meanings and the case may present as either a homicide or a suicide depending upon the circumstances. The facts are purposefully vague or misleading as in the case of a "staged crime scene." Or, the death is suspicious or questionable based upon what is presented to the authorities. The deaths may resemble homicides or suicides; accidents or naturals. They are open to interpretation pending further information of the facts, the victimology and the circumstances of the event.
In "staged crime scenes," however, the presentation of the homicide victim and the manipulation of the crime scene by a clever offender could make the death appear to be a suicide. I have personally investigated many such cases and the truth of the matter is that initially, the cases did look like suicides.
TYPES OF CRIME SCENE STAGING
1. The most common type of staging occurs when the perpetrator changes elements of the scene to make the death appear to be a suicide or accident in order to cover up a murder. (CASE HISTORIES Numbers 1, 2 & 3) 2. The second most common type of staging is when the perpetrator attempts to redirect the investigation by making the crime appear to be a sex-related homicide. (CASE HISTORY Number 4 & 5)
CASE HISTORY Number 1
I acted as a consultant in a wrongful death suit brought against an insurance company by surviving relatives of a male who allegedly had committed suicide. The insurance company had refused to pay the beneficiaries based on the police determination of suicide. My review of the crime scene photographs and circumstances of the death of this young man indicated that the young man had, in fact, not committed suicide. The authorities had been misled into believing the case was a suicide because the scene had been staged.
The victim was discovered lying on his back across his bed with a .308 rifle between his legs, suggesting that he had shot himself in the head with the weapon. There was a large amount of blood and brain matter found in the room where the deceased was discovered. His entire head was blown away. The victim's brain was found down the hallway from the room. The gun belonged to the deceased. There was ammunition for the gun found in the premises. There were two bullet holes in the roof of the victim's trailer, suggesting two shots having been fired and the police recovered two spent shell casings in the room. The police classified the death as suicide. A review of the police investigation revealed a perfunctory inquiry totaling a mere eight (8) pages of police reports. The police did not attempt to locate the fired rounds; they did not test or examine the firearm; there were no ballistics reports prepared; and there were no gunshot residue (GSR) testings done on the victim to ascertain whether or not he had fired the weapon and there was no attempt to reconstruct the event. The police did not process the crime scene for fingerprints nor did they ever conduct a background check or victimology. The autopsy was conducted by a hospital pathologist instead of a forensic pathologist, who couldn't even determine the location of the entrance wound.
However, these observations, without further police investigation into the facts surrounding the death and a reconstruction of the crime scene could be misleading. The investigative reality is that each factor must be brought to its ultimate conclusion. I believe that the authorities made the mistake of assuming that the death of the young man was suicide based on their preliminary observations of the crime scene and as a result subsequently failed to take each factor to its ultimate conclusion.
My analysis of the facts indicated that the deceased had made both short and long term plans, which is not consistent with a person intending to commit suicide. During the week preceding his death, he had gone out with friends, had attended a birthday party for his sister and purchased groceries for the upcoming week. On Monday of the week he was killed he was at work. According to his supervisor, he was in good spirits. In addition he had even paid his union dues three months in advance. He was expecting a visit from a girl friend and was refurbishing his mobile home. He had built a new deck on the back, purchased paint and wallpaper, and had arranged with a neighbor to borrow tools to fix his kitchen cabinets. His long term plans included an application for a loan and a trip to Alabama to clear some property in the Fall. Interviews of the friends and relatives of the deceased were conducted which disclosed that certain property and money were missing from the deceased's trailer when he was discovered dead.
A number of persons stated that the deceased was known to keep at least $1000.00 cash in his mobile home. According to the police report there was only $2.50 found in the deceased's pockets. Also, according to another relative who had reconciled the deceased's accounts after the funeral, said the victim had made a withdrawal of $200.00 cash from an ATM machine which was unaccounted for and missing from the trailer. A neighbor stopped by the trailer because of his suspicion "that something wasn't right. He observed that the deceased's car doors were unlocked and the keys were in the ignition. This was unusual behavior for the deceased. Later police would recover the deceased's empty wallet from the floor of the car.
The door to the trailer was unlocked and the stereo was blasting. The thermostat was set up as high as it could go. The deceased reportedly never had the thermostat above sixty- five. According to family members, the victim's radar detector which the deceased always kept on the sun visor in his car was missing, as were a pouch of tools from the rear seat. In addition, a gold calculator with the deceased's initials inscribed, which the victim had gotten as a gift for participating in a wedding, was missing from the trailer.
All of this information was provided to authorities. However, there was apparently no follow-up by the police into these important observations and suggestions of foul play.
In my professional opinion as an expert in homicide and death investigations, the inquiry into the death of the deceased was perfunctory and inadequate according to the recognized standards of professional death investigation. It was readily apparent that this particular crime scene had been staged and it was a reasonable assumption based upon the above facts that the deceased had not committed suicide.
CASE HISTORY Number 2
Police were summoned to a home of a women, who reported that there had been a shooting. The victim, a male, white 26 years of age, was a friend of the woman. He had been watching the woman's children, while she went out drinking with a couple of other males. When the police arrived they observed the victim, sitting on the living room couch, with a gun cradled in his right hand. The victim's right thumb was inside the trigger guard. He had suffered a bullet wound to the left side of his nose and the exit wound was in the upper part of the back of the head. The magazine for the gun had been removed and the ejected shell casing was approximately six feet away from where the victim sat. An examination of the wound structure indicated that there was no stippling or soot on the wound nor was there any evidence of blow-back in the barrel of the gun.
The police were informed by the two males that the deceased had been "playing" with the gun, which belonged to one of the reporting males, and had accidentally shot himself in the face.
A uniform Lieutenant, who was in charge of the scene decided that there wasn't any need for detective response. His decision was based on an administrative policy which discouraged overtime. Rather then authorize overtime response for investigators, he had the case classified as an accidental shooting.
The next day, the homicide detectives reviewed the case and examined the crime scene photographs. Their opinion was that the circumstances as described by the reporting officer and witnesses were not consistent with the elements of the crime scene. They initiated an investigation and tested the suspected weapon, which revealed that the gun had to have been fired at least 42 inches away from the deceased's face. The discharged rounds did not eject, but had to be manually removed from the breech. Removing the magazine required both hands. Gunshot Residue Testing (GSR) testing of the deceased's hands proved negative.
The investigators re-interviewed the woman and the reporting witnesses. The males were confronted with the facts of the case as well as their inconsistent statements. It was learned that all of the parties had been drinking. A gun was pulled out by one of the males, who stated that the gun had accidentally discharged hitting the victim in the face. They had panicked and decided to make it appear that the deceased had shot himself. After they staged the scene, they called the police and the ambulance. Both subjects were charged with Murder. They were indicted for Involuntary Manslaughter. The male, who had done the shooting pled guilty to Manslaughter and Weapon Possession, the other male pled guilty to Tampering with Evidence.
CASE HISTORY Number 3
I remember one case I responded to that had been initially reported to the police as a suicide. When I arrived at the scene, I observed the nude body of a young woman lying on the floor next to the tub in the bathroom. The tub was half full of water, and the body was still wet, as though it had been submerged. The husband, who was distraught and crying, stated to the police that he had found his wife submerged in the tub upon returning to the apartment. He had pulled the body from the tub and had attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He also added that his wife had been despondent and had probably committed suicide by taking an overdose of pills and drowning herself in the tub. Officers at the scene had recovered a prescription bottle next to the victim. The general condition of the scene and the statements of the husband seemed to indicate the possibility of suicide.
I examined the body and noticed a slight bruising in the neck area. The husband explained that upon finding his wife submerged in the tub he had attempted to resuscitate her and had held her by the throat to force air into her lungs. However, when I opened the eyelids of the deceased and examined the conjunctivae, I observed the presence of petechial hemorrhages, and was immediately convinced that the death was, in fact, homicidal and not suicidal, as the husband claimed.
Later on, we learned that the husband had been fighting with his wife and he strangled and killed her. In order to cover up his crime, he filled the tub with water, removed his wife's clothing, and placed her in the tub. He held her under the water to simulate the drowning and then removed her body and placed in on the floor next to the tub. In fact, he had even placed the half-empty bottle of pills next to her body to show to the responding police. The case was properly classified as homicide.
It should be noted that the autopsy would have readily revealed that the death was due to manual strangulation. However, the offender, who was looking to "buy time" certainly would have evoked his right to counsel the next day when confronted with the autopsy results.
The observation of petechial hemorrhages at the scene gave the investigators a head start on their murder investigation. They made further inquiries of the facts and circumstances at the scene and gathered additional evidence. When the suspect was eventually confronted with this evidence, he made a full confession to the police.
CASE HISTORY Number 4: Example of a Homicide made to appear to be a Sex-Related Case
Police were summoned to a home by a frantic male who reported that he had been attacked by a man with a knife, who had killed his wife. When police arrived they were led into the house by the man, who showed them his wife's body in the basement. He indicated that he had also been injured and showed the officers some superficial cuts and puncture wounds on his body. The man was transferred to the Emergency Room of the local hospital for treatment. The crime scene extended from outside the house to the basement. The female victim, who had received multiple stab wounds was found lying on her back. Her pants had been ripped open and her panties had been pulled down to reveal her pubic area. Her sanitary napkin was pulled away and between her legs the crime scene officers retrieved an unused condom. The male had stated that he had surprised the intruder, when he had come home from jogging. The male showed the officers evidence of a burglary. The burglary consisted of items being tossed on the floor and perfume bottles being turned over on the dresser in the master bedroom. However, there wasn't anything missing.
Although the presentation of the female body in the crime scene suggested a sexual attack, the circumstances of the event as well as the inconsistent statements of the husband indicated this murder to be based on an interpersonal oriented dispute and assault scenario.
The husband was charged with his wife's murder based on the police investigation as well as the blood evidence and DNA testing.
CASE HISTORY Number 5
The police were summoned to an apartment, when friends of the deceased recounted that she had failed to report for work. Police entered the apartment and discovered the nude body of the 27 year-old victim lying on the bedroom floor. Her pants and panties had been pulled down and her blouse was in disarray. A hair brush had been inserted into her vagina. She had been beaten and strangled to death with a ligature, which was not present in the scene. A review of the crime scene indicated that some one had gone through the dresser drawers and closets suggesting a burglary. The victim's clothes were found scattered across the floor and the contents of the drawers were spilled out on the bed. There wasn't any forced entry, suggesting the victim had allowed the person into her apartment.
A check into the victimology indicated that the young woman was a divorcee, who had left an abusive marriage. She had enrolled in a nursing program and had recently received her nurse certification. She had been dating since her divorce but did not have a steady boyfriend. The police investigation indicated that the crime scene had been staged to suggest a burglary. However, nothing of value was missing. There wasn't any sexual assault. However, the insertion of the hair brush into her vagina certainly indicated an anger and rage consistent with an interpersonal oriented dispute and assault. The former husband emerged as the most promising suspect after the detectives were able to break his alibi. He had convinced his current girlfriend to provide him with an alibi. He had gone to his former wife's apartment in an attempt to reconcile with her. When she refused his entreaty, he killed her in anger. He left the apartment and returned 24 hours later. At that time he placed the hair brush into her vagina and staged the crime scene to make it appear that a burglar had entered the location, sexually attacked the young woman and then ransacked the apartment.
The death investigator needs to be cognizant of the possibility that a crime scene may in fact be staged to mislead the authorities and/or redirect the investigation. In the author's experience and travels as a homicide and forensic consultant, he has encountered a number of these incidents in various jurisdictions across the United States. These events seem to be on the increase as people learn more about the process of death investigation through the media, true crime books, television mystery shows and movies.
Take each factor to it's ultimate conclusion.
Assess the victimology of the deceased.
Evaluate the type of injuries and wounds of the victim in connection with the type of weapon employed.
Conduct the necessary forensic examinations to establish and ascertain the facts of the case.
Conduct an examination of the weapon(s) for latent evidence as well as ballistics and testing of firearms.
Evaluate the behavior(s) of the victim and suspects.
Establish a profile of the victim through interviews of friends and relatives.
Reconstruct and evaluate the event.
Compare investigative findings with the medicolegal autopsy and confer with the medical examiner.
Corroborate statements with evidential facts.
Conduct and process all death investigations as if they were homicide cases.