Walt Hendrick's article There May Be More To It Than Meets The Eye! in SORTIE issue II raises the question that some drownings could be the result of a homicide. Dumping a body in the water could be an attempt to cover up foul play.
A significant percentage of dive teams today are fire teams. These teams often respond to both rescue and recovery operations and do an outstanding job. EMS personnel and fire dive teams often do not have the training in how to identify and handle evidence. They do not understanding that marks on the body, foam in the airways, tiny red spots on the eye's sclera, all could be important evidence. This evidence is necessary to initiate an investigation and win a conviction. Many of us have seen what happens to an investigation when the dive team fails to record the proper information or handles evidence incorrectly. We have also seen what happens during a trial when the defense attorney shows that there is no chain of custody, no paperwork, no photographs, nothing. Even when weapons are found by chance during searches for other objects, they should be handled as possible evidence. Use containers to bring them up, as potentially valuable fingerprints or other evidence could be lost. And remember, weapons may still be able to fire during and after submergence.
Some states, such as Virginia, require autopsies for all drowning victims. These autopsies lead to investigations for foul play and may be an important source of evidence for convictions. In states without similar laws, drowning from foul play may never be investigated.
It's amazing what you can find during training programs.
During our courses over the last few years, we have recovered at least five weapons that we did not expect to find. We instruct students that if they find a weapon, other than one we planted, they need to leave it and signal the tender to mark its location on the profile map. At that point we can mark its location in the water, photograph the scene, measured it for documentation, and contact local law enforcement authorities. If asked by local authorities, we recover the weapon using a container made of a capped PVC pipe. Once recovered, we turn the weapon over to local authorities. We then further search the area for any additional evidence.
As Joe Hurlburt, in SORTIE issue IV, wrote, we all know of cases where EMS divers accidentally found a weapon, surfaced, and then waved it overhead to show everyone what they found. Besides the loss of fingerprints and other evidence, such a maneuver could result in an accidental shooting.
Dive teams do find explosives underwater by accident and sometimes they are asked to retrieve ordinance. Submerged ordinance often has been involved in some type of crime. Handling of this type of evidence requires crime scene and ordinance disposal training and certification. Rockie Yardly describes this type of training and certification in SORTIE issue I.
Containers can be made from a variety of materials such as PVC piping or plastic ware
All dive team members should have an awareness of what to do if they accidentally find evidence. If the possibility exists that a dive team could be recovering evidence then they should have underwater crime scene training beyond public safety diver training.
Consider the following dive call. A boat with three young men overturns. Two of the men make it to shore. One man claims he tried to go back to save his friend but could not find him. Both witnesses are wet and drunk. They claim they were horsing around while fishing and the boat tipped over. The dive team arrives, finds the body, and the operation is shut down.
Wait a minute, if the same incident took place next to a bar and one man was dead after supposedly falling off a roof wouldn't the scene be examined for evidence of possible foul play? Suppose the victim in each case has a head injury. Wouldn't investigating officers want to search the incident for what could have caused the head injury? Was it really that the man hit his head on the gunnel as the boat tipped over or was it that he was hit in the head with a fish bat or bottle by one of the other men? Perhaps one of the witnesses owed the victim money. Perhaps the victim was having an affair with the wife of one of the witnesses. Perhaps they got in a drunken brawl.
Just like searching a land scene for evidence, search and secure an underwater scene as well. Divers should search for the contents of the boat that supposedly accidentally over-turned. If the victim had a head injury, reenact what the witness said happen. See if such a head injury could have occurred on the gunnel as stated. The boat is evidence, as are the contents of the boat.
During a Lifeguard Systems Drowning Homicide Investigator course, a Marine Patrol Officer described a case in which a boat operator supposedly accidentally drove his boat over a water skier he was towing. The water skier had fallen and was supposedly in the operator's blind spot as the operator came around to pick him up. Sounds plausible right? The investigating officers did not assume that the death was accidental based on the look of the wounds. They removed the boat's motor from the water, took a mannequin, placed it against the prop, and ran the props in the forward direction. When comparing the slash marks on the mannequin with the victim's body they showed that the victim was hit by a prop running in reverse, not forward, as the operator stated. The victim had been having an affair with the operator's wife, and the operator purposely backed over the victim. This Officer and his fellow investigators performed excellent police work. They did not assume accidental death and they treated the vessel as possible evidence. Sadly, the majority of drownings and water-related accidents are treated as accidents, scenes are not thoroughly searched before being shut down, and possible evidence is not put in the chain of custody.
All dive team personnel should have crime scene training beyond public safety diver training. At the very least, they should learn how to avoid destroying a scene, evidence, and the chain of custody. Law enforcement agencies may also find specific training in water-related incident investigations very useful.
To avoid mishandling possible evidence or a potential crime scene, have a plan and make sure everyone will work together to carry it out successfully.
Your comments and questions are very welcome. If you have any case histories of possible or convicted foul play in water-related incidents please contact us to help us with our research. If you can send us case information with photographs, we will send you "Drowning by Homicide" by Walt Hendrick, Andrea Zaferes, and Craig Nelson. Contact us if you would like additional information about the Lifeguard Systems Drowning Homicide Investigator courses. Lifeguard Systems P.O. Box 548 Hurley, NY 12443 Tel/Fax (914) 331-3383, www.teamlgs.com.
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