Friday, December 9, 2011

Dying in Water: Clues for Foul Play

"They could be drowning."
by Andrea Campbell

I don’t know if you have ever had the conversation with someone about the worst way to die? Even though I am a swimmer, drowning and the panic associated with taking in water and then succumbing to drowning has been a fear of mine.

That’s why when I was reading about water-related death investigation, I became fascinated about this particular area of examination. Obviously the most common way of drowning would be in a submerged vehicle—a tactic Susan Smith used to kill her small children—then there is drowning in a pool, bath, hot tub or a river, and, yes, even a bucket.

A death investigator looks for certain sign posts that alert him to the possibility of foul play. While we talk about some of the clues the water investigator looks for, you will notice that many of the red-flag indicators are based on well-thought-out common sense ideas and principles. Investigator Kevin L. Erskine—who developed a Master Course in Water-Related Death for the Ohio Peace Officer’s Training Academy and a Children’s Ice Drowning Prevention Workshop—has the wherewithal and savvy to demonstrate just how interesting his discipline is. He has also remarked that if you recognize more than one of the potential indicators of foul play, it gives you the determination to look further than just accepting it as an “accidental” mishap.

Bath Tub or Hot Tub Drowning
Parents have been known to dunk their children as punishment and word from expert's has it, it’s widely practiced. On a child’s body, certainly signs of injury—fingerprint grip marks, or bruising on both sides of the neck could indicate a form of strangulation, while, other bruises showing up around the neck or behind the ears can indicate the assault of forced dunking.

Other clues would be: the fact that parent’s or caretaker’s clothes are dry; water samples that contain vomit, mucus, soap or urine; inconsistent water temperature, meaning, too hot may be punishment by scalding, or, if the water tests cold or if the water has been mopped up—or wet towels are around—the perpetrator may have waited too long to call or tried to hide a water fight or struggle. Look too, for things missing: no toys, washcloths or soap? These items will usually support an actual claim of bathing.

Also, if during an interview, the parent claims he was distracted yet a sound barrier prevents anyone from hearing the doorbell, an investigator may have reason to look deeper than first believed. Of course, with an elderly person’s drowning, look for a new life insurance policy, severe or terminal illness or disease of the victim, or prior domestic-violence reports.

Submerged Vehicles
If you’ve been watching any fictional mysteries or detective shows lately, you will come across the body in the car scenario where the driver’s seat has been readjusted and couldn’t possibly fit the 5-foot tall victim. Erskine says too, to look at the vehicle’s gearshift—was it in neutral or drive? Is there anything weighing down the accelerator? There is a long checklist of clues to look for, but if there is a blow to the victim’s head and the car or truck is relatively undamaged, that may point to suspicious circumstances for sure.

As you are beginning to see, this can be a lengthy, interesting concept. For more than just casual reading, you might want to check out Erskine’s book with Erica J. Armstrong: Water-Related Death Investigation:Practical Methods and Forensic Applications, published by CRC Press.

Source: Evidence Technology Magazine, May-June 2011.

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