AN EQUIVOCAL DEATH AND STAGED CRIME SCENE
"Making a Homicide Appear to be a Suicide"


©Vernon J. Geberth
Reprint: Law and Order, Vol. 52, No. 11, November, 2004.
Article Expanded for Research.

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AN EQUIVOCAL DEATH:

"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." ¹

STAGING:

"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. ²

INTRODUCTION

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. I completed the Investigative Assessment, which forced the insurance company to pay the plaintiffs. The authorities then tried to justify their error by insisting that the case was a suicide despite evidence and circumstances to the contrary.

THE CRIME SCENE

The victim's body was discovered after a neighbor became suspicious about the manner in which the young man's cars was parked at his trailer home. The neighbor had noticed the car on Tuesday but didn't become concerned until Wednesday morning when he noticed that the car was still parked in the same location. He went to the front door and heard loud music playing from inside, which was not customary for the young man, who should have been at work. The neighbor contacted the young man's mother and together they entered the unlocked rear door. When they opened the door they saw a human brain on the floor. The victim was discovered lying on his back across his bed with a Remington .308 Model 742 rifle between his legs, suggesting that he had shot himself in the head with the weapon. The butt of the rifle was lying against a mirror, which had been removed from the wall during refurbishing. It should be noted that this weapon has a tremendous kickback and the mirror should have been shattered. There was a large amount of blood and brain matter found in the room where the deceased was discovered. The entire top of the victim's head was blown away. The rifle belonged to the deceased. There was an open box of Remington .308 ammunition for the gun found in the premises with six cartridges missing from the box. There were two bullet holes in the roof of the victim's trailer, suggesting that two shots had been fired upward towards the ceiling and the police recovered two spent shell casings in the bedroom next to the victim's feet. It should be noted that Remington .308 Model 742 rifle ejects from the right usually 10-12 feet and the shell casings wouldn't be found at the victim's feet. There appeared to be velocity blood spatter going into a closet in the bedroom. However, there is no reference to this fact and apparently the authorities never processed this not looked into the closet. According to the police report: "The rest of the trailer was observed and there were no signs of a struggle." Based on their preliminary observations the police agency wrongfully assumed that the victim had shot himself twice in the head with this high-powered rifle. The case was classified as a Suicide.

THE POLICE INVESTIGATION

A review of the police reports by the consultant revealed a careless and perfunctory investigation totaling a mere eight (8) pages of police reports, four of which were vouchers. 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) testing 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. They did not determine the trajectory of the velocity blood spatter nor did they recover pieces of the victim's skull, which were later found by a crime scene cleaning company hired by the family to clean the trailer. The police failed to conduct a background check or victimology. The police and coroner assumed that the death was a suicide. A local hospital pathologist (not a forensic pathologist) conducted an autopsy and determined that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head and ruled the death a suicide. However, he couldn't even determine the location of the entrance wound.

THE AUTOPSY

The hospital pathologist wrote in his report CAUSE OF DEATH: Gunshot wound of the skull and brain. SUICIDAL. The entire upper half of the skull completely absent secondary to gunshot wound of skull. From the outline of the remainder of the skull cavity, the entrance wound appears to be from left to right and upward. Examination of mouth discloses upper and lower natural teeth in excellent dental care. It should be noted that a forensic pathologist would have instructed the police to bring any pieces of the skull recovered art the crime scene and then glued these pieces of skull together in order to determine the exact location o f the entrance wound. This was another major error in the death investigation. 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.

CONSULTATIVE ANALYSIS

Investigative Considerations

· Many suicide deaths are preceded by verbal threat of self-destruction and other indications of despondency.
· In some instances these threats are made to people whom the deceased respects or thinks highly about.
· In other instances the sudden change in behavior is shown by subtle actions, such as increasing life insurance, giving away prized possessions, speaking of life in the past tense or abuse of alcohol or drugs.
· These behaviors are termed "Warning Signs" and present the investigator with a base of inquiry, which can support a hypothesis of possible suicide.

My investigation did not reveal anything that would fit a "Suicide Profile." In fact, in over three hundred interviews conducted by a private detective hired by the family NOT one person described the deceased as depressed or suicidal and to the contrary described him as upbeat and excited about his fiancé's planned arrival and their upcoming marriage.

SUICIDES INVOLVING LONG BARREL FIREARMS - RIFLES & SHOTGUNS
· The victim usually selects the forehead, followed by the temple, the mouth or under the chin.
· The temple shots are usually consistent with the handedness of the victim. In other words, if the victim was right handed the wound will be found in the right temple.
· IThe victim was right handed. The wound, according to the pathologist was to the left temple.
· Placing the barrel of the Remington semi-automatic .308 Model 742 to his left temple would have been extremely awkward if not impossible.

VICTIMOLOGY

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 his fiancé 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 re-do 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.


INVESTIGATIVE ISSUES

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. This gold calculator was later found in a local pawnshop.

CRITIQUE OF POLICE INVESTIGATION

It was apparent that a detailed examination of the crime scene, including the process of the crime scene and weapon for fingerprints was not undertaken. The authorities failed to pursue and evaluate the crucial information supplied by the reporting witnesses and next of kin regarding money and items missing. The police weren't interested in the information that the deceased never had his thermostat over 65°. The background information of the deceased regarding his motivation apparently was not taken into consideration in determining whether or not the facts of the case were consistent with their theory of suicide. A retired investigator from the area stated, "It is not uncommon for a weapon to discharge twice during suicide due to a reflex action." Not to be outdone, a Captain with the Sheriff's Department had the audacity to state the same thing, "It is not uncommon for a weapon to discharge twice due to reflex action." Later on when confronted with forensic our reports they came up with another explanation. They said the second bullet was a hesitation shot.

The police agency than advised the insurance company that the there had been a suicide note, which according to their policy, gave to the mother. I responded to that issue in a separate correspondence by writing:

"In my professional opinion, the absence of any reference to a suicide note in the original police investigation and subsequent Insurance Company investigation creates a serious doubt as to its existence. The fervent denial of the deceased's mother that she was ever shown this alleged note creates a serious credibility issue relative to the existence of such a suicide note. If in fact there was a suicide note found at the scene and the investigators did not document it's presence and seize the note as evidence, they are even more incompetent than I first imagined."

The presence of a suicide note is of crucial importance in the classification of death as a SUICIDE:

· Suicide notes are supposed to be taken as evidence.
· The presence of the note should be documented in the police reports.
· The note should be collected in a manner that will preserve fingerprints.
· The police investigator is supposed to obtain a handwriting exemplar of the deceased in life to determine whether or not the note is genuine.
· This is accomplished by having an examination conducted of the known handwritings of the deceased in life (The Exemplar) with the actual suicide note to ascertain authenticity.
· The note is supposed to be submitted to the Medical Examiner/Coroner after laboratory process.

FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST REPORT

I requested my friend and mentor Dr. Dominick J. DiMaio, a former Chief Medical Examiner and forensic consultant to review the hospital pathologist's report and the facts of the case. He prepared an addendum to my report as follows:

In my 45 years of experience in forensic pathology, I have never seen a brain travel the distance the victim's brain is alleged to have been dispersed. From the bed area, to the front of the bed and then make a right turn down the hallway to the rear door.

Secondly, a second rifle shot from a reflex action has never been reported in any forensic journal. Thirdly, how is it possible for this victim to retain control of the rifle and produce a second rifle shot by reflex action? In my expert opinion, I would not classify it as suicide.

EVALUATION OF THE WEAPON AND THE WOUND STRUCTURE

· Wounds of the brain from high velocity rifles such as the Remington .308 Model 742 are extremely devastating and produce a bursting rupture of the head.
· It would have been physiologically and neurologically impossible for the deceased to have fired two rounds into his head with this type weapon.
· In addition, the discharge of a .308 would have pulled the gun out of the deceased's hands and sent the rifle flying in the opposite direction.
· The gun would not be conveniently sitting between the deceased's legs with the barrel pointed toward the head.
· The mirror would have most likely been damaged.

RESPONSE TO INSURANCE COMPANY MEDICAL EXPERT

The insurance company hired a medical expert to refute our finding suggesting that the death was a suicide and that the victim had shot himself twice through the mouth. My response: In my professional opinion, the analysis provided in the Insurance Company report, which suggests a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the mouth is erroneous and inconsistent with the known facts of this investigation. Furthermore, the report conveniently disregards the most important issue in this particular case; The INTENTION of the deceased to take his life. Where is the VICTIMOLOGY?

· The determination that it was a gunshot wound to the mouth is in direct conflict with the hospital pathologist's report that the victim's teeth were in excellent shape and his mouth and pallet intact.
· The victim was right handed. The pathologist's report has the entry was to the left side of head.
· The cleaning service reported finding part of the scalp and a piece of skull bone were imbedded in the wood paneling in the back of the closet
· This is NOT consistent with firing a shot from left to right and upwards towards the ceiling.

In my opinion, this would not be consistent with the deceased sitting on he edge of the bed in an upright position and firing a shot upward through his mouth. In order for the major portion of the brain to get to the rear door it would had to have traveled in the opposite direction of the other blood and biological materials. In addition, it would had to have made a right hand turn out the doorway of the bedroom and then travel down the hallway, a distance of approximately eight feet, before landing at the back door. I find this to be forensically impossible.

OPINION

1. The consultant disputes the findings of the County Sheriff's Office that the deceased committed suicide.
2. The consultant concludes that the victim's death is in fact suspicious and not consistent with suicide.
3. There were numerous investigative errors and serious omissions in this investigation as well as an obvious failure to forensically support the classification of suicide with evidential facts.

INVESTIGATIVE STRATEGIES RECOMMENDED BY PRACTICAL HOMICIDE INVESTIGATION® TO INVESTIGATE EQUIVOCAL DEATHS AND STAGED CRIME SCENES

1. Assess the victimology of the deceased.
2. Evaluate the type of injuries and wounds of the victim in connection with the type of weapon that was employed.
3. Conduct the necessary forensic examinations to establish and ascertain the facts of the case.
4. Conduct an examination of the weapon(s) for latent print evidence as well as ballistics and testing of the firearms.
5. Evaluate the behavior(s) of the victim and suspects
6. Establish a profile of the victim through interviews of friends and relatives.
7. Reconstruct and evaluate the event.
8. Compare investigative findings with the medicolegal examination and confer with the medical examiner.
9. Corroborate statements with evidential facts.
10. Conduct and process ALL death investigations as if they were HOMICIDE cases.


¹ Geberth, Vernon J. Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques. 3rd Edition Boca Raton, FL. CRC Press, LLC., 1996, p. 20.
² Geberth, Vernon J. Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures, and Forensic Techniques. 3rd Edition Boca Raton, FL. CRC Press, LLC., 1996, p. 20.

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