Equivocal Death Investigation with Staged Crime Scene:
"Death Classified as Undetermined Manner"
©2005 Vernon J. Geberth, Practical Homicide Investigation
Law and Order, Vol. 53, No. 3, March, 2005
Article Expanded for Research
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"Equivocal death investigations are those inquiries that are open to interpretation. There may be two or more meanings and the case may present as homicide, suicide or accidental death. The facts may be purposefully vague or misleading as in the case of the "Staged Crime scene."
The case presented herein is a "staged crime scene" in which an eleven-year-old female was found hanging from her bedpost by a chain connected to a dog collar around her neck. The police and prosecutor's office deemed the case a suicide. Professional forensic investigation concluded that this death was more consistent with homicide than suicide.
The District Attorney wanted the medical examiner to classify the death a SUICIDE because it "fit" the prosecutorial theory. The medical examiner refused this request and classified the suspicious death as UNDETERMINED. Three of four forensic experts, who reviewed the case for the Medical Examiner's Office, agreed that the case was highly suspicious. The author's opinion was that this case was a "Staged Crime Scene."
THE INITIAL POLICE INVESTIGATION
The initial police investigation focused on the incident as a possible suicide. The mother, who was on the front porch when the police arrived, informed the First Officer that her daughter had apparently hung herself. The First Officer immediately ran upstairs with the arriving paramedics and observed the victim, who was hanging from a bedpost in the bedroom. The victim was cold to the touch and showed obvious signs of death and was pronounced dead at 1306 Hrs. The First Officer immediately notified detectives to respond and conducted preliminary inquiries.
The mother told the officer that she had been downstairs babysitting her other children and a neighbor's child. The last she knew her daughter was upstairs "playing." The mother then told the officer that her daughter came down to eat something about 9:00 to 9:30A.M. She told her daughter to go upstairs and do her homework. The mother said she did not see her daughter until the discovery of the body by the seven-year-old brother. The victim was the oldest of five children who were all home schooled. The mother also ran a day care center out of her home, where she babysat other church member's children.
The detectives interviewed the mother and father separately to obtain some preliminary information. The mother was emphatic that she had never seen that chain in the house. The father stated that the chain was used to secure the family dog they used to have and he had noticed the chain "floating around the house" over the past couple of weeks. He claimed to have seen the metal chain on the bed before. The father was requested to come to the police station for a follow-up interview. He gave an extensive statement indicating that the victim had a bad habit of tying up her toys, usually stuffed animals, and hanging them by the neck from the canopy of her bed.
The father stated, "This was an accident, we have nothing to cover-up." When asked why he would make such a statement, he stated, "No reason, when you have done nothing, you have nothing to hide." The detective asked the father if he would be willing to take a polygraph to assist in the investigation? The father repeated, "If you have done nothing you have nothing to hide."
The crime scene was processed and the body was taken down from the bed post with the ligature removed "intact" for further examination at the Medical Examiner's Office. The body and ligature were transported to the medical examiner's office.
THE INITIAL MEDICAL EXAMINER INVESTIGATION
Forensic investigators interviewed the father, a 46-year-old, white male and the wife a 33-year-old, white female. The parents stated that they are Christians, very strong in their faith and belong to an Evangelical Church, attend services regularly and are close to their Pastor. The father ran a warehouse business from his home and showed his merchandise by appointment. The parents agreed that their eleven year-old daughter was well adjusted and did not show any evidence of depression.
When the investigator asked both parents if they had ever seen their daughter hang her stuffed animals from her bedpost with a dog collar, they both stated, "No."
When the M.E. investigator asked them if they had ever discussed sex and sexuality with their daughter, the father put his head down, covered his forehead and eyes with his hand and did not answer any questions on this topic. The mother stated she was going to bring up the subject of menstruation with her daughter the last time she had her period but then never got around to discussing it. The mother then stated, "If there is one good thing to come out of this at least she will never have to have a period." This was a spontaneous and an odd comment to make.
A board certified forensic pathologist conducted the medicolegal autopsy. There was evidence of acute vaginal and anal injuries due to acute sexual abuse. A complete sexual assault kit was completed as well as consultation with clinical colleagues from the Child Advocacy Center. These injuries were felt to be consistent with attempted vaginal penetration with clear evidence of penetrating trauma to the anus.
There was a ligature groove mark on the victim's neck that was quite pronounced and matched the configuration of the dog collar, which was secured around the deceased's neck. The ligature mark canted upward in the rear of the neck consistent with the hanging position of the body.
The police were informed that the autopsy revealed sexual assault and that the death was suspicious.
THE FOLLOW-UP MEDICAL EXAMINER INVESTIGATION
The police investigators had scheduled the father to take a polygraph examination the next week. At the same time, the mother planned to come to the Medical Examiner's Office to explain why she felt that her daughter's death was an accident.
While the father was at the police station, the mother was at the Medical Examiner's Office, first speaking with forensic investigators and a detective and then with the medical examiner. The mother received a cell phone call from her husband. Following the phone call, the mother stated that she remembered that her husband had found two tampons in the daughter's room. The mother did not broach the subject with the daughter, as she did not want to embarrass the daughter. The mother was emphatic about the accidental nature of the daughter's death insisting that while playing the girl suffocated. The mother told the Medical Examiner that she had read her daughter's diary and there wasn't anything in it that concerned her. She also said that she hasn't been able to find the diary since. The mother then explained how her daughter had certain household duties such as, i.e. dishes, vacuuming, babysitting, etc.
When the mother was informed that the decedent had sustained sexual injuries (though not the specifics of the trauma), she immediately stated that, "This was still not a reason to believe that "the girl" committed suicide." This was a strange statement from the mother.
The mother then received a cell phone call from her husband, who asked if he could join the meeting at the Medical Examiner's Office. When the father arrived, the pathologist again informed the family that the injuries were caused by acute sexual trauma. The father stated he already knew about the sexual injuries from talking to the detective and remembered the tampons in his daughter's room. He then said he wasn't able to take the polygraph that day.
Both parents then wanted to know if the injuries could be self-inflicted. When the pathologist explained that the injuries were consistent with sexual assault. The father became visibly nervous and put his head in his hands. The mother maintained that the daughter "would not kill herself over being raped." Both parents insisted that the daughter was never really out of their sight.
THE FOLLOW-UP POLICE INVESTIGATION
Eventually, the father was re-scheduled and took the polygraph test at the police station. He failed the polygraph test on questions concerning his knowledge of the death of his daughter.
Do you know for sure how your daughter died?
Did you murder your daughter?
Are you now withholding any pertinent information about your daughter's death from the police?
When the father was informed that he had failed the polygraph test he provided a detailed confession to the rape and sodomy of his daughter.
However, the detective who was interrogating the father regarding the sexual assault unwittingly provided the suspect with a way out when he stated, "I then told (the father) that because he did this, his daughter was not able to handle it and this was why she hung herself." This was a major error. The father made no further admissions concerning the death.
The mother was never given a polygraph examination. She provided the alibi for her husband by stating that her husband was out of the house when the daughter died. She actually testified in grand jury under oath that she saw her daughter alive after the father left for work. The mother was never charged.
INVESTIGATIVE ASSESSMENT AND ANALYSIS
- The initial police response was professional and in accordance with recognized emergency response procedures.
- The police and paramedics examined the body and properly confirmed death.
- The body was left in its original position for detective investigation.
- RED FLAG. Why didn't the mother attempt to take her daughter down from the ligature? This was highly suspicious.
- The detectives reviewed the 9-1-1call from the mother, which revealed subterfuge.
- RED FLAG. The father called the mother on her cell phone as she was on the phone with the 9-1-1- Operator calling for help. She answered the phone and talked with him. The father later stated he got a "feeling" to call home.
- The detective sergeant properly instructed his detectives to interview the mother and father separately to obtain some preliminary information
- Proper documentation by First Responders revealed discrepancies in the times that certain events had occurred according to the parents.
- Detectives properly requested the father to take a polygraph examination.
- MISSED OPPORTUNITY. Detectives did not request mother to take polygraph.
- The parents' accounts continued to change as the investigators requested clarification and attempted to establish a Time-Line.
Review of the Police and Medical Examiner Investigator's Reports
A review of the initial Responding Officer's reports coupled with the various police and medical investigative reports reveals a number of discrepancies in the times that certain activities were alleged to have taken place. The mother and father agreed that the decedent got up at 8:00 A.M. and watched cartoons with her brothers until she came down to breakfast at 9:30 A.M.
However, after this the activities of the mother, father, and daughter are suspect. The parents of the victim provide different time frames to account for their activities and the whereabouts of their daughter from 10:00 A.M. until she is found hanging from her bedpost at 1:00 P.M.
In addition, both parents provided conflicting information about certain elements in the crime scene. These contradictions continued throughout the reports:
- The mother never saw the chain that was attached to the bedpost in the house. However, the father reports that he has seen the chain "floating around the house."
- The mother is "fairly certain" she saw the decedent after the father had left the house for work at 11:40 A.M.
- The father initially told the sergeant that he was the last one to see his daughter alive.
- The father identified that chain as coming off of one of his trucks. He then provided an alternative explanation and said that chain was for his dog." RED FLAG. In the opinion of the author this chain would be too heavy to be used as a dog chain. This is a commercial type of chain used to move heavy objects.
- The father told one detective that he came home from his bike ride took a nap for twenty minutes and then showered. In the other statements, he states that he came home from the bike ride, took a shower and then napped.
- The father said that he remembered his daughter hanging her stuffed animals from the canopy. However, the mother stated that she didn't remember her daughter hanging her toys for the canopy.
- The father said that he had seen his daughter wearing the dog collar "dozens of times." The mother said she had only seen her daughter wearing the dog collar once.
It is obvious, as one reads the statements given to the police and medical investigators, that there was collusion on the part of the mother and father to confuse and mislead the police with their contradictory and inconsistent accounts.
The ligature consisted of a red colored leather dog collar around the neck with a blue carabineer attached to the back of the dog collar. This carabineer was hooked to an "S" hook attached to a thick rusty metal chain, which had been wrapped several times around the top of the bedpost and secured by another "S" hook to the frame so that it wouldn't slip down the bedpost.
Review of the crime scene and medical examiner photographs demonstrate an intricate connection, too sophisticated for this young girl to have configured such a design. And, if she were able to handle this heavy rusty chain then there would be rust on her hands, which was not found.
The position of the victim would have been difficult to achieve herself. How was this eleven-year-old child supposed to have wrapped this chain around the bedpost and thoroughly secure the end with one "S" hook and then be able to attach a carabineer to the hook on the chain to the back of the dog collar as she faced away from the bed?
Victimology is one of the most important factors in evaluating whether or not an individual could be considered a candidate for suicide, including:
- The presence of the weapon or means of death at the scene.
- The injuries or wounds are obviously self inflicted, or could have been inflicted by the deceased.
- The existence of a motive or intent on the part of the victim to take his or her own life.
In addition, the presence of a suicide note, the evaluation of the wounds and/or injuries, the psychological state of the victim and whether or not the event was preceded by recognized warning signs and/or depression.
A review of the police and Medical Investigator's reports certainly DID NOT indicate any depression or inclination on the part of the victim to take her own life. Investigators interviewed four close friends of the decedent. None of these friends or their parents thought that the young girl was suicidal.
In my consultative report prepared for the Medical Examiner's Office I concluded that the death of this eleven-year-old child was more consistent with Homicide than with Suicide and that the scene had been staged to mislead the authorities or redirect the investigation.
I based this conclusion on an investigative assessment and analysis of the materials available for review. There were a number of contradictory statements made by the parents, which the police investigators failed to pursue. Early on in the investigation "Red Flags" emerged, which should have alerted the detectives that there was obvious collusion on the part of the mother and father to confuse and mislead the police with their contradictory and inconsistent accounts.
- RED FLAG. Why didn't the mother attempt to take her daughter down from the ligature?
- RED FLAG. The ligature was too sophisticated for an eleven-year-old to have configured.
- RED FLAG. " Analysis of the 9-1-1call indicated subterfuge by the mother.
- RED FLAG. The father called the mother on her cell phone as she was on the phone with the 9-1-1- Operator calling for help. Father stated he got a "feeling" to call home.
- RED FLAG. There was a history of inappropriate sexual activities with the father's second wife's little girl.
- RED FLAG. Early statements by the father "This was an accident, we have nothing to cover-up." And "If you have done nothing you have nothing to hide."
- MISSED OPPORTUNITY. A review of the cell phone records would have indicated any communications between the father and mother prior to the 9-1-1-Call.
- MISSED OPPORTUNITY. Documentation by First Responders revealed discrepancies in the times that certain events had occurred according to the parents. The parents should have been confronted early on and both considered suspect by their actions.
- MISSED OPPORTUNITY. When the father failed the polygraph test it was for murder not sexual assault. The detective should have pursued this line of questioning. Instead, the detective provided this clever suspect with a way out. "I then told (the father) that because he did this, his daughter was not able to handle it and this was why she hung herself." This was a major investigative error.
- MISSED OPPORTUNITY. The sexual aspect of the crime was the "hard-part" for the father to admit. The confession to murder could have been obtained if the investigator pursued the initial basis for the polygraph. The father failed the pre-test questions as they related to murder.
- MISSED OPPORTUNITY. Detectives did not request mother to take polygraph. The mother should also have been considered equally culpable in lieu of her inappropriate actions and misleading statements during the investigation.
The Judge ruled that the manner of the eleven-year-old's death was NOT admissible. The father was eventually convicted of the Rape and Sodomy and was sentenced to fifty years.
These copyrighted materials have been excerpted with permission of the author from Sex-Related Homicide and Death Investigations: Practical and Clinical Perspectives CRC Press, Boca Raton Florida, 2003.
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