Surface vs Subsurface Crime Scene Investigation

By: Bo Tibbetts

Surface Scenario:

Early in the morning dispatch receives a call that the body of a young adult male has been discovered in a nearby community park, with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. What are the procedures of law enforcement for this type of investigation? Some obvious measures are to secure the scene and cordon off the area, with the assumption that it is a potential crime scene. A proper death investigation will be performed; this may involve the coroner or a medical examiner, in addition to law enforcement that has jurisdiction over the scene. A cursory evidence search takes place, also the interviewing of potential witnesses, which may have information that could be important to the investigation. All aspects of the scene require detailed documentation, which is mandatory to  investigation procedure. Any photographs of the deceased and potential evidence, including evidence markers are required. The bottom line is this, law enforcement is not going to show up on the scene assume it was an accident, bag the body, then take it to the morgue. There is always an investigative protocol that must be followed and adhered to by law enforcement.

As a crime scene investigator, we are tasked with multiple steps, including, but not limited to; scene safety, security, witness interviews, conducting a “walk through,” photographing the scene, detailed documentation of the scene, proper handling of evidence, inventory of evidence, safeguarding the collection of any evidence by properly preserving and storing evidence that has been collected; then following the proper chain of custody to ensure the investigation is handled properly. While we have many aspects to consider, one of the most important is to not contaminate the scene. Should a potential underwater crime scene be handled in a different manner?

Subsurface Scenario:

It was a hot summer day and four high school students have decided to go out on a private lake to fish. There are two boys and two girls. Upon arriving at the lake they noticed a canoe that is sitting along the shoreline by the boat dock. Underneath it were a couple of paddles. The two boys decide to take the canoe out on the lake to fish further from shore. After about 30 minutes the boys have made their way out to the middle of the lake directly across from the two girls on shore. The girls see one of the boys stand up it looks like he’s yelling and he appears to be swinging one of the paddles. The other boy stands up and the canoe capsizes. The boy that had the paddle hangs onto the canoe and the other boy reportedly vanishes into the lake. The survivor is frantically yelling for help. The girls on shore run to a nearby house to get help.They ask the homeowner to call 911 because they say one of the boys has drowned.The homeowner calls 911 and relays the message and location to dispatch stating that someone has drowned and could they please send help as soon as possible. Dispatch notifies the local sheriff’s deputy and dispatches them to the address notifying them of an accidental drowning.  After arriving at the scene, the deputy begins to interview the witnesses and dispatches the local dive team.

We have made this observation many times in regards to water death investigations. From the very minute the individuals sought help they relayed to the homeowner that it was an accidental drowning. This thought process carried over from the homeowner to the dispatcher, then to the sheriff’s deputy. How could anyone know this was an accidental drowning at this point? No investigation has been conducted to determine if it is in fact an accidental drowning and drowning is the cause or manner of death. Investigations often get tainted from the initial call.

The deputy dispatches the local dive team to the scene to recover a submerged body. Shouldn’t this be treated as a potential crime scene until proven otherwise?  The local public safety dive team recovered the body and brought the deceased to shore. There was an apparent wound and laceration to the side of the face of the victim. The body showed no other signs of trauma. Can we make any conclusions at this point?

When it comes to a water death investigation, it is almost always thought to be a drowning.

There is usually no consideration or attention given to the possibility that the scene may be a possible crime scene. Water related crime scene operations should require the same attention to detail as any topside crime scene investigation. Literally, there should be no difference with respect to the investigation. The same investigative protocols should be required, followed and adhered to when a body is found in water.

If the investigation warrants a prosecution, the district attorney’s office will want to know in detail every aspect of the crime scene, the investigative measures that were used and protocols followed by the forensic dive unit. A forensic dive unit needs to be able to provide in detail, what they did and what they discovered while in the underwater crime scene. They need to be able to describe the methods and protocols that were used in the search. Describe the process of collection and the means of preservation for the evidence that was used. Give details of usage if an electronic imaging unit was used in the investigation. Give evidence of qualifications for the forensic dive unit. Provide proof of training and education of the forensic dive unit. Be able to describe tender directed tether operations that were used in the search. Provide proper documentation for the type of search pattern that was used. Give documented proof of speed at which the diver searched for evidence, in comparison to the size of the object being searched for. A description of the process for preserving any evidence that may be on the head, hands or feet. The forensic dive unit should provide any video or photography that was used to document the scene.

We train divers and dive tenders to a level that requires complete detail in documenting a scene.

Our approach is this, “too much detail is better than not enough detail.” The presumption is always made that  it may be a crime scene until it is proven otherwise, potentially in a court of law. We encourage dive units across the globe to seek out professional qualified public safety dive instructors who have knowledge and expertise in understanding and processing the underwater crime scene

In conclusion, both topside and underwater crime scene investigations require and deserve the same attention to detail. Understanding that an underwater crime scene investigation is more difficult and requires more care in handling, obtaining and preserving evidence. It is a crime scene until proven otherwise and must be handled in a professional manner.

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