TRACE EVIDENCE PRESERVATION DURING UNDERWATER BODY RECOVERY

By: Mark Phillips

Let’s face facts, the majority of the work done by a Public Safety Dive team is body recovery.  Following the practices that have been taught for years, we should treat all such recoveries as crime scenes. But how do we do that? What is a measure we can use as a comparison if the work we do is in zero visibility and underwater? With no standardized system in place and no standardized documentation to present to a related organization, we are forced to approach a lot of our work in reverse.

That may sound strange but there are volumes of procedures, techniques, requirements, educational outlets, even premade documents and specialty equipment for evidence collection on land, but comparatively very little when evidence collection takes place underwater.

Part of our responsibilities as Public Safety Divers (PSD) has been, and continues to be, to adapt techniques that are used on land to an underwater environment. This is much more than just using a mesh body bag and drawing a scene sketch. But to do more, we have to have an understanding of what we actually do as Public Safety Divers.

Currently, the accepted educational path we take is to become a recreational scuba diver then become trained and certified – or just identified – as a Public Safety Diver and then begin learning what it is a Public Safety Diver and team is capable of doing.

What we do is relatively new to the world of criminal investigation. Consider how young recreational scuba is. The high number of early recreational accidents led to the creation of formal training agencies.  The BS-AC was formed in 1953, CMAS in 1959, NAUI in 1960 and PADI in 1966.[1]

Compared to the development of the use of fingerprints as a forensic tool, the discrepancy is obvious. Juan Vucetich made the first criminal fingerprint identification and identified a woman by the name of Rojas, who had murdered her two sons, and cut her own throat in an attempt to place blame on another – in 1892.[2]

Computers for the masses didn’t show up until the mid-1980’s and when Microsoft released Windows 1.0 In late 1985, the new computing world collectively lost their minds.

Early dive teams had little or no access to relevant information and most built their own teams and procedures based on recreational scuba.  Today we have instant access to information, the ability to search for information on an international basis, to communicate in real time with others and can discover so much instant information that it becomes overwhelming. With this availability comes knowledge. But how that knowledge is applied or information is utilized is sometimes skewed.

As a Public Safety Dive team, we have the ability to secure an area, both underwater and the surface area and land related to a potential crime scene. But we do this in conjunction with the local Law Enforcement (LE) authority. It is a crime scene after all. When we are called out to assist or take charge because of the possibility or probability of their being evidence underwater we become an underwater investigative team; essentially the underwater investigative element of the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ).

As an underwater investigative team, we should have the tools and ability to perform a search, locate and mark the location of an object, provide whatever information possible about it and recover it.  But are we doing enough? Are we really able to incorporate land based techniques in an underwater environment?

[1] History of scuba diving – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_scuba_diving
[2]  U.S. Marshals Service – https://www.usmarshals.gov/usmsforkids/fingerprint_history.htm

There was a time when it might be difficult to answer in the positive to that question. But over the last 40 years, there have been great advancements in awareness, knowledge, equipment, and technology that have been incorporated into both related agency training and public domain. So, yes we can incorporate some land-based techniques into our underwater environment; but not always in the same manner. Almost every PSD training agency book, underwater body recovery article, text or reference recommends the use of a body bag designed or modified for bagging the body of a victim underwater. These types of bags either have mesh pockets in them that allow for water to escape or are all mesh made with a very small pattern that allows water to escape while retaining potential evidence that may wash off the body. A land use body bag is usually a simple zippered bag that may or may not be waterproof. They are used to move a body from one location to another sometimes with only minor regard to evidence preservation.

This difference is important. Because we are working underwater and the movement of water can move sediment, particulates etc, that very water has the ability to wash evidence away. In zero visibility, we would never know, perhaps not even consider movement of water to be detrimental to the success of our task. But then again, we are in water and even with all the precautions we can take, we still have the possibility of water movement washing away potential evidence.

On land, an investigator may be concerned about preserving potential trace evidence that could be found under the fingernails of a victim. To protect the hands and possible evidence, the investigator will sometimes place a paper bag over each hand and tie them in place. When a Medical Examiner or Forensic Investigator receives the body, they will have documentation as well as preexisting knowledge of why those bags are there.  The victim’s feet may also have paper bags covering them. Depending on the nature of the investigation it is even possible for the head to be encased with a paper bag. These are accepted and known practices.

Consider what might be found; tissue under the fingernails, soil, gravel or other site-specific objects caught in the tread of a tennis shoe or fibers, dust or even pollen might be found in the hair. It makes sense to protect those areas.

We are working to adapt land techniques underwater but paper bags are useless underwater. For years we heard the phrase “Bag the head, hands and feet” at conferences, seminars and read occasionally about it in magazine articles. So for years, we tried to do just that.

We tried, but could never make any bag work. Others would talk or write about it, but when pressed, they had not been successful either. All the various types of bags we used would fill with water. The weight of the water would almost always cause the bags to fall off. Even worse, if we did manage to get a bag to stay on, because the Law Enforcement (LE) did not know why we were doing it, they would usually take it off and throw it as well as the water and soil samples we collected, in the trash. That appearance of apathy eventually stopped the attempts. While we had learned the concept and worked to reach that goal, the related education never went beyond the team.

We were told to and taught WHY we should “bag the head, hands and feet”, but we were NEVER taught nor did we ever teach anyone HOW to do it. Textbooks and training manuals will say something like “the body should be properly bagged to maintain as much evidence as possible”. But there is no descriptive that follows to explain what that is. Even when a description comes that does offer some insight, we are told to use paper bags to cover the hands once the victim is on shore or to cover the hands with nylon bags or zip-lock baggies and tie them at the wrist. Neither is a viable option in our effort to protect and preserve trace evidence underwater.

Our genre of diving has become more educated, skilled and better equipped than was a Public Safety Diver 30 years ago; even 5 years ago. The knowledge and industry that has built around Public Safety Diving has continued to grow and as it grows, new information, new technology and a greater understanding of the job grows with it.

Today, you will learn a practiced, tried and true technique for bagging the head, hands and feet of a victim found underwater in zero visibility. The technique works. It is simple, inexpensive, and reproducible and solves the problem of preserving trace evidence that could be found on a victim’s hands, head or feet.

In an aquatic environment, this technique has been shown to preserve trace evidence. Before employing this technique, you should share it with your local authority.

Employment of this technique should be cleared and approved through your local convening authority for use and your team should have written guidelines in place prior to use THAT INCLUDE the necessary additional documentation that describes its implementation.

The Solution

 Women’s Hosiery – specifically knee-high stockings and pantyhose or thigh high stockings. These items are machine manufactured and packaged and should be at least aseptic. Out of the package, they should be untouched by human hands until you begin the necessary preparations for use.

We shot the accompanying videos during PSDiver Workshops we were conducting. Neither were programs that included body recovery or evidence collection. We added a demonstration into their time and as a consequence, we were rushed in each. They are not Oscar material but I am satisfied they will get the concept across.

When I train teams or I lecture, I present material based on depth and zero visibility. If there is great visibility, finding an object isn’t nearly that difficult and basic underwater archaeology techniques, cameras and video work great. In zero visibility, we work by touch and we have developed methods, training, techniques etc. to get the job done. While technology is developing that can aid our search and recovery process, the cost usually exceeds the budgets of most public service agencies. This makes the personal contact and methodology we employ more critical.

The videos will explain the technique I developed to bag the hands, feet and head of a victim underwater. In each workshop we were short on time and had to rush. In the first, one of my former students pointed out that I had skipped a step. He was right but we did not have time to remake the video.

The first video shows me rolling a stocking up my shirt and then using it, not prepping a second one over the first. That was the skipped step. In order to keep the hose untainted, we roll one up our arm BEFORE we prep the covers for the hands, head, and feet. The first stocking on our arm shields the others from potential contamination.

First, put your arm in one of the stockings – this should prevent cross-contamination.

Pull a second stocking up, over the first until it is fully on your arm

Start at the top and begin to roll the second stocking down your arm until it reaches your fingertips

The prepped stocking should look similar to a condom. Package it in a new, clean zip lock bag and repeat until there are a total of 4 sets – each set stored in its own clean zip-lock.

Once properly prepared, the knee-high stocking will look like a rolled condom.

To use them, the diver will remove one stocking ring at a time. The diver will insert his/her hand into the back side of the ring (where the toe end is sticking out) and lightly grasp the victim’s fingers.  This will create an anchor point and allow the diver to then unroll the stocking ring up the arm. The same method of application is used for the feet. The stockings will roll up and over shoes.

Knee-High stockings for hands and feet

 Thigh-High stockings or cut Pantyhose for the head*

*(Bagging the head may not always be called for, desired or required by your Medical Examiner. Before bagging the head, share the information with the Medical Examiner and ask them for the criteria they might use when they would want the head bagged.)

 PRACTICE first and make product adjustments as necessary. Our preference is to use light colored hose. White, or Ivory is usually available.

Lexington FD Trace Demo

Prior to body recovery, we may prep a number of the stockings. Each diver will have 2 full sets with each set packaged separately. If two divers are making the recovery, one will cover hands and head (if requested or necessary) and the other the feet. Or left side, right side; they will make the decision prior to the dive. And because it is zero visibility, if they lose one of the stockings, the divers should have ample backups available.

Once located and hands, head (if required) and feet covered, the divers will place the body into a water recovery bag.

We encourage the use of “disposable” mesh body recovery bags for this. No one wants to be “the guy” who has to clean and sanitize a reusable body bag. And if we are aware of our ability to preserve trace evidence, how could be ever be 100% certain or willing to testify that the reusable body bag we used was free of any possible contamination? Any trace evidence discovered in a used but cleaned body bag will likely be inadmissible evidence.

From our perspective, we are protecting as much as we can without doing any harm or injustice to the body.

This second video is a demonstration conducted during another workshop. The stockings I am using came from Walmart.  A pair of knee high stockings in a sealed plastic bag costs about 50 cents.

Knee high stockings work extraordinarily well for hands and feet. Legs cut from panty hose or thigh high stockings work for the head – but you will need to experiment to find the available style or brand that will work best for you.

Our workshop hosts indulged us on their first night class with a last minute decision to extend an evening session. Once again the thigh high stockings used in the video were not the right size but for our demo purposes, they were our only choice. They will work but have a tighter elastic band at the top. The smaller opening and tighter band makes it more difficult to apply to an adult and is very uncomfortable on a live test subject. We have found that the less expensive hose packs work better because they do not use as much elastic. We can cut the elastic band off if necessary and still roll prep and deploy them. But in our time frame to work this particular evening, we did not have the time.

Thigh-high stockings with minimal elastic at the top or the elastic band removed at the top will work. However, thigh-high stockings are not always easy to find. Since there is no elastic band at the thigh, pantyhose will work. However, there is an extra legs worth of hose that must wrap around the neck and the visual result is more bank robber than we cared for. To avoid that, the pantyhose can be cut below the crotch line and each leg used as a thigh-high with no elastic band.

Prepare each the same as you did the knee-high stockings. Leave a stocking over your arm to prevent contamination and pull the pantyhose leg up your arm then roll it back down and repeat until you have what is needed for the job.

The technique works. It is simple, inexpensive, reproducible and solves the majority of problems associated with preserving trace evidence that could be discovered on a submerged victims hands, feet or head. The quality of evidence your team provides is the foundation of a potential forensic investigation.

As our genre of diving continues to grow, we will continue to witness new technologies that may improve our abilities to work in a zero visibility, underwater environment. With that growth, we must strive to improve our own abilities, to be better at the job, safer and more efficient. There is a tendency for teams to build on existing skills and capabilities and forget that you are working as part of a much broader and bigger team.

As your skills and abilities progress, make it a part of your continued team growth to develop and maintain a relationship with all of those you work with. Share your ideas or concerns and ask questions. Maintain an open door so they can do the same with your team. They need to know what you know, what your capabilities are and have constructive interaction. They will not know what you know unless you tell them nor will they ever think to ask if there is more you can do if there is no interaction.

They may not get wet but from the newest Dive Tender to the Head Medical Examiner – you are all part of the same team.

The information contained and the views expressed in this website is for general information purposes only. The information is provided by the author and while we endeavor to keep the information up to date and correct, we make no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, about the completeness, accuracy, reliability, suitability or availability with respect to the article or the information, products, services, or related graphics contained within for any purpose. Any reliance you place on such information is therefore strictly at your own risk.

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AFTER THE DIVE
1 reply
  1. Wendell Nope
    Wendell Nope says:

    This is one of the most interesting and educational articles I have ever read. Thanks to the author for writing it and thanks to the publisher for hosting it on the website. I would recommend this article to anyone.

    Reply

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