Investigations: The Dead Always Rise

The September/October issue of Law Officer featured the first in a series of articles on fundamental and advanced criminal investigation techniques. The field is large, so I will concentrate on the more heinous crimes murder, robbery, sexual assault and the forensic sciences that enable us to recreate the past.

Previously, I introduced a case involving the driver of a semi-trailer truck with a route that takes him through five different states. Once or twice a year he picks up a young girl a prostitute working a rest stop or a runaway hitchhiker and eventually gets her into back of his truck. Once there, he chains her up, and over several days repeatedly rapes her and uses small fish hooks to peel the skin from every inch of her body. He keeps the skins as a trophy. When the girls finally die from shock and loss of blood, he picks a secluded wooded area along his route and buries the skinned bodies in the woods.

Any seasoned investigator knows the dead always eventually rise, and bodies buried in wooded areas are often found by hunters or hikers after a heavy rain or when an animal digs up the body. So, over a period of several years, some of these particular bodies are found in Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Investigating Skeletal Remains

For instructional purposes, let's concentrate on the investigation into one of the skin-taker's victims. It's deer-hunting season, and father, son and dog are in the woods thrashing around trying to find a spot to stake out any deer deaf enough to walk in front of them.

About half a mile into the woods off of I-91, Rover begins barking furiously. Father and son walk over to the dog and discover a raised mound of soil with what appear to be the skeletal remains of a human arm and hand extending out of the ground. The father uses his cell phone to call the police and meets responding officers at the dirt access road where his car is parked; this road runs adjacent to the highway and ends at a turnabout. The father takes the officers to the remains' location, and the responding officers correctly decide that one will wait at the burial site (protecting the crime scene) while the other escorts the father back to the access road, carefully retracing the path they used to get to the burial site. The senior officer calls detectives to the scene to investigate.

Conducting the Preliminary Investigation

Let's assume you are the detective in charge of conducting this investigation. Eventually forensic specialists from your department or the state will respond, but for now it's just you. What initial steps would you take?

You know that even if the officer on scene had the sense to contact the station via cell phone as opposed to police radio, you can make book that it's only a matter of minutes before the press arrives. Why? Because, unfortunately, nothing brings the police brass out of the station quicker than a major crime scene, and when the higher-ups get wind of a dead body, somehow the press does also. Everyone wants to see the skeleton in the woods.

To handle this, instruct an officer to establish a roadblock at the entrance to the access road, with strict instructions to begin a crime-scene log to keep unauthorized persons out of the area. The press can't get past the roadblock, and police brass wishing to enter the crime scene must log in with time entered and time left. Most departments have a policy and procedure stating that anyone entering a crime scene must complete a report, and if this statement is stenciled in large print across the top of the crime scene log, it discourages many sight-seers. Mention that they will likely be subject to court subpoena, and the number of crime scene visitors will drop even further.

Why do you want to limit access? To prevent further crime-scene contamination or transfer adding something to or taking something away from the crime scene that wasn't there at the time of the crime.

Where is the Crime Scene?

You've partially secured the area by positioning an officer at the entrance to the access road. After questioning the father, son and first-in officer regarding what they saw and did, what would you do next? Do we really know where the crime scene is? Does it include only the burial mound and the area adjacent to it?

No. As mentioned in my previous column, the meaning of things definitions are important, because they establish a framework within which the investigator practices both science and art in the unstable environment of human behavior. Simplified: A crime scene includes all areas in which people connected with a crime perpetrator, victims, witnesses, etc. moved. This includes the area the participant(s) moved through in order to commit the crime, the area of the crime and the exit route from the crime scene.

In this case, we know from the father, son and first-in officer they found some skeletal remains consisting of an arm and hand. At this point, we don't know what we'll find when we excavate the site. It may be that the body was dismembered, and there may be several burial sites in the woods or elsewhere.

At any rate, the evidence isn't going anywhere. Expand your paradigm of what constitutes the crime scene to include all logical methods the murderer could have used to cross the wooded terrain pathways to and from the burial mound, nearby roadways, adjacent parking areas, etc. if he killed the victim at the burial site or killed her elsewhere and transported the body to the site. Accompany the first-in officer to the burial site to determine reasonable crime-scene boundaries (per our expanded definition of a crime scene) and develop a sense of the types of forensic specialization the investigation may require. Only then can you make plans to properly secure the area, discover and collect evidence, and reconstruct the crime scene.

Eventually, you'll need to get to high ground and take a panoramic view of the entire area. A helicopter and video or still photography would provide an ideal method of conceptualizing the entire scene of the crime. And with the expansion of GPS technology and laser-assisted crime-scene documentation, you can document complex outdoor crime scenes with great accuracy. You may even be able to use LIDAR traffic enforcement devices to assist you in this effort.

Remember: This type of case may take years to get to trial, and the terrain can change a lot in the interim a shopping complex might even go up on the site before you identify a suspect, for example. Preserving exact measurements to enable crime-scene recreation can prove critical to successful prosecution.

The Recovery Team

Outdoor homicide investigations pose special problems for the investigator. Animals, for instance, may scatter the bones, body parts or other physical evidence over large sections of terrain. In addition to the usual forensic specialists, use a forensic anthropologist to reconstruct a crime of this nature and gather physical evidence.1 Basic questions a forensic anthropologist can answer include:

  • Are the remains human?
  • Was the victim male or female?
  • Approximate age?
  • Approximate height?
  • Ethnic origin?
  • Evidence of a homicide?

Since excavation of the site will resemble an archeological dig, a forensic anthropologist overseeing the recovery will pay dividends in reconstructing the crime and eventually solving the case.

My next column will cover how to identify skeletal remains through use of investigative resources, dental records and DNA.


How many people were reported missing in the United States in 2004?

  • 200,000
  • 300,000
  • 500,000
  • >850,000

See our next issue for the answer.


1. Becker, Ronal F. Criminal Investigation, 2nd edition. Jones and Bartlett: Canada, 2005.


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