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Homicidal drownings – what first responders can do

By Andrea Zaferes and Walt Hendrick, Team Lifeguard Systems and RipTide

  • An adolescent drowns in a lake where he frequently swam, and it is ruled accidental. Twenty years later his brother confesses that he and his friends watched a man drown the teenager. 
  • A woman is found drowned in a bathtub. The ruling is accidental drowning. When the woman's husband drowns his second wife, the truth is discovered. Both were murders.
  • An investigation for possible foul play ensues when a non-swimmer, college student is reported missing. When he is found submerged off a friend’s dock, the investigation immediately ceases. Accidental drowning is ruled. Later, RIPTIDE and a private investigator find blatant red flags of foul play.

Many drownings are actually homicides — and first responders' observations and incident reports into them may be critical in initiating an investigation.

The initial determinations of the actual drowning incidents as accidents listed above are not uncommon. However, what we believe is uncommon is the discovery of their red flags and the ensuing investigations. How many other homicidal drowning cases are being missed? We believe far too many.

Responding EMS and fire personnel can make a critical difference in not only whether a law enforcement investigation is opened for a body-found-in-water  incident, but also in whether a rightful conviction can be obtained — provided the right steps are taken.

Our experience with thousands of law enforcement, dive team, fire and medical personnel across the world has convinced us that a large percentage of homicidal drowning incidents are either not sufficiently investigated or are not investigated at all.

There are several reasons for this and  "tragic accident" is too common a mindset, one that can cause tunnel vision. The red flags normally found on homicide victims or at the crime scenes on land are rarely present, and law enforcement and medical personnel are not trained to recognize the red flags specific to homicidal drowning.

In some case, the body may not have been recovered. Also, rescue personnel may destroy evidence.  And, because drowning evidence is usually circumstantial rather than hard, cases are difficult to investigate and prosecute, so drowning cases may be pushed back when case loads are heavy. 

'Grieving' relatives
The drowning determination by process of exclusion can make it difficult to prove whether a victim drowned or was disposed of in the water. Witnesses are often "grieving" family members, which adds to the "tragic accident" mindset.  And very importantly, if a drowning is investigated, it is usually motivated by hindsight and after valuable scene evidence has been lost. Therefore, a standard information-gathering incident form to use on every drowning incident would be very helpful.

One thing to remember is that until there is evidence that the patient drowned, keep terminology unbiased. Just because people are found unresponsive in water does not mean that they drowned.

In essence, land and water deaths are treated differently. If a hunter finds the body of a young man in the woods, a detective, crime scene technician and coroner will swiftly arrive to search for signs of foul play. The site is taped off and an officer is stationed to prevent scene contamination. The exact position and condition of the body is documented and potential evidence is collected.

But what if a fisherman discovers the same body underwater, and similarly, neither the cause nor manner of death is obvious? Our experience shows that "accidental drowning" is the most likely mindset for arriving personnel. The dive team is called in to recover the body, which may or may not be bagged as it is dragged to shore. Is the body's exact condition and location documented, along with wind, current and depth? Are water samples taken? Are detectives and a medical examiner called in? Are the underwater and shore areas taped off and searched for possible evidence? Many departments have to answer "no" to most, or all, of these questions.

Also, compare a dispatch for a toddler found dead at the bottom of basement steps in her home with a call for a toddler found drowned in a bathtub.

The crying mother states that she went to answer the phone, was gone for less than two minutes, and, when she returned, found Sally not moving. How are these incidents managed?  Are crime scene technicians called in? Is the house well photographed? Are scene temperatures taken? Are family members, neighbors and babysitters interviewed? Is the family checked for any previous child or spouse deaths?

Evidence at hand
The answers are likely to be "yes" for the basement incident and "no" for the drowning. Without obvious evidence to the contrary, the occurrence of drowning is typically treated as a tragic accident.

The tendency to see drowning incidents as accidents may cause red flags and evidence to be missed at every level of personnel, from first responders to medical examiners. Compounding this is that drowning scenes present little or no typical signs of foul play.

Victim trauma, signs of struggle at the scene and signs of previous abuse are not typically visible at pure-drowning homicide incidents (i.e. no other violence or cause of death other than drowning).

Holding a child's head underwater in a tub takes little effort, and the little water splashed from the tub is easily wiped away. A non-swimmer pushed into deeper water may not even have subcutaneous bruising. Pure-drowning homicides can be medically undetectable, are effortless to perform, require no perpetrator skill, require little or no clean up, the body does not need to be disposed of, and the perpetrator often receives much sympathetic attention and possibly accidental death life insurance money. 

Keep your investigative mind alert when responding to drowning incidents and ensure that hospital physicians notify police about all drowned or near drowned patients. We also recommend a standard incident form be used on all drowning incidents to better collect and recognize potentially valuable evidence of foul play. This record would also provide research data. If you would like a sample of such a form to review, please contact us.

So what should you do when you arrive on scene to a body-found-in-water incident? First and foremost, make no assumptions, be observant and document as much as possible! Obviously safety and patient care comes first, so documentation may have to take place after the patient is transferred to hospital personnel.

In addition:

  • As you walk into the scene, actively look around and make mental notes. If it is a child, was a wet diaper laying on the floor? Are there any wet towels on the floor? How many people are on the immediate scene? Is there any smell you can distinguish such as alcohol or vomit?
  • Are the witnesses wet? You might be able to touch a witness on the arm in a gesture of support to feel if an arm or sleeve is damp.
  • Where exactly did you first see the patient and what was the body posture? Even a not-to-scale sketch would be invaluable if the victim becomes a patient and is moved from the scene.
  • Was there any vomit, feces or other substance found in the water or on the scene that looked like it could have come from the victim?
  • If someone from your crew has access to the water where the victim supposedly was found in, touch both the water and body to get an idea of the temperature.
  • If the "drowning" took place in a bathtub or similar arena, and the water is still present, see if a crew member can stick an arm in the water, and with a pen make a notch on the arm to roughly document depth. Your justification? If the water was so shallow that drowning does not make sense, then physicians may have to look for other conditions that caused the unresponsiveness in order to provide proper treatment.
  • Where possible, have a crew member ask, and document, such information as: When was the patient's last meal and what was eaten?
  • How was the patient feeling today, and if anything was unusual please describe this. How much alcohol do you think the patient drank today?
  • Ask about medications, illicit drugs and all the normal questions you would ask to help you and physicians properly treat the patient. This information documented on the PCR could also became very valuable to an ensuing law enforcement investigation.
  • Have one or more crew members pay close attention to what witnesses say happened, and later document as much of this verbatim as possible. If a witness says "child," write "child"; if "kid," write "kid."

Next, make observations regarding the victim:

  • Body position and posture — face up, down ...? If witnesses removed the victim from the water, see if one of your crew can ask where the victim was found and in what position.
  • What is the victim wearing and are there any wet clothes — including things such as shoes and eye glasses — noticeable on the scene?
  • How wet is the victim's hair, skin, clothing? Dripping? Damp?
  • Examine the victim's eyes and note pupil size and any discoloration, as well as anything unusual.
  • Take a look at the victim's hands and feet, and note the degree of wrinkling.
  • Note skin color and temperature — and document what parts of the body you touched and examined.
  • Make a note of any mark you notice on the body such as a scratch or a bruise.
  • If you are capable of taking a core temperature during transport, make sure to do so more than once if possible with proper documentation.
  • Document anything that comes out of the patient's airway such as vomit or water. Be descriptive. If possible, collect this material even if all you can do is wipe it onto a towel.
  • If any part of the victim's body is stiff, make a note of the time and body location. For example, notice if the jaw, neck, fingers or elbow are at all stiff.

If you have, or have had, any drowning incidents, you can contact RipTide, a non-profit organization that collects case files, autopsy reports, scene and autopsy photographs, and 911 tapes for analysis. The data is used to help medics, law enforcement, prosecutors, coroners and pathologists . For more details, go to www.rip-tide.org or e-mail Andrea Zaferes at az@teamlgs.com.

Authors Andrea Zaferes and Walt Hendrick are the vice presidents and presidents respectively of RipTide and Team Lifeguard Systems, both based in New York. RipTide is a non-profit organization that aims to help public safety personnel recover drowning victims. Team Lifeguard Systems offers diving and rescue training to emergency personnel in the United States and across the world.

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