Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Underwater Forensics

Underwater Profiling

Natalee Ann Holloway was on a vacation in Aruba to celebrate her high school graduation when she disappeared on May 30, 2005. She was due to check in at the airport to return to her home in Alabama, but she didn't come. A search of her hotel room showed that, although she had at least packed her bags in preparation to depart, somewhere along the way she had vanished. Friends who had been with her the previous evening said she had been drinking that night and had gone off with three young men. These men were identified and picked up for questioning While they admitted they'd been with her, they said they had dropped her off at her hotel. Although they were the leading suspects, there was no evidence to detain them.

Natalee Holloway
Natalee Holloway

Under pressure from Holloway's family and American media, the Aruban police made an extensive investigation, searching the island but concluding that if the girl had been killed she might have been dumped out at sea. One theory had her body placed in a crab trap (and one was reported missing) and dropped too far out for reasonable hope of discovery. On December 18, 2007 the Aruban officials, who believed the girl was dead, announced that the case would be closed. But in February 2008 one of the suspects was recorded making incriminating statements about what had happened that night. However, at this writing, no remains have been found.

Any type of criminal profiling in such a case would have to account for the possibility of a body dump site in the ocean. Authorities would need specialists in water recovery and postmortem underwater analysis to determine what to expect after so much time had passed. Unlike a buried body, human remains can be stripped clean by sea animals and the bones scattered by the current. Occasionally, pieces float to shore, but many supposed victims have never surfaced.

Even apparent drownings can actually be homicides. Zafares and Hendrick note that when an investigation fails to be thorough, evidence can be missed. Thus, the first responder's observations and efforts to preserve the scene are critical. To spot any red flags, first responders need training, because investigations conducted in hindsight can lose evidence and valuable time, even allowing a perpetrator to get away. Zafares and Hendrick propose that death investigators utilize a standard form for gathering information which will help them avoid the tunnel vision that results from the assumption that underwater incidents are drownings.

On July 4, 1992, in Baraboo, Wisc., Chris Steiner, 14, disappeared from his home. Indications that he had been kidnapped included a shoe impression outside his bedroom window and muddy tracks inside. Five days after he disappeared, his body was found along a bank of the Wisconsin River. The death was attributed to drowning, and the pathologist found no sign of injury. He did not take x-rays.

A year passed and another boy, Thad Phillips, was taken from his bed in the same town while he slept. But he survived to tell the police how he'd been abducted and tortured by an older teenager. This boy admitted to Thad that he liked to hear bones break and also enjoyed attending to them. Thad managed to get to a phone and call the police, who arrested seventeen-year-old Joe Clark. They learned that he'd admitted to subjecting Chris Steiner to the same thing before throwing him into the river.

Chris's remains were exhumed and re-examined; x-rays now showed four separate breaks in his legs. Thus, an incident dismissed as a drowning had in fact been a homicide. A judge found Clark guilty of murder.

As Dutelle states, "What is not looked for will not be found. What is not found cannot be analyzed to uncover the truth."

 

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