Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Underwater Forensics

Search and Recovery

In Kansas City, Mo., Christine Elkins, 32 and a mother of two boys, had become a drug addict and a drug runner for her supplier. She was arrested, and, while she was under arrest, investigators pressured her to inform on drug lord Tony Emery. She agreed, but word got out, and he offered to pay her not to participate. She realized he might kill her, so one day in August 1990, she dropped off her sons at the home of a friend and told him if she did not return to look for her at the morgue. She then left in her two-door Oldsmobile Cutlass; when Elkins missed her court dates, detectives feared the worst.

Map: Kansas City, Missouri
Map: Kansas City, Missouri

Eventually a call came from Greeley, Colo., from an informant regarding a Missouri homicide. The man reported a murder committed by three men: Tony Emery, his cousin and another associate. Reportedly the victim, a woman, had been beaten with a blackjack, rolled into a rug, and placed in a car, which had then been sunk in a rock quarry. But searches of area quarries failed to turn up Elkins or her car.

Six years later, detectives learned that the account was incorrect: the victim had in fact been pushed into the Missouri River, but the river had since flooded. They knew the body and any accomanying evidence might easily have washed away, but they were determined to search. Investigators called the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) to request the use of a magnetometer, which measures changes in the intensity of magnetic fields of ferrous metals below ground or in water.

NCIS in turn called the FBI, and they referred the investigators to NecroSearch in Colorado, a group of scientists and engineers who assist in difficult investigations that require their fields of expertise. NecroSearch co-founder Clark Davenport presented the case to the group, and they agreed it could be tough to find a car in a large river. Yet they believed they might be of some use, so Davenport and a geophysicist named Al Bieber travelled to Missouri to scour the muddy river. Bieber knew how to use a magnetometer that could be attached to a boat, and he had an underwater videocamera.

The river was about 20 to 30 feet deep in the target area, but the current was swift. Bieber and Davenport collected information about the Cutlass's weight and composition, and then acquired a magnetometer, a global positioning system (GPS), and nonmagnetic boats. The Coast Guard and Missouri State Water Patrol offered support for diving.

From magnetic anomalies, they pinpointed seven potential locations for a submerged car. However, the magnetometer failed, so Bieber used a gradiometer, which could also measure changes in magnetic fields, and the GPS to plot an underwater map of anomalies that fit the size of the car.

Then divers went in, using weights and cables to prevent the current from sweeping them away. At the second anomaly site, where it was difficult to see, one investigator touched what felt like a car bumper. More exploration revealed that it was a two-door vehicle, the style they were seeking, so a diver took the license plate to the surface. It was registered Christine's car. The team then raised the car and opened the trunk. Inside a rolled carpet were skeletal remains which x-rays identified as those of the missing woman. Her skull had been shattered, and Emery was charged with her murder. In less than an hour, a jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to life.

While this was a case of evidence recovery, which is a frequent task of underwater investigation, another case focused on water as the medium of the crime.