Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder Cop: A Profile of Vernon J. Geberth

Suspicious Circumstances

Geberth offers a paper on this case on his Web site (www.practicalhomicide.com).  An 11-year-old girl was found hanging from the bedpost in her bedroom.   Her mother called it in to 911.  The medical examiner believed that the events that day warranted a more thorough investigation and requested Geberth to conduct an investigative analysis.

"Equivocal death investigations," he writes, "are those inquiries that are open to interpretation."  In other words, the manner of death may as easily be homicide or accident as suicide.  The facts are too vague to give a definitive finding, and that was indeed the case with this girl's death.

The girl was found hanging from the bedpost. The ligature was comprised of a dog collar around the girl's neck attached to a carabiner, which was hooked onto an "S" hook attached to the heavy-duty moving chain.  The mother informed the first officer at the scene that her seven-year-old son had found the victim, and the officer ran to the room and soon determined that the body was cold.  The victim was pronounced dead and the officer notified detectives.  The mother said that she had been watching other children downstairs (she ran a day-care center) and had sent her son to tell the girl, who was supposedly doing homework, to come and have lunch.  She added that her daughter had a habit of tying her toys to the bed frame in the manner in which she now hung.       

The father who'd expressed having had a "feeling" that something was wrong before he called home, made several odd statements, such as, "This was an accident.  We have nothing to cover up" and "When you have done nothing, you have nothing to hide."  The mother, too, spontaneously said, "If there's any good to come out of this, at least she will never have a period."  She insisted the whole thing had been an accident.

The body was taken to the medical examiner's office.  The parents said they hadn't seen any evidence in the girl of depression, and under questioning admitted that their daughter had never used a dog collar on her toys.  The autopsy found clear evidence of sexual abuse, both vaginal and anal, which made the death suspicious, so the father was interrogated.  He said the injuries were from tampons he'd found in the girl's room and then refused a polygraph.  When he finally took it and failed, he confessed to raping and sodomizing his daughter.  He offered nothing about the death, which looked more like a homicide than a suicide.  The detective gave him an out by stating that perhaps the girl had been despondent over the abuse.

The mother provided her husband with an alibi and was never given a polygraph.  She seemed undisturbed about her daughter's sexual assault.  One "red flag" that Geberth notes in this situation was that, after finding the girl hanging, the mother had never attempted to take her daughter down from the ligature.  Her call to 911 seemed equally suspicious, and her stories failed to corroborate statements her husband had made, which themselves were full of inconsistencies.

"It is obvious," Geberth writes, "as one reads the statements given to the police and medical investigators, that there was collusion on the part of the mother and father to confuse and mislead police with their contradictory and inconsistent accounts."

The hanging apparatus itself appeared too sophisticated for a young girl to have constructed and there was no rust on her hands from the rusted chain, as there should have been had she wrapped it herself.  Four of her friends with whom police spoke said that she was not depressed or suicidal.

Geberth believed that the death was consistent with a homicide staged to look like a suicide.  He thought that the first responders should have been more skeptical and immediately treated both parents as suspects.  He also believed that after the father had confessed to sexual abuse, he could have been pressed to admit to murder.  That no one did this was a mistake.  The mother, too, should have been pressured to take a polygraph. 

While the father was convicted of sodomy and rape, the medical examiner refused to rule the death a suicide.  Instead, the death was ruled "undetermined."  For Geberth, this was a tragic case of missed opportunities and obvious red flags that were not noted in time to do any good.  He consulted with and supported the medical examiner's ruling.  

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