Expert Q&A: Laura Pettler, PhD

Laura Pettler, PhD, CSCSA (Certified Senior Crime Scene Analyst) is the owner of Carolina Forensics, vice president of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases, and was co-founder/director of North Carolina Prosecutorial District 20-A’s 2006-2010 Crime Scene Reconstruction and Behavioral Analysis Program, its Cold Case Task Force, and its 2009 International Forensic Institute. Pettler is a scholar-practitioner focusing on cold case homicide, crime scene staging, intimate partner homicide, and crime reconstruction. Pettler is a South Carolina Deputy Coroner in Lancaster County retained by-the-case, serves as chair of the International Association for Identification’s Bloodstain Pattern Analysis Subcommittee, and is also a member of Florida Division of the International Association for Identification’s Forensic Medicine Committee.

Evidence Technology Magazine recently asked Pettler a few questions about crime scene staging, the focus of her forthcoming book, Crime Scene Staging Dynamics in Homicide Cases.

To read an excerpt from the book, go to this issue’s Digital Edition.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: What sparked your interest in this topic?

DR. LAURA PETTLER: While working as the Director of the Crime Scene Reconstruction and Behavioral Analysis program under Retired District Attorney Michael Parker in a North Carolina DA’s office, I began noticing themes and trends among domestic violence homicide offenders I thought were interesting. I began looking for empirical research in professional journals and found that very little had been published. I was working toward earning a doctorate degree at the time, so for my dissertation, I conducted a study entitled, “Crime Scene Behaviors of Crime Scene Stagers.” The study was successful in that it revealed numerous crime scene related behaviors of stagers, many of which appeared to be a function of the victim-offender relationship and conflict, but the study did not directly address those variables specifically. The study failed in a way, because it revealed that categorizing stagers into typologies is (a) not empirically supported, (b) overreaching at this point in the research, and (c) not helpful in practical field application pursuant to serious criminal investigations because they can accidentally paint investigators into a corner.

ETM: Tell us more about the Crime Scene Staging Awareness Initiative.

PETTLER: The Crime Scene Staging Awareness Initiative is a societal outreach to heighten awareness of crime scene staging and is aimed at remembering victims of homicide along with missing persons so their families know that people care and that victims have not been forgotten. By helping to make people more aware of what staging is, witnesses to incidents related to cold case homicide and missing person investigations might realize that what they saw before, during, or after the death of a victim was actually a staging behavior that, when reported, could help develop new leads, and that could help solve cases.

ETM: What are some examples of crime scene staging?

PETTLER: Simply speaking, some of the more common crime scene staging behaviors discovered in the empirical research are moving the body, moving the weapon or even sometimes placing the weapon in the victim’s hand, cleaning up the crime scene, hiding the weapon, destroying evidence, and then lying or verbally staging the scene by fabricating how the event happened in relation to how the offender staged the physical evidence. All of the latter are much more thoroughly understood upon completion of victimology, wound pattern analysis, suspectology, and statement analysis.

ETM: What do law enforcement professionals need to know about the connection between cold cases and crime scene staging?

PETTLER: I’ve studied homicide for nearly 20 years now. Early in my career I used to work all kinds of murder cases. In addition to formal study, the diversity taught me a lot about general homicide, victims, offenders, preceding conflict, victim-offender relationship, as well as physical and behavioral evidence. At this point in my career, I specialize in working cold cases and primarily intimicides or intimate partner homicides, both hot and cold, where the element of staging is in question. The United States is estimated to have more than 185,000 unsolved cases of homicide and non-negligent manslaughter from 1980 to 2008, according to a study published by Scripps Howard News Service. Although the study revealed the majority of the victims were young males, the study also implied that many of the female victims were murdered by someone they knew. As the vice president of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases and as a specialist in crime scene staging, the connection between staging and cold cases is multifaceted. The more investigators learn about crime scene staging behaviors, victimology, and crime scene reconstruction, the more they can apply to analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating both the physical and behavioral evidence before, during, and after the murder of the victim. This allows them to not only solve a cold case using physical evidence, but by strengthening circumstantial evidence as well.

ETM: What are some typical signs that a scene has been staged?

PETTLER: In many cases, murder is conflict resolution for the offender. Therefore, the very first question I recommend asking when arriving on a scene is “Who is in conflict with this victim?” Sometimes we know who is in conflict with the victim right there on the scene, but many times we do not. The second question I always ask is, “Who discovered the victim?” or “Who reported the victim missing?” Research has revealed stagers most often report finding the victim or report the victim missing. Third, many crime scene stagers have been found to verbally stage in relation to the physical evidence they staged in the scene. While successful prosecution begins at the crime scene, the 911 call is critically important in relation to the crime scene processing because stagers commit to what they are going to go with in the 911 call. It serves as one of the baselines of sorts to begin the compare/contrast aspect of the death investigation, and to work toward determining if the death investigation moves one direction or the other.

ETM: Can examination of the victim help identify a case of staging?

PETTLER: Sometimes victim injuries are not observable in the scene. Therefore, best practice is to always send a body for autopsy if the death is unexpected or if the victim died due to an injury such as a gunshot wound. Better safe than sorry, because sometimes staging is not detected until after the fact. I’ve seen deaths ruled suicides where no autopsies were performed and then new information reveals the victim might have been murdered. It is more challenging and expensive to go backwards; sending them to autopsy is best at the time of recovery. The importance of conducting full victimology cannot be overstated. Coupled with the medical findings at autopsy, the more one knows about the victim, the more one knows about the crime scene, who might have killed the victim, and why.

ETM: Is scene staging common, or becoming more frequent?

PETTLER: Though few studies have identified upward trends, the few that have studied that variable have found that staging has increased over time. One of the broad research questions we have about these apparent trends is, “Are more scenes staged, or have staging behaviors in past decades been chalked up as suicides, accidents, or missing persons when they were actually murder?” In my opinion, the Scripps Howard News Service number of 185,000 cold case homicides in this country is a very low estimate.

ETM: Provide an example of the most elaborate staging you have encountered.

PETTLER: In my new book, I discuss monothematic staging and polythematic staging. Monothematic staging is unidirectional, meaning the stager only stages one aspect of the scene—such as only moving the weapon, only moving the body, or only cleaning up the scene. In contrast, polythematic staging is when a stager exhibits a multitude of staging behaviors to elaborately stage the scene—such as cleaning up the crime scene, moving the body, moving the weapon, destroying evidence, concealing evidence then lying about all of it. One of the most elaborate staging cases I have encountered was the case of a female body found partially submerged in a creek. The autopsy revealed the victim died due to blunt force trauma to the head. The case went cold for a short period, and then a suspect was identified. A search warrant revealed interesting staging behaviors related to cleaning, verbal staging, destroying evidence, and other thematic patterns consistent with concealing the death of the victim at the search-warrant location and claiming to investigators that after the victim and suspect had an argument, the victim just “walked off”, and the suspect never saw the victim again.

For More Information

To learn more about crime scene staging, visit:

An excerpt of Dr. Pettler’s book can be found here.

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