Water-Related Death Investigation: Part 2
Written by Kevin L. Erskine   

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Determining accuracy of information obtained on-scene

Note: This article is Part Two in a three-part series on water-related death investigation.
Part One, “An Introduction to Water-Related Death Investigation”, appeared in the January-February 2011 issue (Volume 9, Number 1) of
Evidence Technology Magazine.

FOLLOWING A CAREFUL on-scene body assessment (see Part 1 of this series), the case investigator must determine if the incident is


an accident, suicide, homicide, or death by natural causes. In most incidents, this determination will rely heavily on the evidence collected, autopsy results, and information the investigator is able to obtain by conducting a thorough investigation.

If there is no trauma to the body, does that mean the manner of death is an accident? Since evidence and an autopsy cannot determine whether a person deliberately jumped into a body of water to commit suicide, fell into the water by accident, or was forced into the water by a homicidal act, any indication of foul play will hinge solely on the statements obtained by witnesses on-scene and/or the complainant. For this reason, it is imperative that the investigator possesses the necessary training and experience to be able to obtain the most accurate information as possible. Statement analysis and non-verbal communication training (i.e. learning to “read” body language) would greatly assist the investigator in this endeavor.

Listen to the witnesses

While conducting interviews of any kind, it is important to remember one simple fact: The human brain always wants to tell the truth. This is based on the individual’s recall as he or she relives the incident in chronological order, the exact way it happened. When a deceptive person wishes to either withhold information to limit his or her involvement, or change facts to conceal his or her guilt, he or she must continuously make a conscious effort to change the story. Once an interviewee becomes more comfortable with the interview and reaches a comfort zone, he or she will let their guard down and begin to deviate from his or her untruthfulness and begin to unknowingly tell the truth. This will cause hesitations in the thought process, which may cause the person to stammer, hesitate, or correct statements previously made.

I recall an evening when I was watching The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He had a prominent actress on his show who was pregnant. In the beginning of his interview, Leno asked her if she knew the sex of her child. She smiled and stated she did know the sex but she and her husband wanted to keep their baby’s sex a secret. She stated that as an actress, her whole life was public knowledge and this one secret was something she and her husband could keep to themselves. It was very obvious to any viewer that the sex of her child was a secret she held dear to her heart. As the interview progressed and she reached her comfort zone, she referred to her unborn baby as “she”, and Leno picked up on this one word. He indicated to her that she had just revealed she was having a baby girl. The actress was noticeably upset with herself for revealing her best-kept secret.

Attention to minute details—such as the word she, in this case—can make or break not only a witness statement, but also quite possibly a whole case. While this interview was innocent in nature, there have been other nationally publicized cases with similar indications of deception.

For example, when Susan Smith appeared on national television pleading for the safe return of her two sons—who had allegedly been kidnapped by a carjacker—she spoke of her sons in the past tense. She stated, “I loved my children,” and “My children need-ed me.” She spoke of them in the past tense because, in her mind, she knew her sons were already dead.

Other key wording in her statements included the phrase “I would like to say to whoever has my children that they please, I mean please bring them home to us where they belong.” She used the words whoever and they. If the last thing you saw was a black male driving away with your children in your car, you would refer to the suspect as him or he, not whoever and they. Because she was making up the story, she cannot relate to it. She does not see one man driving away with her kids because it never happened.

During a Diane Sawyer interview with Scott Peterson (who was later convicted of the 2002 murder of his wife, Laci Peterson) on television, he was asked about his relationship with his wife. He responded by saying “She was amazing. She is amazing.” When asked about his unborn son, due to be born within weeks, he responded, “That was, it’s so hard.” In both responses, he caught himself speaking of both of them in the past tense and corrected himself.

If an investigator detects inconsistencies such as these in an individual’s statement about a specific incident, it is highly recommended to conduct a second interview of that person. The interviewer should respond to the interviewee’s residence unannounced. An effective ruse is to tell the subject you misplaced the original statement and you need them to give another one.

The second interview will serve several purposes. First, it requires a deceptive person to remember the first lie they told you and will often reveal major changes in their version of what happened. Second, it allows the investigator to view the activities and actions within the home of the deceased. Are there indications the family plans to move? Is there evidence the family has already put the death behind them? Have siblings already moved into the bedroom of the deceased? There may be multiple indicators of abnormal behavior that reinforce your initial suspicion that this incident is more than an unfortunate accident.

A helpful technique to use during the interview process is repetitive questioning. This technique has several advantages. First, it allows the investigator to clarify any information that may be confusing, unclear, or in need of elaboration. Second, the interviewee may have forgotten how he or she answered the question the first time, which is often the case with deceptive persons. Perhaps the most beneficial reason for repetitive questioning is that the intentionally deceptive person will begin to think the investigator does not believe the first story they told, so they will begin to deviate from the original story, possibly changing important facts about their involvement. This is their attempt to make the story more believable. The investigator must now question why the person was being deceptive. Is it to limit his or her involvement or to conceal guilt?

Finally, utilize the “Show-Me” technique. This requires interviewees to reenact exactly what they were doing just prior to the incident and

Figure 1—The “Show-Me” technique described above caused the interviewee to reveal his reluctance to go near the edge of the cliff...and therefore changed the area where divers were searching for the missing bodies.

to act out what they did, where they went, and what they said. Do not allow them to just stand there and tell you. Make them physically show you their actions. The advantage to this technique is to allow the subject to relive the incident in his or her own mind, which will stimulate recall. By reliving the incident, the witness will most likely remember or reveal something they did not tell you initially. Also, in some cases, this technique will assist the dive team in locating the body. Audio or video recordings of the reenactment will help the investigator determine discrepancies. Most importantly, this technique will reveal discrepancies in the witness’s story, whether intentional or not.

Here is an example: A man reported two boys missing whom he had observed in a boat on a nearby pond. Upon his initial interview, the man stated he was at the top of a cliff adjacent to the pond birdwatching when he saw two boys in a rowboat. A short time later, he heard a loud scream and ran to the edge of the cliff, only to find the rowboat overturned and no sign of the boys. He immediately called for assistance. During his initial interview, he stated the boat was right at the base of the cliff. A line of sight was drawn from the edge of the cliff and divers were deployed to search for the missing boys. After six hours of searching, nothing was found. A second interview of the birdwatcher was conducted using the “Show-Me” technique. The interviewer had the witness reenact exactly what he had done when he heard the scream. The birdwatcher ran near the edge of the cliff, but not right to the end. He stated he was afraid of heights and did not go out to the far reaches of the cliff. A second line of sight was drawn and divers were deployed in this new location. Within 30 minutes, they located the missing boys on the bottom of the lake (Figure 1).

Sketch the scene

A sketch should be done to document the entire layout of the scene. This will help establish the location of certain items that may

Figure 2—Creating a simple sketch of the scene is an integral part of documentation—not only to show where items of evidence lay, but also to help illustrate and corroborate witness statements. The sketch should include possible noise sources, such as windows, television, stereo, or telephone. It will help illustrate possible lines of sight and also demonstrate potential barriers to sound.

become important factors later in the investigation.

A simple bird’s-eye view sketch is sufficient. This type of sketch is similar in nature to a floor plan for a home-related incident. It should include all relevant items, such as the bathtub, shower, swimming pool, or hot tub, as well as walls and other barriers that appear within those parameters. Possible noise sources, such as a television, stereo, and telephone should also be indicated. For outdoor scenes, draw the area the best you can, including non-moveable objects as reference points. The use of drawings and diagrams are helpful in revealing potential barriers to sound and line of sight (Figure 2).

The reenactment should include any circumstances that were present during the actual incident. Was the television on? Were the house windows open, allowing in exterior noise? Was the stereo playing loud music? Were other children playing or screaming in the house?

Here is another example: A mother may tell you that she was bathing her son in the tub when she heard the telephone ring. She went to answer the phone and then heard a loud splash. When she looked toward the bathroom, she saw her son had fallen face down into the bath water. A floor-plan drawing will indicate if she was able to see her son from where she was standing while on the phone, and the reenactment will indicate if she was able to hear both the phone ring from the bathroom as well as a splash from the area she was talking on the phone.

Do a statement analysis

An investigator may only get one chance to conduct an interview with any potential witnesses of an incident. Witnesses may not be available in the future, could forget important details, or might simply decide not to cooperate in the investigation. Likewise, any potential suspect may provide information, unwittingly implicating himself or herself in the incident.

As mentioned earlier, major cases have been broken using statement-analysis skills. For this reason, it is imperative for the investigator to be able to determine the accuracy of the information that he obtains on-scene, possibly catching a wrong-doer off guard and causing him or her to offer an inadvertent admission of guilt. When conducting interviews at the scene, ask yourself the following questions:

1) Does the evidence conflict with statements given by the complainant, witness, or possible suspect?

2) Are the witness accounts conflicting drastically, or are there major holes in the witness’s story?

3) Is the complainant or the suspect showing any signs of deception or untruthfulness?

4) Are there discrepancies in statements after the “Show-Me” technique is utilized, or are there any inadvertent admissions of guilt?

5) Do witness accounts change drastically during a second interview? Minute details may change or might be added due to recall.

6) Are subtle hints of deception or untruthfulness apparent in a video- or audio-recorded statement, or are there accidental admissions of guilt?

During all interviews conducted during the investigation, the investigator must maintain belief in the possibility that this tragedy was more than just an accident. If—at any given moment—information obtained heightens the investigator’s suspicion, any and all leads must be thoroughly investigated.

For More Information

The book Water-Related Death Investigation: Practical Methods and Forensic Applications by Erica J. Armstrong and Kevin L. Erskine is available from CRC Press at: www.crcpress.com

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it began his career with the Cleveland Lakefront State Park Police in 1986. In 1998, he developed the only State of Ohio dive team, and remains the dive-team coordinator today. In 2000, he co-developed the Children’s Ice Drowning Prevention Workshop that teaches children self-rescue techniques in the event of an ice accident. In 2005, he developed the Master Water-Related Death Investigator curriculum for the Ohio Peace Officer’s Training Academy (OPOTA) and currently teaches four of the required courses. He is an OPOTA-certified Master Criminal Investigator who has earned numerous life-saving awards for rescues of drowning victims in the waters of Lake Erie. He is currently seeking legislation to increase the Ohio Basic Police Academy hours to include a segment on water-related death awareness. He was recognized as a Citizen of the Year by Cleveland Fire Department in 2006 for the rescue of an active drowning victim within his jurisdictional waters. In 2010, he co-authored the reference book, Water-Related Death Investigation: Practical Methods and Forensic Applications (CRC Press).

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