Water-Related Death Investigation: Part 3
Written by Kevin L. Erskine   

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Water-Related Death Investigation:
Red-Flag Indicators of Foul Play

Note: This article is Part Three 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), and Part Two, “Determining Accuracy of Information Obtained On-Scene” appeared in the March-April 2011 issue (Volume 9, Number 2).

A WATER-RELATED DEATH can occur under almost any set of circumstances: Perhaps it is a case of a pair of people swimming together, when one frantically runs up to a lifeguard and claims the other was overcome by a wave and his head submerged below the water surface. Or maybe the scenario involves a boat full of fishermen that returns from the middle of a large lake one man short, and the others claim he fell in trying to untangle his line from the propeller. Or it could be that an elderly woman was sightseeing along a river and accidentally slipped into the water and was overcome by the current.

These are all cases of water-related deaths. But are they all really accidents? Without knowing what to look for on-scene and during the course of the investigation, the truth could be impossible to determine.

This third part in the series on water-related death investigation covers red-flag indicators of foul play. Recognizing just one of these indicators may not be the determining factor in identifying a case of foul play, but it is cause to dig deeper for answers. And the more indicators that are present during an investigation, the stronger the likelihood becomes that something is amiss.

The red-flag indicators vary drastically depending on the type of victim as well as the characteristics of some specific scenes. This article will cover a partial listing of indicators for those specific victim types and scene characteristics.

Bodies in submerged vehicles

If bodies are located in a submerged vehicle, it is critical to document their position within the vehicle as they were found. Any damage to the vehicle must also be meticulously documented before removal from the water. Divers must cover the entire vehicle before water removal and work with surface personnel to document damage. Most often, the vehicle will be damaged during the recovery process, which could complicate the investigation.

Careful documentation may identify inconsistencies that will aid in the investigation. For example, if a person is found to be in the driver’s seat with evidence of a blow to the head, yet there is no damage to the vehicle supporting this injury, this would be a red-flag indicator of foul play.

Upon recovery of the vehicle, virtually everything inside must be documented, including:

  • The position of the vehicle’s gear shift (Figure 1).
  • Any objects present in the vehicle that could have been used to depress the accelerator, such as an axe handle or inflatable toy.
  • Cigarettes, liquor, or beer.
  • Sentimental valuables such as pictures or ornaments.
  • Position of the headlights switch (on or off).
  • Selected settings on the air conditioner or heat.
  • Position of the driver’s seat.
  • Position of the key in the ignition.
  • Marine growth and body damage.
  • Position of the windshield-wiper controls.
  • Documented speed upon impact with the water.

If any of these observations are not consistent with the type of driver, the time of year, or the time of day the vehicle went missing, then they would become red-flag indicators of foul play.

Bucket Drowning

The Consumer Product Safety Com-mission has mandated all 5-gallon buckets to be clearly marked as a potential drowning hazard for small children. Infants and toddlers have been known to pull themselves up onto their feet by holding onto a bucket in an attempt to stand and walk, or to play with the liquid inside. They lose their balance and fall head first into the bucket. The lack of upper-body strength prohibits them from lifting themselves back out of the bucket and they drown.

A reputable laboratory should perform chemical testing of the liquid in the bucket. The water sample must support the story given by the caregiver. For example, if a caregiver claims the bucket contained soapy water to mop the floor, and the water is found to be clean tap water, this is a red-flag indicator of foul play.

Also, it is advisable to research recent media coverage of similar incidents. It is believed that reports of prior drowning incidents serve as “instructional videos” for caretakers of small children, prompting them to attempt the same act or to stage a look-alike accident.

Suicidal Drowning

Many cases of suicidal drowning have been found to contain a “suicidal headstone”. This is a place near the point of water entry where the victim sets their belongings such as clothes, shoes, identification, and sometimes a suicide note. The clothes may be neatly stacked and in plain view. This is done because it is important to the victim to give the surviving family immediate closure. Unlike homicidal acts of drowning, evidence in the case—as well as location of the body—will be apparent.

With that consideration in mind, any apparent attempt to complicate the investigation, hide the belongings, or delay the body recovery would be red-flag indicators. Absence of a suicide note would not be a red flag, since many suicidal individuals do not leave a note.

Pool Drowning

The evidence at the scene must support the statements of the witnesses present. Any contradictions would be red-flag indicators. For example:

  • Is there water on the deck or pool sides? Does the presence or absence of water support any claim of an attempted rescue? In this case, it is important to document the ambient temperature. This would assist the investigator in determining how long the surrounding area would stay wet.
  • Is the clothing of a would-be rescuer dry? This might indicate a delayed call for help.
  • Do the water samples from the pool match the toxicology screening of the victim?
  • Does the presence or absence of swimming accessories (such as toys, towels, or goggles) support the story?
  • Is there any evidence of a clean up, such as wet towels, a mop bucket, or fresh laundry in dryer?
  • Is the bathroom in disarray, in such a way that might indicate the drowning took place in the tub (and the victim was subsequently moved to the pool)?
  • What was the ability of the victim to overcome barriers present—such as a tall fence or locked gate?

The location of the body alone may be a red flag indicator of foul play. In water without a current, a body will not move more than one foot horizontally for every foot of water depth. What does this mean? If the water is 6 feet deep and the body is 10 feet from the side, this would indicate the victim was pushed in or projected by other means rather than accidentally falling into the pool. If the body is no longer present, extensive witness or rescuer interviews must be done to establish body position and location within the water.

Bathtub or Hot-Tub Drowning

Since dunking is still a widely practiced punishment, it would be extremely easy for a dunking incident to inadvertently become a homicide. Here are some items to look for on-scene:

  • Evidence of a clean up, such as a mop bucket or wet towels.
  • Dry floor or clothing of caretaker.
  • Water samples from tub that support claims of a bath (presence of soap, mucus, vomit, urine). Note: If the tub is drained, a water sample can be obtained from the drain trap using a bulb syringe.
  • Water temperature consistent with claims of a bath. Too hot may indicate punishment by scalding; too cold may indicate delayed call for help.
  • Presence or absence of toys, washcloth, or soap to support claim of bathing.
  • A floor-plan sketch may reveal natural sound or sight barriers to discredit claims of distractions while the child was bathing, such as leaving to answer the telephone.
  • Presence of injury to the child’s head, neck, or behind the ears. (Figure 2).
  • Document the water depth. Shallow water may not support the claim of accidental drowning. If the tub is drained, a soap-scum line may be present (Figure 3).

In some cases of hot-tub drowning, look for evidence of a possible erotic drowning incident that includes presence of sex toys, bondage paraphernalia, restraints, condoms, semen, sex-related reading material, video cameras or other recording devices.

Information to look for in a child’s history includes:

  • Extreme fear of water that may indicate history of dunking punishment.
  • Repeated incidents of pneumonia.
  • Unexplained apnea incidents in child’s medical history.
  • Previous reports of child abuse.
  • Other unexplained deaths of siblings.

Moving Water

Here are some basic formulas that can be used to assist in locating the body as well as determining the accuracy of witness statements and other information provided to the investigator on scene:

  • 1 knot equals approximately 100 feet per minute
  • Body drop-time for fresh water equals approximately 2 feet per second
  • Body drop-time for saltwater equals approximately 1.5 feet per second

Any drowning involving moving water requires the investigator to immediately document the speed of the current. This is done by dropping a float in the water and measuring how far it travels in one minute. If the float travels 100 feet in one minute, the current speed is one knot; if the float travels 200 feet in one minute, the current speed is two knots; and so on.

Use this mathematical method to determine the location of a body in moving water:

1) Convert the current speed to a fraction (current speed equals 2 knots in this example, or 200 feet per second): 200 feet ÷ 60 seconds

(200 ÷ 60 = 3.33 feet per second)

2) Locate the last-seen point (the point where the body was submerged) and determine the water depth (20 feet in this example).

3) Calculate the drop-time in seconds (20 feet divided by a 2-foot drop rate in fresh water = 10 seconds).

4) Multiply the drop time by the current speed (3.3 feet per second x 10 seconds = 33 feet).

Once on the bottom, a body will not move until the process of refloat begins.

(Note: The above calculation is the long version. The book Water-Related Death Investigation: Practical Methods and Forensic Applications contains a “Drop Rate Chart” that simplifies this process drastically.)

Now, let’s say a mother claims her son fell off a dock and submerged immediately in a water depth of 20 feet with a current speed of 2 knots. His body should be located around 33 feet from the dock. If the distance is much greater than 33 feet, you know that either her statement of the last seen point is inaccurate or her account of what happened is incorrect.

Other red flags to consider include:

  • Injuries that are not consistent with environmental conditions.
  • Ocular changes of the victim are present, including petechiae, tache noire, and corneal drying (see Part One for explanations of these terms).
  • Maggots on submerged parts of the body.
  • Lividity present (lividity in water deaths is usually absent due to the buoyancy of water).
  • Contact lividity of items not present in the environment.
  • Rigor suggesting sitting position or other body positioning not consistent with environment.
  • Body floating on the same day it went missing (refloat takes days to weeks to cause the body to float).
  • Any evidence inconsistent with statements of the witness, complainant, or caregiver.

Drowning of the elderly

Look for signs of:

  • Handicap that would be perceived as a burden for the caregiver.
  • New or recently increased life-insurance policy.
  • Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Severe or terminal illness.
  • Recent illness, injury, or disability of the caregiver that would indicate the caregiver was not physically capable of providing care to the victim.

When observing the environment, consider the following:

  • Barriers that the victim would be required to overcome, such as fences, densely wooded areas, or shoreline obstructions limiting water access.
  • Adult protective service reports or claims made.
  • History or witness statements of seclusion of the elderly victim from family events or functions.
  • Prior domestic-violence reports.
  • Clothing inconsistent with the weather (for instance, a bathrobe and no shoes in extremely cold weather).


I have included this partial list of “red-flag indicators” to assist the investigator in beginning the journey into the complicated investigation process of a water-related death. I hope this information is useful to any investigator—and I encourage anyone charged with investigating water-related deaths to seek further training and experience in this endeavor.

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.

About the Author

Officer Kevin Erskine began his career with the Cleveland Lakefront State Park Police in 1986. 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 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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