Over the Edge...
Written by Bob Galvin   

JUST ONE PUSH… One might assume that it is unusual for a person to push a spouse, partner, or child off a precipice—but this particular crime occurs fairly regularly. As one example, Stephen Scharf was sentenced to life in prison in October 2011 for pushing his wife off a cliff in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. In another case, Cameron Brown was charged with murder in November 2000 when prosecutors said he hurled his four-year-old daughter off a 120-foot cliff in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. In still another instance, Brandon Jason Manai was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in February 2010 for throwing his wife from yet another cliff in Rancho Palos Verdes.

In cases like these where a victim dies as the result of a fall, examining the final resting point of the body can determine if the fall was accidental or a premeditated, criminal act.

Gathering evidence in this type of case can be complicated by the fact that each crime scene has two different locations: the top of the cliff (from where the victim fell)... and somewhere near the base of the cliff (where the victim landed). Consequently, a different approach is usually required to reconstruct this type of crime scene.

That was the case when Michigan State Police Sergeant John Bruno investigated a crime scene at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior in the area of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This locale, with its multi-colored cliffs rising 140 feet above Lake Superior (see above photo), is a virtual tourist magnet because of its breathtaking panoramic views.

According to Bruno, a vacationing couple visited the cliff in June 2006. Shortly after their arrival, when they were alone, the husband pushed his wife off the cliff to her death.

Simulating the Fall

Bruno recalls mapping the scene in 2007, at which time all evidence was gone. Aiding his reconstruction was a Sokkia SETR 530R3 reflectorless total station, MapScenes Evidence Recorder software with a MicroSurvey Tracker data collector, and MapScenes Forensic CAD software.

“This wasn’t a typical crime-scene mapping,” said Bruno. “It takes some thought to plan it out because you’re dealing with the face of a cliff and the top portion of the cliff, and you can’t see one from the other.”

Also, unlike various evidence that is sought by a reconstructionist at a typical crash scene, the evidence at the Pictured Rocks scene was gone. But the crime’s location (the cliff) and the size of the area where the husband and wife were seated and standing could still be observed.

“People don’t know the size and enormity of the cliff’s edges,” Bruno said. “So we wanted to depict this as best we could.”

The challenge with mapping the cliff to demonstrate the woman’s fall was that the cliff does not drop straight down. Instead, it has a vertical drop of approximately 70 feet, and then it slopes outward toward the water. Therefore, the reflectorless total station was crucial for recording measurements at both the top of the cliff and for the drop and overall contour of the cliff’s profile, Bruno explained. Sighting through the total station’s scope, the sergeant took data measurements horizontally across the cliff’s edge and then vertically straight up the cliff’s edge.

“I took a profile view of the cliff itself, and that’s what we used for court presentation,” Bruno said. “We marked where we could see that the woman fell and where she struck (on the cliff’s sloped portion) and how far she tumbled down the slope.”

Mapping the scene in reflectorless mode was essential. “It couldn’t have been done without this mode,” Bruno said. “That was the biggest advantage, along with the accuracy, quickness, and portability of the total station.”

In addition to this extensive mapping, the investigative team also used a crash dummy, similar in weight to the victim, to simulate the fall. In one test, they dropped the dummy to simulate an accidental fall; in the second test, they pushed the dummy. They could then record where the dummy struck the ground after falling vertically, and then measure how far it rolled down the cliff’s sloped section.

“We also tried to push the dummy as best we could to then see where it would strike the slope and tumble down to the water’s edge,” Bruno said.

The diagram that Bruno created showed the difference between these two dummy tests. “The actual victim’s final rest was down closer to the water. We were not able to get the dummy that we pushed to go as far down the cliff as the real victim was found,” Bruno explained. This is due in part to the moisture content of rock comprising the cliff’s edge. If there is substantial moisture, the rock’s consistency can be somewhat soft and loose. If dry, the consistency can be much harder. “So, when the victim fell, the rock at that point could have been a harder surface, allowing her to tumble farther down,” Bruno said. “Also, for safety reasons, we were not able to push the dummy as hard as the actual victim may have been pushed.”

Presentation in Court

The sergeant mapped the top of the cliff as well as its profile. The top of the cliff face is concave. “It goes in and then comes back out before it gets up to the top of the ledge,” said Bruno. He also set up the total station at the base of the cliff so he could map the cliff’s vertical face.

“We had mapped the upper portion of the cliff and the face of it in one scene,” Bruno recalled. Next, using the MapScenes Forensic CAD drawing program, he created a 2D diagram showing a profile of the cliff. The drawing software can easily depict any vertical cross-section or profile to help prove or disprove line-of-sight issues, or to show comparative grades and super elevations. “Basically, if we were to take that cliff, cut it in half and move it away and look at it from the side,” explained Bruno, “you can see the top and the profile of that concave portion of the cliff and the vertical fall distance and our slope.”

When using the crash dummies, Bruno and his investigative team could see where the dummies struck the ground in separate tests. “I was able to map these falls, and this allowed us to get a vertical fall distance,” Bruno said. “I could measure this fall distance once I got it into the Forensic CAD software. We could then make a determination of what the impact speed of this person would be when they fell, striking the ground.” Bruno estimated the impact speed to be 45 miles per hour.

Although 3D views of the cliff were diagrammed using 3D Studio Max software, only the 2D diagrams showing the cliff’s profile were used for court presentation. This representation was critical since a photograph is two-dimensional and objects in it look flat.

“Looking at the cliff from the water or from the top-down, it appears as a flat cliff—when, in fact, it is very concaved and sloped, as depicted in the profile drawing,” Bruno emphasized.

“The drawing we used in court was two-dimensional, but it gave a profile view showing the contour of the side of the cliff. And this view, along with the speed calculations of the victim’s fall and where she landed, was invaluable in proving this was a homicide case.”

About the Author

Bob Galvin is a freelance writer who covers topics related to law enforcement and the technology of crime scene and crash scene reconstruction. His office is located in Oregon City, Oregon.

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