Investigating Bodies in Submerged Vehicles
Written by Kevin L. Erskine & Erica J. Armstrong   

SUBMERGED VEHICLES can be present in any jurisdiction possessing waterways for a multitude of reasons. On occasion, vehicles are submerged to conceal the vehicle itself or the evidence inside. Suicidal individuals drive vehicles into lakes and rivers as a means to end their lives. In this instance, the vehicle upon recovery may have the driver contained inside (Figure 1).

This article appeared in the March-April 2021 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that full issue here.

AN EXCERPT FROM
Water-Related Death Investigation: Practical Methods and Forensic Applications

An occasional homicide may be concealed as an accident by submerging a vehicle in a waterway with the victim inside the vehicle. This was true in the highly publicized Susan Smith case in Union, South Carolina. On October 25, 1994, in an effort to murder her two young sons, Susan Smith placed them in their car seats and rolled her car into John D. Long Lake, drowning both of them. She would claim to police that a black man had stolen her car at gunpoint with her sons still inside, but she was later charged with their murder after confessing to the act. During testimony at her trial, a recovery diver would explain the limited underwater visibility of about 12 inches at a depth of 18 feet where her car was located. The diver explained how he pressed a light up against the window and could see a small hand against the glass. The car was standing with its grill in the mud, and the boys were hanging heads downward still strapped into their car seats.1


Figure 1. Driver found inside recovered submerged vehicle after 21 years of submersion.

For these reasons, it is imperative that the recovering agency process the vehicle for evidence. Upon locating a submerged vehicle, the position of the vehicle underwater should be documented. If possible, have divers determine the position and location of any occupants prior to recovery. During victim removal, care should be taken not to disturb any possible evidence. Once victims are removed, a cursory search inside the vehicle should be made, if safety permits, to locate and seize any possible evidence. In some jurisdictions, it is possible to recover the vehicle with the occupants inside and transport the vehicle to the coroner or medical examiner’s office for processing (Figure 2). It is highly advisable to have divers close any doors or windows to minimize the loss of any possible evidence. Also prior to recovery, have divers document any exterior damage to the vehicle since it is likely the vehicle will be damaged during the recovery process. Damage will be an important factor in determining the cause of any impact-related injuries found on the occupants.


Figure 2. Processing recovered vehicle at the coroner's office with the body still inside.

After the vehicle is safely on land, extensive notes should document the following:

• What gear the transmission is in (Figure 3).

• Radio on or off? What station is it tuned to? Newer vehicles have buttons/toggles instead of on/off knobs, and they have digital/LCD displays, and if the accident rendered the car nonoperational, one may not be able to hear the radio or see a display. In this instance, it would be necessary to obtain information from the powertrain control module (PCM).

• Anything present that could have been used to depress the accelerator, such as an axe handle or inflatable toy.

• Any cigarettes, liquor, or beer.

• Emotional valuables, such as photos, ornaments, etc.

• Headlights on or off? Is this consistent with time missing?

• Windows up or down?

• Heat or air conditioning on or off, and is this consistent with season missing?

• Position of driver’s seat and mirrors? Seat position can be documented by measuring from accelerator to front edge of the seat.

• Ignition on or off? Keys in ignition?

• Marine growth and body damage (Figure 4).

• Wipers on or off? Consistent with the weather when missing? The position of the blades? (If in the up position, this would suggest they were on at the time of submersion.)

• Document speed on impact with the water, if possible.


Figure 3. Photo documentation of what gear the vehicle was in.


Figure 4. Photo documentation of exterior damage and marine growth.

For newer-model vehicles (starting with the year 2000), the powertrain control module (PCM), which is often referred to as the “black box,” can be retrieved and analyzed by a certified technician to determine many factors, including whether lights and accessories were in operation and speed on impact. For assistance, contact Vertronics at 1-800-321-4889. For older vehicles, the impact speed may be determined by one of two ways. First, the impact may have bent the needle, freezing it at that speed. Second, the impact may have caused the speedometer needle to dent the soft metal backing at the speed of impact (Figure 5). All these observations can be used to assist the investigator in determining if foul play is involved, who was driving, time of day or time of year the vehicle was submerged, and length of submersion. It is imperative that the investigator maintain close contact with the dive team on the scene to ensure that all these observations are documented before and after recovery.


Figure 5. Documentation of speedometer needle indicating the speed of vehicle upon impact with the water.

In the fall of 1992, the Michigan State Police conducted a study called the Submerged Transportation Accident Research Project, or simply Project STAR. The study was conducted to determine various characteristics of submerged vehicles, including the length of float time to allow for a means of escape, length of time the power will remain functional, and damage sustained upon impact with the water, and to discount the belief that a pocket of trapped air remains in the rear of the vehicle, allowing occupants to plan for their escape. During the study, vehicles of various makes and models were driven off a floating dock to observe float characteristics. The results were surprising. The study revealed that ample time was available with all passenger vehicles to allow the driver to unfasten his or her safety belt, roll down the window, and escape the vehicle in less than ten seconds. Also, the power remained functional for over ten minutes, but there is no trapped air pocket anywhere inside the vehicle. If the vehicle entered water deeper than the length of the car, the car would flip over on its roof, but if it was submerged in water shallower than its length, it would land under water on its wheels. This study will aid investigators in understanding submerged vehicle dynamics to determine if the damage sustained to a submerged vehicle can be the cause of injuries found on its occupants.

A few years later, a second part of the STAR Project was conducted, which tested float characteristics of school buses. This study was prompted due to a fatal accident in Alton, Texas. At 7:30 a.m. on September 21, 1989, a truck hit a school bus and knocked it into a gravel pit filled with water. Twenty-one children drowned and six were injured. This was the worst school bus accident in Texas history.2 The study concluded that the average school bus sank in less than 20 seconds, largely due to the implosion of the front windshield upon impact with the water. This implosion of the windshield most likely killed the driver or rendered him or her unconscious, preventing the only adult on the bus from assisting the children in their escape. Also, the quick influx of water and floating seat cushions blocked any chance for escape. The smaller 25 passenger buses sank in just 9 seconds. This was due largely to the failure of the engine cowling covering the engine, allowing water to rush in at an alarming rate.

CASE STUDY

In Amsterdam, Holland, in 1971, a 27-year-old male was in a vehicle that entered the water off a small bridge at approximately 25 miles per hour. Impact with the steering wheel caused several broken ribs and minor internal damage. His right leg was broken just below the knee by striking the dashboard. He sustained blunt force trauma to the back of his head. At first, the investigating agency believed this case to be an auto accident resulting in his death by drowning, but there was no damage to the roof of the vehicle or any heavy objects inside that could have caused the head injury. This case was ruled a homicide at the conclusion of the investigation.3


About the Authors
Erica J. Armstrong, MD is a forensic pathologist and deputy medical examiner at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office (CCMEO) in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a graduate of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. She completed her training in anatomic and clinical Pathology at the University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center-Institute of Pathology. She completed her training in forensic pathology at CCMEO from 2000-2002 under the mentorship of former Cuyahoga County Coroner Dr. Elizabeth K. Balraj and the late Deputy Chief Coroner Dr. Robert C. Challener. She is Director of Medical Education at CCMEO and utilizes the position to provide a comprehensive educational experience to visiting medical students, medical residents, allied health students, and other students and professionals with a connection to medicolegal death investigation. She holds academic appointments to medical and osteopathic schools. She is author and co-author of several journal articles on the topics of forensic pathology, forensic toxicology, anatomic and clinical pathology and the biological sciences. She has authored a textbook on the topic of death reporting and death certification and maintains an educational blogsite on this subject matter.

Kevin Erskine graduated from Hocking College in 1982 with an associate’s degree in natural resources law enforcement. He also obtained mountain rescue, search and rescue, and EMT certifications. He began his career with the Ohio State Park Police in 1986 and developed the only State of Ohio dive team in 1998. In 2000, he codeveloped the Children’s Ice Drowning Prevention Workshop, which teaches children self-rescue techniques in the event of an ice accident. He designed a multiagency training scenario for an airplane crash in Lake Erie. Within months of the training scenario, an actual plane crash occurred within a quarter mile of the training site. In 2005, he developed the Master Water Death Investigator curriculum for the Ohio Peace Officer’s Training Academy (OPOTA). 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 "Citizen of the Year" by the Cleveland Fire Department in 2006 for the rescue of an active drowning victim within his jurisdictional waters. He has attended police diver symposiums in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; West Point; and Indianapolis. In 2011, he retired after 25 years of service to the State of Ohio. He currently serves as the training coordinator for Hope Christian Church First Responder Team in Avon, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and two sons.


References

1. http://crime.about.com/od/murder/a/susansmith3.htm. (accessed January 25, 2010).

2. Donohue, W. A. 1993. Michigan State Police, operation star: Submerged transportation accident research. Searchlines 10(1), January/February.

3. Hendrick, W., and Zafares, A. 1998. Homicide by drowning manual. Hurley, NY: Lifeguard Systems.

 
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