Hidden in Water

On Christmas Eve 2002, Laci Peterson, eight months pregnant, disappeared from her home in Modesto, Calif. Her purse, keys, and phone were left in her house. Laci’s husband, Scott, reported her missing, saying he’d been out fishing that day. He gave several media interviews, apparently grieving, but then a woman surfaced who claimed to have been his mistress. She said he’d told her that he’d recently lost his wife, but that had in fact been two weeks before Laci disappeared. Sympathy turned to skepticism and suspicion.

Laci Peterson (victim)

On April 13 and 14, 2003, the partial remains of a fetus and a woman surfaced off Point Isabella Regional Park on the San Francisco Bay in Richmond, Calif. Investigators made a careful recovery of the remains, but scavenging by marine life made it difficult to determine a cause of death. This area of the recovery was about two miles from the area at which Peterson had said he had been fishing, which was incriminating. DNA tests confirmed that the remains were those of Laci and the unborn child, whom Laci had planned to name Conner. Underwater divers scoured the area, where water current studies indicated that the bodies were likely dumped.

Peterson disappeared, but April 18, near the border of Mexico, he was arrested with recently dyed hair and in possession of $15,000 in cash and his brother’s ID. He was soon charged with two counts of murder. While examinations of the remains, which had been underwater for nearly four months, could not determine a clear cause or time of death, Peterson was nevertheless convicted of double homicide and sentenced to death.

Scott Peterson

Forensic handling of submerged bodies calls for special teams who not only have specific diving skills but knowledge of how to carefully collect evidence under water, handle a water-logged body, and preserve a crime scene. While many people think that water washes away all evidence, and oftentimes evidence does in fact deteriorate, water can sometimes have a preservative effect. In recent years, researchers have improved methods of collecting fingerprints from submerged items. There still remains little that can be done about damage to long-submerged corpses, but trauma can be examined on bones and differentiated from chewing or bite marks.

In fact, underwater forensics covers more cases than just murder victims, weapons and other evidence thrown into rivers, ponds, lakes, or oceans. Many drownings in bathtubs also require knowledge of water, physiology and physics to resolve. Too many have been viewed as accidents which careful investigators feel may have been overlooked homicidal drownings. Among the early cases of underwater forensics, before it was yet a distinct discipline, were the notorious “brides in the bath” murders. It took a shrewd mind to figure it out, and that only after a victim’s relative insisted on an investigation.

How Did He Do It?

In 1914, Margaret Lloyd died in her bath in Highgate, England. A relative of the victim of a similar drowning also previously married to Lloyd’s widower, George Joseph Smith, spotted Lloyd’s obituary and brought the matter to the police. An investigation uncovered Smith’s criminal record, revealing that he had not only married Margaret Lloyd under an assumed name but had actually married three times, and each of his wives in turn had drowned in her bath. Despite the vanishingly small possibility that this had been coincidence, it seemed unlikely that someone could have assaulted the women in their bathtubs without a fierce struggle. Yet there had been no mark of violence on any of the bodies.

Smith was arrested, and a rising young pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, supervised the exhumations of Smith’s two previous wives for autopsy. Studying the first woman’s remains, Spilsbury decided that “gooseflesh” on her skin indicated she had died suddenly, and her organs showed no defect or disease that might have killed her. Smith’s attorney claimed she had experienced an epileptic fit, but Spilsbury was determined to prove something more nefarious had occurred.

He dismissed the possibility that the five-foot-seven woman could have suffered a fit in a five-foot-long tub that would have placed her head under water, but he wanted to demonstrate how she might have died by homicide without a sign of struggle. With Detective Inspector Arthur Neil Young, he devised an experiment to explore the possibilities.

Several women agreed to don bathing outfits, sit in a bathtub similar to the one in Smith’s home, and allow Young to try to drown them. After repeated failures, the feat seemed impossible without an incredible struggle. But then the detective deduced the answer: Smith had killed them by suddenly raising their knees into the air, which pulled their heads down and rendered them helpless to the rush of water. In fact, as the procedure was performed in front of a jury, the female participant went unconscious at once and had to be revived. It was a convincing show, which paid off. Since Smith had benefited financially from all three deaths, his motive was clear. Within twenty minutes, the “Brides in the Bath Killer” was convicted. In 1915 he was hanged for it.

Since that time, investigations about deaths in water have come a long way.