Underwater Crime Investigation

Aric Dutelle writes that the first documented dive teams trained specifically for forensic work were those of the Miami-Dade County Underwater Recovery Unit, established in 1960. Being on the ocean, this jurisdiction unsurprisingly dealt frequently with crime evidence tossed into the water. Dutelle notes that members of such teams must not only be skilled in diving but they’re usually the ones who must photograph (if possible), document, fingerprint and recover evidence. A lot rides on their ability to perform a number of forensic functions competently underwater.

Dive teams should include divers trained in forensic recovery as well as line tenders familiar with the underwater environment who can establish solid communication via the diver’s tether. It’s important that team members trust each other, as underwater work, especially in “black water” where it’s difficult to see, can be treacherous. If evidence such as a body is found, divers must map, diagram, and document its location and position. If possible, photos should be taken of remains in situ as soon as conditions permit.

A potential crime scene will include a “surface” and a “submerged” area. At the surface, investigators should look for the point of entry into the water, searching for potential evidence clothing, footprints, or indications of a struggle. Only properly trained divers should investigate the submerged area. They might use sonar to locate both hazards and objects important to the investigation or they may simply feel their way through weeds and muck. In either event, the search should be conducted in an organized and systematic manner. For anything found, the divers can float markers on the surface. The divers should know the proper protocol for underwater photography in different conditions.

Andrea Zaferes and Walt Hendrick teach public safety diving and rescue via their organization, Team Lifeguard Systems, and consult on underwater death investigations as a public service. Hendrick has been teaching since 1960, when he started an offshore rescue team in Puerto Rico. He founded Lifeguard Systems to further his efforts in bringing the proper techniques to people in public and military service. Andrea Zaferes joined his team in 1987 and is now vice president, and a trainer and program creator.

Zaferes taught diving with Dr. Lee Somers and Karl Huggins at the University of Michigan’s Scientific Diving Program, serving as a diving safety officer for the American Museum of Natural History’s Animal Behavior Research Department. She teaches around a thousand surface rescue and dive personnel annually, and has co-authored with Hendrick such publications as Surface Ice Rescue, Scuba Instructor Readiness Series, Field Neurological Evaluations, Public Safety Dive Operations, Blackwater Contingency, and Homicidal Drowning Investigator.

RipTide is part of Team Lifeguard Systems, offering assistance in the recovery of drowning victims and advising on the investigation of underwater homicides. RipTide also works to prevent drownings with education, as well as to document cases in which the cause of death was lack of preparation, improper procedure, suicide, accident, or homicide. RipTide then disseminates that information to investigative agencies to help improve procedures and avoid overlooking crucial evidence.

Having worked in over fifteen countries, Hendrick and Zaferes offer programs for everything from deaths in bathtubs to rescue under ice. Early in his career Hendrick was called into several supposed drownings that he believed to be homicides, so he helped develop techniques to ensure a proper investigation. On the TeamLGS Website, he notes that drowning is the eighth most common method of homicide, but he believes that were more drownings investigated for potential foul play, it would rank even higher. In the case child drownings, which are usually ruled accidental, he surmised that as many as 20% could be homicides.

This team also researches homicide victims dumped into water postmortem, such as Laci Peterson, and they’ve written guidelines for divers to manage such crime scenes with the least possible disturbance. They advocate procedures that mirror those for land-based incidents, emphasizing the importance of the many things too often overlooked during water recovery, such as questioning witnesses or taking proper measurements. Water is a tricky medium, but securing a conviction for a homicide demands appropriate evidence handling. Much can be missed if investigators fail to think through all the angles, and this is especially relevant for underwater crime scenes.