Before I introduce my guest I wanted to let you know about an amazing opportunity to get all your crime questions answered by experts in their field. I gathered five of my favorite crime fighters—Adam from Writers Detective, Garry Rodgers from DyingWords, Kim McGath, the sharp detective who answered the long-awaited question: Who is the Zodiac Killer? (find out more about Kim at her website), Jennifer Chase, many of you might know her award-winning Emily Stone series, and Joe Broadmeadow, my guest today (more on him in a minute)—and formed #ACrimeChat on Twitter.
These chats take place every Wed. from 3-4 p.m. EDT. You can send in your questions at any time by tweeting to me @SueColetta1 with the hashtag #ACrimeChat. They’ll be saved under the hashtag until our next chat, and you’ll be notified of the answers, as well as receiving a recap of the entire chat. Here’s how it works: I take the questions in the order they are received and RT, marking each question with Q1 (Question #1), Q2, Q3, etc. The experts answer with the corresponding A1 (Answer #1), A2, A3, etc., so those watching can follow along. We launched two weeks ago with Crime Scenes (<- the link will take you to the recap). Last week, we covered Evidence. And this week, the topic is Forensics. At the conclusion of each chat I announce the following week’s topic. You can also find the topics under the hashtag in case you’re not with us live.
These chats are a lot of fun and very informative. Because all of the experts are writers and/or crime writing consultants, if the answer to your question isn’t what you hoped, often times we can help you create a logical, realistic way around it so your story still rings true. I hope you’ll join us by going to #ACrimeChat. Incidentally, I’ve linked each member’s name with their Twitter handle so you can follow them, if you wish. I’ve also included their websites.
Now, without further ado, please welcome Captain (Ret.) Joe Broadmeadow.
In Writing Realistic Crime Stories, It’s all about the Little Things
One mistake many writers make in attempting to create an interesting scenario is they try too hard. In the real world of homicide investigations, or any serious crime for that matter, it’s the little things that create the biggest problem.
Here are two examples of actual cases where investigators faced a crime scene which told them one story and, after wasting precious time looking in the wrong direction, turned out to be something entirely different.
These are actual cases with identifying information removed to protect privacy. By understanding real-life scenarios, the writer finds unlimited possibilities.
Okay, first case.
“911, what is the nature of your emergency?”
“Help, someone shot my wife, oh my god, help. She’s bleeding, there’s blood everywhere.”
“Hold on, sir. I have help on the way…”
Thus began a series of events which would bring a veteran police officer to his knees, his own department accusing him of murdering his wife while his newborn child lay sleeping nearby.
Rescue personnel arrived first. The two paramedics were experienced and well-versed in dealing with victims and their families. They began to work on the victim, a 32-year old female, noting a gunshot wound to the head. Within a short timeframe, it became apparent the victim was deceased.
Several issues complicated the scene.
The body had been moved, forcing investigators to recreate the original position to determine trajectory.
The husband, a police officer, discovered the body after returning home from the overnight shift. He worked as a dispatcher that night and had left work at 8:00 am. When he found his wife he tried to revive her. Because he had come in contact with her, his hands were stained with blood. He told investigators he left his service weapon at home since he knew he would not be on the road that night.
On the floor next to the victim laid his department service weapon. It had been fired only once. Later examination found the husband’s prints on the barrel as well as all six cartridges, including the expended bullet. The investigator’s recovered a single round lodged in the ceiling of the bedroom. Based on the position of the body, the round would have been fired from the side, below the level of the bed, as if someone had crawled along the floor and then pressed the weapon to her temple and fired.
Stippling and powder burns surrounded the wound, indicating close contact.
At the time, the couple was in the midst of a reconciliation. Their first-born child, age two months, was still asleep in the same room where his mother died.
Based on the physical evidence and known circumstances it appeared to investigators that this was a homicide staged to look like a suicide.
All they needed was a statement from the husband, who insisted his wife had been depressed and had shot herself. But once they began the interrogation, he asked to speak to a lawyer.
Investigators went back to the scene to search for something more definitive.
One aspect of any investigation is to have early arrivers re-enact their actions. Investigators had the rescue team return to the scene along with the first responding officer. As the rescue personnel took their positions around the bed, the husband told investigators he had gone to the far side of the bed in order to assist as best he could. When he did, he moved a small changing table, pushing it further away from the bed.
This was not in his original statement.
When CSI detectives put the table back into its original position, they noticed a clear dent on the edge of the table that appeared to be a ricochet mark from the round. Once the scene had been put back into the untouched condition, it changed the entire situation.
Investigators re-examined the trajectory, and it matched perfectly with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the temple.
Mary Jones repeatedly called her 17-year old daughter who was home sick from school. All she got was a busy signal. Concerned that something was wrong, she called a neighbor to go check.
The neighbor, an off-duty firefighter, went to the house. He knocked on the door and got no response. Sensing something was wrong, he sent his wife home to call the police.
The door was unlocked.
When he entered the residence he glanced down the hallway. Someone’s legs protruded from one of the bedrooms. Running quickly to the body, he then checked for a pulse and breathing .
Within seconds, Officers arrived on scene. The local firemen weren’t far behind. Unfortunately, it was no use. The woman had already succumbed to her injuries.
They secured the crime scene.
The firefighter who discovered the body was brought to the station for a statement. Investigators’ first impression of the crime scene showed no indication of forced entry. There was apparent sexual assault and the victim had been manually strangled.
Everything indicated the victim knew the perpetrator and let him in the house.
Under these circumstances, suspicion falls immediately on family and friends. Officers notified the father and asked him to come to the station. One of the most difficult tasks an officer faces is telling a parent their child is dead.
This is compounded when the parent is also considered a suspect. The reaction to the news can be telling and useful to the investigation.
In this case, the father showed genuine emotional responses to the news. Investigators were able to learn that the victim had stayed out of school, did not have a steady boyfriend, and there was no concern on the parent’s part that she would have someone over to the house without their knowledge.
The circumstances still lent itself to a person known to the victim.
Investigators again returned to the scene to continue their search.
A uniform sergeant, who’d been at the scene within minutes of the call, told investigators he had picked up a small table next to the door and placed the telephone back on the table. When he first arrived the phone was lying on the floor. Which explained the busy signal when the mother tried to call. Before this, he had not spoken to investigators.
Once investigators learned this new information, it changed how they viewed the crime scene.
By talking to the parents, they learned the table was normally located next to the door. From the position described by the sergeant and with the table moved back into its original position, it became apparent that someone had forced themselves through the open door, knocking the table over.
Once again, a tiny detail changed by someone who should have known better sent investigators down the wrong path.
In this case, armed with a new theory, investigators were able to locate a subject on prison work release, attending a training program in the area.
How The Murder Really Happened
The subject was attempting to break into the house. Knocking at the door, he was startled when the girl opened it. Panicked that he was not supposed to be away from his assigned training location, he forced his way inside, knocking the table over and the phone off the hook. At trial, the jury convicted him, the judge sentencing him to life.
When creating scenarios for your characters, the force combining to create tension and drama do not have to be complex or labyrinthine, often it’s the simplest things that work best. They’re also what will bite you every time if you get them wrong. Television and movies give a false impression of the nature of criminal investigations. Experience taught everyone a lesson here. The smallest detail can have serious consequences, giving writers many opportunities to wreak havoc on their characters.
Joe Broadmeadow retired with the rank of Captain from the East Providence, Rhode Island Police Department after twenty years. Assigned to various divisions within the department, including Commander of Investigative Services, he also worked in the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force and on special assignment to the FBI Drug Task Force. He has testified in State and Federal Court as an expert in Electronic Surveillance and Computer Forensics.