Writing Realistic Crime Scenes

B97BznLCAAAP1tQBefore 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 fightersAdam 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.

Silenced Justice

His newest release that I can’t wait to read.

Okay, first case.

Case #1

8:45 AM

“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.

WE'RE TALKING CRIME!!! (5)

Case #2

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.

Joe's booksHow 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

 

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.

You can learn more about Joe and his books at his website and  Amazon author page.

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is a multi-published author in numerous anthologies, and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue’s a radio show host—check out "Partners In Crime" in the menu bar—the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter.

20 Comments

  1. Just little details change the whole perspective. Here we had a crime & the justice official in charge (a novice), let the family clean, removed & burn the mattress.

    To this day the Justice Department try to convict someone & 2 times the Judges say Um, No.

    Something is fishy & is clear that the Justice Dept. is trying to deviate the attention. The Lawyer & his group (Defensors of Poor Peiple) of the supposely murderer Lcdo. Moczó, just crush the opposition in 2 turns at the bat..

    Poor child as of today the criminal is free.

    • Oh, how sad, Eve. Sounds like that official really messed up that crime scene…to the point where a conviction would be nearly impossible now. And unfortunately, it’s the family who suffers.

  2. Great post! Interesting details as the cases unfolded. Thanks for posting 🙂

  3. Extremely intriguing to see how these scenes played out and the minute details that made a difference in the findings. Thank you, Richard, for sharing your knowledge and experience with us, and thank you, Sue for having such a wonderful guest.

    BTW, I think the #ACrimeChat is an awesome idea. I hope to be tweeting questions once I have some time to focus on my WIPs. I’m assuming that it’s best to only ask questions related to the topic at the time? Thanks for organizing it, Sue, and to all your experts for taking the time to share their knowledge!

    • We try to stay on topic, Mae, but if you reach a point in your story where you need an answer, just tweet it to me regardless of topic. The whole crew is easy-going. We all want this to work for writers, so that’s the most important thing.

      I’m glad you enjoyed Joe’s post. Enjoy your week!

    • Mae,
      We are always looking for topics to explore. If you have a question ask it on #ACrimeChat and we’ll add it to our list of topics

  4. Very cool post. I assumed they weren’t all intricately woven layers of plot and false evidence. There is a balance between making things obvious and getting enough mystery to tell a good story.

  5. As to case #1 It shows how important it is to get detailed statements from all involved. One reason why (in Canada) we don’t let anyone but the forensic investigators onto the scene while investigating is too many cooks in the kitchen. I’ve had something similar and furniture that has been moved recently usually leaves a tell. carpet leaves indentation marks, floors, lack of dust or dirt where the legs or base was located. We use the right hand rule on scenes. start to your right and go completely around the room examining and photographing everything. It is time consuming but works. The forensic investigator should have found the table to be moved and the mark left by the bullet. that information could then be brought to the husband. Never let the suspect onto the scene.

    Case #2

    I had what looked like a natural death. the body was on the bed and was supposedly discovered by the tenant who was renting the main house while the deceased stayed in the cottage. the tenant stated that he had tried to knock on the door but when he got no response he went to the back of the cottage and looked into the room. when he saw the deceased on the bed he stated to the police officers that he opened the window and climbed in. The man was still at the scene when I arrived and I noticed he was acting strange. after hearing his story i ordered the officers to remove him. the rear window was indeed open but an examination of the siding and the window trim showed no evidence that anyone had climbed in. fingerprint examination showed only the tenants prints on the bottom of the window frame but reversed. (the prints were made while standing inside the room) further investigation of the bed sheets and pillow case showed that the deceased had been smothered. A conviction was registered.

    Forensic Investigation isnt just about photographing and collecting evidence. you have to read the scene, read the evidence and go through a process of eliminations.

    Cheers

    • I enjoyed reading about your two cases, Richard. We can never have too much information for crime writers, so I thank you!

    • Richard,
      One of the problems within most agencies is the immediacy of the moment often clouds the best-laid plans. In Case #1 the position of the table in the initial view appeared to be normal. There was no reason to move it.
      The realities of crime scene procedures and the expectations of the perfect scene are often far apart

  6. Great points, Joe. Definitely coming from someone who’s been there. In my experience, most crime scenes are fairly straightforward as long as they’re investigated objectively. A big mistake I’ve seen investigators make is to form a theory and then try to make the details fit, rather than just look at what the details are saying. Like you point out, one of the biggest hindrances is when a scene has been disturbed. (Hate it when that happens 🙂

    Interpretation of crime scene details is an art on its own and is something I think most crime readers enjoy working out. I guess that’s why red herrings have been such a popular device and why the “Ah-ha!” moments are so rewarding.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Garry. Always happy to hear your two-cents. As you know, I watch a ton of true crime on ID. My favorite is Homicide Hunter. I mention him because often times when his team gets off track they go back to the beginning and start again. It helps him clear any misconceptions that’ve crept up in the investigation and many times, he finds new information that leads him to the correct conclusion, like the cases here.

    • Garry,
      There’s an interesting case in Rhode Island that illustrates this point. A woman is found murdered. There’s some significant injuries to the victim indicating rage and perhaps a personal connection.

      The body was found by an off-duty officer.

      The attention focuses on the police officer who was having an affair with the woman and lied to investigators about it. The investigators, from the officer’s own department, made certain assumptions and ignored normal procedures.

      To make a long story short, the officer was convicted after trial. Six years later, another man walked into State Police Headquarters and confessed to the crime. He knew aspects of the case that only the killer would know. Investigators were able to determine he was also involved with the victim.

      The officer served 6 years, convicted of a homicide he did not commit. Based on his lying to investigators about an affair, they assumed his guilt and manipulated the evidence to fit the theory.

      This is one of the cases that changed my support of the death penalty.

      • Wow. It’s hard to recover after a homicide conviction. Did he get his job back? Or was his career ruined for good? He must have been bitter, sitting in that prison cell. I know I’d be.

        • Richard,
          One of the problems within most agencies is the immediacy of the moment often clouds the best-laid plans. In Case #1 the position of the table in the initial view appeared to be normal. There was no reason to move it.
          The realities of crime scene procedures and the expectations of the perfect scene are often far apart

        • No. Fought with the agency for back pay and a wrongful conviction suit

  7. This is so helpful Thanks very much to both of you. Those little details can make all of the difference; and in a crime novel, they can be effective ways to leave clues and create a plausible way for sleuths to get information.

    • I agree, Margot. The magic is in the tiny details. Unfortunately, it’s those same details that really derail a story, especially if a member of law enforcement is reading our book(s).

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