Are you planning on murdering someone, but your only stop is the fear of getting caught? Or are you plotting a thriller where your serial-slayer stays steps ahead of that dogged detective who’s also top-tier in her trade? Maybe both? Well, I’ll give you a cake and let you eat it, too… if you’ll follow me on how homicide cops investigate murders.
Think about it. There are only four ways you can get caught. Or get away with it. All seasoned sleuths intrinsically know this, and they build their case on these four simple pillars. Let’s take a look at them.
What Not To Do
1. Don’t Leave Evidence Behind That Can Identify You To The Scene
Such as fingerprints, footwear or tire impressions, DNA profiles, ballistic imprints, gunshot residue, toolmarks, bitemarks, handwritten or printed documents, hair, fiber, chemical signatures, organic compounds, cigarette butts, spit chewing gum, toothpicks, a bloody glove that doesn’t fit, or your wallet with ID (seriously, that’s happened).
2. Don’t Take Anything With You That Can Be Linked
Including all of the above, as well as the victim’s DNA, her car, jewelry, money, bank cards, any cell phone and computer records, that repeated modus operandi of your serial kills, no cut-hair trophies, no underwear souvenirs, and especially don’t keep that dripping blade, the coiled rope, or some smoking gun.
3. Don’t Let Anyone See You
No accomplices, no witnesses, and no video surveillance. Camera-catching is a huge police tool these days. Your face is captured many times daily – on the street, at service stations, banks, government buildings, private driveways, and the liquor store.
4. Never Confess
Never, ever, tell anyone. That includes your best drinking buddy, your future ex-lover, the police interrogator, or the undercover agent.
So, if you don’t do any of these four things, you can’t possibly get caught.
Now… What To Do
Humans are generally messy and hard creatures to kill—even harder to get rid of—so murder victims tend to leave a pool of evidence. Therefore, it’s best not to let it look like a murder.
Writers have come up with some fascinating and creative ways to hide the cause of death. Problem is—most don’t work. Here are two sure-fire ways to do the deed and leave little left.
1. Cause an Arterial Gas Embolism (AGE)
This one’s pretty easy, terribly deadly, and really difficult to call foul. An AGE is a bubble in the blood stream, much like a vapor lock in an engine’s fuel system. People die when their central nervous system gets unplugged, and a quick, hard lapse in the carotid artery on the right side of the neck can send an AGE into their cerebral circulation. The brain stops, the heart quits, and they drop dead.
Strangulation is an inefficient way to create an AGE and it leaves huge tell-tale marks. You’re far better off giving a fast blast of compressed air to the carotid… maybe from something like that thing you clean your keyboard with… just sayin’.
2. Good Ole Poison
Ah, the weapon of women. Man, have there been a lot of poisonings over the centuries and there’s been some pretty, bloody, diabolical stories on how they’re done. Problem again. Today there’s all that cool science. The usual suspects of potassium cyanide, arsenic, strychnine, and atropine still work well, but they’ll jump out like a snake-in-the-box during a routine tox screen.
You need something that’s lethal, yet a witch to detect. I know of two brews—one is a neurotoxin made from fermented plant alkaloid, and the other is a simple mix of fungi & citrus. This stuff will kill you dead and leave no trace, but I think it’s quite irresponsible to post these formulas on the net.
So there, I’ll leave it with you to get away with murder. But if you have some crafty novel plot that needs help, I’m dying to hear your words.
Oh, and watch out for what’s in that cake that you’re eating.
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Kill Zoners: I confess. This is a regurgitated piece I wrote years ago, and I’ve used it in many talks I’ve given. I’m just in a current time crunch and wasn’t able to come up with something original for today’s post. But, I’m around for comments, and I have a question for you. What’s the most creative murder MO (Modus Operandi) you’ve ever heard of? Mine was a guy getting his head smashed in with a bag of frozen pork chops.
Note: Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner. Check out his website at Dyingwords.net.
In my first completed novel, the answer was: make it look like an accident – and don’t be there when it happens.
The victim probably has a pattern you can use…
Maybe I’ll get that one up and running again one of these days; it needs some work, but the characters were great.
Not being there when it happens is a big, big plus, Alicia. I remember one death scene where it was written off as an accident because no one else was around. However, looking back now I’m not so certain it was an accident.
One think to add from (I believe) Doug P. Lyle: Don’t ever do it again.
Maybe I should have titled this “How To Get Away With One Murder”. BTW, thanks for mentioning DP (Doug) Lyle, Terry. He’s an excellent resource.
Wearing gloves. Low-velocity .22LR with a sound suppressor. One bullet from hiding to the medulla oblongata. Leave the weapon to close the circle of ballistic evidence and walk away.
Good scenario, Harvey. Very clever to intentionally leave the firearm at the scene to close the loop. Thanks!
“Leave the weapon to close the circle of ballistic evidence and walk away.” Excellent observation. Foils any trace.
This game is fun. If you’re going to leave the gun–which I’m not convinced is a great idea–you want to skip the suppressor. Those are far more easily traced than the pistol itself. If you take the suppressor and leave the gun, you’ve got the issue of the threaded barrel, which is again fairly traceable because it’s a commercial product. (Okay, a dedicated assassin could probably lathe his own threads, but he’d have to have mad skills to do that for a .22.)
I vote suppressed .22 magnum bolt-action rifle from 100+ yards. You have to choose the location carefully, of course, but with proper planning, you can take the shot and walk away. (I choose bolt-action so I don’t risk slinging a shell casing that I won’t be able to find–but that the cops will.)
Sorry I missed your earlier comment, John. It’s really interesting you chose a .22 Magnum. It’s been a long while since I handled one of those great cartridges and I see where you’re going with this. I like your thinking!
Excellent article with great info for crime writers but with one problem. An arterial air embolism will not result from strangulation or a blow to the carotid artery. Where would the air come from? Strangulation can restrict blood flow through the carotid arteries to the brain and thus lead to brain death. A blow to one of the carotids could cause damage to the vessel that then restricts flow and results in death. But no air would be involved. That would require injecting the air directly into one of the carotid arteries. The air bubble in the IV (venous) line is mostly a myth. In fact, tiny air bubbles enter patients through IV lines all the time. They are small and filtered by the lungs long before they reach the left side of the circulation where they could reach the brain and cause harm. But, a large bolus of air given IV can collect in the right ventricle and “vapor lock” the system and result in death. This requires around 1/4 to 1/2 a cup of air to accomplish. So, a small bubble introduced directly into a carotid artery or a large bolus of air given IV can lead to death. Strangulation and a blow to one of the carotids can cause strokes and death but no air is involved.
Thanks for the comment, Doug. I had a death case once where a worker in a tire shop used a high pressure compressed air hose to blow dust off himself. At the autopsy, the pathologist determined the death was due to an AGE caused by the pressure interrupting blood flow. The way she explained it, the pressure caused a break or a void in the blood volume and created a separation bubble like a vapor lock. You’re right – there was no air – air can’t enter a closed system. I’m not equipped to give the fine medical details of exactly how this worked but in conversation with the pathologist she gave me enough information to remember it as a a scenario in writing crime fiction.
Seriously good info. Thanks for the tips, Garry. If it ever comes up, I’ll have my defense attorney call you 😉
I just bought a frozen seven-pound turkey breast packaged in a string sling with a handle. As I’m loading it in the cart, all I can think of is what a good weapon it would make. We’ll eat the evidence for dinner like your pork chops or Alfred Hitchcock’s famous leg of lamb.
Any time, Debbie. I’m trying to avoid imagining getting slung in the head by a 7-pound turkey but it keeps coming back. BTW, the pork chops were hand held. There were no strings attached.
Great information, Garry, but committing murder and getting away with it sounds like a lot of trouble. I think I’ll stick to writing about it.
Question for you: what’s the ratio of solved murders to unsolved ones? Or maybe better stated as the ratio of solved murders to all murders committed in a given year.
Doesn’t that assume that you can correctly identify all murders as murder? Otherwise, the unsolved murder figure will be too low by an unknown number.
Good morning, JGA. Good point. I’m dwelling on one case I had that we wrote off as an accident but the more I think of it, there was very likely foul play. So I guess a murder is not a murder if it isn’t called a murder.
You’re right, JG. I take it a lot of people go missing, and no one knows they’ve been murdered. So the unsolved murders number is lower than it should be. But understanding whatever data we have gives us a start in quantifying the situation.
Good question, Kay. The first thing that comes to mind is the location. Most of the murder cases I was involved with were smoking guns – no difficulty in solving because the victim and perpetrator knew each other and the bad guy was usually at or near the scene with a trail of evidence connecting them – like clicking off all four boxes. The hard ones are stranger to stranger like gang hits that are common in Vancouver. Most go “unsolved” and by that I mean no evidence left – not that the cops don’t have a good idea who was behind it. So, if I had to guess (from my experience) maybe 2 or 3 out of 10 are never officially cleared.
Good morning, Garry. Thanks for sharing this classic post today.
Very handy list for we writers. Having the murderer do one or more of the actions on the list of don’ts of course creates the clue that my fictional sleuth can use to solve the crime. My personal favorite is #4–I always say, “The way to keep a secret is to tell no one.” Period. Human psychology being what it is, we tend to want to tell someone else.
Murder methods–#1 is classic, and a method first used in fiction in Dorothy Sayers’ novel “Unnatural Death.”
Another classic not on your list death by puncture wound to the heart, caused by a letter opener.
Assuming a sufficiently sharp one, is that plausible? How much force would be required? I’m assuming the metal would need to robust, perhaps steel or similar.
Good luck with your time crunch! I’m in one of my own as well right now.
Hi Dale. I’m thinking of a case I had of a domestic fight turned ugly. Mrs. killed Mr. by shoving a pair a of kitchen scissors through his bare chest, through the sternum, and into the aorta. According to her, she used almost no force – no hard stab – just a contact and shove. She said it just slid right in and there was no trauma or bruising around the entrance point which you’d expect to be if there was a hard blow. So I’d say the letter opener is definitely plausible. Best wishes to your fight against the clock!
“Human psychology being what it is, we tend to want to tell someone else.”
Humans have an innate need to make their deepest self visible to others. They do this in many ways, such as unconsciously writing or drawing or painting themselves into their art, or in Freudian slips, or, much worse, by projecting their Shadow upon others. “Those Jews have bad blood!” shrieked the evil man whose grandfather was probably his great-grandfather, Johannes Schicklgruber.
Poe’s The Imp of the Perverse (1845) describes the unconscious tendency of people to blurt out the very thing they most wish to conceal. Freud didn’t get around to mentioning his eponymous slips until 1901, though he called them “Fehlleistungen,” in his book, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.” They should really be called “Poevian slips!”
Great comment, JGA. People really do reveal a lot of personal information. My wife works in a grocery store and the stuff people tell her about themselves would make you blush.
Perhaps so. A lady who works in a salon mentioned a customer who drew her into their break room and showed the stylist her new boobs! Yet another form of projection? I think so, along with flashing, naturism, exotic dancing, striptease, and autobiography.
It’s true–I saw this even at the library in patron interactions. Some folks wouldn’t reveal a thing about themselves, which was fine, unless it was reluctance to give us any contact info for a library card (very rare). Others really wanted to share details.
Perhaps I have known mystery writers too long. I was told to dump a body in the Mississippi River south of the Jefferson Barracks bridge. They might turn up in New Orleans. Might not.
I had to Google “Jefferson Barracks Bridge”, Alan. That’s a long ride down to NO. Might make it – might not.
Our electronic world makes catching killers much easier. What did you Google? Almost every store has cameras matching receipts to people at check out. One St. Louis area killer discovered almost all of his escape route was captured by DOT cameras. His cell (leave that at home if you are killing someone) put him on a highway at a time. The cameras caught him littering. The IL state police found the bloody gloves he tossed out of the car.
I’m about to go for a walk downtown, Alan. I’m going to count how many times I appear on a camera – at least cameras I can see and not including dashcam footage.
Want to catch your bad guy? In the last few weeks of Youtube viewing, I’ve discovered magnet fishing and car/body recovery in bodies of water. People attach powerful magnets on a rope and toss them off bridges to see what they can find. Surprisingly, a common catch is guns. Criminals toss them to hide the evidence, and up they come. The magnet fishers call the cops. A scary find is old military ordnance. Some guy pulled up live WWII ordnance from the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta. It shut down part of the city. Yikes!
Groups of divers with small boats and very sophisticated fish finders volunteer to search bodies of fresh water near where people in cars go missing. If they have a very good idea where the person went missing, they can find the car in days. One kid’s body was found in 20 minutes. “Adventures with Purpose” has found over 42 missing people.
Fascinating, Marilynn. Magnet fishing – Who’da thought? I can see all kinds of surprises turning up. Thanks for sharing this!
This one never gets old, Gary. Thanks.
How about dumping the body in a pig pen?
Are you thinking of the Robert (Willie) Pickton case in Vancouver, Rose?
No, but I’ll have to read about that one. I’m reading the script for the movie Snatch . There’s a bit about starving pigs eating right through bone and being wary of anyone with a pig farm. Great film.