How To Get Away With Murder

Murder. It’s forever been the stuff of books, movies, poems and plays. Everyone from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie told foul-play murder stories. That’s because, for gruesome reasons, murder cases fascinate people.

I think murder is the great taboo. It’s also the great fear of most people except, maybe, for public speaking. Jerry Seinfeld quipped, “At a funeral, the majority of people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

Yes, murder is the ultimate crime. In mystery books and Netflix shows, murder cases are solved and neatly wrapped up in the end. This leaves the reader or audience with the satisfaction of knowing who done it and probably why.

That’s not always the truth in real life. Many murders go unsolved for a long time. Some go cold and are never resolved. Statistics vary according to region, but probably a quarter of murders never get cleared.

Thankfully, most murders are easy to solve. They’re “smoking guns” where the killer and victim knew each other, the killer left a plethora of evidence at the scene or took it with him, witnesses saw the murder take place, or the bad guy confessed to the crime. That’s really all there is to getting caught for committing a murder.

So, why do roughly twenty-five percent of people get away with murder? It’s because they don’t make one of these four fatal mistakes. Let’s look at each in detail and how you can get away with murder.

Leaving Evidence at the Scene

Did you ever hear of Locard’s Exchange Principle? It’s Murder Investigation 101. Dr. Edmond Locard was a pioneer in forensic science. Dr. Locard held that at every crime scene the bad guy would leave evidence behind that would connect them to the offense. Locard summed it up this way:

“Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these, and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.”

Dr. Locard was absolutely right—most of the time. That quote was from the early 1900s. It was long before the sophistication of DNA profiling and amplifying light to find invisible fingerprints. Today, trace evidence shows up at the micro level, and there’re ingenious inventions used to find it. But… not always.

I’m familiar with a high-profile and unsolved murder case from 2008 where two killers enticed a female realtor to a house and savagely stabbed her to death. It’s a long story. A complicated story. And, so far, they’ve got away with the murder.

The victim was totally innocent. She was set-up as a sacrifice to protect someone else who was a police informant. The police know full well who the killers are—a Mexican man and woman from the Sinaloa drug cartel—but they’ve never been charged. It’s because they left no evidence of their identity at the scene. They’ve also never broken the other three murderer-catching rules.

There’s more to scene evidence than DNA and fingerprints. There are dozens of evidentiary possibilities including hairs, fibers, footwear impressions, chemical signatures, organic compounds, match heads, cigarette butts, expended shell casings, spit chewing gum, a bloody glove or a wallet with the killer’s ID in it. (Yes, that happened.)

Removing Evidence from the Scene

The flip side of Locard’s Exchange Principle is the perpetrator removing evidence from the scene that ties them back to it. This can be just as fatal to the get-away-with-it plan as left-behind evidence. And, it happens all the time.

Going back to the unsolved realtor murder, there’s no doubt the killers left with the victim’s blood on their hands, feet and clothing. This innocent lady was repeatedly shived. The coroner report states her cause of death was exsanguination which is the medical term for bleeding out.

For sure, her killers had blood on them. But, they made a clean escape and would have disposed of their blood-stained clothes. That goes for the knife, as well. Further, the killers did not rob the victim. They didn’t steal her purse, her identification, her bank cards or even the keys to her new BMW parked outside.

The killers also didn’t exchange digital evidence to be traced. They used a disposable or “burner” phone to contact the victim to set up the house showing. It was only activated under a fake name for this one purpose and was never used again. The phone likely went the same place as the bloody clothes and knife.

Being Seen by Witnesses

I once heard a judge say, “There’s nothing more unreliable than an eyewitness.” I’d say that judge was right, at least for human eyewitnesses.

Today’s technology makes it hard not to be seen entering or exiting a murder scene. There’s video surveillance galore. Pretty much everywhere you go in an urban setting, electronic eyes are on you. You’re on CCTV at the gas station, the supermarket, the bank, in libraries, government buildings, transit buses, subways and on the plane.

In bygone lore, the killer often wore a disguise. That might have fooled human surveillance, but it’s hard to trick cameras that record evidence like get-away vehicles with readable plates. It’s also hard to disguise a disguise that can be enlarged on film to reveal uniquely identifiable minute characteristics.

Back to the unsolved realtor slaying again. The killers were seen by two independent witnesses when they met their victim in the driveway outside the show home. One witness gave the police a detailed description of the female suspect and worked with an artist to develop a sketch. It’s an eerie likeness to the Mexican woman who is a prime person-of-interest along with her brother—a high-ranking member of the El Chapo organization.

Unfortunately, there’s just not enough evidence to charge the Mexicans. They left no identifiable trace evidence behind at the crime scene. Whatever evidence they might have taken from the scene hasn’t been found. There was no video captured and the eye-witnesses can’t be one hundred percent positive of visual identity.

There’s also the fourth missing piece to the puzzle.

Confessing to the Murder

Murderers are often convicted because they confessed to the crime. Sometimes, they confess to the police during a structured interrogation. Sometimes, they confess to a police undercover operator or paid agent during a sting operation. Sometimes, their loose lips sink their ship by telling an acquaintance about doing the murder. And sometimes, they’re caught bragging about the murder on electronic surveillance like in a wiretap or through a planted audio listening device—a bug.

Police also arrest and convict murderers after an accomplice turns on them and decides to cooperate with the investigation in exchange for a lesser sentence. Then, there are the revenge situations. The murderer has confessed to an intimate partner who they thought they could trust and couldn’t.

That has yet to happen in the unsolved female realtor murder. There is no doubt—no doubt—that a group of people know what happened in her murder. It’s known, with probable certainty, who the Mexican pair are. It’s also known, with probable certainty, who the real police informant was and who conspired to protect them by offering the innocent victim as a sacrificial slaughter to appease the Sinaloa cartel’s “No-Rat” policy.

This murder case can be solved once someone in the group decides to reveal evidence implicating the killers. That likely won’t be anything in the Locard arena or in the eye-witness region. It’ll be an exposed confession that will solve this case.

Someone will eventually talk. The current problem is that everyone in the conspiracy circle is connected by being blood relatives, being a member of the Hispanic community and being involved in organized crime. Their motive to talk is far outweighed by their motive to stay silent.

Takeaway for The Kill Zone Gang

If you’re a mystery/thriller/crime writer, always consider these four crime detection principles when working your plot. No matter how simple or complex your plot may be, the solution will come down to one or more of these points. If it doesn’t, then your antagonist is going to get away with murder.

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Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner, now an investigative crime writer and successful indie author. Garry also hosts a popular blog at his website DyingWords.net and is a regular contributor to the HuffPost.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s west coast. He’s a certified 60-Tonne Marine Captain and spends a lot of time around the saltwater. Follow Garry on Facebook, Twitter and BookBub. He has stuff on Amazon, Kobo and Nook, too.

 

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A Day in the Life of a Detective

Most people think a detective’s life is action-packed. You know—the shoot-‘em-up and kick-‘em-down thing. That happens from time to time, but a typical day in the life of a detective involves major case management, amassing admissible evidence in serious crime investigations and a lot of networking. It’s not that exciting.

For my debut post on The Kill Zone, I thought I’d give you a look at what really goes on behind the screen in the detective world. It’s not like you see in CSI shows and Netflix specials. Most detective work has long periods of painstaking procedure with only short spurts of adrenaline.

I liked it that way. I spent a career with Canada’s national police force, the RCMP, where I served as an investigator with the Serious Crimes Section. We mostly dealt with homicide cases because murders take a lot of time and you can’t mess one up. That’s a sure-fire way to end up writing traffic tickets.

I looked back in my notebooks and picked a particular day that was somewhat routine but had enough going on to interest you. It was a Thursday in the summertime. I was on dayshift in a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, and my schedule was 8 am to 4:30 pm.

I got into the office just after 7. With coffee in hand, I checked our internal email server to see what floated in since last shift. For a change, not much was there. I opened Outlook, and then set priorities for the day. Those were four squares of “Must-Do”, “Should-Do”, “Might-Do” and “It Don’t Matter”. I learned this organizational technique from a Franklin Day Planner my daughter gave me for Christmas.

The system works. This day, my top priority was furthering a recent death case where we’d found a decomposing body dumped down a wooded bank beside a rural road. It turned out to be the most bizarre and baffling homicide case of my career.

The corpse looked like a zebra-zombie with a wild-looking stripe pattern across his bare torso. Gaps in the trees allowed a part-on-part-off sun scorch which left him partly mummified and partly putrefied like an ebony and ivory piano key of human breakdown. The autopsy showed he was gut-shot, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

At 7:45, Harry showed up at the Serious Crimes office. It looked like she was hungover. It was hard to tell with my partner, Harry. Harry was a large lady with large hair and an even larger personality. Her real name was Sheryl Henderson, but we called her Harry after the Bigfoot in the movie Harry and the Hendersons.

Our squad consisted of four teams of two detectives each. Because two heads are better than one (most of the time), we found pairing was the best way to investigate complicated cases like murders, attempted murders, rapes, armed robberies and the occasional kidnapping or extortion that happened in the drug world. Pairing is also safer when we’re on the street, and it’s more credible when we’re in court.

This morning, Harry “had court”. That was the universal cop-term for being subpoenaed as a witness. It meant having to hang around the courthouse and wait to see if we’d be called to testify. Or not.

There was a lot, and I mean a lot, of time wasted at the courthouse. But, they were the end to our means, and what we delivered as evidence packages suffered tremendous scrutiny. There’s nothing worse than being “on the stand” and having to explain why you messed up.

Back to the day.

I was on my own, doing follow-ups on our man from beside the road. Harry got her lies straight, and she left to meet the prosecutor. Once she was out the door, I took-on my top priority. That was trying to figure out who the hell this dead and rotting guy was. From that, I hoped to solve what happened to him.

Brian MacAllister beat me to the phone call. Brian was the senior firearms examiner at our crime lab. He was also a good friend outside of work.

“This one’s weird.” I knew Brian was shaking his head. “That twenty-two bullet from your guy beside the road? There’s no rifling or striation marks on it. Like it was never fired… like he swallowed the damn thing.”

“Serious?” I’d seen the bullet when the pathologist plucked it from the viscera. I looked at it with my naked eye and, yeah, it seemed smooth as a baby’s butt. But, then, I couldn’t see what Brian could see with his scanning electron microscope.

“Never seen this before.” Brian paused. “I’m thinking a slick bore like an antique dueling pistol. Or, it could be the tip of things to come. A Three-D laser-printed pistol downloaded from the dark web.”

“Any chance of making a match?” I sensed Brian was perplexed, but he was a competent expert and knew his stuff.

“Hmmm… dunno. We rely on rifling and engraving. None here. Might have to get Chemistry Section involved and do bullet-lead composition analysis or neutron activation. Leave it with me.”

I got off the phone and took another call. This was from Honey Phelps, our coroner. Love that name, Honey. She fit the part.

Honey updated me on our entomology evidence where we used insect remains to establish an estimated time of death. She said the forensic entomologist, who we privately called “The Bug Bitch”, gave a two-week period. Seems our mystery man lay stinking beside the road for around 14 days before we found him.

My next stop was down the hall to the Forensic Identification Section. At the autopsy, the pathologist clipped each finger and thumb tip from the cadaver and placed them in individual vials of formalin. The idea was to turn what was left of the skin into a malleable or rubbery substance to raise fingerprint detail.

Sergeant Cheryl Hunter was my go-to in the CSI department. Cheryl dashed my hopes of anytime soon by telling me she needed more time finger-fixing before she could try for an ID. In the meantime, I was stuck with not knowing who this John Doe was.

I got another call. It was our Street Crew team, and they wanted to talk to me. I met them in their hovel of a basement office.

For some reason, lots of cops get nicknames. My boss was “Leaky” Lewis, and he earned that handle from chronic post-urinary drip. The Street Crew pair were “Beefcake” and “The Inseminator”. Beefcake looked like Fabio from Harlequin Romance covers and The Inseminator was a weasely little sex addict.

Beefcake did the talking. “We got intel that a hooker beaked to a John that she knows your dead guy. Problem, though. We don’t know who the hooker is. Just that she goes by the trick name Amber.”

I felt a rush. This was the first time since we found Beside The Road that anyone on the street talked. Up till now, there was zero—zilch—nuttin’—being said. That made the case more peculiar.

Beefcake said they’d dig into this. The Inseminator vigorously nodded. I had no doubt they would. In the meantime, I went back to my office and found mail on my desk.

One letter was from the Federal Justice Department. They had a wrongful conviction application from an inmate who now decided he didn’t do it. I looked at the name. Yeah. Yeah. He spouts off in a motel room to a couple hippie chicks and confesses to a murder including giving out key-fact or holdback evidence that only the killer and the investigators know. I’ll get to this when I get to it.

The other letter deserved attention. This was from the National Parole Board who needed victim impact statements from the family of a murder victim. The case happened before my time, but I sure knew about it. So did pretty much everyone. Twenty-five years had passed, and the animal wanted loose from its cage. I moved this to Box-B.

I was about to tap into the CPIC database. That was the Canadian Police Information Center, and it held a lot of mineable stuff to help identify my latest murder victim. The phone toned again.

It was a reporter from Global television who I had an on-and-off-again relationship with. Professionally, I mean, although she was a knockout brunette with teeth that should be licensed. J’Anna had a tip for me. A viewer called-in about Beside The Road, and it sounded good.

The murder victim was a carnie, the tipster said. He was a carnival worker who disappeared from the traveling circus right when The Bug Bitch estimated time of death. J’Anna gave me the name. I plugged it into CPIC. Everything fit. All I needed now was some prints, so I ordered them.

It was noon.

I met a dear friend for lunch. Sharlene Bate outranked me, but I’d known her since she was a gangly teen with a pimple problem. Now, she was Inspector Bate from the regional force called I-HIT, the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team.

I don’t know if I have a thing for women with great teeth, but in a dental war, Sharlene and J’Anna would have fought to the death. Sharlene, though, had a common mentor with me—Detective Sergeant Fred Mahle—who gave her the nickname “Chicklets”. Good old Fred…

Sharlene and I talked a bit of shop. Some included who topped the upcoming promotion and transfer list. Mostly, though, we talked about her daughter—our God-daughter’s—medical problem and Sharlene’s postponed re-marriage plans.

I got back to the office around 1:30. There was a note on my desk to call the Emergency Response Team leader. ERT is a secondary duty secondment for some police officers, and I was part of that alumni. I was too old now to dress up and play army, but I still helped in training programs.

Another secondment was lecturing at the Police College. I had a specialty in effective interviewing techniques and often resourced in seminars to share skills with other investigators. There was an email confirming a lecture date for the fall, and I banged out a quick reply.

I moved off Beside The Road’s file for the day. It’d be nice to carry one file at a time, but reality in the detective business is each investigative team has around twenty open dossiers. Some require urgent action, like figuring out Beside The Road. Some were solved cases pending in court. Then, there were cold cases that still needed “Diary Date” entries to keep them from freezing right over.

I spent the afternoon on Box B and Box C, then called ‘er quits. It was 4:45 pm. I phoned my wife, got dinner directions and stopped at Thrifty Foods for supplies. At 5:30, I parked my unmarked Explorer in our driveway, went through the garage, put my Sig Sauer in the laundry room locker and walked into the kitchen.

My wife was at the table, playing Words With Friends on her iPad. I gave her a kiss, heard about the crazy day at her work and we had small-chat about our grown-up & gone kids.

Then, I reached into an upper cabinet, pulled down a bottle and poured two fingers of Scotch over frozen rocks. She sipped her glass of white wine as we sat in a relaxed, pre-dinner silence.

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Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a forensic coroner. Now he’s a crime writer and host of a popular blog at www.DyingWords.net as well as being a regular contributor to the HuffPost.

Garry lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s southwest coast where he spends off-time cruising around the saltwater. Connect with Garry on Twitter and Facebook.

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