DECEMBER 2016 Forensic Magazine | www.forensicmag.com 7
Seth Augenstein, Senior Science Writer
Each year, between 14,000 and 16,000 people are killed in the United States at the willful hand of another person. But those are just the ones that are known, investigated and cataloged. How many go overlooked,
from a person reported as a firearm suicide in their bedroom, to a missing person who is really lying in a
shallow grave never to be found?
Some criminologists say there could be an “epidemic” of murders going overlooked during death investigations, as killers have learned to cover their tracks by staging crime scenes, hiding evidence and otherwise
throwing death investigations off track. Others say that although there is an increase, homicide detectives
are still catching the vast majority of attempts to conceal crimes.
Everyone seems to agree on one thing: the staged crime scene has become a more common phenomenon as the public has become more familiar and fascinated with detective work.
“There’s an appreciable number of cases that are missed because law enforcement does not follow a spe-
cific protocol, all because of personal agendas, sloppy piecework or a staged scene that fools an investigator.
But those are the exception—not the rule,” said Vernon Geberth, renowned homicide expert, and author
of the landmark textbook “Practical Homicide Investigation.”
Of course, no statistics are available due to the nature of the unknown category of deaths. But a panel of
experts told Forensic Magazine that recent years have definitely shown an increase in killers who are trying
to fool cops at their own game.
From Cain and Abel to the Petersons
Homicides can be misclassified as suicides, accidents or disappearances in hundreds of cases a year,
according to Laura Pettler, a North Carolina-based forensic criminologist.
Her book, “Crime Scene Staging Dynamics in Homicide Cases,” an exploration of the topic, was published last year by CRC Press. The book revisits criminal case histories stretching back to the story of Cain
and Abel (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”), to Shakespeare’s version of the life of Macbeth (“Out, damned
spot!”), through to high-profile homicides such as Susan Smith drowning her two sons in 1994 amid a
bogus kidnapping story, and the brutal slaying of Laci Peterson by her husband Scott Peterson in 2002.
Pettler’s main focus is “intimicide”—a crime of passion killing between intimate partners. Though each case
is unique, the most common intimicides involve males killing females, and then making the scene look like a
suicide or a disappearance. Pettler’s book looks at the staged crime scene, and offers a methodology to reason out
the totality of evidence, from the analysis of the initial 911 call, to lividity and rigor mortis offering clues about
body positioning, and ballistics to verify whether the angle of a gunshot could be self-inflicted or not.
But the psychology and circumstantial evidence can also help guide an investigation, Pettler said. She
advocates for analyzing the “victimology” of the deceased, as much as the physical forensic traces.
“America is hyper focused on physical evidence. Investigators can get tunnel vision on the forensic
evidence,” she said. “But the crime scene does not always put the weapon in the hands of the offender.”
Pettler pointed to the case of Betty Lafon Neumar as just one possible example of how a crafty killer can get rid of a partner. Pettler was the district attorney’s investigator on a cold case task force that