Violent Crime Scene Analysis: Modus Operandi, Signature, and Staging

Physical characteristics, age, and even sex do not enhance or diminish the
ritual driven by rage. Code’s ritual of anger required control and domination
of his victims, so victimology was not as important. Code, like Ronnie Shelton,
the serial rapist, selected victims he could control, manipulate, and on
whom he could project his anger.

Importance Of Offender Signature

Understanding and recognizing the signature aspects is vital in the apprehension
and prosecution of an offender, especially a serial offender. No one appreciates
the importance of recognizing an offender’s “calling card” more than David

In 1984, Vasquez pled guilty to the murder of a 34-year-old Arlington, Virginia,
woman. The woman had been sexually assaulted and died of ligature strangulation.
The killer left her lying face down with her hands tied behind her back.
He used unique knots and excessive binding with the ligatures, and a lead
came from the wrists to the neck over the left shoulder. The body was openly
displayed so that discovery offered significant shock value.

The offender spent considerable time at the crime scene. He made extensive
preparations to bind the victim, allowing him to control her easily. His
needs dictated that he move her around the house, exerting total domination
over her. It appeared that he even took her into the bathroom and made her
brush her teeth. None of this behavior was necessary to perpetrate the crime;
the offender felt compelled to act out this ritual.

Vasquez had a borderline I.Q. Believing this would make it difficult to prove
his innocence, his lawyers convinced him that he would probably receive the
death sentence if the case went to trial. Instead, Vasquez opted for life
imprisonment by pleading guilty.

Three years later, in 1987, police discovered a 44-year-old woman lying nude
and face down on her bed. A rope bound her wrists behind her back, and a
ligature strand tightly encircled her neck with a slip knot at the back.
It continued over her left shoulder, down her back, and then was wrapped
three times around each wrist. Forensics revealed that she died of ligature
strangulation, and that she had been sexually assaulted. The offender left
the body exposed and openly displayed. He appeared to have spent a considerable
amount of time at the crime scene. This homicide occurred 4 blocks from the
1984 murder.

David Vasquez had been imprisoned 3 years when the 1987 murder occurred.
At the request of the Arlington, Virginia, Police Department, the National
Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) conducted an extensive analysis
of these two murders, a series of sexual assaults, and several other killings
that occurred between 1984 and 1987. Eventually, the NCAVC linked these offenses
through analogous signature aspects of another local suspect. Physical evidence
later corroborated this connection and determined that the “calling card”
left at the 1984 homicide did not belong to David Vasquez. As a result of
this finding, the Commonwealth of Virginia released Vasquez from prison and
exonerated him of the crime.


When investigators approach a crime scene, they should look for behavioral
“clues” left by the offender. This is when investigators attempt to find
answers to several critical questions. How did the encounter between the
offender and victim occur? Did the offender blitz (ambush) the victim, or
did he use verbal means (the con) to capture her? Did the offender use ligatures
to control the victim? What was the sequence of events? Was the victim sexually
assaulted before or after death? When did the mutilation take place–before
or after death? Did the offender place any item at the crime scene or remove
something from the crime scene?

As investigators analyze crime scenes, facts may arise that baffle them.
These details may contain peculiarities that serve no apparent purpose in
the perpetration2 of the crime and obscure the underlying motive
of the crime. This confusion may be the result of a crime scene behavior
called staging. Staging occurs when someone purposely alters the crime scene
prior to the arrival of the police.

Reasons for Staging

Principally, staging takes place for two reasons–to direct the investigation
away from the most logical suspect or to protect the victim or victim’s family.
It is the offender who attempts to redirect the investigation. This offender
does not just happen to come upon a victim, but is someone who almost always
has some kind of association or relationship with the victim. This person,
when in contact with law enforcement, will attempt to steer the investigation
away from himself, usually by being overly cooperative or extremely distraught.
Therefore, investigators should never eliminate a suspect who displays such
distinctive behavior.