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

Case Scenario

The following case scenario brings to light some “red flags” that investigators
should look for at a crime scene.

One Saturday morning, in a small Northeastern city, an unknown intruder attacked
a man and his wife. By placing a ladder against the house, the suspect made
it appear that he had climbed to a second-story window, removed the screen,
and entered the residence. All this occurred in a residential area during
a time when neighbors were doing their weekend chores and errands.

The husband claimed that he heard a noise downstairs, so he went with a gun
to investigate. A struggle with the intruder ensued, during which the husband
was left unconscious by a blow to the head.

Presumably, the intruder then went upstairs and killed the wife by manual
strangulation. He left the body with a nightgown pulled up around the victim’s
waist, implying that he sexually assaulted her. The couple’s 5-year-old daughter
remained unharmed, asleep in the next room.

While processing the crime scene, detectives noted that the ladder made no
impression in the moist soil near the house, although it did when they tried
to climb the ladder. Also, the intruder positioned the ladder with the rungs
facing away from the house, and many of the rungs on the wooden ladder had
rotted, making it impossible for it to support anyone weighing over 50 pounds.

In addition, the crime scene raised questions that could not be answered
logically. Why didn’t the offender choose to enter the residence through
a first-story window to decrease the possibility of detection by both the
occupants and neighbors? Why did the offender want to burglarize the residence
on a Saturday morning when there was a good chance that he would be seen
by neighbors? Why did the intruder choose a residence that was obviously
occupied (several vehicles were in the driveway)?

Inside the residence, other inconsistencies became apparent. For example,
if the intent was murder, the intruder did not seek his victim(s) immediately,
but went downstairs first. He also did not come equipped to kill because,
according to the one witness, the husband, he never displayed a weapon. Also,
the person posing the most threat, the husband, received only minor injuries.

By analyzing the crime scene, which revealed excessive offender activity,
it became apparent that there was no clear motive for the crime. Therefore,
based on the numerous inconsistencies found at the crime scene, NCAVC criminal
investigative analysts concluded that the husband staged the homicide to
make it appear to be the work of an intruder. He was eventually convicted
of his wife’s murder.

Forensic “Red Flags”

Forensic results that don’t fit the crime should also cause investigators
to consider staging. Personal assaults should raise suspicion, especially
if material gain appears to be the initial motive. These assaults could include
the use of a weapon of opportunity, manual or ligature strangulation, facial
beating (depersonalization), and excessive trauma beyond that necessary to
cause death (overkill). In other words, do the injuries fit the crime?

Sexual and domestic homicides usually demonstrate forensic findings of a
close-range, personal assault. The victim, not money or property, is the
primary focus of the offender. However, this type of offender will often
attempt to stage a sexual or domestic homicide that appears to be motivated
by personal gain. This does not imply that personal assaults never happen
while a property crime is being committed, but usually these offenders prefer
quick, clean kills that reduce the time spent at the scene.