Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Do healthy women "accidentally" drown in their own bathtubs?


Contrary to what you sometimes here about "accidents in the home" and the dangers of the family bathtub, tubs do not pose a significant threat except to the very young and people with seizure-type disorders or people using large amounts of depressant drugs or alcohol. But the idea of the "deadly bathtub" seems to make it a clever staging ground for men who want to secretly kill their wives.

There is a case under investigation right now in Illinois. No charges have been filed. But a leading forensic examiner believes that an earlier autopsy of the third wife of Drew Peterson--already under a cloud of suspicion in the mystery disappearance of his fourth and current wife, Stacy--came to mistaken conclusions. At the time, Kathleen Savio's death was simply passed over as an accidental drowning in the bathtub. Now, it appears that she was murdered. Her death has been officially declared a homicide, following exhumation and a new autopsy (backed up by a third autopsy done at the behest of Savio's relatives by former New York City medical examiner Michael Baden).

There are two important things to know about this "drowning in the bathtub" business. First of all, it is very difficult for an autopsy to clearly determine drowning as a cause of death. The leading forensic medical textbooks make this quite clear. "Investigation of a body recovered from water can be challenging," writes Dr. Werner Spitz in the widely-used textbook he authored on death investigation. "Autopsy findings alone may be misleading and can cause the inexperienced pathologist to render a diagnosis of drowning when inappropriate."

As Dr. Baden told Greta van Susteren, speaking about the Savio case, "Healthy adults don't drown in bathtubs accidentally."

To make a long and gruesome story short, the forensic autopsy needs to rule out everything else before reaching a finding of "drowning," much less "accidental drowning." While someone might be found dead in a bathtub, even with water in their lungs, it is vital to determine whether or not they had been knocked unconscious, drugged, or simply held under water until they succumbed. Dr. Baden states that Savio had been viciously beaten with bruises still visible on her body even upon exhumation, and had clear signs of a lacerated scalp.

Nevertheless, coroners may rely too heavily on "initial impressions" of a first responder who reports a dead person in a bathtub and fail to to do a thorough autopsy.

In "Erased," I review a case in which a man killed one wife by staging a "bathtub drowning," got away with it even though no water was found in her lungs, then killed his second wife years later in much the same way. Only after the second death did anyone look carefully at the first case.

Elaine Boczkowski was a healthy woman, married to Tim Boczkowski, but was found dead in her bathtub in their North Carolina home.One might have thought that the fact that the bathtub was empty and dry might have given pause to the medical examiners, but it did not.

Four years later, remarried and living in Pennsylvania, Tim killed his second wife, Mary Anne, simply changing the scene of the "tragic accident" he staged to an outdoor hot tub. At least there was water in the tub the second time. Tim told emergency responders that Mary Anne had been drinking heavily and must have passed out and drowned, just as he had claimed with Elaine. Once again, however, no water was found in her lungs, and no alcohol in her system either.

The autopsy in the second case found clear evidence that Mary Anne's death was no accident. The medical examiner was able to determine that the second Mrs. Boczkowski had not drowned but had been strangled to death. She had apparently fought for her life, leaving scratch marks on her husband's torso, which he would feebly claim were the result of her giving him a "scratch massage." The Pennsylvania findings prompted authorities in North Carolina to re-open and re-investigate the death of Elaine four years after the fact, which was also determined to have been a homicide. Boczkowski was eventually tried and convicted of murdering both his wives.

It must be said that there are adverse health conditions that can be triggered by long immersion in a hot tub, which can, in fact, contribute to drowning. But it is almost impossible to drown in a normal bathtub. Yet alleged death by drowning in the family bathtub remains a popular eraser killer ruse.

Rants by Ronni: Erased--Missing Women, Murdered Wives

Rants by Ronni: Erased--Missing Women, Murdered Wives

Crime blogger Ronni, discusses "perfect storm" of psychological dysfunction

The "perfect storm" of dangerous psychology, which Ronni mentions, is a good way to describe my use of the term the "dark triad" which I have borrowed and adapted from some very technical psychological research. The dark triad is a name for this linkage of three traits that are closely related but also distinctive: Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. One could say extreme manipulativeness, a malignant form of self-centeredness and psychopathy.

Although Ronni quotes me, I like her description: "Psychopaths, we know about. Daumer. Bundy. Duncan. These "cold killing machines" who have no empathy. The thing about Peterson that didn't fit this label was the fact that he had never been in trouble before. Psychopaths tend to get in trouble with the law early in life, and stay that way. Not all of them, of course, but most. The narcissist, on the other hand, is not usually a killer. He likes to reinvent himself, and he needs a constant supply of adoration and positive reinforcement, but his usual pattern is to just disappear when the supply dries up. However, when Machiavellianism is added to the mix. The Machiavellian is a master manipulator."

Cases in my book which explore in detail these traits include Scott Peterson (of course), L. Ewing Scott (made his wife 'disappear' in mid-fifties Los Angeles), Perry March (Nashville), Robert Durst, John David Smith (husband of Fran Gladden Smith of New Jersey), Justin Barber, and many others.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Why They Kill (Part 1)

In all of the “missing wife” cases I have investigated, it became clear to me that “getting away with murder” was an essential force, but not the only force, driving these killers. One might assume that every killer, every criminal of any sort, wants to get away with his crime. But the majority of domestic homicides don’t happen that way. Most are not planned, not carefully calculated and covered up. In fact, in most intimate partner murders, there is no real attempt to "get away with murder." Many men who kill their wives or partners in a violent argument, the heat of the moment, or in an act fueled party by drugs or alcohol, the killer actually experiences considerable remorse. One recent study suggests that up to 40% of men either committed suicide afterwards, tried to do so, or thought about it. Many other wife killers simply run from the crime scene.

Eraser killers aren't like that because they are most likely "calm" (in the kind of calm that only psychopaths can exhibit) as they commit the murder. Scientific studies of psychopaths indicate that they experience little or no fear in resonse to situations or images that would make most of us very fearful.

The meticulous planning and supreme self-control exhibited both before and after these crimes seemed to be a significant aspect of these men’s characters, far beyond the murderous aspect of their personalities. The expertise at lying and manipulation needed to live a double life is indicative of a high degree of Machiavellianism. While political scientists and others sometimes use this term, psychologists have developed a formal category and accompanying tests and measures for people whose psychological makeup ranks high in Machiavellian traits.

Other malignant personality traits seemed to be involved as well: cold-blooded psychopathic tendencies and extreme degrees of narcissism. But there was something else curious about these men’s characters. Erasing their victims appeared to be not just a means to an end but and end in itself. Once they made the decision to kill, they began purging all trace that the victim ever existed from their lives. Many began getting rid of the woman’s possessions within days of her disappearance, pulling up stakes, changing their lifestyles dramatically. Some immediately replaced their missing wives or girlfriends with other women—sometimes with look-alikes for the disappeared. And, most shockingly, some later attempted to get away with murder again, erasing another wife or girlfriend, sometimes in exactly the same manner as their first crime.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Profiler Roy Hazelwood, the organized killer, and "high praise"

Murder scenes are hard to miss. Unless they've been staged by a clever killer. Those who aren't going to visit them in person can look at Vernon Geberth's Homicide Investigation book, but not before dinner. It was Roy Hazelwood, then at the FBI's famed (and controversial) Behavioral Science Unit who first proposed a fundamental distinction between types of homicide scenes--those which were disorganized versus the organized scenes. The disorganized murder scenes showed unmistakable signs of spontaneous violence, uncontrolled attack, often including breakage, overturned objects, perhaps a prolonged struggle. Most murder scenes are like that. Organized scenes show signs of planning and extended premeditation. Usually far less of a mess, because the killer had the great advantage of the planned, "sneak attack." But what Hazelwood did was to propose that there were two basic types of killers one can postulate based on the crime scenes they leave behind as their "signatures"--and that the crime scene would usually indicate either a "disorganized killer" or an "organized one," that is, one who planned his actions carefully.

This distinction turned out to be critical when I reviewed crime scenes in domestic homicide cases. The group I later termed "eraser killers" matched many characteristics of Hazelwood's "organized crime scene" and mentally "organized killer."

I was pleased then when after finishing the book, Hazelwood wrote me with high praise--especially because I am an investigative reporter not a profiler. Hazelwood said:

"Finally! An exceptional writer brings a new perspective to the ancient crime of domestic homicide. Once many years ago, Jeffrey MacDonald, a highly intelligent and physically attractive physician, was convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two small children. When asked why he committed such a heinous crime, I answered 'Because he didn't need them anymore.' This is a very powerful book and Ms. Strong deserves high praise indeed!"

Hazelwood is also author of The Evil that Men Do and Dark Dreams