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.