A Tragic Accident or Homicidal Drowning? What First Responders can do.

A Tragic Accident or Homicidal Drowning? What First Responders can do.

Andrea Zaferes and Walt Hendrick, Lifeguard Systems and RIPTIDE az@teamlgs.com

An adolescent drowns in a lake where he frequently swam, and it is ruled accidental. Twenty years later his brother confesses that he and his friends watched a man drown his brother. A woman is found drowned in a bathtub. The ruling is accidental drowning. When the woman’s husband drowns his second wife in a hot tub, the truth is discovered. Both were murders.

A 4 year old boy drowns in a bathtub. Accident is the initial ruling by law enforcement. RIPTIDE investigators point out red flags that the sheriff’s department use to obtain a confession in an ensuing interview with the father who committed premeditated homicide to decrease his child support payments.

The initial determinations of these actual drowning incidents as accidents are not uncommon. What we believe is uncommon is the discovery of their red flags and the ensuing investigations. How many other homicidal drowning cases are being missed? We believe far too many.

Our experience with thousands of law enforcement, dive team, and medical personnel internationally has convinced us that a large percentage of homicidal drowning incidents are either not sufficiently investigated or are not investigated at all. There are several reasons for this. “Tragic accident” is too common a mindset–one that can cause tunnel vision. The red flags normally found on homicide victims or at the scenes are rarely present, and law enforcement and medical personnel are not trained to recognize the red flags specific to homicidal drowning. The body may not have been recovered. Rescue personnel may destroy evidence. Because drowning evidence is usually circumstantial rather than hard; cases are difficult to investigate and prosecute. Hence drowning cases may be pushed back when case loads are heavy. The drowning determination by process of exclusion can make it difficult to prove whether a victim drowned or was disposed of in the water. Witnesses are often “grieving” family members, which adds to the “tragic accident” mindset. And very importantly, if a drowning is investigated, it is usually motivated by hindsight, after valuable scene evidence has been lost. Therefore, a standard information gathering, incident form to use on every drowning incident would be very helpful.

We believe that as many as twenty percent of child drowning incidents may be homicides. And as we learn more, we suspect that “female” may be a red flag for foul play in both child and adult drownings.

Land and water deaths are treated differently. A hunter finds the body of a young man in the woods. A detective, crime scene technician, and coroner arrive to search for signs of foul play. The site is taped off and an officer is stationed to prevent scene contamination. The exact position and condition of the body is documented. Potential evidence is collected.

What if a fisherman discovers the same body underwater, and similarly, neither the cause nor manner of death is obvious? Our experience shows that “accidental drowning” is the most likely mindset for arriving personnel. The dive team is called in to recover the body, which may or may not be bagged as it is dragged to shore. Is the body’s exact condition and location documented, along with wind, current, and depth? Are water samples taken? Are detectives and a medical examiner called in? Are the underwater and shore areas taped off and searched for possible evidence? Many departments have to answer “no” to most, or all, of these questions.

Compare a dispatch for a toddler found dead at the bottom of basement steps in her home with a call for a toddler found drowned in a bathtub. The crying mother states that she went to answer the phone, was gone for less than two minutes, and, when she returned, found Sally not moving. How are these incidents managed? Are crime scene technicians called in? Is the house well photographed? Are scene temperatures taken? Are family members, neighbors, and babysitters interviewed? Is the family checked for any previous child or spouse deaths? The answers are likely to be “yes” for the basement incident and “no” for the drowning. Without obvious evidence to the contrary, the occurrence of drowning is typically treated as a tragic accident.The tendency to see drowning incidents as accidents may cause red flags and evidence to be missed at every level of personnel from first responders to medical examiners. Compounding this is that drowning scenes present little or no typical signs of foul play. Victim trauma, signs of struggle at the scene, and signs of previous abuse, are not typically visible at pure-drowning homicide incidents (i.e. no other violence or cause of death other than drowning).2

We are quick to perceive foul play when victims have a bullet in their head or bricks tied to their body, or when the available information is illogical. The vast majority of drowning homicides that do get reported in research papers and coroner reports involve additional forms of violence, such as strangulation, stabbing, or beating.1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 This is not evidence that the majority of drowning homicides include other forms of violence; rather it more likely demonstrates that police and medical personnel more frequently recognize such aggravated drowning homicide incidents, and miss, or fail to gain convictions on, pure-drowning homicides.

Holding a child’s head underwater in a tub takes little effort. The little water splashed from the tub is easily wiped away. A non-swimmer pushed into deeper water may not even have subcutaneous bruising. Pure-drowning homicides can be medically undetectable, are effortless to perform, require no perpetrator skill, require little or no clean up, the body does not need to be disposed of, and the perpetrator often receives much sympathetic attention and possibly accidental death life insurance money.

A father calls for help when his four year old son drowns in a bathtub. Deputies find the father performing CPR. RIPTIDE contacted the investigators, who had accepted accidental drowning, and helped investigators obtain a confession of premeditated murder. An infant death is ruled as SIDS by an experienced medical examiner. A later tip sparks an investigation. The mother’s boyfriend drowned the infant in a sink because it cried.

While on a boat with her family, a young girl falls out and drowns. Accidental drowning is ruled. Two years later the mother admits that the father hit the girl out of the boat.

Keep your investigative mind alert when responding to drowning incidents. Ensure that hospital physicians notify police about all drowned or near drowned patients. Pathologists should routinely check the full torso for subcutaneous bruising and other signs of foul play on drowning victims. This is especially important when there are no witnesses, the witnesses knew the victim prior to death, or when the drowning incident seems illogical. If examination of the victim’s lungs does not show evidence of water aspiration, other causes of death must be considered. Departments should consider homicidal drowning investigation training.

We also recommend a standard incident form be used on all drowning incidents to better collect and recognize potentially valuable evidence of foul play. This record would also provide research data. If you would like a sample of such a form to review, please contact us.

We have found that responding EMS and Fire personnel can make a critical difference in not only whether a law enforcement investigation is opened for a body-found-in-water1 incident, but also in whether a rightful conviction can be obtained? So what should you do when you arrive on scene to a body-found-in-water incident? First and foremost, make no assumptions, be observant, and document as much as possible! Obviously safety and patient care comes first, so documentation may have to take place after the patient is transferred to hospital personnel.

1 Until there is evidence that the patient drowned, keep terminology unbiased. Just because people are found unresponsive in water does not mean that they drowned.

1. As you walk into the scene actively look around and make mental notes. Was a wet diaper laying on the floor? Are there any wet towels on the floor? How many people are on the immediate scene? Is there any smell you can distinguish such as alcohol or vomit?2. Are the witnesses wet? You might be able to touch a witness on the arm in a gesture of support to feel if an arm or sleeve is damp.

3. Where exactly did you first see the patient and in was the body posture? A not to scale sketch would be invaluable if the victim becomes a patient and is moved from the scene.

4. Was there any vomit, feces, or other substance found in the water or on the scene that looked like it could have come from the victim.

5. If someone from your crew has access to the water where the victim supposedly was found in touch it to get a sense of temperature (cold, cool, body temperature, warm, hot).


6. If the “drowning” took place in a bathtub or similar arena, and the water is still present, see if a crew member can stick an arm in the water and with a pen make a notch on the arm to roughly document depth. Your justification- if the water was so shallow that drowning does not make sense then physicians may have to look for other conditions that caused the unresponsiveness in order to provide proper treatment.7. When possible have a crew member ask, and document, such information as: When was the patient’s last meal and what was eaten? How was the patient feeling today and if anything was unusual please describe this. How much alcohol do you think the patient drank today? Ask about medications, illicit drugs, and all the normal questions you would ask to help you and physicians properly treat the patient. This information documented on the PCR could also became very valuable to an ensuing law enforcement investigation.

8. Have one or more crew members pay close attention to what witnesses say happened, and later document as much of this verbatim as possible. If a witness says “child”, write “child”; if “kid”, write “kid.”

Next, make observations regarding the victim.

1. Body position and posture – face up, down..? If witnesses removed the victim from the water see if one of your crew can ask where the victim was found and in what position.2. What is the victim wearing and are there any wet clothes (including shoes, eye glasses…) noticeable on the scene?

3. How wet is the victim’s hair, skin, clothing? Dripping? Damp?

4. Examine the victim’s eyes and note pupil size, any discoloration, and anything unusual.

5. Take a look at the victim’s hands and feet and note the degree of wrinkling.

6. Skin color and temperature – and document what parts of the body you touched and examined.

7. Make a note of any mark you notice on the body such as a scratch, a bruise, etc.

8. If you are capable of taking a core temperature during transport make sure to do so more than once if possible with proper documentation

9. Document anything that comes out of the patient’s airway (i.e. vomit, water, ..). Be descriptive. If possible collect this material even if all you can do is wipe it into a towel.

10. If any part of the victim’s body is stiff make a note of the time and body location. For example, notice if the jaw, neck, or fingers, elbow are at all stiff.


If you have, or have had, any drowning incidents, please contact us. RIPTIDE, a nonprofit organization, collects case files, autopsy reports, scene and autopsy photographs, and 911 tapes for analysis. The data are used to help medics, law enforcement, prosecutors, coroners, and pathologists identify whether a drowning is accidental, suicidal or homicidal. RIPTIDE also offers assistance with investigations. We also look forward to your questions and comments and to sharing information: RIPTIDE www.rip-tide.org Tel/fax (845) 657-5544, POB 594 Shokan NY 12481, Fax 845-657-5549 az@rip-tide.org


1. Copeland A. Homicidal drowning. Forensic Sci Internat 1986; 31:247-252.2. Fanton L, Miras A, Tilhet-Coartet S, et al. The perfect crime: myth or reality? Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1998; 19:290-293.

3. Lucas J, Goldfeder LB, Gill JR. Bodies found in the waterways of New York City. J Forensic Sci 2002; 47:137-141.

4. Missliwetz J. Stellwag-Carion C. Six cases of premediated murder of adults by drowning. Arch Kriminol 1995; 195:75-84.

5. Oishi F. A typical case of homicide and head injuries. Tokyo ika daigaku Zasshi 1970; 28:541-548.

6. Pollanen MS. Diatoms and homicide. Forensic Sci Internat 1998; 91:29-34.

7. Trubner K, Puschel K. Todesfalle in der Badewanne. Arch Kriminol 1991; 188:35-46.

8. Heinemann A, Pusche K. Discrepancies in homicide statistics by suffocation. 1996; 197:129-141.

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Author: Karen Thomas-Malloy

Karen has been with Lifeguard Systems as since 2003. As the General Manager since 2004, she is happy to help with any questions!

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