A recent vacation week took us to the beach and we were lucky enough to rent a cottage right on the ocean. What a pleasure to wake up to seagulls calling to each other as they found breakfast on the incoming surf at the edge of the broad expanse of sand. Morning coffee was extra special as we breathed in the sea air and planned the day ahead.
Aside from all the great sunsets, fabulous seafood restaurants, and much-needed relaxation, we found time to chat about fictional bodies and where to find them.
TV shows and movies feature their share of corpses that have washed up on the rocks lining the shores of lakes, bays, or oceans. Any crime scene at water’s edge has its own challenges for the CSI techs processing the area for evidence, and our vacation spot highlighted a few.
Consider footprints on the sand:
This print had been fully visible until a wave washed it partially into oblivion.
Sneaker treads next to the barefoot print, showed the traffic on the dry part of the beach just a few feet closer to the dune.
There was more than one kind of sneaker tread to be seen.
The sneaker and shoe companies have data bases going back several years indicating the treads and styles of the various shoes they have manufactured. A search warrant or a friendly conversation with the people at the companies will reveal specialty editions of their footwear and the year they were produced. Matching the footwear to the prints on the beach can narrow the suspect list – helpful if the culprit remained in the area and the sneaker was an unusual brand.
Consider the tire tracks:
A windy afternoon caused this tire tread to lose its definition.
This new tire tread was just ten feet away from the footprints.
Beach bikes were in use as well. I didn’t have a ruler with me, so Sheila donated her sandal. This gives you some perspective of the width of the tread, essential in determining the type of vehicles near the ‘scene of the crime.’
Tire companies have data bases as well, and make their information available to law enforcement officers when needed. CSI techs take photos of the various treads for later ID and if needed, make casts of the footwear prints. Read “Is that your footprint?” here.
All three vehicle treads were within 20 feet of each other, along with all the footwear prints seen here – and it wasn’t high season yet, when a greater variety of cars, dune buggies, bikes, and shoes would be around.
Any crime scene in such a well-traveled place means it will be tough to find the killer. Nature washes or blows away the evidence and the crime scene is compromised by all the foot and vehicle traffic.
Law enforcement officers have to hope for witnesses to the dastardly deed.
We turned our attention to the places to hide the body:
This lovely walkway leading from the cottage to the dunes gave access to an area that looked suitable for body stashing. Except that it wasn’t really all that great for anything covert. Three houses near ours had direct line of sight to that walkway, and all had overhead lights strung along their own paths to the beach.
Each of the other houses had three floors – ours was the smallest of the group. That meant that anyone looking out at the ocean could also see anyone dragging a body out to the beach grass next to/under the boards.
But, let’s say that nobody is looking out the window. While it is illegal to dig up the beach grass in the dunes because of erosion programs in most oceanside communities, a killer would have no such concerns. BUT, that Beach Grass (actual name is American Beach Grass) is tough. It’s meant to be, so that it holds the sand in place during stormy weather. It would not be practical or at all speedy to dig a hole in a grass-covered dune in order to hide the body.
Maybe that’s why so many bodies in the TV movies are dumped elsewhere and merely wash up on the beach. Then the writers don’t have to worry about how to hide the body at the scene of the crime.
Sheila here. This morning, I finished trimming one of the backyard crepe myrtles and hauled the branches out to the curb. I had to use a reciprocating saw to cut through part of the tree, but was able to use a handheld clipper for some of the smaller sections. I felt that clipper fall out of my pocket while I stacked the debris at the curb. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I finished dragging and piling the branches before I looked for the wayward tool.
Guess what? It took me a few minutes to find it, even though I basically knew where it had fallen and had a limited area in which to search.
We frequently watch TV shows and movies telling the tales of people that go missing in the night, people who might have wandered off from a campsite, people or children who might have been separated from a touring group, but who then get lost. Nothing nefarious suspected, but the person hasn’t turned up in a reasonable amount of time. Maybe they tripped and fell, hit their head, and became unconscious.
There are search and rescue groups organized for just this purpose, and most of the members are well-trained volunteers. See Fiona Quinn’s article here.
We, the public, think a body in the woods would be easy to find, unless buried in the ground, or hidden behind a rock, so why do we need all the people and the dogs walking close to each other in a well-defined, mapped out grid?
How hard could it be?
Charlie’s crime oriented brain has rubbed off on me, so this is what I did. I stuffed an old pair of jeans, stuck one of my bright pink wellies at the end of a leg, piled the branches on top of ‘the body part’ and took photos. My apologies to the new neighbors who don’t know what Charlie and I do in our spare time.
Can’t possibly miss that bright pink wellie I showed you at the beginning?
This is what you’re searching for:
The ‘leg’ is fully visible from this angle, right?
All I did was walk to the other side of the brush pile. A glimpse of the jeans can be seen, but not the bright pink wellie.
I did not remove ‘the body part’ before taking this picture, I promise you. I knew right where the jeans and wellie were and could not see them. Standing right over the ‘crime scene,’ and just because I was at a different angle, and a few steps in a different direction, the area looked quite innocent. Just another gardening pile, in the middle of a nice neighborhood, waiting for pickup from the city refuse truck.
This is why we need Search and Rescue teams walking close together, looking at every blade of grass in front of their feet. In this case, if the ‘body’ had been in the woods, the dogs would probably be called out as well.
Many thanks to all the hardworking volunteers who train vigorously in tough terrain to get certified and are ready to help whenever called upon.
Disclaimer: I did not use a real body part. The jeans were stuffed with t-shirts. Seriously. 😉
TV shows and movies have long used the ‘put-the-body-in-the-suitcase’ mode of hiding a body when someone dies in a nefarious way during a vacation. But is it realistic? Could it really be done?
If we set aside the smell factor (bodies start to stink within 24 hours if left unrefrigerated) corpses need to be hidden while they are still flexible and ‘stuffable.’ Rigor mortis (post-mortem stiffening of the body) sets in fairly quickly, so any book or TV show that shows the body being stuffed into a container in the first hour or so after death, is probably fairly accurate in that detail. Cold temperatures slow down the rate of rigor mortis and warm temperatures speed it up, so the surrounding environment plays a big factor in how speedy the corpse disposal must be.
Bodies are bulky and have those inconvenient limbs that don’t want to stay where they are put. In “Is that a body in the rug?” I chatted about why carrying a body around in a rug is a dumb idea. Waaay too many things can go wrong.
So, what to do? If the evildoer needs to move the body away from the scene of the crime in order to allow him/her to establish an alibi, a large container with wheels might be a solution. A laundry cart would fill the bill in a limited way if the victim died in a hotel, but what if the murderer wants to get the body out of the building?
The photo above shows my travel golf bag with a man standing next to it. As you can see, it’s not really long enough for stowing a grown man’s body, even though it looks like it should be when seen rolling through an airport. I tried getting into it, scrunching down, bending my knees, holding my arms tightly to my body, but nope. Not long enough even though I’m less than six feet tall. Maybe for somebody shorter?
Season #4 of the popular TV show, “Longmire,” included an episode featuring a body found on the side of the road in a large duffle bag after a tour bus had left the scene. There was an assumption that it had been inadvertently forgotten after a highway traffic accident. Until somebody tried to lift the bag. And then looked inside. Ooops.
Bodies are waaay heavier than can be handled by normal luggage seen in department stores. I did find a company online that makes six-foot long duffel bags complete with heavy duty stitching and zippers – important for those times when something other than tent poles would be in the bag.
Would it be possible to send the body by commercial airline? Aside from the logistical problems of getting the body to the airport and the smell factor – who would carry it, etc. – commercial airline restrictions limit baggage to 50 pounds each. Some airlines (not all) will allow overage in some cases for an extra fee, but that’s at the discretion of the agents at the airport and/or requires special permission. If the flight is fully booked, an agent will check the cargo weight before takeoff and leave bags behind if the safety weight limit for the total cargo has been reached. My mother asked me once how I could manage carrying my travel golf bag (filled with the clubs as well as golf clothes, shoes, gloves, and golf balls). First of all, the bag has wheels, and the clubs themselves weigh less than 25 pounds.
And then there is the size restriction and no airline employee can fudge on that without someone in the baggage chain questioning an extra-large bag. Remember, baggage handlers have to pick these bags up and hand load them onto baggage movers. The upper limit on size is 72” – that’s a combination of the length, width and height measurements. The 6’ duffle would be long enough for the average adult, but it doesn’t take into account the width of the bag or height, thereby eliminating it from travel by commercial flight without those special fees and permissions. Plus, most duffles don’t come with wheels.
The “Longmire” body was that of a petite young woman, so she fit easily into a six-foot duffle. The gal probably weighed about 100-120 pounds, but there were no wheels attached to the bag. How did the murderer remove the fully packed bag from the crime scene? No spoiler here, but he/she had to have help, even with the handles on the bag. The use of the tour bus as the would-be mode of transportation was believable, since the fully loaded duffle would never have made it through all the security checks on a commercial airline, even a cargo flight. Kudos to “Longmire” for realism.
Having said all that, as one advertisement said, you need a bag that “will carry you through any situation or season.”
For all around ease of use (wheels, size) a trunk probably is the best choice. And, they’re even on sale right now at some locations. Kidding. 😉
But, as a long-term way of establishing an alibi? Face it, you’re gonna get caught. Moving large duffles or trunks? Somebody is going to see you do it and remember it. After all, it’s not a bag of groceries.
*Note: no bodies were found in any of the suitcases or trunks we used for research.
**Further note: this information is for entertainment purposes only. Seriously.
***Photos by Patti Phillips