Though the Smiley Face Killers have enough forensic smarts to know it’s better to dump a body in water where evidence washes away than leaving it on land to fester and implicate, it’s not impossible to distinguish an authentic drowning from a staged one. It just requires a very thorough autopsy and police investigation, which the majority of Smiley’s victims never get.
In part three of Crime Magazine’s Smiley Face Murder series by Eponymous Rox we look at the elements of a true drowning death and the science involved in determining whether an unattended and suspicious water fatality was indeed an “accident.”
ANATOMY OF A DROWNING
For those who think that drowning is a pleasant way to go, think again. Drowning is a violent assault on the body during which the frightened victim fiercely, albeit briefly, battles to survive. Death follows exhaustion within only two or three minutes.
Technically, it is true that a person can drown in as little as a cup of water. A cup, a puddle, a gulley, a bathtub – anytime liquid enters the air passages and lungs, even if someone doesn’t die immediately, it can still turn fatal because there are a host of medical complications which can arise that are always life-threatening, such as pneumonia and renal failure. These type of delayed fatalities are known as “secondary drownings” and, though their symptoms may develop over the course of several days, or even longer for some patients, they’re usually triggered within only a few hours of the initial incident.
But most victims drown fully submerged in water when the nose and mouth inadvertently become covered. Sometimes, when there is an instantaneous glottal spasm blocking off oxygen, or a preexisting medical condition, death can be automatic without any signs of a struggle. In the majority of drownings, however, this is not the case. Struggling is one of the key stages leading to unconsciousness and death. In fact, so intense can this final fight for life be that, in more than 10-percent of drowning fatalities, an autopsy will actually reveal bruised and ruptured muscles, particularly in the shoulders, chest and neck. Evidence of injuries of this nature suggest to a medical examiner the strong likelihood that a victim was alive in the water at the time of their demise and not placed there already dead.
The stages of a full-immersion drowning event are quick and, because the victim’s airways are being blocked, either by water and/or the epiglottis, it’s often completely soundless. There will be panicked thrashing as the victim desperately attempts to get air and to grab onto nearby objects for security, and then, when they can no longer hold their breath, they’ll begin to inhale water in large quantities, gulping it into their stomach as well. This action also rapidly circulates water throughout their other systems and bloodstream with differing biochemical reactions depending on whether they’re in saltwater or in fresh. This last stage of drowning ends with coughing, vomiting, convulsions, loss of consciousness, death, and rigor mortis.
PLACE AND POSTURE OF A DROWN VICTIM
Very shortly after the victim dies their body will start to sink. If retrieved soon thereafter, their arms and hands may display cadaveric spasm, a posture in death borne out of extreme mental anguish and which reveals the person’s final thoughts and movements as they frantically fought to stay alive.
If a victim is not promptly retrieved at death, then, without exception and no matter how deep or how swift the water may be, their corpse will continue to drift downward until it reaches the bottom. This is where it will remain in a somewhat fetal position until gases from putrefaction cause it to rise to the surface once more.
A semi-fetal posture is the norm for all drown victims, so if divers do locate such a body before it ascends, but it isn’t in this pose and/or the head is seen to be tilted to one side, they must include these observations in their police recovery report, as it reveals the victim died on land and was put in the water post-rigor mortis.
REFLOAT OF A DROWN CORPSE
Typically, once the body does emerge on its own, it will surface in the general vicinity of where the victim originally went under. From this location the water may then carry the corpse along for quite a distance, depending on the strength of the currents or if it becomes ensnared and is thereby prevented.
Refloat largely depends on the water’s depth and temperature, taking only a matter of hours to occur if extremely warm and up to two weeks or longer if at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less. The timetable, therefore, is not fixed but is loosely as follows: At 40 degrees Fahrenheit it takes approximately fourteen to twenty days for a drown victim’s corpse to resurface; at 50 degrees ten to fourteen days; at 60 degrees seven to ten days; at 70 degrees three to seven days; and at 80+ degrees one to two days or sooner. In very cold and very deep bodies of water, like certain oceans or the Great Lakes of North America, it’s not unusual at all for a drown victim to never resurface, lying on the bottom in a state of suspended decomposition until their body eventually disintegrates or is otherwise destroyed.
But in temperate oceans, rivers, lakes, ponds, pools, reservoirs, quarries, or the like, a corpse will inevitably rise again, sooner or later, occasionally exploding to the surface if it was deliberately anchored. And when it does reappear, if the person did genuinely die from drowning, then they will always be discovered floating face down in the water, with the head drooping forward and lower than the rest of the body.
Lividity, the pooling of blood and bodily fluids, will then have permanently settled into the under regions of the corpse by then, weighting it from beneath and essentially acting as a ballast so that, even when disturbed, say by a collision with a boat, it will return to this original position.
If one can stomach a physical inspection of the body and knows what to look for, at this point it becomes relatively easy to determine the length of time a victim’s actually been submerged. However, because a sunken body could have been slowly dragged along the water’s bed by currents and further damaged against rocks and similar objects, or even partially eaten by marine animals, it may be difficult for the layperson to ascertain if any injuries happened in life or were obtained postmortem.
APPEARANCE OF A DROWN VICTIM ON RESURFACING
Damaged or not, if a body has been in the water for at least one to 48 hours, wrinkling of the skin will be present already, particularly on the palms of the hands and fingertips and on the soles and toes of the feet. Noticeable blanching and bloating of the epidermis may also be underway too, with blotches and discolorations ranging in hue from pink to dark red distributed unevenly across the body.
In excess of the above time period, the victim’s epidermis may look a greenish bronze and will have begun pimpling and even pre-peeling as fat deposits just beneath it slowly transform into a soapy material and loosen the skin. This is especially true of the flesh on the hands and feet, which will slip off on its own – or when tugged – just like gloves. A process of decay aptly named “degloving.”
If signs of degloving are already evident on such a corpse, special care must be taken in recovering the body from the water, since additional harm can easily be inflicted when physically grappling with it or maneuvering it about with hooks and mechanical devices.
Once it has been successfully recovered, a waterlogged body will rapidly deteriorate when fully exposed to air, therefore an autopsy must be performed immediately in order to help determine the exact cause of death and the manner. This may seem superfluous, but the fact is death-by-drowning is not wholly assumed by medical experts and law enforcement, especially where there have been no witnesses to unequivocally substantiate it.
ACCIDENTAL DROWNING OR MURDER?
In forensic terms, there is nothing whatsoever deemed “classic” about any drowning, no one particular physical characteristic manifesting in a corpse that would aid in expediting such a ruling. Because of this, the methodology for reaching a determination that it was a water death and accidental is one that is chiefly focused on excluding foul play. This places a great deal of importance on the initial investigative role of police personnel who could inform or misinform a medical examiner with their onsite reports and early conclusions.
Even the autopsy is insufficient on its own for definitively pinpointing the victim’s cause and manner of death as an accidental drowning, but the line of inquiry a medical examiner follows during this phase of the inquest is to review the circumstances of how the deceased person reportedly first entered the water and to try to judge if the body they’re viewing matches up to that version of events. If so, and the death indeed appears benign, the medical examiner will then proceed to determine whether the drowning was a result of the individual’s own failure to stay afloat or the byproduct of some underlying ailment. For this reason, there are educated assumptions which may safely be arrived at when the victim in question is young and healthy, whereas it’s not impossible in older people that they may have died in the water as a result of a heart attack or emphysema, or some other serious medical problem.
That makes prompt identification of the body vital to a postmortem medical exam, but a corpse will always be more deeply probed in those cases where the victim’s identity is still not known or the fatality somehow looks and sounds suspicious.
Lying on the examiner’s slab and before taking a scalpel to flesh, there are visual clues that can provide a few preliminary answers about the death. For instance, drowning produces a thin foam in and around the victim’s mouth which usually lingers there for several days before washing away. The presence or absence of this transient substance, on the other hand, is not conclusive because drug overdoses, electrocutions and strangulations also have the same foaming effect, and because close to 20-percent of drownings are actually “dry drownings” where the victim took almost no water into their airways but died instantly or else suffocated very quickly from a sudden throat-closing reflex.
To see if this telltale foam did once exist, placing a hand firmly on the victim’s chest and gently compressing it should bring the substance back up once more, perhaps even with pebbles and sand in it. Alternately, when a corpse has begun to decay a darkish, foul-smelling fluid might fill the mouth instead, but this is standard to all types of deaths where putrefaction has set in and is therefore of little diagnostic value. It is the existence of a pair of oversaturated lungs, ideally with debris in them, that will most strongly point to death by drowning.
Also, the victim’s hands can, and often do, reveal important evidence. A drowning person grasps at everything within arm’s reach to prevent themselves from going under, so they may still be clutching a variety of foreign objects in them. These can be anything they managed to grab hold of before losing consciousness, such as nearby plants, twigs and other artifacts. In fact, this phenomenon is so common, that in some cases it can be considered suspect if the hands are empty.
In death as in life, a person’s eyes can tell a story, too. If the victim still has eyeballs in their sockets when retrieved and these are wide open and glistening, as is usual for bodies found face down in the water, then there is a high probability that they drowned, though this alone won’t yet prove whether it was on purpose or by accident. If, instead, a horizontal demarcation “line” is perceptible on each of the eyes (showing distinct cloudy and un-cloudy zones created by postmortem exposure to the air) then they expired -- or were killed -- someplace on dry land.
Smiley Face Murders, Smiley Face Killers, unsolved crime, serial crime