Killers know that they leave behind fingerprints and trace evidence at the scenes of their crime. They know law enforcement will probably be hot on their trail. They also probably know a little bit about how forensic science works, from shows such as CSI. Most of all, they know they don’t want to go to prison.
Put those factors together, and you have nothing less than the “modern era of kill and cover up,” says Laura Pettler, a North Carolina-based forensic criminologist.
“There’s such a difference between what you’re looking at, and what you see,” she told Forensic Magazine in an interview.
Some 14,000 to 16,000 homicides are committed in the United States every year. There are inevitably even more that go overlooked, among the suicides, accidents, fires, and missing persons. But there could be more than anyone suspects – perhaps even hundreds nationwide each year, Pettler contends.
Murderers getting away with it, potentially because crafty killers are finding ways to mislead investigators by cleaning up a blood stain, planting a gun in a dead hand, dragging a body – or just lying.
“We have between 14,000 and 16,000 murders on the books, a year, in the U.S. Less than 1 percent of those are serial killers, she said. “You have street crime, you have intimate partners. They’re broken down by categories. If that’s what we do know – what about the unknown?”
Pettler recently published her first book, Crime Scene Staging Dynamics in Homicide Cases, through CRC Press. She calls it a “first log on the fire” of re-thinking death investigations.
The book revisits the criminal case history, stretching back to the story of Cain and Abel (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”), through Shakespeare’s version of the life of Macbeth (“Out, damned spot!”), through to high-profile homicides such as Susan Smith’s drowning her two sons in 1994 amid a bogus kidnapping story, and the brutal slaying of Laci Peterson by her husband Scott Peterson in 2002.
Pettler also revisits some of the criminology history. Looming large is the exhaustive library of books penned by Vernon Geberth, former NYPD homicide commander. Geberth wrote his first edition of Practical Homicide Investigation in 1982, and his fifth and most recent edition last year. Geberth, she writes, was the first to go beyond his own extensive experience (of roughly 8,000 homicides) – and empirically test what other investigators had observed about staged scenes in more than 45,000 death investigations.
Pettler’s main focus is “intimicide” – a crime-of-passion killing between intimate partners. Though each case is unique, the most common “intimicides” involve males killing females, and then making the scene look like a suicide or a disappearance. Pettler’s book looks at the staged crime scene, and offers a methodology to reason out the totality of evidence. Death investigations can keep on the right track by listening and analyzing the tenor and tone or the 9-1-1 call (since stagers almost always “find” the body). Other clues include the position of hair and drag marks, indicating if a body had been moved. Lividity and rigor mortis can offer further clues, and ballistics can also verify whether someone shot themselves – or sustained a wound from an impossible suicide angle.
But the psychology and circumstantial evidence can also help guide an investigation, Pettler said. Pettler advocates for analyzing the “victimology” of the deceased, as much as the physical forensic traces.
“America is hyper focused on physical evidence. Investigators can get tunnel vision on the forensic evidence,” she said. “But the crime scene does not always put the weapons in the hand of the offender.”
One of the key examples of how a crafty killer can get rid of their partners could be the story of Betty Lafon Neumar. Pettler was the district attorney’s investigator on a cold-case task force who determined that the 76-year-old grandmother had outlived five husbands and a son. Neumar was arrested in 2008 for the 1986 death of fourth husband Harold Gentry – but died before she could stand trial.
But stories like Neumar’s have continued to multiply, Pettler said.
“She died before she was tried, and she was never convicted of anything,” said Pettler. “She should have been tried.”
Whether it’s slowly poisoning a husband, or shooting a wife and then putting the pistol in her hand, killers have come to realize that they can try to distort the forensic science to give them a chance to get away with the crime. The “CSI Effect,” is well-known: popular depictions of criminal investigations on TV and in the media raise the expectations prosecutors have to meet higher, sometimes impossibly high.
But there are other factors, too. Offenders might become more aware of the need to cover up certain aspects of their crimes. And there could even be cultural aspects of people failing to be able to take responsibility for their own actions, which could lead to more staging behaviors.
“Most crime-scene stagers are normal people,” Pettler said. “But the staged scene can be reflective of the stager’s true self. Intimicide is a private act – it takes place behind closed doors.”
Kenneth Mains, the president of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases, said that he knows Pettler to be a consummate professional.
"She is very, very passionate about what she does," said Mains. "She gives 120 percent, all the time."
From catching critters to catching criminals
Crime Scene Staging Dynamics in Homicide Cases is a medium-length overview of the methodology in looking at staged scenes. But she has multiple smaller books forthcoming that expand on the theories. One promises to look at the “victimology” priority of a death investigation, and another looks at the “intimicide” phenomenon from its standpoint as a conflict-resolution tactic gone violent.
TV is another avenue that Pettler has ventured into. She has been involved in several true-crime shows in development which are under consideration by several networks. Starting in 2017, she is the host of a true-crime show centered in Beaver County, Pa. focused on the purported crimes of serial killer Edward Arthur Surratt.
Her family roots stretch back to Pennsylvania. And those roots run deep. Her grandfather held several patents in the brickmaking and bricklaying processes. Pettler’s father, a bank executive, encouraged her innovations by giving her ingredients to make contraptions – whether it was traps for crayfish or salamander, or other test inventions.
“I was always testing something – always building something,” recalls Pettler. “He always told me there was no limit to what you could do in this work.”
The passion for creating and building lasted into adulthood for Pettler, now 42. For instance, her Kaleidoscope Crime Scene Reconstruction System – a kind of ballistics and blood-spatter analysis system in one – is currently sold in 30 countries.
Pettler’s father passed away in April – but not before he got the first copy of the staging book, and gave his seal of approval. He said his daughter’s book was his own “crowning jewel,” just months before he passed.
Pettler lives on a North Carolina farm with her husband (an investigator himself) and grown daughter. She is constantly employing her handywoman skills to fix up the barns that house the award-winning Friesian horses, and caring for the champion French bulldogs she has raised for years.
But her passion for crime-solving continually takes her traveling away from the idyllic 17 acres of Cavalleria Rusticana. She continues to serve as the vice president for the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases – and she says the unknowns in American death investigations keep her striving for justice.
“Could you imagine – we have 40,000 suicides a year. Half of those are firearms-related,” she said. “How many of those are actually homicides that are missed?
“The whole point is to make this easier for cops,” she added.