Thursday, January 7, 2010

Investigation 101: Tips For Law Enforcement and Family Members

By Tad DiBiase

I’m often asked by both the families of missing persons and law enforcement what the police and family should be doing once a person is missing but presumed dead. Here are five things the police should focus on early in an investigation and one thing the family can do. In any murder investigation, time is of the essence and the faster the police can gather clues, the greater their chance of finding the victim’s body and making an arrest. Note that all of these techniques are useful even if the victim is merely missing and not actually dead.  Moreover, although this are things done by the police, the victim's family can assist the police with these techniques by giving the police the ideas and the information that enables the police to investigate the matter.

1. Cell phones

Cell phones have a wealth of information and their widespread use in today’s society make them a valuable source of information. The police, often with the help of a subpoena issued by the prosecutor’s office, can get the records from the victim’s phone and see who the victim was calling, when the calls stopped and who called after the outgoing calls stopped. Checking the frequency of calls also help police determine who was close to the victim. Cell phones utilize cell towers to make calls and obtaining cell tower records tell police where a call was coming from. Indeed, the cell towers to which a phone sends a signal can change during the duration of a call, so police can track the path of the victim. However, phone companies keep cell tower records for very limited periods, often as few as 20 to 30 days so police must move quickly to get these records. Of course, all of these techniques apply to potential suspects as well.

2. Interviews

Police should immediately interview as many who know the victim as possible. Close family members and friends must be interviewed in detail to gather information. Videotaping these interviews is best because if the story changes down the road, the police have an accurate record of what was said initially. Any suspects should also be interviewed and their story thoroughly checked out.

3. Search warrants

I have seen over the years the difficulties police have in getting search warrants for suspect’s houses or other possible scenes in missing person’s cases. First, police should aggressively pursue consent searches if possible. If that fails, they must at least try to get a search warrant. There’s nothing wrong with putting in a search warrant that the police suspect foul play and that the victim’s characteristics are inconsistent with having simply left town, e.g., left behind children, is a child, have not accessed bank accounts, failed to show up to work, etc. Citing other cases of missing persons who were later found dead or were never found, increase the chances a judge will agree the victim may be dead. Getting inside a suspect’s house often leads to very valuable scientific evidence. Any search should include a cadaver dog. You’d be amazed at how often suspects bury a body nearby, sometimes temporarily until they can move it to another, safer location.

4. Pressure suspect

If there is an obvious suspect, pressure must be applied. Through effective interrogation techniques, a suspect will often confess early on since the guilt is fresh and the suspect’s story not quite thought out yet. A suspect should be placed under surveillance to see if he or she returns to the crime scene or where the body was disposed of. Advances in GPS technology have led police to placing GPS tracking devices on a suspect’s car and using the information to see where the suspect goes. For an interesting recent article from the Washington Post about this see,

5. Think creatively

Don’t treat the case like a missing person case, treat it like a homicide where the best evidence of the crime is missing: the body. Police must think outside the box. In one case, the family had not heard from the victim for sometime but was receiving letters allegedly written by the victim. The family, suspicious that the victim was actually dead, wrote back and reminded the victim to send the money he owed to another family member and to not forget that same family member’s birthday. A few days letter a birthday card arrived along with a check for $25. Of course, the victim did not owe that family member any money and it was not his birthday so the family knew that it was not the victim writing the letters. This is just one example of police and a family thinking creatively to ensnare a killer. Someone with the ability to conceal a body is not a criminal who is likely to make stupid mistakes like the bank robber who writes a stickup note on his own deposit slip. These cases are huge law enforcement challenges and require creative solutions and investigative techniques.

What can the family do?

First, never, ever give up.  No body cases are often solved many years after the fact.  Although forensic advances making solving these cases easier, many cold cases still exist and a family can never lose hope. 

Second, keep the pressure on the police and the DA.  don't be shy about calling to see what the status of the investigation is.  You're not being a pest, you're being  a squeaky wheel that needs oil! 

Third, try to keep the case in the media if possible.  Anniversaries of disappearances and landmarks for family members (victim's children's graduations, birthdays, etc.) are good hooks to get the media involved and interested.  Media coverage keeps pressure on the cops, suspects and witnesses alike, always a good thing. 

Fourth, consider, if you can afford it, hiring an investigator or attorney to conduct your own investigation.  Often third parties can get more information from police and prosecutors and look dispassionately at the case in a way you can't.

Thomas A. (Tad) DiBiase, No Body Guy
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  1. Thank you for taking the time, Tad. Very appreciated!
    Terry Hoyt
    Mother of Murdered 23 yr. old daughter
    (on Facebook)

  2. Thanks...

    It will be 35 years that Sharron was abducted and murdered. Still a coldcase!

    BUT we never give Up!

    Prior family


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