Body disposal sites are the most objective crime scene locations available because they represent the last known whereabouts of the victim.1 Difficulty in finding a homicide victim’s body can significantly delay police investigations. Further, this casts uncertainty on the individual’s status and can leave law enforcement agencies unsure if they should treat the case as a matter involving a missing person, rather than a homicide.2
Disposal of a victim’s body shows an additional level of effort by the offender to stymie the police investigation. Researchers determined the common methods of disposal in domestic homicide cases include covering, dimpling, burying, and leaving the body in remote places.3 Other research into rural homicides in Finland found that 27 percent of cases involved disposing of the corpse in waterways; the remaining victims were left in terrestrial areas, and half of the perpetrators put extra effort into concealing the body.4
Body disposal methods can range from unsophisticated to elaborate and creative. A nonconcealed corpse shows the least amount of effort by the offender, while a concealed one provides some protection against accidental discovery. Perpetrators often commit murders in victims’ homes and quickly conceal or move the bodies.5 Storing corpses offers the most protection from discovery; however, this also requires the most effort and creativity by the offender.6 Another key aspect of a perpetrator’s disposal plan may be dismembering the body to reduce its shape and simplify storage and transportation. However, researchers found successful efforts at dismemberment in only 7 percent of cases.7
In general, offenders prefer familiar places so they know what to expect.8 In one study, more than half of perpetrators disposed of bodies in locations known to them, primarily because they formerly lived or currently reside in the area.9 Other researchers found that in their Korean-based study, suspects’ geographic knowledge typically originated from their previous residence (25 percent), current home (18 percent), or another familiar location, such as a workplace (9 percent).10
The victim-offender relationship may be crucial to the method of body disposal. For example, the distance between the homicide crime scene and the disposal site was longer for victims who were relatives, intimate partners, or strangers than it was for acquaintances.11 Some consensus exists that the disposal or destruction of a victim's body also may be associated with perpetrators’ desires to physically distance the victim from their own home or to obscure a close personal relationship.12
To provide an empirically based guideline on how body disposal might correlate with the relationship between victim and offender, the authors compared several variables (concerning disposal location and method) with the victim-offender relationship. They studied a nonrandom national sample of 840 closed, fully adjudicated state and local homicide cases contributed by law enforcement agencies for research purposes.
Inclusion criteria consisted of cases where evidence of body disposal existed, the murder method differed from the disposal method (e.g., arson), and where only one offender and one victim were involved, resulting in 119 cases for analysis. The authors had access to the entire case files, which included police reports; medical examiner, autopsy, and hospital reports; statements of witnesses and offenders; crime scene photos; maps; and forensic evidence and reports.
Males comprised most offenders (92 percent), and the average age was 32 years old. Perpetrators tended to be white (74 percent), followed by African-American (17 percent). Most victims were female (77 percent), with the average age being 29 years old. They also consisted of mainly white (78 percent), followed by African-American (14 percent), individuals. Regarding the victim-offender relationship, cases involved strangers (30 percent); friends or acquaintances (29 percent); spouses, partners, or exes (25 percent); and other family members (15 percent).
The authors defined body disposal as any measure to move a corpse away from the initial scene. This included cases in which offenders left victims’ bodies at the site of the murder yet took an extra step to hide the body (e.g., stored it in the refrigerator). In 87 percent of cases, perpetrators transported the corpse to a location separate from the homicide scene.
Methods of body disposal were separated into concealed (an effort made by the offender to hide the corpse—55.5 percent of cases) or not concealed (the body left completely exposed—45.5 percent of cases). In addition, body disposal was only considered preplanned when clearly noted by the offender (19 percent of cases).
“Body disposal methods can range from unsophisticated to elaborate and creative.”
Body location was defined as the place where the corpse was found (e.g., neighborhood or property) in relation to the offender. Across all cases in this study, 35 percent of victims were found in the offender’s neighborhood, 27 percent on the perpetrator’s property, and 15 percent somewhere else connected to the offender. In 23 percent of cases, the authors could not determine from the case file how the body location related to the perpetrator.
Body discovery was a measure of how the body was found. Most frequently, a bystander located the corpse (39 percent), followed by police work (33 percent),13 an offender’s confession (19 percent), a witness (7 percent), or other means (3 percent). Nearly half of the bodies were found in less than 2 days from the homicide (47 percent), 30 percent between 2 days and 2 weeks from the incident, and 23 percent after 2 weeks.
The offender's relationship to the victim affected some factors related to disposal behavior, such as body concealment and body discovery. For example, 72 percent of offenders who were strangers left the victim unconcealed, while only 17 percent of intimate partners, 39 percent of other family members, and 43 percent of friends or acquaintances did the same.
Consequently, it is clear why bystanders were more likely to discover the body when the offender was a stranger (61 percent), while police work proved the most common method when the perpetrator was an intimate partner (43 percent). However, concerning offenders’ familiarity with the dump site or their attempt to move the body to a separate location, their relationship to the victim did not have a significant effect.
Interestingly, a strong connection existed between preplanning and the dump site. Specifically, offenders who preplanned the body disposal were more likely to dispose of the victim on their own property, while those who did not preplan were more likely to dispose of the corpse not on their property but in the surrounding neighborhood.
“Homicide cases in which the offender is identified but the victim is yet to be recovered can pose challenges to investigators.”
Homicide cases in which the offender is identified but the victim is yet to be recovered can pose challenges to investigators. Considering offender behavior can help prioritize search areas and give insight into the possible method of disposal.
The current study shows that offenders commonly transport and dispose of bodies away from the crime scene. However, transporting the corpse involves a significant risk of discovery. And, the object of body disposal is to mitigate the risk of being identified by placing distance between the perpetrator and the discovery of the victim. To mitigate such risk, offenders will fall back on what they know and recognize as familiar.
This research demonstrates that offenders more likely will deposit a body in areas for which they have familiarity for legitimate reasons and that these locations primarily surround their residence, neighborhood, or workplace. Such familiar areas could be expanded to include routes of travel between these locations as well. Additionally, where preplanning was indicated, perpetrators were more likely to put the body on their own property.
Significantly, body disposal behavior of the offender did not change based on relationship with the victim. Victim-offender relationship also had no impact on whether the body was moved. However, a discernible connection existed between victim-offender relationship and whether a body was concealed. Predictably, strangers much more likely leave the body unconcealed, and, consequently, bystanders are more likely to find bodies left by strangers who offended.
The implications for law enforcement searches for the missing body are clear. Sufficient intelligence must be gathered about the offender’s areas of familiarity. Combining this behavioral information with witness information, technology, and forensic science findings can assist law enforcement in prioritizing search areas and increase the likelihood of success.
This article appeared in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Law Enforcement Bulletin on April 8, 2021 (https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/body-disposal-in-homicide). The Crime Scene Investigator Network gratefully acknowledges the FBI and the authors for allowing us to reproduce the article.
Article posted September 22, 2021