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Myths of Underwater Recovery Operations.

As the number of people using recreational waterways increases, so do the number of accidents, drownings, and violent crimes, including homicides, that occur in such settings. This increase coupled with the influx of criminals seeking a watery repository for weapons and other evidence of wrongdoing has caused law enforcement agencies to become more involved in underwater recovery operations. [1]

Historically, fire departments provided personnel trained in search and rescue diving to the police when incidents occurred that required the retrieval of evidence submerged in water. For many years, law enforcement agencies believed that divers required no other special skills to provide this service. Agencies viewed the handling and processing of underwater evidence as nothing more than a salvage operation. Over time, however, law enforcement agencies have begun to raise questions about the wisdom of this belief. What information do they lose in the salvage process? What could investigators infer from measurements, sketches, and photographs, if not at the time of discovery, perhaps later? What parts of the story remain untold because of a failure to properly handle and package evidence, thereby preventing forensic examination? What value is salvaged material if it cannot be entered into evidence because of a failure to connect it with the defendant? These questions demonstrate that all of the resources of the investigator, criminalist, and crime laboratory could be rendered useless if evidence remains undiscovered, ignored, or contaminated. [2]

The concept of the underwater recovery of evidence as nothing more than a salvage operation represents a major myth that surrounds this process. While some law enforcement agencies have relegated this myth to the past, many still maintain this view. By doing so, these agencies also cling to other myths, or misconceptions, about the underwater recovery of evidence. These include the ultimate objective and composition of the dive recovery team, the forensic value of submerged evidence, the assumptions concerning accidents, and the ability to locate submerged items geographically. [3]


Ultimate Objective

Myth: The dive recovery team's ultimate objective is to recover a submerged item. If agencies continue to view this process as a salvage operation, then they will conclude that the ultimate objective of dive teams is to find and recover the item sought and return it safely. Both represent admirable objectives but remain shortsighted and a product of traditional law enforcement policy, practice, and perspective. However, convicting criminals of the unlawful acts they commit (simplistic but fundamental to scientific processing of an underwater crime scene) represents the true objective of a dive recovery team.


Myth: The dive team is made up of a primary diver, safety diver, line tender, on-scene commander, and others involved solely in the recovery process. Embracing the former myth gives rise to this one. However, when agencies recognize that winning convictions constitutes the primary objective of dive recovery teams, they realize that first responders, investigators, crime laboratory personnel, and prosecutors are dive recovery team players as well.

Although generally seen as an unimportant element, first responding officers set the tenor of underwater investigations. These officers have the responsibility of ensuring crime scene integrity and witness identification, segregation, and initial interviews; barring access by all unauthorized personnel, including the media, medical personnel, and curious bystanders; and recognizing the potential location of all forensic evidence, including routes of entry and exit, and protecting these sites. Because these officers play a pivotal role in underwater investigations, agencies should train them in the fundamentals of processing an underwater crime scene, including exactly what they must protect, and provide them with descriptions of other team members' roles.

Often, investigators, crime laboratory personnel, and prosecutors also lack an understanding of the scientific approach to processing an underwater crime scene. For example, if only divers realize that submerged evidence has as much forensic value as evidence found on land, then investigators may fail to understand the crucial steps that divers must take to preserve not only the items recovered but the need to collect water and samples of the bottom and surrounding areas as a control for laboratory analysis. Applying the concept of background contamination to underwater evidence collection demonstrates how bottom samples can allow laboratory personnel to exclude the background as the source from which any trace evidence might have originated.


Forensic Value

Myth: All submerged evidence is bereft of forensic value. Often, water serves as a preservative for forensic evidence that becomes lost only as a result of the recovery method employed, that is, salvaging. For example, in the true account of a modern murder mystery, a serologist determined that a blood specimen that was submerged for 3 years in salt water was human blood. [4] Also, investigators found fiber evidence on the body of a murder victim even though the perpetrator had disposed of the body in a river. [5] Therefore, while most submerged evidence possesses potential forensic value, all too often, investigators unknowingly overlook, contaminate, or destroy this evidence during the recovery process.

Firearm Recovery

Myth: All submerged firearms are bereft of forensic value. Firearms constitute the most neglected evidentiary item recovered from water. A variety of places exist on a firearm that may retain forensic material. For example, fingerprints often remain on protected surfaces, especially on lubricated areas, such as the magazine of a semiautomatic pistol or the shell casing of the rounds in the magazine from the individual's thumb that pushed it into the magazine. Also, if the perpetrator carried the weapon in a pocket, under an automobile seat, or in a glove compartment, the firearm could retain a variety of fibers on its sharp edges, especially on sights and magazine levers. Finally, weapons used in contact wounds may have "barrel blowback" (e.g., blood, tissue, bone, hair, or fabric) stored in the barrel of the firearm. [6] When deposited in water, a weapon primarily fills through the barrel. The water serves as a block for any material deposited inside the barrel. The material resides there until a pressure d ifferential (i.e., raising it to the surface) releases the water in the barrel.

Unfortunately, such critical evidence frequently is lost due to traditional recovery methods, expedience, and ignorance. If divers hold recovered firearms by the barrel and raise them over their heads as they surface, they drain the contents of the weapons and lose potentially crucial evidence. To avoid this, divers should package weapons in water, while in the water, and obtain a bottom sample to ensure that any fibers or other material found on the weapons are not the product of immersion.

Vehicle Recovery

Myth: Submerged vehicles are simply stolen. To resolve this myth, investigators should consider two questions. Are all stolen vehicles immediately reported as stolen? Are all crime vehicles immediately reported as having been used in a crime? Most investigators realize that they should consider all stolen submerged vehicles as crime vehicles (i.e., stolen for use in the commission of another crime) until proven otherwise. In doing so, they can understand that the conventional recovery method (towing by the axle) seriously alters, contaminates, or destroys any evidence. What should they do instead?

Before instituting the recovery of a submerged vehicle, investigators should catalog any information that may later become important but which the recovery method may alter or destroy. Divers can conduct this cataloging process by compiling a "swim around" checklist. Divers can complete this checklist even in the worst water conditions through touch alone or other means, such as recording the vehicle identification number and license number by using a water bath (i.e., a clear plastic bag filled with water). By pressing the water-filled bag against the license plate and their masks to the other side, divers get a clear medium through which they can see the information; a camera can take a picture using the same process. [7] The "swim around" allows divers to record the location of any occupants of the vehicle; the condition of the windshield, windows, headlights, and taillights; and the contents of the glove compartment. It also helps divers determine if the keys were in the ignition and if the accelerator w as blocked. This information can prove essential during the subsequent investigation of the incident.



Myth: All drownings are presumed accidents. Experienced homicide investigators generally presume that all unattended deaths are murders until proven otherwise, except when they occur in the water. Many investigators have participated in the recovery of a presumed accidental drowning victim only to have some serious subsequent misgivings as to the mechanism of death. Therefore, investigators should employ the same investigatory protocol afforded deaths on land to deaths on or in the water.

By correctly processing the bodies of drowning victims, investigators can obtain a variety of forensic evidence. For example, divers should place bodies in body bags to avoid losing transient evidence, such as hair or fibers, and to ensure that any injuries that occur during the recovery process are not mistaken for wounds inflicted before death. Bagging bodies in the water reveals damage to the body bags that corresponds to injuries to the bodies that may occur during the recovery process.

Bagging bodies in the water also keeps the clothing intact. For example, shoes can contain dirt, gravel, or other debris from a prior crime scene, which may prove valuable to investigators and laboratory personnel. Because shoes become lost easily, divers should bag feet, with the shoes intact, to prevent loss and possible contamination during the recovery operation or subsequent transportation of the body to the medical examiner's office.

Aircraft Crashes

Myth: All air disasters are presumed accidents. This myth coexists with another one: Air crash disasters happen somewhere else. Aircraft crashes can and do occur in every part of the world. Moreover, because most of the world is covered in water, many aircraft crashes occur in the water. Also, for every large commercial airliner that crashes into water (or on land), several hundred airplanes, with a seating capacity of less than 10, crash into oceans, lakes, and rivers. [8] With this in mind, jurisdictions with any type of body of water within its boundaries can recognize that they may have to conduct an underwater recovery of an aircraft. If they assume that such incidents always are accidents, they may overlook, contaminate, or destroy critical evidence that may indicate that the crash resulted from criminal intervention.

Investigators also must understand the purpose of the recovery operation in aircraft crashes. To identify passengers and to determine what caused the crash constitute the two primary purposes. However, investigators must remember that when an aircraft crashes, even in water, it generally becomes a mass of twisted, convoluted, and shredded metal, and the occupants usually have sustained massive, often disfiguring, fatal injuries. [9] Conducting underwater recoveries of such incidents requires the establishment of contingency plans before an aircraft disaster occurs. In addition, divers involved in the underwater recovery of aircraft and the victims involved in such disasters must have the necessary training and equipment to effectively carry out the operation.


Myth: It is not necessary or possible to locate submerged items geographically. This myth has evolved because most underwater recovery operations occur in conditions of limited visibility. However, divers can find a 2,000-year-old submerged vessel; sketch the area where they found it; recover, label, and measure all of the pieces in relation to each other; reconstruct the vessel on land; and tell by the placement of the cargo in the hold what ports the vessel visited and in what order it visited them. [10] The techniques exist if the need does.

Situations where dive recovery teams need to employ such techniques could include an accident reconstruction where one vehicle came to rest in the water. The position of the vehicle would reveal the direction of travel as well as the approximate speed on impact. In a weapon recovery, the position of the weapon in the water may determine its relevance. If divers discover a weapon 500 yards from where a witness places the individual disposing of the weapon, some serious questions could arise about the case.

Investigators must understand the importance of properly marking and recording the location of the recovery site. Failure to do so may result in the--

* loss of the site, in the event that more than one dive is necessary, and considerable expense in time and effort in relocating the site and the evidence at the site;

* inability to orient parts of a dismantled motor vehicle, vessel, or airplane, or dismembered body; or

* evidence subsequently being rendered inadmissible at the time of trial. [11]


For decades, many law enforcement agencies have viewed underwater recovery operations as nothing more than retrieving submerged items. In the past few years, however, the increasing number of such cases has caused some agencies to take a closer look at this idea. They have encountered several myths, or misconceptions, that have demonstrated the need for on-scene investigators to understand the complexities associated with the underwater recovery process and to no longer view it as a salvage operation.

Dispelling these myths have led agencies to appreciate the forensic value of submerged evidence, the importance of establishing contingency plans for aircraft crashes, and the effectiveness of highly skilled underwater recovery dive teams in solving crimes. Law enforcement agencies must encourage their officers to see the benefits of exploring new methods of investigating underwater crime scenes and not rely solely on past policies and procedures.

Mr. Becker is an associate professor and director of the Underwater Institute at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.


(1.) Ronald F. Becker, The Underwater Crime Scene (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1995), 4.

(2.) Ibid, 5, 119.

(3.) The author uses these myths as the focus of the training be conducts at the Southwest Texas State University, Criminal Justice Department, Underwater Institute. For additional information, contact the author via e-mail at or access the Institute's new Web site at http.//[sim]rb08/.

(4.) Vincent Bugliosi, And the Sea Will Tell (New York: Ivy Books, 1992), 279.

(5.) Harold A. Deadman, "Fiber Evidence and the Wayne Williams Trial," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 1984, 10-19.

(6.) W.U. Spitz, Medicolegal Investigation of Death, 3d. ed. (Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas, 1993), 319.

(7.) Based on the author's personal experience.

(8.) Robert G. Teather, Encyclopedia of Underwater Investigations (Flagstaff, AZ: Best Publishing, 1994), 117.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) Supra note 1, 3.

(11.) Supra note 1, 41.

Suggested Reading

* Ronald F. Becker, Criminal Investigation (Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen, 2000).

* Paul C. Scotti, Police Divers (New York: Julian Messner, 1982).

* Eric Tackett, Underwater Crime Scene Investigation (Woodland, WA: Sub-Sea Services, Ltd., 1987).

* Robert G. Teather, Encyclopedia of Underwater Investigations (Flagstaff, AZ: Best Publishing, 1994).
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Title Annotation:forensic value
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Article Type:Technical
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
Previous Article:Officer Jeremy Floyd.
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