No-Body Homicide Cases: A Practical Approach
By Michael L. Yoder, M.A., M.A.
In 2014 the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) entered 635,155 missing person records into its database.1 Records cleared or canceled during the same period totaled 634,367—a clearance rate of 99.87 percent with 788 records remaining.2 Possible reasons for these removals included 1) a law enforcement agency located the subject; 2) the individual returned home; or 3) the entering agency removed the record after deeming it invalid.3
Every day people file reports on approximately 1,740 missing Americans—both children and adults.4 This does not account for U.S. citizens who have vanished in other countries, individuals who disappeared but were not reported as missing, or homeless adults and their children.5 About 70 percent of all reported missing persons are found or voluntarily return within 48 to 72 hours.6 Not all individuals indicated as missing are victims of kidnapping, murder, or some other criminal act; however, each account represents the concern of someone reporting a person who disappeared.
A variety of reasons—mental illness, depression, substance abuse, credit problems, abusive relationships, or marital discord—exist for why people voluntarily disappear. Due to the high number of missing person reports assigned to criminal investigators and the vast quantity of cases resolving themselves, investigators tend to “wait and see” or prioritize a case lower than an identified crime. With enough reprioritization, an investigation easily loses momentum and becomes part of the load of other missing person cases. Often, no one submits requests for electronic data or captures timely eyewitness interviews and victimology. Consequently, timelines become vague, and memories fade.
Becoming a voluntary missing person does not constitute a crime. Any adult can walk away and decide to ignore family, friends, associates, and employers. Because this type of behavior lacks criminality, law enforcement officers experience limitations regarding how they proceed.
Investigators sometimes receive inadequate information in the beginning of a missing person investigation. If people portray the victim as routinely running away, being reckless, or acting irresponsibly, others may express less concern and possibly not even file a formal report. Investigators could treat the case as a reported event, rather than a potential criminal act. However, when facts and circumstances indicate a strong possibility of foul play or the disappearance occurs due to criminal action, investigators should consider the missing person case as a potential homicide.
People falsely report someone missing for various reasons. Perhaps the person died due to negligent homicide, accidental death, or murder, and the individual responsible for the death wants to create distance (time and space) from the act by establishing an alibi, obstructing justice, or avoiding detection. Offenders sometimes believe that the longer a victim is presumed missing and not found, the easier they remove themselves from culpability. Someone creating the illusion of a person voluntarily missing requires extra effort, which investigators should view as an element of staging.
Special Agent Yoder is assigned to the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Behavioral Analysis Unit 4, in Quantico, Virginia.
Preserving Essential Data
A no-body homicide often begins as a missing person case. In such scenarios, an early determination that the matter is more than a routine case often results in successful prosecution. The amount and variety of electronic information—cellular data, social media postings, automated searches, surveillance camera footage, and video or audio recordings—accumulated, stored, purged, and then replaced with new data results in a limited shelf life before becoming lost forever. Investigators must make the effort as soon as possible to preserve, freeze, capture, and gather this information.
The same holds true for forensic details. People sometimes “wipe” data or compromise the integrity of a crime scene when they do not detect or preserve information, possibly because no one originally acknowledged it as the location of a crime. Correctly assessing where a crime occurred and gathering forensic evidence from the scene proves crucial to the investigation.
Capturing details of actual memories becomes important for the investigator to discern truth over lies. Successful preservation of conversations, observations, and interactions with others directly correlates to when the investigator captured them and how important they are to the beholder. Over time, seemingly routine behavioral clues become nebulous, and once-memorable events become forgotten. A simple communication with another person often blends with memories of other interactions. Topics discussed or specific words spoken turn into less memorable or irrelevant recollections over time. The exact dates and times that activities occurred shift to vague estimates, and the timeline of events diminishes.
Encapsulating Routine Activities
When an investigator suspects foul play, the missing person investigation needs to focus on capturing the victim’s routine activities. Individuals impact the world around them through their relationships, electronic footprints, personal and professional obligations, financial decisions, and other routine activities. Investigators should identify the victim’s actions prior to the disappearance. Relationally, this may include individuals the victim recently had contact with, the last known sightings of the missing person, latest conversations, topics discussed, and the victim’s mind-set. These events also consist of the missing person’s future itinerary or plans, such as appointments, goals and expectations, upcoming celebrations, or impending tasks. Electronically, the person’s latest texts, messages, postings, photographs, Internet searches, or voicemails indicate both routine and unexpected events.
Leaving family members, close friends, and loved ones without explanation might appear out of character for this person. Emotionally significant items—a cell phone, a favored blanket, a keepsake, special photographs, favorite clothes, house or car keys, and a purse or wallet—left behind often indicate an unplanned departure. Abandoning financial assets (e.g., cash, a savings account, credit or debit cards, or a checkbook) or personal records (e.g., driver’s license, birth certificate, military discharge papers, or a social security card) to start a new life makes no sense if the individual left deliberately and voluntarily. By identifying sudden disruptions in the missing person’s normal routine that have no plausible explanation, investigators can prove the negative: The victim did not plan the departure, and, consequently, the disappearance may be the result of a criminal act or other endangerment.
Gathering the Clues
Many criminals strive to create an illusion of distance in time and physical proximity from the victim’s last-known whereabouts. Successful disposal of the body is another way offenders detach from the crime. The longer the victim remains missing, the greater the opportunity for important clues to disappear. Memories become vague as they lose their link to precise events, and timelines turn out to be more abstract. Once enough time passes, offenders often claim they were in a different location at the point in time the murder occurred, thereby creating an airtight alibi. When this happens, investigators often shift their focus to other suspects.
In today’s society individuals affect the world around them by leaving heavy electronic footprints. Every person experiences a past and a present and has expectations for the future; interacts with family, friends, neighbors, or associates; and e-mails, texts, phones, or uses other social media to communicate with people. Individuals access their financial accounts through ATM or debit cards, credit cards, checks, or in-person interactions. Through conversations they often discuss current or future plans and financial or emotional limitations to pursuing their goals and dreams. Most people have responsibilities, goals, relationships, and routine activities that anchor them to the planet.
Persons missing under circumstances where investigators suspect foul play probably were torn from their anchor points. Their abrupt, unexpected disappearance creates an atypical void. It appears that no planning or preparation occurred, and the person’s routine activities suddenly were disrupted. When individuals leave behind people they love, valuable items, beloved pets, important electronic devices, secure shelter, favorite clothing, and their money, something is amiss.
Conducting Dual Investigations
When investigators suspect criminal activity, it becomes critical to conduct a dual investigation with hope for a live recovery, but with a perspective that the victim possibly may be deceased. Investigators immediately should collect all electronic devices the victim could have operated, including those containing the individual’s social media, all forms of communication, and every type of computer usage, such as Internet searches and financial transactions.
Once investigators make the decision to conduct a homicide investigation, they must address the fundamentals of the crime of murder. They need to prove that the victim died via homicide (criminal act), on or about a certain date (when), in a particular jurisdiction (where), and by a specific person or persons (who).7
While a motive may prove unnecessary, it helps explain the reason for the murder. The motivation for the crime provides important clues, particularly when investigators have no body to confirm death or location where the murder occurred. Investigating circumstances leading up to the disappearance emerge as critical to the case. Sometimes, what appears on the surface as a perfect, harmonious domestic situation in reality equates to an abusive relationship. Understanding the missing person’s background often exposes truths known only to the offender and the victim.
A no-body homicide prosecution seems similar to other murder prosecutions, except the prosecutor must demonstrate the likelihood that the victim no longer is alive. This often proves a difficult, but not impossible, prosecutorial challenge.8 In a homicide case, the corpus delicti—main body or element of the offense—consists of proof that an unlawful death has occurred.9
The corpus delicti does not mean that the subject of the crime must be so extant as to fall under the senses, but that the loss sustained is felt and known. For example, in the crime of murder, although the body cannot be located, particular loss is identified.10
The body itself provides the best evidence of an unlawful death. However, other ways exist to determine that a person died. Many homicide prosecutors often base their cases on circumstantial evidence.11 They must establish 1) that the victim died; 2) that the person was murdered; 3) the approximate time of death; 4) that the likely location of the crime is within the prosecutor’s jurisdiction; and 5) the person responsible for the murder.12 In one particular case, the judge determined that “the fact that a murderer may successfully dispose of a victim’s body does not entitle the offender to an acquittal. This illustrates one form of success for which society has no reward.”13
Discussing Best Practices
In April 2012 the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit 4 (BAU 4) hosted a symposium to discuss best practices with 50 law enforcement investigators and prosecutors who successfully litigated no-body homicide cases. This event resulted in a 2014 FBI manual titled No Body Homicides.14 In addition to highlighting historical precedent cases to underscore the validity of prosecuting homicide cases without locating victims’ bodies, the manual includes chapters on investigative and prosecutorial issues and associated best practices.
Since the 2012 symposium, BAU 4 has created a database that contains over 660 no-body homicide prosecutions in the United States, including over 477 cases prosecuted since 1995, along with the prosecutors’ contact information.15 BAU 4 often recommends that a prosecuting attorney who never has taken on a no-body homicide case and plans to should contact experienced prosecutors who can help assess the strength of the current case and provide guidance and support. The FBI’s database serves as a conduit for individuals to locate fellow prosecutors to discuss best practices for no-body homicide cases and investigative steps to cover before proceeding.
In addition to helping prosecutors, BAU 4 can assist in all aspects of the investigation, including investigative suggestions; behavioral analysis of suspects; victimology issues; and resources such as the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) database and FBI laboratory services. BAU staff members also serve as a sounding board to discuss cases, determine probable events and action plans, evaluate suspects, and provide expertise supporting the likelihood that a victim may be deceased.
As investigators move from a missing person case toward a possible homicide investigation, BAU 4 can help with case analysis, personality assessments of known suspects, interview strategies, media plans, and other investigative tactics. As with many homicides, offenders and victims often know each other, and perpetrators generally have a motive to commit a homicide.
If suspects attempt to distance themselves in time or location, investigators must invalidate any fabricated alibis. A concise timeline, forensic evidence, and behavioral analysis help link offenders to the crime scene and wipe away any false illusions. BAU 4 aids investigators and prosecutors by assessing the strength of the homicide investigation and providing collaborative recommendations for a successful outcome.
Every day, people file missing person reports. The majority are cleared because a law enforcement organization located the subject, the person returned home, or the filing agency determined the entry was invalid. Some missing persons disappear voluntarily, while others fall victim to criminal actions. Law enforcement agencies often must determine whether or not the individual became a homicide victim. The body itself serves as the best evidence of an unlawful death; however, other ways exist to establish that the person died or was murdered. The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit 4 created a no-body homicide database and a No Body Homicide monolith. BAU 4 personnel are available to assist law enforcement agencies in several ways with such cases.
For additional information the author may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.