Arthur Fellig (1899 to 1968), known by his pseudonym Weegee, was a photographer and photojournalist, famous for his stark black and white street photography in New York City. It was known that he had a police radio in his car, and he would race to crime scenes to arrive before the police officers. Legend has it that he would also change the position of the body to achieve a better photographic effect. This is the only example—that I am aware of—where the body would be altered for aesthetic purposes. Typically, crime scene staging is the altering of the scene to redirect the police’s investigation. In a staged homicide scene, the offender tries to make the murder appear to be something that it is not.
This is not new – since ancient times, individuals have committed crimes and the offenders have lied about their involvement, sometimes manipulating the evidence to escape culpability. The evidence is ultimately altered to provide the illusion that something else occurred.
Examples discussed by Schlesinger et al (2014) include physically altering the evidence of the scene to try and make a domestic homicide appear as an accident or as a result of a break and enter (by removing the victim’s valuables), a suicide (by leaving a falsified suicide note), a sexual murder (by exposing a female victim’s genitals and/or a foreign body insertion), to altering the scene by destroying evidence (such as setting a fire) in order to impede the investigation.
Subtypes of staging are also noted in scientific literature:
Minimal staging involves a minimum amount of effort put forth to alter only one or two elements (either property or body) of the scene. For example, placing a gun in the victim’s hand to make a homicide appear as a suicide.
Moderate staging involves enough effort put forth to alter more than two elements (normally three or four) of the scene. For example, undressing the victim, placing her in a bathtub and turning on the water to make a domestic homicide appear as an accidental drowning.
Elaborate staging involves an increased amount of effort put forth to alter at least five or more elements of the crime scene. For example, moving the victim into the woods, removing their outer clothing, removing underwear, inserting a foreign object, and leaving a used condom on the body to make a nonsexual homicide appear sexual in nature.
According to Hazelwood and Napier (2004), verbal staging is a conscious and intentional act of filing a false (verbal or written) missing-person report about the victim to redirect the investigation away from the homicide that the person filing the report knew occurred. This is not simply lying about facts of the case; rather, it is lying for a specific purpose. In these cases, the offender takes an affirmative step in that they seek out the police to report a missing person. In many cases, the crime scene itself may not have been altered because the murder may have taken place away from the victim’s or offender’s residence.
The evidence is altered to provide the illusion that something else occurred.
Pettler (2016) discusses different categories of staging. The individual who cleans or tries to sanitize the crime scene is doing so to remove evidence, and this could be considered more of an alteration rather than staging. The concealer hides or destroys items related to the incident to prevent discovery by the police. The creator will add items to the scene or will rearrange it to create a specific effect. The inflictor will include themselves in the incident with wounding or may claim injuries from “self-defence”. The planner spends considerable time preparing the incident to appear as something else instead of reacting, post incident.
Tips for investigators
- Stagers often discover the body or are responsible for reporting the person missing.
- Stagers might project themselves into an investigation to “be helpful”.
- Often the suicide note is “found” by the stager or other evidence they want the police to see.
- If a suicide note mentions a close associate, on occasion that associate can be considered as a person of interest.
- Staging a suicide most often involves firearms.
- Be suspicious of weapons that are positioned too perfectly, or positions that do not match where the blood spattered, or where shell casings are found.
- 911 callers from stagers will have the unique elements common to “guilty” vs. “innocent” callers.
- Besides manipulating the scene, stagers will reinforce it with verbal manipulation. Their efforts to deflect might include an explanation for the incident.
- Look for items that copy media reports or narratives of past crimes.
- Look for scene behaviour uncharacteristic of decedent.
- Stagers are more likely to be male.
- There is an indication of someone having a proprietary interest in items in the home. (The author was once consulted on a domestic homicide that was staged as a break and enter; however, the perpetrator partially rolled up and expensive Persian carpet, immediately after the murder, so blood would not seep onto the carpet).
- Compare the narratives provided about the incident against the evidence.
These tips were adapted from the Ramsland, 2018.
In conclusion, if you have a case where you suspect the homicide scene has been staged, feel free to reach out for the assistance of an investigative support unit (i.e., the Behavioural Sciences Section of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Behavioural Sciences Section of Sûreté du Québec, or the Criminal Behaviour Analysis Section of the Ontario Provincial Police).
- Ferguson, C. & Petherick, W. (2016) Getting away with murder: an examination of detective homicides stages as suicides. Homicide Studies, 20 (1), 3-24. Hazelwood, R, & Napier, M. (2004) Crime scene staging and its detection. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 48:744–759.
- Pettler, L. (2016) Crime scene staging dynamics in homicide cases. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
- Ramsland, K. (2018) The psychology of death investigations: Behavioral analysis for psychological autopsy and crime profiling. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
- Schlesinger, L., Gardenier, A., Jarvis, J. & Sheehan-
- Cook, J. (2014) Crime scene staging homicide. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 29:44–51 DOI 10.1007/s11896-012-9114-6.
Peter Collins is the operational forensic psychiatrist with the Ontario Provincial Police’s Criminal Behaviour Analysis Section. He is also a member of the crisis/hostage negotiation team of the Toronto Police Service Emergency Task Force. Dr. Collins’ opinions are his own. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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