Research focuses on finding body

October 21, 2004, vol. 31, no. 4
By Marianne Meadahl

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Where the body of a murder victim killed by a stranger is eventually left depends on where the crime takes place.

A study of homicides committed by strangers confirms that victims' bodies are typically disposed of at sites closer to the crime scene in bigger cities, and further away from where the murder took place in smaller towns.

Kristy Nethery, a graduate student in SFU's school of criminology, analysed 50 non-familial homicide cases across Canada and western Washington between 1976 and 2003 to determine patterns related to body disposal sites. Non-familial murders are those carried out by offenders who are not related to or living with the victim.

She found that in cities over 50,000, perpetrators travelled less distances to obtain their victims and that bodies were typically disposed of much closer to the residences of the offender or the victim than in cities populated by less than 50,000 people.

“The distance is not as far in these cases because the offender does not have to travel as far to put more possible suspects between themselves and the body,” Nethery surmises.

The pattern provides a starting point for investigators tackling the rare, but difficult and usually highly publicized cases. “When people are abducted and murdered by strangers, investigators often have nothing to go on,” notes Nethery, who hopes to become a police officer specializing in geographic profiling, a field developed at SFU by former student Kim Rossmo. “Previous research has looked at the relationships between victims and their offenders, and some has focused on how far disposal sites are from the roadway, but there has been no research to date focusing on why offenders pick certain locations.”

Working with RCMP geographic profiler Scot Filer, Nethery used the RCMP's violent crimes linkage analysis system (ViCLAS), and the homicide investigative tracking system (HITS) to examine data, including victim and offender demographics, disposal sites and distances involved in the crimes.

In some cases she contacted retired investigators or their former detachments to fill in the blanks on earlier crimes.

Nethery found most victims are taken from public streets. Those under 12 years of age more frequently are taken from areas close to home, or from inside the home.

Serial killers were sometimes an exception to her findings. Nethery notes in one case a killer living in a big city travelled more than 60 kilometers with the body. “As they commit more crimes they seem to become more confident, willing to travel farther with the body,” she says.

Serial killers can also work the other way, she adds, noting such offenders might also believe they don't have to travel as far and drop the body close.

Another factor in determining a disposal site may be the offenders' familiarity with the area. Nethery says learning more about body disposal sites can help determine the relevance of such links as where a suspect lived or worked previously.

Statistics on the outcome of stranger abductions are dismal. Nethery notes that children are typically killed within the first two hours of being taken, while adolescents are usually murdered within four hours and adults, within five hours. Sixty-eight per cent of children abducted by strangers have been murdered by the time they are reported missing.

“It's important to remember that these are very rare crimes,” says Nethery, “but it's also important to learn what we can to address them.”

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