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May 12, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
A man lies murdered on the floor of his bedroom. Next to him is a puddle of water and blood. Snow billows outside his window on the freezing night. Leaving no substantial trace of a weapon behind, the murderer thinks he got away with the perfect crime. What happened?
This is the first question crime scene investigators must ask themselves as they step onto the scene of a murder. Was it Miss Scarlet in the study with the candlestick? No, it was Professor Plum in the bedroom with the icicle, which then melted on the ground. But this type of weapon is unlikely in Columbia’s murder cases.Related Articles
Detective Jeff Nichols says that in his 19 years working for the Columbia Police Department, he has yet to see an extremely unusual murder weapon. However, he has come across cases where the murder weapon was never identified or falsely identified.
“I remember a murder in a Casey’s Store years ago where it appeared as though the victims had suffered head wounds from a firearm,” he says. “But, once they started to do the autopsy, they discovered pretty quickly that the wounds had actually been caused by a hammer.”
Ernest Lee Johnson, the offender in the murder that took place Feb. 12, 1994, was convicted of killing Mary Bratcher, Mable Scruggs and Fred Jones while robbing the store on Ballenger Lane. He was sentenced to death in a 1995 trial, and in December 2010, he argued before the Missouri Supreme Court for an appeal. The court upheld the decision.
Nichols remembers another unusual case in which an officer pulled over a young man who had taken a page out of the Goodfellas’ book.
“The officer pulled him over, and he had no license,” Nichols says. “Upon a search of the car, his mother was discovered dead in the trunk. It appeared she might have been drowned … That was a pretty strange case.”
According to a 2007 study by the FBI, the last time a detailed study of this type was conducted, firearms were the most commonly used murder weapons nationally, accounting for 14,831 murders that year. These are followed by knives or stabbing weapons, at 1,796, then by personal weapons, such as hands, feet, fists, etc.; blunt objects; strangulation; fire; asphyxiation; narcotics; drowning; and poison.
“Guns are a common murder weapon because they are so plentiful in the U.S.,” says John Rabun, M.D. forensic psychiatrist practicing in St. Louis. “Everybody has access to them. Say a couple is fighting, there is alcohol involved and a gun is out; once the trigger is pulled, it is over — unlike with a knife, where you might stab once, and that brings you back to reality.”
Columbia police officers find themselves dealing with many of the same weapons that show up on the most popular weapons list. Nichols says firearms and knives are some of the most common sources of murder in mid-Missouri. However, he also names weapons of opportunity, such as hand tools, straps, ropes and physical force showing up commonly in cases. This raises the question of whether the murderer puts much thought into picking a weapon, or if he or she just grabs something around the house.
Rabun suggests a significant amount of thought goes into the choice. He says guns hold a macho status, making them common in drug trafficking-related murders, and knives are commonly used by sexual serial killers because of the gratification that comes with using one.
“Knives are very up-close and personal; stabbing suggests much more anger, emotion and intimacy is involved,” Rabun says. “Kicking and hitting is extremely emotional and anger- driven. It is more impulsive. Spiking someone’s food or drink with poison is not a one-time thing. It is more cruel, deliberate and thought-out.”
Murderers don’t always stick to the basics. In Queens, NY, June of 2004, Michael Desiderio used a Samurai sword to slay Ricardo Richardson, Michael Brea style. In 2007 a woman in Dayton, Ohio used a microwave to murder her 1-month-old daughter. And, just last year a man in Bradford, England, was arrested on suspicion of killing three prostitutes with a crossbow.