Drowning is one of the hardest homicides to prove. These investigators want to change that.

Since drowning is common, police may initially assume it's an accident. A small group of investigators and divers are pushing for more scrutiny.
Illustration of crime scene body silhouette tape inside a bathtub.
Evidence in drowning cases is often washed away, so collecting forensics can be difficult. Anuj Shrestha / for NBC News

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By Cara Tabachnick

Just after 1 a.m. on April 27, 2012, police officers in Mount Zion, Illinois, were dispatched to a home to investigate a drowning.

The caller was Chad Cutler, who said he had found his wife, Lisa, face down in the bathtub moments before, her Bible floating in front of her. Cutler told 911 dispatchers he pulled her head out of the water, drained the bathtub and started giving her CPR, according to the police report.

Police in this affluent village were not often called to pull dead women from bathtubs.

Before Lisa Cutler’s body was found, there had been no murders that year in Mount Zion. When Cutler told officers that his wife had probably taken too much of her bipolar medication and slipped in the bathtub or killed herself, the responding officers questioned him, but they didn’t rope off the bathroom, as they would if it were a crime scene, according to court documents.

Chad Cutler and Lisa Cutler.via Herald and Review

The police called an ambulance, and EMT workers found Lisa Cutler’s body on the floor. They were mopping the floor with towels when Sgt. James Hermann from the Macon County Sheriff’s Office arrived. After speaking to Cutler and searching the couple’s home, he told the officers, according to the police report: “This scene needs to be treated as a homicide.”

The drowning puzzle

Homicides by drowning are among the most difficult to prove.

Evidence, including bodies, can be washed away, collecting forensics can be very difficult, and since drowning is common, police may initially assume that deaths, such as Lisa Cutler’s, are an accident.

Medical examiners only determine drowning as the cause of death after ruling out all other reasonable possible explanations for why the victim ended up in the water, including drug overdoses and heart attacks.

Then, prosecutors have to prove that the drowning was intentional, which often requires building a case on circumstantial evidence, such as instability in relationships or finances or trouble with the law, experts say.

In the United States, 10 people drown daily, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It is hard to know how many homicides involving drowning there are, as there is scant research on the subject, and local police statistics aren’t always well documented. The FBI’s uniform crime report lists eight homicides by drowning for 2017, although that accounting may be incomplete.

Cases surface often in news reports; since the beginning of April, homicide charges were filed against a woman for drowning her toddler son in Houston, a Bay Area woman was convicted of killing her 4-year-old grandson by drowning him, and a Canadian man was charged in his wife’s drowning, which was previously ruled an accident.

Diver Andrea Zaferes began assisting with homicide investigations involving drowning in 1998 while working at Team Lifeguard Systems, a search and rescue operation based in Shokan, New York.

She was running a public safety course with founder Butch Hendrick for police, military and fire department divers on how to find evidence and bodies in the water when the Toms River, New Jersey, police department asked the company to train 40 detectives on ways to approach water death investigations. Since then, she has assisted in hundreds of investigations and trained more than 1,000 investigators a year on water homicides. She has also testified as an expert witness in 10 homicidal drowning cases, including as a consultant for the prosecutor in the Kathleen Savio case.

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“We are absolutely missing more than we are catching,” Zaferes said. “A vast majority of drownings are accidental, but many, which can be a result of foul play, are overlooked.”

A small group of police investigators and divers are trying to change the way drownings are handled. Researchers have published papers on how to determine if a case was, in fact, a homicide. The Forensic Technology Center of Excellence, a project of the National Institute of Justice, which teaches best practices of forensics in investigations, has held recent trainings and webinars to teach law enforcement ways to determine if drownings involve foul play.

Experts in the field say they’ve seen inquiries from police departments grow over the past several years. Ten years ago, Zaferes provided assessments on approximately 10 to 12 suspicious drowning cases sent to Team Lifeguard Systems each year from police departments around the country. In 2018, she reviewed about 36 cases, and she said there were far more requests than she had time to handle.

Water death investigations

Kevin L. Erskine, retired criminal investigator for the Cleveland Lakefront State Park Police in Ohio, became interested in water homicides when a woman’s body was found off the shore of Lake Erie in 1996 and her death was ruled a suicide. At first Erskine, then a park police officer in charge of investigations, thought the death was suspicious, but Cleveland homicide detectives closed the case. Bothered by the resolution, Erskine got trained in water death investigations. He advises investigators to secure a water crime scene in the same manner as they would on land.

“The first instinct of first responders arriving at a drowning is to try and rescue the victims,” said Erskine, who now works as a consultant and has written a book on water death investigations. But it’s also important to assess the scene, as evidence can start to change immediately, Erskine said.

The collection of items such as jewelry or clothes, or in some cases guns, knives or drug paraphernalia, within the water is a costly endeavor.

A contained area such as a bathtub or pool is more manageable, but when the death takes place in a lake or the ocean, it becomes tricky, said First Sergeant Mike Berry, coordinator of the Virginia State Police Search and Recovery Team.

In 1987, Berry started Underwater Criminal Investigators, which trains police departments around the world to recover evidence from the deep. Calls to Underwater Criminal Investigators for information and assistance in investigations have tripled over the past five years, Berry said.

Similar to the way a land-based crime scene is marked, police divers need to be able to mark underwater evidence with a buoy and then provide sketches showing the precise location. Divers need to write reports including details such as depth, currents and how they searched. The reports need to be strong enough to stand up in a courtroom, Berry said.

As in other homicide investigations, the scene needs to be roped off, Erskine said.

In Lisa Cutler’s case, her husband removed her from the bathtub. Emergency technicians took her to St. Mary’s Hospital in Decatur, Illinois, where she was declared dead.

“We had a disturbed crime scene,” said Nichole Kroncke, a first assistant state’s attorney at the Macon County State’s Attorney’s Office, who worked on the Cutler case. “The body was gone.”

A search for clues

Another stumbling block for the Cutler case was the coroner’s initial assessment that the death was possibly due to drugs, alcohol or a heart attack.

There is no definitive test to determine that a death was caused by drowning, said Dr. Jonathan L. Arden, president of National Association of Medical Examiners.

While medical examiners can find fluid in someone’s lungs, the tests only show that the person was in the water. The cause of death could be unrelated — including heart attack, stroke or allergic reaction — and only after ruling out other reasonable possibilities will a medical examiner note drowning on a death certificate. Medical examiners then search for signs of struggle, such as bruising, to indicate that a person was held underwater.

Arden said it would be hard to kill an adult by drowning without leaving behind clues from the struggle. It’s up to investigators to find those clues.

Zaferes suggested that first responders carry checklists that they can use when bodies are found in the water. If there are any red flags, they can alert detectives to a possible homicide, and can learn how to better secure scenes so evidence isn’t lost.

“For most part, police departments want to do it right, but they lack funding to properly collect the evidence. It’s very expensive to professionally train and equip a dive team,” Berry said.

Often during a water death investigation, police call local dive shops, fire departments or freelance divers to assist, Berry said. If the on-call divers are trained in criminal investigations, that would help ensure that the scene is properly processed.

Suspicions, then an arrest

Kroncke, the Illinois state’s attorney who prosecuted the Cutler case, said her office will never again approach a drowning case as just an accident. She had colleagues who thought Lisa Cutler accidently drowned or overdosed. There was no sign of forced entry or struggle in the house, the children were sleeping in their beds, and her husband said he fell asleep while she was taking a bath and didn’t hear his wife slip.

But Hermann’s colleague, Lt. Jon Butts, had previously taken a class with Zaferes on how to investigate a drowning, and he thought there was more to the case.

“At first we had to prove that it was even a murder, then prove who did it,” Kroncke said.

Kroncke called in a new forensic pathologist and a toxicologist. The team found that Lisa Cutler had extensive bruising on her elbows from the force of being held under the water, and that any pharmaceuticals in her system weren’t at a level that would incapacitate her.

Once investigators dug deeper, they found that while Chad Cutler maintained his innocence, he had tried to take out various life insurance policies for more than a million dollars for his wife in the days before her death, he had lost his high-paying job and their house was going to be in foreclosure.

On Aug. 7, 2015, more than three years after his wife’s death, Chad Cutler was sentenced to 45 years in prison for her murder.