How Experts Locate a Missing Corpse

By Douglas P. Lyle

No body means no crime, right? Maybe so, but more often it means a body was well hidden. When a body (and the critical evidence it provides) can’t be found, investigators rely on a few time-tested techniques for unearthing it. This branch of forensics is a particularly interesting one, and it’s growing all the time.

When looking for a body, investigators use any and all evidence to narrow the search area, and statements by witnesses can be crucial. For example, a witness may have spotted a suspect’s vehicle or found some of the victim’s clothing in a remote area, pointing the investigation to a particular direction.

Investigators use a number of low- and high-tech methods when searching for a body that has gone missing, including

  • Looking downhill: Say that a body is believed to have been buried near a remote roadway where the terrain rises above the road on one side and falls away on the other. When that’s the case, investigators search downhill, because carrying a body downhill is much easier than carrying it uphill. It’s just that simple.

  • Checking out variations in the terrain: Freshly turned dirt, trenches, and elevations or depressions in the terrain may be helpful. Fresh graves tend to be elevated above the surrounding area, and older ones are often depressed because the soil covering the corpse settles naturally and as the body decays and the skeletal remains collapse, it settles further.

    Interestingly, the depth of the depression is greater whenever the body is buried deeply, which is likely because larger amounts of dirt have been turned and are then subject to a greater degree of settling. Another factor may be that with deeper graves, the increased weight of the dirt over the corpse causes earlier and more complete skeletal collapse.

  • Using tracking dogs: Tracking dogs, when provided with an article of the victim’s clothing, may be able to follow a scent trail to the burial site. Specially trained cadaver dogs search for the scent of decaying flesh. They often can locate bodies in shallow graves or even in water. Deeper graves, however, can be more problematic.

  • Looking for changes in vegetation: Turning the soil during the digging process changes the soil conditions in the area covering the grave, as does the presence of a body. These changes in the compaction, moisture, aeration, and temperature of the soil may attract plant species that differ from those surrounding the gravesite. Similarly plants that are typical for a given area may be more abundant or grow thicker and richer because of changes in soil conditions. Not to mention that the decaying body can serve as a fertilizer, This kind of change may be visible, particularly from the air.

  • Checking out the scene from the air: Aerial reconnaissance and photography, often coupled with thermal imaging, can be helpful. Freshly turned dirt loses heat faster than normally compacted soils and appears colder when scanned by such a device. Alternatively, a decaying body releases heat, which may reveal a measurable thermal difference when compared with the surrounding area.

  • Searching for byproducts of decay: If an area is suspected of containing a body, it can be searched with special devices that locate sources of heat, nitrogen, and other byproducts of the decaying process or that measure changes in the physical properties of the soil. Ground-penetrating radar can essentially see into the ground and often locate a buried body.

  • Measuring the electricity: Measurement of electrical conductivity can prove helpful. A buried body often adds moisture to the soil, and the moisture increases the soil’s electrical conductivity. Two metal electrodes are placed in the soil, and an electrical current is passed between them and measured. Changes in this current may indicate where the body is buried.

  • Putting magnetic fields to work: A simple metal detector can locate the victim’s jewelry or belt buckle. A special device for measuring the magnetic properties of soil may also be helpful. Soil generally contains small amounts of iron and thus has a low level of magnetic reaction. Because the area where a body is buried has proportionally less soil, it exhibits an even lower level of magnetic reactivity. A magnetometer passed above the soil can help locate any areas that have low magnetic reactivity.