Tracking the Homicide: How Police Investigate the Most Serious of Crimes

Kitsap County’s local detectives are acutely aware they’re on the clock when called to the scene of a mysterious death.

“If you haven’t ID’d a suspect in the first 72 hours, the chances of solving a case dramatically decrease,” said Bremerton Detective Sgt. Kevin Crane.

I interviewed Crane and other investigators for Sunday’s story and database about Kitsap’s cold cases. We used the information I gathered for a graphic in the paper, but I wanted to go into greater detail. Here’s what I learned.

Day or night, Crane, and other detective supervisors are on call for the city’s most serious crimes. He’s ended vacations early to get to the scene of a fresh and suspicious death.

Homicide investigations most often start with the line officer who’s responding to a 911 call. If the victim is alive, the priority is saving a life. But if deceased, with no hope of resuscitation, the scene is “frozen” — no one comes and goes without police permission and a log is kept of those who do — and crime scene tape secures its perimeter, Crane said.

Detectives arrive and are briefed by patrol officers. Two crime scene investigators begin from the perimeter of the scene and moving inward, documenting with video and camera and looking for anything out of the ordinary. Yellow markers are placed at any point — shell casings, clothing, blood spatter, for instance — they see as suspicious. Every piece of evidence is eventually sealed and and placed in evidence at the police department. The name and date of each person who examines it is kept in a log.

Investigating the body won’t begin until the scene is “processed” by the crime scene investigators. At that point, detectives, who manage the crime, bring in the Kitsap County coroner’s office, which manage the body. They investigate it together, Crane said.

The wound or wounds are examined, photographed and measured. Investigators look for “defensive” wounds that would indicate a struggle.

A critical task is identifying the deceased. Seemingly simple, it’s not always apparent and may require investigating in its own right. Perhaps they’re not carrying ID, or more gruesomely, they can’t be identified because of a fire.

Meanwhile, at least two detectives is busy with interviews, talking with those who may have witnessed the crime or the area around it.

They’ll also set out to canvass the neighborhood, attempting to find anyone who heard or saw anything.

While technology has rapidly advanced in homicide investigations, there’s one way they haven’t changed.

“It’s people,” Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office Chief of Detectives Dave White said. “We’re still talking to people.”

Detectives will ask if the witnesses knew the deceased, and begin to establish a so-called “victimology.” Detectives will seek to paint a picture of the victim working backwards from their moment of death. Where did they go? Why were they there? And of course, who were they with?

“These can be very long, tedious investigations,” Crane said.

At various points during the investigation, detectives stop and exchange information. Crane then compiles a new task list.

From there, it’s a matter of chasing down leads. All day and all night they work, stopping sometimes for a few hours’ sleep in those first critical three days.

Investigating a homicide is really no different than any other crime, only “they’re more tedious and you leave no stone unturned,” Crane said.

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