The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Homicide Scenes: Information for Writers with Sgt. Derek Pacifico

Fiona - Good morning - have you had your coffee?

Sgt. Pacifico - Yes, I have it right here as a matter of fact. Just got
      my drum workout in and feeling relaxed now.

Fiona - Drum workout? LOL It seems a little early in the morning...
     hopefully everyone at your house was already up. What do you

Sgt. Pacifico - It's a great stress reliever. I love to play to
     Genesis and other 60's, 70's rock groups. Pink Floyd, Rush those

Fiona - So I've found you relaxed and about to be caffeinated - then
      I should take advantage. Let's start with who you are and why
      I'm so thrilled to have you and your expertise here today.

Sgt. Pacifico - My background is patrol
     and my specialty in homicide 
    - and later as a trainer as well. 
     My forte is being an interrogator. 
     That's where I'm most 
     and it is a favorite topic. I just loved
     working that detail. The most
     important work I ever did.

Fiona - How is the process at a homicide different than arriving at
      the scene of any other violent crime. What's the mood? What's
      the mind set...

Sgt. Pacifico - The major difference is that when it is a homicide,
      everything slows down. There isn't any rush. The violence
      is over, now it's time to be very detail oriented in getting all the
      evidence we can. In every crime where the victim lives, they
      can at least tell us something about what happened prior to the
      violence. In a murder, we often don't know who our dead guy
      is, why he is there, why this happened, and who is involved.
      Depending on the nature of the scene or the body, sometimes
      we don't even know why they are dead until the autopsy.

      The mindset is always that we know we are playing for all the
      marbles. A doper is going to buy/sell/produce more dope if he
      gets off on some blunder we made in the case. The suspect is
      only going to kill his neighbor once. We have to get it right. 
      Sometimes that means staying at scenes for days.

Police car emergency lighting fixtures switche...
Police car emergency lighting fixtures switched on. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fiona - How much does
      money have to do with
      finding the right
      bad-guy sending him to
      to jail? Do more
      affluent departments
      have a better chance?

Sgt. Pacifico - The better
      the budget, the more
      resources there are to
      spend on personnel, physical resources, crime lab and
      equipment, outside testing etc. But the funny part about
      money that most people get wrong is that the rich don't get
      better service or more of our time and the poor victim gets
      nothing, within the same agency jurisdiction. What I mean is
      this, usually a more affluent person who winds up dead is going
      to have people willing to be involved to help us - be that family,
      friends, or co-workers. The suspect is usually easily figured out
      from their lifestyle and usually they're not career criminals or
      have that mindset. Whereas a poor gang banger's murder is far
      harder to investigate. The amount of hours spent working a gang
      murder is probably (unscientific numbers here) 10 to 1 versus a
      middle or upper class murder. In the case of a gang murder, no
      one wants to talk to us. The witnesses who do finally talk are
      most often other criminals whose credibility is suspect in court.
      Before trial, witnesses often get killed in unrelated murders -
      not specially in retaliation for testifying in the 
      pre-preliminary hearing, and so on and so forth. The work on a
      bangers murder case can take years to get to trial. The middle
      class guy who kills his co-worker in a love triangle for example,
      that one may be solved in a week or two and prosecuted within
      a year's time.

Fiona - You mentioned the behind scene politics and emotions -
      basically the humanity of the investigator - can you explain
      this? I'm particularly interested in coping mechanisms at the
      moment of confronting the scene - but also later when alone
      with one's thoughts.

Sgt. Pacifico - I will say that after my first autopsy, I wasn't able to
      eat chicken on the bone for about six months. After a while
      though, I had to just get over the sights and references and
      realize that it probably bothers everyone a little at first, but you
      just have to accept seeing damaged bodies as part of the job. 

     I have a friend from high school who became a doctor and
     worked trauma for a couple years. He told me he coped with
     what he saw by remembering it was his job; people were relying
     on him. Because it was not his family or friend, it was easy to
     put aside the emotions and get the job done. He was right, and it
     helped. He said he isn't necessarily as calm about injuries when
     it's his direct family and he is in daddy-mode instead of doctor-

     I think that our intense academy training style helps too. You
     learn very early on - or you don't make it - that you have to push
     through stressful situations and do the job properly or people
     who depend on you could die. Now in homicides, the
     investigation isn't of that same nature, but you realize that
     although there are stresses, you can handle it, including the
     emotions and seeing the bad stuff. 

     Now here is a little secret - television and movies on average 
     are more gross than real life. For instance, a man shot a couple 
     times in the chest with a pistol round with one bullet piercing
     the heart will not bleed very much for two reasons. One, the
     pump that causes bleeding is broken, and isn't causing
     circulation. Then, due to lack of circulation, they fall down and
     die. There is no more bleeding. There could be some seepage,
     but a man wearing a shirt and especially a hoodie or jacket who
     is shot in the chest may hardly bleed (externally) at all. He just
     falls down dead. In the movies, they have huge exit wounds and
     gross wounds that most times, on average, victim's don't
     experience in real life. 

     Now knife wounds are a different story. There is so much
     damage done during a knife fight before the victim actually
     dies that there is a tremendous amount of blood loss. Those
     scenes can be quite icky.

Fiona - I adore that you used the word "Icky." You read it here
     folks - gun scenes are clean if you need gore go for the knife.

     One of my readers once asked me what happens at a crime
     scene in terms of housekeeping. Say there's a homicide and
     someone broke in - does the police secure the house - board up
     the window or door? What about the pets? How do you go about
     finding the other residents to let them know what's going on - or
     next of kin?

Sgt. Pacifico - We the police don't get involved in any clean up. It's
     actually a bio-hazard scene and needs to be done properly. 
     There are a few different companies that do crime scene clean
     up. We provide that information to whomever is now
     responsible for the property and advise them to use a service.
     Whether they do or not is entirely up to them. 

      By the time we are done with a scene, we will have identified
      some next of kin or landlord to whom we turn over the 
      property when we are done. That's another thing TV gets wrong.
      We own the scene while we are there. Regardless, we will have
      written a search warrant to conduct
      the investigation. That way
English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
      we don't rely on people's
      permission to stay as long
      as we want
      and need. But once we
      are done, the tape comes
      down, and we
      leave. It doesn't remain a
      crime scene after we are
      gone. If we are going to
      be there multiple days and
      therefore need to get
      away and sleep, we maintain
      security of the place by having a
      uniformed police officer stand guard while we grab some zzz's
      in our detective unit. Usually two hour naps, coupled with 
      gallons of coffee can get us back on track until sun up. 

Admrboltz cat Floyd 2
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
      Pets are
      immediately removed
      from the scene. If
      neighbors will take them
      for us, great. If there are
      no neighbors, or the
      animals are dangerous,
      we have animal control
      pick them up and hold
      them for next of kin. 

     In today's electronic age, it doesn't
     take long for next of kin to
     find out what we are doing. Often they show up earlier than we'd
     like. Sometimes they are problematic. They want to go in the
     house and touch the body, and we don't want any contamination
     and only get one shot at doing a pristine scene. It's a difficult
     balancing act for the family who wants to know what happened
     and us telling them what we can without compromising the case

Fiona - Let's talk about a project your are working on that will
      benefit writers - the Writers Homicide School. How did that
      come about?

      I retired in June, 2012 after 22 years on the San Bernardino
      County Sheriff's Department in Southern California. Years ago
      when I was in homicide, I came to Knoxville, Tennessee to pick
      up a suspect and bring him back to California. I fell immediately
      in love with the geography and culture of East Tennessee. 
      I made my wife come back with me on a vacation, and she was
      instantly hooked. I retired early in order to leave California and
      finish raising my kids out here in East Tennessee where I live

     In my work as an officer, at
     an early age, my supervisors
     apparently saw something in
     me regarding my ability to
     train and teach. I was brought
     into the ranks of the Field
     Training Officers and also
     tasked with creating and
     developing course material
     and teaching it at our academy for
     both basic recruit academy and also the advanced officer

     I never had any thoughts or intentions about having a training 
     company or doing consulting, but it just sort of happened while
     I was still a detective. I was invited by outside agencies to come
     out on their budget and teach my courses that had garnered so
     much popularity in my department. One day, I realized I could
     make a business of this. 

      When I was in homicide, because of my training development
      background, I was asked to develop an advanced homicide
      school. I created a two-week interactive school and set it in
      motion with several other instructors. It gained huge popularity
      and quickly became a favorite class for many professionals
      because of our very fun and interactive method of delivering
      the information. Part of being in homicide, or on the
      department, is being asked to speak or guest lecture to
      organizations. We had a 45 minute homicide for public
      groups PowerPoint that we often delivered to Kiwanis, Rotary
      and those types of groups. 

      One day I was invited to speak to the Sisters in Crime in
      Pasadena. I gave them the public lecture, and they loved it.
      From that I was invited to several other conferences to speak
      and eventually wound up at CBS studios speaking to a screen
      writers group. Some writers had seen me in several of these
      talks and had cornered me, refusing to let me go until I
      promised to put on a full seminar of no less than two days worth
      of material geared to writers. From that, CRIME WRITERS
      CONSULTATIONS was born.

      This continued with me developing what is now the WRITERS
      HOMICIDE SCHOOL, a two-day seminar that brings writers
      from the hiring process through being a detective in homicide
      and learning a little about all of the aspects of how to do the job,
      but even more so what goes on behind the scenes. Politics,
      frustrations, laughter, sadness and all the stuff no one ever sees.
      Writers get to ask all the questions they can fit in during the 
      seminar, and its great for character and scene development.

Fiona - I always ask this same question in all of my interviews - 
     please tell me the story behind your favorite scar. Interestingly,
     I have found all of my interviews with people who live a "do-or-
     die" lifestyle, they rarely have a scar story. At cocktail parties, 
     I have brought this up as a topic and my favorite theory is that
     should you be one of the people who would get scars, then
     you're not going to last very long on the job - sort of a survival
     of the fittest theory if you will. So if you have no scar then
     maybe just a harrowing close call...

English: Anthroplogy - human skull of a boy. T...
. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sgt. Pacifico - I've broken
      the bones in my right
      hand twice. Don't punch
      people in the skull.
      Typically the skull is
      tougher than

     The first time, I was on
     patrol working graveyard, 
     11p.m. - 7a.m. Around 1 a.m. on this
     warm summer night, I was patrolling the business area abutting
     up to a residential area. I was on the main thoroughfare driving
     pretty slowly when I heard a man shouting unintelligibly. 
     I finally figured out it was coming from the corner convenience
     store where there was some guy standing at the payphone
     shouting at it. He was out of his mind on drugs. He had the
     phone cradle in his right hand and was beating the keypad, 
     each time yelling a random number. Bam! "Six!" Bam!
     "Threeee!" When I approached him and tried to speak gently
     to him, he turned on me and the fight was on. Another deputy
     had already arrived for the approach, and we tackled him. He
     grabbed my inside thigh and started twisting my skin and
     muscles. It hurt like hell, so I punched him a couple times in the
     head. It got him to let go, and we were able to cuff him. After
     the adrenaline wore off, my hand was throbbing, and I went to
     the local ER where X-rays showed a fracture. Bummer was that
     I had to work the front desk for six weeks!

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.


  1. This is great! I just saw an ad for Writer's Homicide School this week, and now here he is! :-)

    This is useful information; I had wondered about the crime scene issue with regard to other residents, pets, etc. If the person lives alone, it's probably easier, but if there are roommates or family members, it's going to be more difficult for them and for the police. This is also what I would expect from having been on a farm, done some of our own butchering, etc. Knives leave much nastier visual effects than bullets, but TV portrays drama, not reality. I'm really looking forward to the interrogation interview!

  2. Fiona, this was awesome! I wish I had enough moola and the ability to go to a school! I spent almost 13 years in law-enforcement-related fields (private security), though never as a police officer. But I used to be pretty good at it. Anyway, enjoyed the post and I'll be back for more!

    1. Markie,
      I'm so glad you found this helpful.


  3. Thank you, Fiona! I was just writing a homicide scene and this interviewed helped make it more realistic. I'm totally going to check out homicide school!

    1. Let me know if you want me to introduce you two on Facebook.


  4. Fantastic article. Thanks for sharing your expertise with us, Derek. I'm writing a Detective (Homicide) in my latest romantic suspense, and this helped so much.

    And thanks, too, Fiona. (Epic name, by the way.) Your blog is so informative and a wonderful resource for writers.