Have you ever wondered about the story behind a boat you’ve seen up on the beach, or one that’s been found
abandoned and adrift? It’s interesting to speculate on how the vessel came to be forsaken.
By Linda Maria Frank
Most boats and ships are registered in a number of ways.They can be federally documented by the U.S. Coast Guard or
licensed by individual states, making them traceable via the serial numbers on the engines or on the hulls. While that’s a start, this method of tracing may prove useless if the cast off boat no longer belongs to the registered owner and no record exists of a sales. Law enforcement or investigative agencies must then turn to other methods to try to find the owner. These efforts are expensive, and so they will most likely only occur if the boat has a hefty value, is suspected of being used in the commission of a crime, or if there is a suspicion of foul play.
Consider the scenario in which a wife reports her husband did not return from a fishing trip. A boat washes up several miles away from an inlet near the owner’s marina, with the vessel’s registration and name removed. As it’s the same model boat as one owned by the man, suspicions are raised. How can the police verify the identity of the boat and determine if a crime has been committed? Since identifying information has been removed from the
boat, searching state and federal data banks for the owner cannot be used. Detectives will then check with the owner of the marina and persons who are familiar with the missing man’s boat. The boat is identified by a friend from a small dent incurred during a fishing outing.
Evidence of foul play such as piracy or crime such as drug
dealing may be found by investigators examining the boat,
including a sabotaged engine, bullet holes, the presence of
blood, evidence of fire, and/or traces of contraband such as
drugs. If such evidence is found, standard procedures used to
process a crime scene are applied:
Access to the vessel is restricted to the crime scene unit;
Photographs will be taken, and the search may be
Evidence is collected and preserved, with care taken
not to disturb the initially-discovered conditions.
The presence of blood is noted by investigators, and samples
will be taken using specific protocols for either dry or whole
blood. The blood samples are processed in the serology
department of a forensic crime lab to determine if it is human,
and if so, what type. A profile of blood proteins or DNA can
be established and compared to known DNA samples from suspected victims, or run through a data base of DNA from
perpetrators of violent crimes.
The crime scene will also be treated with luminol to allow
investigators to visualize any areas where attempts were
made to remove blood stains — trace amounts of blood
always remain, so the luminol will make them glow under
a UV light.
Fibers and hairs will be collected for analysis, which can be
quite detailed. For example, some synthetic fibers can be
traced to rug fibers from individual models of cars. Recovered
hairs may be found to be consistent with a victim or a suspect.
Traces of chemicals can be detected as well. Drugs and
explosives residue can be picked up, using an instrument
similar to the wand the Transportation Security
Administration uses for security checks at airports.
Collected fingerprints will be compared with those of
persons who had known access to the boat. Prints are also
compared through the Automated Fingerprint Identification
System (AFIS), a database containing fingerprints of known
criminals and those in the armed services.
Investigators will be seeking footprints or shoe prints. These
can be significant, as footprints can be traced to a single
individual, and shoe prints may do the same due to wear
patterns and accidental imprints, such as a rock stuck in the
If a gun is determined to be involved, the experts will trace
the bullets to an individual gun by the marks left through the
action of firing the gun.
Let’s assume that the evidence collected from the washedashore
boat yields the following results: blood consistent with
the missing boater, gunshot residue on a boat cushion, two
sets of fingerprints — the owner’s and another person’s prints
(identified through AFIS as a felon with a drug conviction), a
bloody shoe print that matches to a print of the owner’s boat
shoe found in his garage, and heroin residue found in a boat
locker. An investigation conducted of the owner’s finances
shows several large deposits of cash made into his savings
account in the weeks prior to his disappearance.
The boater’s remains are never found, but the evidence points
away from a boater with an unregistered boat having a heart
attack and falling overboard. Instead, evidence, analysis, and
investigative work points law enforcement towards a drug
assassination, so the police start searching for links in a series
of drug related crimes. Their mission is to eventually answer
the questions that remain, including: Why was the vessel
abandoned? Where is the owner? How did the boat get to its
location without a captain? What crimes were committed
and who can be brought to justice?