Private Investigations and Personal Security/Writing about old suicide case
QUESTION: I'm working on a novel wherein a death (ruled suicide) is being investigated by a teenager (not a licensed PI). The suicide took place 60+ years ago.
1. Would local police maintain records that far back? If so, in what form? Also, would state police agencies keep a "backup" record?
2. Would local police willingly allow the teen to access those records on request?
3. If YOU were investigating a 60-year-old suicide, what other resources would you turn to?
Thanks in advance!
ANSWER: Hi Jared-
I helped one author previously so this is kind of an interesting proposition:
1) Whether or not a police department would maintain records from 60 years ago is highly problematic. The first issue is whether or not the police department would even have a report, if the matter was determined to be a suicide. I would need to know more about the circumstances surrounding the death to tell you whether not the the police department would have responded.
Normal protocol for an unattended non-violent death is that the county coroner or medical examiner is the responding party (and they do keep their records forever). Once the ME or coroner has made a determination as to cause of death, then the police department becomes involved. This is not the normal protocol, obviously, in cases involving violent death.
Larger police departments are more likely NOT to retain their records for very long periods of time; space is the usual factor. Smaller police departments might, depending upon the agency, retain their records for a longer period of time.
2) Under California law, police reports are public record, unless there is an ongoing investigation. Certain information can be deleted, such as names of witnesses, etc. but usually this information can be obtained in writing, so the teen's age wouldn't really come into play.
3) The first thing I would need to know is why am I investigating this suicide? Do I suspect homicide or accidental death?
When I conduct a psychological autopsy, which is done when there is a doubt as to whether or not a death was accidental or suicide, the most reliable sources of information in order of importance are:
1) Writings, notes, memos or anything else that the decedent wrote in the six month period prior to death. These can establish the state of mind of the decedent. Anything in writing by relatives, loved ones, etc. that references the decedent's state of mind.
2) Relatives, friends, co-workers, etc. to interview. A death that happened sixty years prior
would be challenging because someone who was 20 at the time of the suicide would now be 80. Not impossible to locate people who might have known the decedent, but difficult.
I'd be interested in knowing more about your plot line (I'm writing one myself right now!)
and I'll be glad to give you whatever coaching you might need insofar as how a PI would approach things.
Good luck with your book!!!
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Nic, I really appreciate your help so far!
The scenario I am currently laying out is not extraordinary: 60 years ago police discover a body on the rocks on the coast beneath a cliff. Blunt force trauma to head consistent with injuries expected in fall. The victim's car is parked nearby. It contains a suicide note. Victim's family home is nearby as well. Victim himself recently lost all his financial capital, was in fights with father, BUT was also engaged to be married.
So I suppose the first follow-up question is: with these known facts, would the ME recommend police involvement, or would this have been ruled a suicide directly. Either way, would the family have been "grilled" or just questioned?
The teen who is investigating is investigating primarily out of curiosity (there's more, but I don't want to get into that bit). I currently have her visiting the local (small town, pop. 5000) police station to learn about the suicide, but depending on your information I may cut or modify that! This is set in the 80s, which may or may not matter with regards to how willing the police might be to share information with her.
As of the time of her investigation of the suicide, there is no reason for the police to believe the case needs to be reexamined--especially since most of the officers/detectives would be retired 60 years after the fact!
P.S. I heard that in small-town cases the state police might be brought in?
1) Jumping from a cliff onto rocks below is an almost unheard of way for males to commit suicide , but having said that, its not completely outside the realm of possibilities.
2) The family would have been questioned as part of what is known as a "psychological autopsy" which is an effort to reconstruct the mental state of the decedent prior to his death.
Absent any evidence to the contrary, if there were no signs of foul play, the death would probably have been ruled suicide or sometimes, especially in cases of high profile individuals, i.e. Keith Ledger, the death is ruled "accidental".
3) State police are generally only brought in if a) the department has inadequate resources to investigate completely or b) if the department's integrity is in question.
In the 1980's because of the upsurge in crack cocaine violence, police departments were less willing in the 80's to share information with "unauthorized persons"
Let me know if there is anything else I can help with!