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How Not to Stage Your Own "Murder"

Recent failed assisted suicide scheme proves things can always get worse.

Key points

  • In rare instances, people stage a death scene is an attempt to control the manner-of-death determination.
  • Some suicides staged as homicides involve hired assassins.
  • Hiring an assassin introduces an unpredictable factor that reduces the control the suicidal person seeks.

Photo by author
Source: Photo by author

In South Carolina, Alex Murdaugh, 53, admitted to providing Curtis Smith, the assassin he’d hired, with the gun to use to shoot him. His death by homicide would have allowed Murdaugh’s relatives to collect $10 million from his life insurance. Smith shot him but Murdaugh survived.

This is the stuff of fiction. Who would actually set up a scenario in which they await a killer whose sole target is them? Even if they set the time and place, they couldn’t be sure it would happen as planned. Murdaugh’s decision to arrange his death not only undercut his desire for control but also exposed further misdeeds. Why would he do it?

Since Murdaugh is a member of a prominent family, and his wife and son were fatally shot outside their home in June (still unsolved), the investigation has been intense. In addition, Murdaugh had just “resigned” from the family law firm for misappropriating funds. Lots of funds. There’s also his drug addiction, along with new questions about his potential role in the unsolved double homicide of his wife and son. That story is still unfolding.

Deaths can be staged in many ways. The intent is to deflect an investigation away from the true manner of death. The most common are homicides staged as suicides or accidents, or one type of homicide (e.g., nonsexual) staged as a different type (sexual). Suicides have been staged as homicides, accidents, or natural deaths, most often to ensure insurance payouts for relatives. Although a few studies about staged deaths cover contract killings, none provides the percentage of decedents who did the hiring. In part, that’s because leaving documentation about one's intent would defeat the purpose. However, survivors and amateur assassins who left clues offer some insight into the decedent's state of mind.

For example, Joseph Lopez claimed that Natalie Marie Bollinger, 19, had placed a Craigslist ad for a hit man in 2018. He said he answered the ad and tried to talk her out of it, but she insisted. They went for a drive and prayed together before he shot her. Police traced Lopez through texts on Bollinger’s phone, charging him with first-degree murder. He accepted a plea with a reduced charge.

Hiring an assassin would typically point the evidence toward a stranger. In an interview, actress Angelina Jolie admitted to considering this plan. During the early 2000s, she felt as if nothing was working out, so she contacted a hit man to end her life. “With suicide comes all the guilt of people around you thinking they could have done something,” she said. ”With somebody being murdered, nobody takes some kind of guilty responsibility.” The hit man persuaded her to reconsider her plan.

Yet the person desiring to die doesn’t usually consider that a “homicide” launches an investigation that can have unforeseen repercussions. Kenneth Minor claimed to have been surprised when motivational speaker Jeffrey B. Locker approached him in East Harlem in 2009. Locker was deep in debt. According to Minor, he offered money and told such a depressing narrative about his life that Minor was moved to assist. He said he held the knife while Locker impaled himself on it several times, finally dying. Minor used Locker's debit card (his supposed payment), which lead to his arrest. He claimed it had been assisted suicide, not first-degree murder. Locker had left a trail of evidence to support this: He’d researched funeral arrangements online, predicted to his wife he’d be “gone,” and purchased life insurance policies for a collective payout of $14 million. Still, assisted suicide is a crime and Minor went to prison.

Gaurav Bansal wanted to end his life but was too scared to do it himself. The COVID-19 lockdown in India had decimated his business. He became depressed. But he wanted his family to receive his life insurance funds. He took out a loan and hired a juvenile he’d met on social media. The juvenile brought three friends. However, the would-be assassin was too young to purchase a gun. Bansal bought some rope and proposed that they hang him. They did. A murder investigation ensued, since Bansal's hands were bound, and his social media activity provided a name. When police caught up with the killers, they said it had been Bansal’s idea. They'd split about $1,200.

In a fiction-like twist, when Ilkay Sivasli, 41, hired Tanju Dogan to end her life, he “fell in love” with her and tried to persuade her to live. She was too distraught to consider it. She wanted to die, so he shot her. When police arrested him, Dogan turned over recordings of their phone conversations. In one, she discussed the details of the fatal act and asked when he’d do it. She wanted to be shot in the heart. He complied, but she remained conscious for an hour, badly wounded, while he waited. When she passed out, he called an ambulance, hoping she could be saved. He fled but was arrested. His love story moved no one.

It’s possible that such arrangements have worked out and we just don’t know about them because the decedent was careful. Still, it’s ironic that choreographing one’s death shows an intent to control what happens but trusting a hired assassin dissolves this control. Those who survive might face a worse fate.

References

Heath, C. (July 5, 2001). Blood, sugar, sex magic. Rolling Stone.

Schlesinger, L., Gardenier, A., Jarvis, J., & Sheehan-Cook, J. (2014). Crime scene staging in homicide. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 29, 44-51.

Turvey, B. (2000). Staged crime scenes: A preliminary study of 25 cases. Journal of Behavioral Profiling, 1, 1-14.

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