The Art of Ransacking

Mauro Corvasce and Joseph Paglino’s book, Murder one: A Writer’s Guide to Homicide, has a plethora of information necessary for writing a great murder mystery. I’m in chapter four, dealing with drug-related homicides. I didn’t cover everything in the chapter, but there’s one more bit of information I’d like to cover before moving on to chapter five, gang murders. The authors include a tidbit about ransacking.

Ransacking is when a criminal searches a residence for valuables: cash, jewelry, high-end electronics, and basically anything that can be pawned for a decent amount of money. The motive is greed: they need cash for drugs, rent, bling, or whatever else criminals feel the need to purchase. Ransacking is used in two different situations: an actual robbery, and when a killer wants the scene to look like a robbery has taken place. Regardless of the reason your criminal has ransacked a house, there are two different methods for ransacking, and you, as the writer, need to know which one your character will use. 

The first method of ransacking is to empty every drawer, look under every piece of furniture, and generally create chaos in the residence–make a total and absolute mess. This method is used by juveniles and inexperienced criminals. This type of search is noisy and time-consuming, and let’s face it, not very efficient. Most home-owners don’t store their jewelry in the medicine cabinet, so why would a thief look there? If you have a teen-age thief who is high on drugs, he’s not going to think like a seasoned thief, or even a logical thief, and look only in those places where valuables would normally be stashed. Most likely he’s going to tear the house apart in a frenzy, as he’s terrified of getting caught, he’s desperate for cash, and his judgment has been impaired from the drugs.

However, if you’ve got a seasoned criminal who wants to make the scene look like a juvenile tossed the joint, then it would make perfect sense for the house to be a complete mess once he’s finished. Keep in mind that this criminal will do it quietly and quickly, as he doesn’t want to get caught while he’s staging his masterpiece. You could have fun with this one, if he’s trying to frame a neighborhood hoodlum for it, or if he’s using it as a forensic counter-measure to make the police look in a different direction. Keep in mind, the longer a thief is inside the house, the more likely he is to leave some sort of evidence behind: fingerprints, footprints, hair, bodily fluids (how many thieves sneeze when they rifle through an old shoe box?), trace from clothing, etc.

The second method of ransacking is to be methodical and logical, looking only in places where home-owners are likely to store valuables: dresser tops and drawers (jewelry, cash), desk drawers (cash, bank books, credit cards), entertainment centers (electronics), and garages (power tools). The experienced criminal will try to leave everything as neat as possible so the home-owners won’t notice the theft for awhile. The thief wants a hefty cushion of time to elapse between the robbery and police arrival. The chances are much greater, that way, for any evidence left behind to become contaminated or even eliminated. For example, the thief is careful to wear gloves but leaves a strand of hair at the scene. If the theft isn’t noticed for a day, there’s a chance a family member could pick up that hair on clothing or shoes and transport it outside. It’s not a great chance, but it’s something.

If you’re planning a good ransacking for your novel, make it believable by using the proper motivations and methods–and don’t forget to drop some clues for the detectives so the guilty party has a harder time with a clean get-away.

-Sonja
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