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Etiquette at a crime scene: What to wear, how to act

June 20, 1986

Shoppers at a West Kendall plaza got a special treat this week when a pair of bullet-riddled corpses were found in the trunk of a Lincoln parked in the lot.

Hundreds of spectators gathered in a festive atmosphere around the scene, many waiting up to six hours for the bodies to be extricated. Some onlookers drank lemonade while others took pictures and watched the death sedan through binoculars. A few even belly-crawled under parked cars to gain a closer vantage.

As the crowd grew, traffic actually backed up on Kendall Drive. "It was a nice day, they didn't have anything else to do, I guess," says Dr. Jay Barnhart, the medical examiner sent to the scene.

Look on the bright side. The fact that a routine trunk murder still draws an audience in Dade County proves we're not so desensitized to crime after all. If folks are so hungry for entertainment, maybe pro basketball really does have a chance down here.

Of course it's one thing to gather out of idle curiosity at a gruesome homicide, and quite another to make it a block party. As at all social occasions, there must be rules of etiquette.

Unfortunately the new maven of decorum, Miss Manners, has written virtually nothing about what is proper behavior at a crime scene. Such a guide is overdue in South Florida, where each day seems to offer a new Grisly Discovery.

Q. What should I wear?

A. Always pick out something that won't clash with the yellow police cordons; pastel greens and blues are nice. A sunbonnet can be fashionable, too. And choose sensible footwearshoes with reinforced toes, so you can stretch and gawk.

Q. Where should I stand?

A. Upwind, always. Be considerate to fellow spectators. If somebody yells, "Down in front!" then sit down. Bring a lawn chair, or one of those portable stools you rent at golf tournaments. And stay off the fenders of the squad cars.

Q. Is it OK to bring the kids?

A. At burglaries, auto thefts, shopliftingswhat the heck, unpack those strollers and give the little tykes a thrill! However, parental discretion is advised for most first-degree felony scenes.

Q. What about some helpful photo tips?

A. You'll want to use slide film, of course, so you can put together a carousel show for the neighbors. Bring a basic 3lbmm with a long lens, in case the police make you stand far away (they can be so fussy). And no need to hurry the focusingone thing about dead bodies, they tend to hold very still.

Q. What about souvenirs?

A. Usually it's unwise to try to collect souvenirs from a crime scene. Bullet fragments, shell casings, hair samples, ski masks, money satchels, bloody clothingsure, the stuff would look swell in the rec room next to your bowling trophies. But, please, the crime lab gets first dibs.

Q. Do we have to bring our own food?

A. Meals and munchies are rarely served at major crime scenes, except for the occasional Sno-Cone vendor. If you're packing a picnic basket, finger food is bestchicken wings, ribs, tacos. Stuff you can heat up on the hibachi.

Q. Can we order some drinks?

A. Conveniently, many exciting homicides are committed in bars, and these establishments gladly serve bystanders. However, if the scene of the crime is a street or shopping mall, plan to bring a small Thermossoft drinks and wine coolers are acceptable, though champagne is considered poor taste. The sound of the cork sets the cops on edge.

Q. What about wagering?

A. It's simply bad manners to make bets on how many days a body has been inside a car, the number of bullet holes, the length of the victim's rap sheet, or the amount of cash and cocaine in his pockets.

Q. How do we know when to applaud?

A. Some say you should clap when the body bags come out, others say hold the ovation until the coroner leaves. In any case, shouting out "Yo, Quincy!" is considered rude, as is coaxing the crowd into doing The Wave.

And pleaseno boat horns or cowbells. Have some respect.

Carl Hiaasens South Florida stress test Now you can figure your stress quotient October 29, 1985 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | The mysterious death of Claude, the sheep dog February 6, 1987