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Dead Reckoning: The New Science of Catching Killersby Michael Baden
The level, flat slab of the Midwest may be the place where the risky game of chicken was born. Here cars can race side by side or hurtle toward each other on a collision course at terrific speed without so much as the hint of an incline, a whisper of a curve or the shock of a stop sign. The road goes on forever until it meets another road at crisp right angles, only to go on again.
Houses are set back from the road and are sheltered by the only trees around: Large, leafy bowers hang the shade on the roofs that otherwise would bake in the Indiana sun. Go up in a plane and these little clots of houses and green trees appear as dots on the graph paper that is America's farmland. Box after box, rigid in their limits, limitless in their shades of yellow and green, the graph expands beneath you exponentially in all directions the higher you fly. Leaving the land behind becomes impossible: It simply grows under the wings of the plane until it is everywhere.
Indiana is the solid Midwest. There is no mistaking it. Here fireworks outlets brace the edges of the state, pork chops are on every restaurant menu, people drink Mr. Pibb and red pop and farmers drive the astonishing pieces of machinery that cultivate American agriculture. In the planting and harvesting seasons these machines roam the massive, soft fields that blanket the limestone base laid in the Upper Silurian Age.
Despite its name, Jasper County, Indiana, is bedrocked from end to end with that limestone. The county seat is a city called Rensselaer, a treed, cool oasis from the hot and dusty business of farming. In the middle of town is the Busy Bee ice cream stand by the Iroquois River. It opens in May, and its staff is good at giving directions to a well-known eight-hundred-acre farm just outside of town. You go east a ways; then, they will tell you, you start looking on the north side of the road. It turns out that the place is easy to find on an early summer night, distinguished, as it is, amid the threshers and the combines, by a slow moving, twenty-three-ton, steel-cleated World War II tank that is firing tennis balls into the dusk.
Dr. Neal Haskell, it seems, is spending a rare evening at home.
As the only full-time professional forensic entomologist in the world, Dr. Haskell travels nearly all the time. But not this week. Every year at the beginning of the summer he runs a school. Law enforcement people from all over the world fly into Chicago or Indianapolis, then drive two hours to Rensselaer, to learn from the master about the ancient science of bugs on dead people.
Climbing out of the tank, he looks like nothing so much as a round peg in a small hole. Haskell, who is a professor of forensic science and biology at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, is a big boy, whose barrel-bellied shape stretches the slogans on his T-shirts into easy reading for the large-type set. This one reads MAGGOT POWER on the front and IT'S FUN TO PUT SNAP, CRACKLE AND POP INTO THE MOURNING on the back.
The beer he serves up out of the barn cooler, called "Old Scratch" lager, features a half-dog, half-flea mascot. The Dodge Caravan SE parked next to the main house bears a license plate that reads maggot. This man is dead serious — in a funny kind of way — about his bugs.
As a body starts to die something sends certain members of the bug world into a frenzy. Female blowflies have a keen sense of smell and from as far away as a mile and a half can smell the moments of death. Perhaps it is a gas discharged by bacteria in the gut. Perhaps it is something far more obscure.
The process was documented as early as 1235 a.d., when Sung Tz'u, a Chinese death investigator, wrote a book entitled The Washing Away of Wrongs, about the forensic sciences of the time. It contains what is probably the first written account of the use of bugs in determining criminal behavior. A slashing murder had occurred in a small Chinese village, and after the usual questioning of the locals, no suspect had been located. The local investigator then had all the villagers bring their sickles to an open spot and lay them out before the crowd. Flies landed on one of the sickles, probably because of the bits of the victim's tissue that remained on the instrument. The owner of the sickle broke down and confessed.
Experiments in 1668 by Francesco Redi essentially killed the widely held belief that rotting meat somehow spontaneously generated its own flies. The year 1855 saw the first use of insects as forensic indicators by a Westerner. When a baby's body was discovered behind the plaster mantle of a house in France, Dr. Bergeret d'Arbois performed an autopsy and determined that the assemblage of insects pointed to an earlier date, and thus previous occupants of the house, rather than those originally accused.
After that, it was a slow but inexorable series of steps to Rensselaer, Indiana, and Neal Haskell's summer bug school at the farm.
The night before things begin we are given our schedule. School will proceed pretty much like this: kill the pigs, watch for flies, look for maggots, do some experiments, drink some beers, have a pig roast.
At the heart of Rensselaer is the courthouse. It was erected in 1896, the year that Ohioan William McKinley beat out Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan, the "boy orator," for president of the United States. The structure is Gothic in style, with strong Victorian flourishes. Inside are polished stone stairs and stenciled ceilings, all reflecting the organic colors of this part of the country. Stained glass staves of wheat give way on the upper floors to scales of justice set in the leaded windows.
Surrounding the courthouse square are the hallmarks of prosperity of small town America. On the east side is the bank that locals for years considered the Democratic bank (a Republican bank once shared the courthouse square but has been replaced). On the south side of the square is the fitness and tanning salon. Along the west flank is the Ritz cinema and an eatery called the City Office and Pub (the mayor's office used to be in the building). Heading north out of town on Route 231, you can pick up a copy of the Rensselaer Republican, the local newspaper, before arriving at the American Legion Hall. That's where bug school starts at 8 a.m. sharp.
Inside the hall, thirty-seven students, some still smelling of soap and showers, mill around, warming in the June morning. They are quiet and well groomed, the men all sporting the close-cropped hair of law enforcement, the seven women looking more like fringe-science, with assorted piercings and a smattering of tattoos. The exception here is Laura, a Brooklyn-born FBI agent, whose dark hair is neat and trim and whose ankle is packing serious heat. Her explanation of a recent use of "Cadavahdawgs...you know, cadavahdawgs" is met initially with a blank stare. It takes a classmate several attempts to comprehend. "Oh, cadaver dogs," he says, as the light of recognition ignites. In this part of the world her accent is rarer than a Waco fire maggot (which, incidentally, Dr. Haskell has in his celebrity maggot collection).
This is the bingo room of the American Legion Hall, as evidenced by the ancient numbered light board and cage of numbered balls to the left in front. On the upper right of the front wall of the hall are written the words of the preamble of the Constitution. Right under those words, Dr. Haskell sets up his maggot display. This consists of Schmidt boxes that store bugs, bottles with neoprene stoppers and a small but impressive insect collection. This is his traveling show. His lab, with thousands of bugs at varying stages of life and death, is in his mother's basement on one of the nicest streets in town.
Today Dr. Haskell is wearing a T-shirt whose sleeve reads NO FLIES ON ME. One of the students sets out to change that by offering the professor a great, shiny necklace of plastic beetles and flies in the electric colors of Mardi Gras beads. Strung amid the insects are tiny rubber maggots. Oh, Dr. Haskell loves this. This is a real treasure.
All too often people use the expression "larger than life" to describe people who really are not. Within the first few moments of bug school, it becomes apparent that Neal Haskell is, in fact, larger than life. He's enormous with it, delighted to be here, joyous in his enthusiasm about teaching and about maggots themselves.
"Good news, folks," he says, turning in the aisle between the rows of desks. "We've got maggots. We've got migrating maggots. We've got puparia." The twenty-five pigs that were killed last night have attracted the usual suspects. Most of the class seems to know this already: They were up early, checking on their pigs.
Laura was among the early risers. From her experiment she will write a paper discussing whether charring and burning flesh alters the time it takes for flies to alight on a corpse. Or, as she says, "When a perp tries to burn the bodies, we don't know how much delay that causes in the bugs." This paper will become a poster at the next American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Reno, Nevada, in February. Knowing more about the question of bugs and charred flesh would have helped Dr. Haskell in a recent case in which someone tried to burn a body and left a perfect outline of it on the grass. That was helpful, and interesting, in terms of forensic botany. But the need for accuracy in forensic entomology demanded that Haskell know if the burning delayed the onset of the bugs and therefore delayed the well-known timetable of their activity. If so, that would help to determine the time of death.
That's one of the things certain bugs can do: They tell us when and where someone was killed, and they do it with exquisite accuracy that no man-made system will ever reproduce.
Dr. Haskell strolls around the room as he relates the details of a case he worked in Oklahoma, one of five hundred in his twenty-year career.
August in Stroud, Oklahoma, is a lot hotter than August in Rensselaer, Indiana, and flesh left out in the sun turns bad real fast. One morning a neighbor followed his nose across the street to the home of Aureliano Cisneros and his wife, Linda Howell. The stench emanating from a pile of junk in the driveway of their home had gone from being a curiosity to being a nuisance. And it was swarming with flies.
Underneath a pile of dresser drawers, blankets, suitcases and a tarp was the decomposing body of Aureliano Cisneros, last seen leaving a local bar with his wife. They had stormed out together as she was heard to say, "You son of a bitch, I'm going to kill you."
"On the tarp was a powdery substance that they initially thought was drugs," says Dr. Haskell, as he paces around the room, telling the story. "It wasn't." He paused for effect. "Arm and Hammer baking soda might take care of your fridge, but it doesn't do shit for the decomposing body on your front lawn."
When asked, Linda Howell said that yes, she and her husband had fought on Thursday night; but they had patched things up, and she hadn't seen him for two days, since the night of Saturday, August 6, when he had left home to go meet some friends.
When Linda Howell was arrested for the murder of her husband, law enforcement investigators had a body and a motive, but a lousy timeline.
"Are we talking twenty-four to forty-eight hours that he's been lying there?" asks Haskell. "Or are we talking four days? We have to know."
Right after bugs, Dr. Haskell loves weather. He gets a lot of both in Indiana, and that suits him just fine.
At any given time at any spot in the world certain bugs are in season. As any gardener will tell you, there are planting zones that limn the globe like meridians of longitude: In North America, for instance, Zone One is in northern Canada, Zone Ten in southern Florida. Plants that are grown in one zone may or may not be hardy in another, and spring (and all its accompaniments), as everyone knows, appears at different times in different parts of the country. You would not expect to find a honeybee busy at work in northern New York in November. In purely forensic terms, therefore, traffic deaths resulting from people swatting at bees in their cars will drop there from November until late April or May, when the incidence will again rise with the temperature.
The bugs around the body of Aureliano Cisneros were two common flies: the black blowfly and the secondary screwworm. The fly larvae — maggots — collected and preserved at the crime scene were enough evidence for Haskell to determine their species and conclude that they were in their third developmental stage, or instar, the final stage before they would crawl off to pupate and mature into adult flies.
Temperature is the key in the length of the maggots' development process: heat speeds it up, cold slows it down. And it does so on a predictable timeline that Dr. Haskell can recite like the Pledge of Allegiance. Temperature records from weather stations near Stroud were consulted for the days following the couple's argument in the bar.
"Now, we're going to need 950 to 1,150 accumulated degree hours to get blowflies to mature," he explains, "so I'm going to take the known weather data and calculate forward or backward. For her story to prove true, that he was alive and well Saturday night, the sixth, knowing that his body was discovered on the eighth, knowing that blowflies are not active at night, there's no energy adding up there. On the seventh we've got heat from sunrise on, with accumulated hours until midnight, giving us a total, maximum of 450 degree hours. Nowhere near."
Dr. Haskell continues, "You can't get the eggs hatched in those degree hours, so there is no possible way her story could be true. Sometime prior to the sixth, yes, on the fifth, we move into the ballpark for accumulated degree hours."
The death, Dr. Haskell determined, happened on Thursday night. Not long after that fact was revealed, Linda Howell accepted a plea bargain.
During the morning break, some bug school students pass around pictures of a recent group trip to the Body Farm in Tennessee. Started by legendary University of Tennessee professor William Bass, the three-acre outdoor laboratory is devoted to the study of decomposition and is the only such lab in the world. Fenced off by razor-topped barbed wire, the farm is populated with human bodies in varying stages of decay arranged in different experiments. In one, a body has been left in a car. Another body is covered with leaves. There is one uncovered on the open ground. Some are in coffins buried at varying depths, some under trees, clothed and naked, some have been embalmed and others suggest various crime scenes.
Research done at the laboratory is quoted frequently in court to aid in the understanding and interpretation of forensic evidence. After the O.J. Simpson case, for instance, Bass was called upon by the FBI to research DNA samples taken from decaying bodies. In the Simpson case, blood had been collected from the bodies of the two victims upon their discovery. Three and four days later, however, more samples were necessary, and the question arose as to whether the same amount of DNA exists in the first day's blood as in the fourth. No one could answer the question during preparation for the Simpson trial because no one had done the research.
Some people think of forensic entomology and cadaver decomposition as fringe forensic sciences. Not Dr. Haskell's bug school students, apparently. The Body Farm is a popular research site for them, as shown in the photographs that are passed around and accompanied by the kind of comments reserved in other groups for Caribbean vacations and wild game safaris.
After the break, Dr. Haskell's own slides reveal his interest in the place. So great is it, in fact, that he has willed his body to the lab, where it will be "laid out under a hickory tree, there along the river, to let nature take its course." Another slide shows his daughter Chrissy on a trip there with him, crouching next to a corpse.
The next slide displays a greatly enlarged quote from Newsweek, April 22, 1991. It reads: "'Dad, You are going to have to do something with that dead cat in the freezer. It's making the milk taste funny.' — Chrissy Haskell, 9, to Neal Haskell, a forensic entomologist at Purdue University, who uses cats in his studies of maggots on corpses."
Dr. Haskell laughs like hell at one of his favorite forays into the national press.
Between his science and his demeanor, Dr. Haskell does not have a hard time getting into print. Getting into court, however, is another matter. At last count he had qualified to testify in seventeen states. But some judges simply won't have any forensic entomology in their courtrooms, and that is one of the reasons he teaches so much — more than seventy workshops so far in the United States and Canada. Neal Haskell wants nothing so much as many more people out there knocking on the court chambers, clamoring to bring maggots into court.
"Error is a big thing with the Daubert rule," he says. "So it's really great to have precise data. You don't want those attorneys" — he says that word in such a way that he turns it into a projectile — "telling us that they don't want bugs in the courtroom." His face sets hard, and he casts a long glance around the room and says, "You don't want someone telling you this is new science and let that defense attorney get in your face." The Daubert rule requires a determination of scientific reliability.
Today he is preaching to the converted. These are the men and women who hit the streets every day. There's not a potential witness for the defense among them.
To teach the students, Haskell allows them to work backward from a known time of death — something they won't often get in a real homicide — and then observe, collect and analyze. Then the students will actually raise and witness the hatching of eggs found on the carcasses. All this comes back to the pigs, who were killed at precise times and then laid out at various sites around Haskell's farm. Some are by one of two ponds, some under trees. None are near the house. It's a mini Body Farm, in fact, where all the dead are porcine.
While the students are here to learn how to provide an objective estimate of time of death, to do so they first have to become comfortable with the materials. Just how do modern investigators collect bugs?
Haskell likes to point out that the best forceps are human fingers. This usually brings a groan from somewhere in the group. Next after that are the collapsible aerial insect nets, useful for collecting fast-flying and fast-crawling adult insects. The net has an attachable handle, which increases the working distance as well as the speed the net can be manipulated. Insects that fly over the dead are strong, fast fliers, and netting them requires practice. The netting technique uses several rapid, back-and-forth, sweeping motions of the net, with reversal of the net 180 degrees on each pass. On the last pass, students are instructed to bring the open portion of the net up to chest level while rotating the opening 180 degrees, thus trapping the bugs.
The end of the net containing the insects goes directly into the wide mouth of the killing jar, where several cotton balls soaked with fresh ethyl acetate await. The killing jar is capped, and within two to five minutes the bugs will die.
Screw-cap vials await the dead specimens. Some of the vials contain 75 percent ETOH (ethyl alcohol); others are dry. If stored dry, the insects must be processed in a few hours since condensation in the vial can create excessive moisture and promote mold, which quickly damages the insects.
This process is repeated thee or four times, beginning with the aerial netting, to ensure a representative sample of all the flying insects present.
There are methods for net collection directly from the corpse, Haskell tells his students. He offers precise instructions for finger or forceps removal, complete with a reminder about the tension that should or should not be applied to hard- versus soft-carapaced insects. Following that are instructions for successful insect egg removal, since eggs must be taken back to laboratories to be hatched and raised until adulthood so that species identification can be made. Haskell keeps his nursery of bugs in his mother's basement in what he refers to as "maggot motels." In the process, he has discovered that maggots prefer to be fed beef liver.
Soil samples too must be collected from areas around the body. These are kept in two-pint (one-liter) cylindrical ice cream carton-type containers. Approximately six samples are taken from under, adjacent to and up to three feet from the body, noting the origin of each. Everything is labeled in pencil, because labels written with graphite won't be affected by preserving solutions. And some of these samples will be preserved for years. The investigator must be thinking not only about court but also about possible appeals.
Temperature readings must also be taken and recorded: ambient temperature, ground temperature, body surface temperature, maggot mass temperature, temperature at a spot where body and soil interface, and ten to twelve inches off the ground. These will be added to the mix of data. When a date of death is estimated, the temperature data for that area at that time will be requested from the National Weather Service.
The accuracy of the readings is essential because of the direct relation between hatching and temperature. And, of course, because of those defense attorneys. In the Aureliano Cisneros case, temperature readings and how they were taken became a real point of contention with one attorney.
"Oh, they tried to keep my readings out of court," recalls Haskell. "They were accurate and proper, but they were from Oklahoma City on the day of the death, not Stroud, Oklahoma. We got the hourlies and means from the east side of the city and the west side, and when it came to the cross-examination, the attorney was on me because the temps weren't from under the tarp with the body.
"The judge was a great big old cowboy, and he wasn't having any of that kind of nonsense, so he said, 'When it's hot in Oklahoma City, it's hot in Stroud.' And that was the end of it. And he admitted it."
Frequently the forensic entomologist does not see the body at the crime scene. So, the next best place for the collection of insect evidence is in the morgue. Outside and inside the body bag, in and around clothing, and in the body's cavities, the bugs will be doing or will have done their work. And it needs to be documented. Bodies found years later will retain signs of the season in which they died.
Most of the people in the bug school won't be reading the material. They will merely be collecting it after they return to their various law enforcement jobs. And so they will need to send it to a practicing forensic entomologist.
Haskell likes to tell a story about when he first started out, studying and working in economic entomology at Purdue: "We used to get bugs sent to us for identification. Mostly from farmers. All in nice little letter envelopes with return addresses. First the people would swat them, then they would take them to the post office, where they'd get cancelled. I'd open them up and there would be these little squished legs and wings. You don't want to do that."
These days he recommends several things to his students: that they don't leave specimens in hot cars for any length of time and that they try to get transport to the entomological laboratory by direct hand delivery through police agencies. Failing that, he recommends overnight mail, Federal Express or UPS, and no, he does not recommend explaining to the shipper what the package contains.
"But get them here alive," he said, urging significant packing and temperature protection.
Entomology doesn't just aid in knowing the time of death. It can also tell investigators where the death occurred. Insect species may be found in very particular places at specific times of the year in certain parts of the world. If a body is found harboring insects or insect material outside the range or season of that insect, that fact suggests the corpse was moved. That may lead investigators to a suspect living near the insect's natural habitat. The absence of insects when they should be present can be just as telling.
Insects, or more specifically, untreated insect bites, can provide evidence of abuse or neglect in both children and the elderly when detected by properly trained emergency room physicians, Haskell says.
After the morning lecture, it's lunch downtown and out to the farm to check the pigs.
There aren't a lot of services in Rensselaer, Indiana. There's one of everything, though, and that includes restaurants. There are several bars — Haskell's favorite, the City Office and Pub, included — some fast-food joints and, of course, the Busy Bee, but when someone says, "I'll meet you for dinner at the restaurant," they mean at the restaurant, and that is Devon's, where the helpings are enormous, the coffee is poured all day and many things are made with whole milk and cream.
After lunch, the Indiana sun cooks the day. Tonight promises one of those storms that people from the East have seen only in movies. All afternoon long, it whispers its imminence in the slow, hot and cold breeze at the farm.
Also on the breeze is the smell of death.
At 1:30 p.m., in the fry of the afternoon sun, the individual lab groups approach one dead and rotting pig at a time, everyone displaying the marked, respectful hesitancy they bring from their day jobs. Rule number one in death scene investigation: Never rush up to a body. Not only is there no reason to, but there is good reason not to. Evidence is easily trampled.
Looking at the pigs, it is easy to remember Haskell's dictum that when one biological clock stops, others begin. The place is swarming with flies. They are doing their jobs like clockwork.
There are five major stages of decomposition: fresh, bloat, decay, dry and remains. Moving from one to the next is more of a slide on a continuum than a step to a discrete stage. Along this continuum, different insects come and go, in what is known as insect succession. The different kinds of insects need to be collected to reveal where in the cycle the investigator has entered the picture and to identify a relative time on the continuum, based on insect succession. The beginning of the continuum is very accurate, but this method of telling time grows less accurate as the time from death extends. In a six-day-old case (where the body was discovered six days after the death), that can put the investigator off by plus or minus twelve hours. In a six-month-old case, the difference can be a matter of days.
There are a few thousand species of carrion insects in the United States. But the forensic entomologist must be more discerning than that, for there are ninety species of blowflies alone. Flies are the initial colonizers of and feeders on carrion. Beetles generally feed on the eggs of flies, although some beetles are carrion beetles. Fire ants, which are nasty inhabitants of the South, carry off the eggs of blowflies. They can have a major impact on the bugs and therefore on what can be read at the scene. Identifying the species, calculating air and soil temperatures and awaiting the hatching of insect eggs in the lab can be slow and arduous. Eventually, a timeline will begin to form. But it doesn't happen overnight.
But, as Haskell likes to say, "Time's fun when you're having flies."
Consider the flies alone. Within the ninety species, the investigator must identify the sex as well as the species. The females, with their keen olfactory sense, can smell death from a mile and a half away and will be the first to the scene. Identifying a female can be done by looking at her eyes: Female blowflies' eyes are widely set; the eyes of males are so close they almost touch. Species can be distinguished by examining the rows of hairs that appear on every fly. Different species, different hair — all ninety of them. There are also subtle distinguishing color, size and overall appearance variations among species. One of the bluebottle flies, Calliphora vomitoria, for instance, looks a lot like a B-29, in Haskell's view.
Then there are the various things that bugs can do relating to unnatural death. Cockroaches, for instance, can leave distinguishing (and to the untrained eye, confusing) tracks when traveling through a bloody crime scene. Ants can leave marks on flesh that have been mistaken for child abuse. Bees are well-known precipitants to vehicular accidents, but detecting a fatal bee sting could also be the difference in a double indemnity insurance payment, if the cause of death is ruled a heart attack. During the warm months, moths, just out minding their own business, will be collecting all over automobile license plates in the course of a driver's day. If that driver kills someone in one bug zone and then drives into another to dump the body, the evidence will be right there, ready to read. Body lice and mosquitoes, as well as maggots, may contain the DNA of a victim and, in some cases, of a perpetrator, too. They may also contain drugs used by the victim.
Dr. Haskell teaches his students to sweep the vegetation surrounding a recent death for mosquitoes. He is very clear on this: You might get lucky and pick up the perpetrator's DNA in the blood taken by the insect. And he knows it can happen, having worked a rape case that came down to DNA extracted from body lice. That kind of analysis might not make it into every court, he realizes, but having it, doing the science right and adding it to the evidence might very well dislodge a pre-trial confession from the guilty party.
After a long, hot, dirty, dusty and smelly afternoon in the sun with dead pigs, the logical thing to do, of course, is roast a hog.
Pork loin and Old Scratch beer on a warm Indiana night combine to make a convincing argument for a tour of the farm in the front cab of a pickup truck. Bumping along the eight hundred acres of Haskell's farm with a beer between the knees, the hues of twilight and the warm farm breeze thrumming on the sunflowers and sorghum, it's hard to imagine that the talk can turn to murder. But it does.
Take the case, Haskell says, of the female skeleton found in the oak and maple woodland of the Cumberland Mountains in late January. She had a hundred-cell paper wasp nest inside her skull. All but about a half dozen cells appeared empty, indicating that the nest had been occupied the year before. It appeared to have been a large and active colony of Polistes wasps, which begin nesting in April in that part of the country and only nest in clean, dry sites. A single sphaerocerid puparial case was also found in the cranium. But they invade a corpse only at full bloat. Counting back from the time it would have taken for the skull to be clean and dry enough to interest the wasps, and then back to the puparial state of the sphaerocerid, the estimated postmortem interval (PMI), or time from death to discovery, was set at approximately eighteen months. Dental records identified the dead woman, who had disappeared two years before the skeleton was discovered.
An even more precise measurement involved the skeletonized remains of a baby, recovered from a shallow grave on a narrow ledge on the side of a crater in Hawaii. In this case, beetles solved the crime.
Besides blowflies, a wide variety of other insects colonize dead tissue and are attracted to a corpse in an orderly, progressive process termed succession. The successive nature of the insects allows the entomologist, when supplied with a representative sample of the bugs, to develop a picture of the circumstances surrounding the death.
In the Hawaii case, which bugs showed up was less important than which bugs did not. The absence of certain mite species quickly shortened the original estimated PMI from seventy-six days to slightly over fifty-two days. It later turned out that the death had occurred in the morning fifty-three days prior to the collection of the remains.
More than five hundred other cases have been brought to Haskell, making him the man people think of when they think of bugs on the dead. Of course, there are other well-known expert forensic entomologists in the world. Wayne Lord, the FBI's medicocriminal entomologist, is known as "Lord of the Flies," but Haskell is considered to be, in the field of justice, more like one of us, Mr. Everyman, down in the soil, just getting his hands dirty in search of the truth.
Sometimes Dr. Haskell takes his show on the road, teaching cops at clinics far from his Hoosier home. These days, though, he does it without the transport of his trusty and recognizable minivan with the custom plates. It sits parked at home with almost 200,000 miles on the odometer. For out-of-state trips now, he travels in rental cars. Flying is out of the question: too much stuff to take along, way too many questions to answer at security gates.
How would you explain, for instance, the maggot hotels, complete with slivers of fresh liver? Or, for quick courses, the prekilled baby pigs laid out in the large, snap-topped Rubbermaid containers? It's just not worth the aggravation.
And so, on any given day, Haskell can be found crisscrossing America's heartland in a rented American sedan, with his portable bug school neatly tucked in the trunk, as he munches from jumbo bags of Jay's potato chips and listens to Tom Clancy books on tape, occasionally pulling over to read a chapter or two of books like Panzer Commander or to visit a World War II scout car dealer in Akron, Ohio, where he might pick up another vintage military vehicle. He currently owns nine.
"I convinced my wife and my mother that tinkering with the big toys keeps down my stress level," he says with a raise of an eyebrow and a laugh.
Both women are soft-spoken, attentive and intelligent women of great character and perception. They merely smile at any suggestion that he could ever put anything over on either of them. And both of them are in the business, in their own fashion. Haskell's mother has grown accustomed to hearing her son enter the lab in her basement at all hours of the day or night, when an insect must be preserved or a colony must be examined. She has learned to tune out the sounds of what others might consider to be some of the strangest experiments in law enforcement going on beneath her kitchen.
Jane Haskell, the scientist's wife, is a trusted and keen lab technician and processor of the bugs of the world. Both women accept his antics. And anyway, what's a few military vehicles in a family, if it keeps him down on the farm?
When it's time to leave the Haskell farm, with the slaughtered hogs still providing data for eager students of the insect detective, the drive in any direction goes right through the heart of America. You don't have to stand back in this part of the country to get a perspective on the place; it's right under your nose. Everywhere there are solid homes making up a community whose pride is well-founded. At the edges of one end of town are the car dealerships, bearing the names of their owners. In another direction, heading out past Bazz's roller rink, the town shakes out to its last few houses and then softly returns to soil.
Chances are good that by the end of the day, Dr. Neal Haskell's phone will ring, and he'll pack up his nets, boxes, Rubbermaid containers and books on tape and head out on these roads, in search of a few good bugs.
Copyright © 2001 by Michael Baden and Marion Roach
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