Love of Bugs Gives Edge to Death Determinations

Sept. 10, 2005 – "When I was 12 years old I went to 4-H conservation camp and an entomologist came and talked to us. The visit spurred me to think about entomology," Dr. Neal Haskell, internationally known forensic entomologist said on Saturday. Haskell is a self-professed lover of bugs and an expert on forensic entomology; a science that helps police personnel to determine time of death on decomposing bodies. The remarks were made during a lecture at the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix campus.
Haskell has been on St. Croix since Thursday and has presented several lectures to high school and university students and members of the V.I. Police Department Forensic Unit. About 45 people attended the lecture that featured a slide show of dead bodies in various stages of decomposition. Certain types of flies flock to dead bodies to lay their eggs. The eggs develop into larva, or maggots, and feed on decaying flesh. In the later stages of development the larva retire into their pupari, where they transform into flies."Maggots on a dead body sounds like a big bowl of Rice Crispies," Haskell said. "It's amazing."
Christina Joseph, a second year psychology major at UVI said the lecture was "fascinating." Joseph said she was most intrigued with the way investigators determine death by the rate of body decomposition. For those students who want to pursue a career in forensic entomology, Haskell says a background in biology is a key element.
Haskell has been called the founder of forensic entomology. He said he received a "curriculum directed degree in forensic entomology" put together by a team of forensic professionals of various disciplines. "This is an emerging field," Haskell said, adding that his is, at this time, the world's only full time professional forensic entomologist.
Haskell's expertise is in the field of forensic entomology, which uses the study of insect presence on dead bodies to determine the cause of death. Haskell said blowflies are usually the first insects to colonize (land and lay eggs) on the body. "The nose mouth and eyes are the prime targets for maggot colonization," Haskell said. He said blowflies could smell a dead animal or human up to a mile away. Haskell studies the insect infestations, life cycles and other decomposition data, such as climate and topography to use in the investigation of time and location of death and to determine if criminal activity is involved.
For example Haskell explained that mental patients or the elderly sometime get disorientated and wander away from their places of residence. In cold climates, some have been found deceased and partially clothed or even naked. Local police may surmise sexual assault but Haskell said before the body succumbs to cold its temperature rises significantly causing the person to remove their clothes.
Haskell was born the son of a cattle farmer in Rensselaer, Ind., where his family still lives. "We raised beef cattle, corn and soybeans," he said. "I farmed for 20 years."
Haskell said it was during the term of President Jimmy Carter when the livelihood of many farmers was threatened, and he was given a choice, leave farming and pursue another career or stay and lose the farm. He had already helped the police determine the time of death using his knowledge of bugs and a colleague suggested he continue in that line of work.
"What a person does in life can be the culmination of all your life's experiences," Haskell said. "You don’t have to get it out of a classroom." Haskell went back to school and earned his graduate degree in entomology at age 36 and his masters at age 45.
On Friday, Haskell and four officer of the St. Croix forensic unit went on a "field trip" to study maggots in different stages of decomposition. "It was one of the best days of my life," he said. "We went from road kill to road kill examining dead dogs and calculating the times of death. The police were fired up too. I know I have made an impact on my students if they are stimulated to learn more." Haskell coauthored the first textbook on forensic entomology for law enforcement personnel.
Haskell's first official case was in 1981, since then he has assisted on over 650 cases and testifies at 8 to 15 trials each year. "I am qualified as an expert witness in 26 states," Haskell said. "I'm presently assisting in a case in Sydney, Australia and another in London.
Haskell most infamous cases included assisting in the inspection of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas and the Westerfield murder trial in San Diego, Cal., which involved the kidnapping and killing of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam in 2002.
He has been featured on television shows like the Discovery Channel's "The New Detectives," The Learning Channel's "Secrets of Forensic Science" and Court TV's "Lasting Impressions." He has authored several book chapters and books.
Television programs like CSI have brought forensic science into everyone homes, but Haskell says, "don't believe everything you see on television. I give my students bonus points for all the errors they can find in the programs," he said.
Haskell says there is nothing that he would rather do than study bugs. He said family vacation would sometimes be interrupted if he saw a dead animal on the side of the road. He would stop the vehicle and get the kids out with nets to collect specimens of flies and maggots for further study. "Sometimes when I am doing boring research I would get a call and I am off on one of my adventures all over the world." Haskell is committed to his craft and encouraged by the results from the research in life or death cases.
"I really believe in this tool and I get frustrated when it is not used properly," Haskell said. "So I spend my time going around the country teaching."
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