Of maggots and murder mysteries

AN entirely new breed of detectives has come up in the USA - the forensic entomologists.

Detectives were stumped at the discovery of a 34-year-old man's decomposing body,'with a bullet through his neck, in a Washington house completely locked from inside and with no sign of the killer weapon. Till "Bug Man" Paul Catts in Washington State University retrieved a handful of maggots from the body and discovered that they were two generations old. Since maggots take three weeks to reach adulthood, taking weather and other factors into consideration, he calculated the body had lain there for a little over six weeks. Usually, medical examiners cannot date a body beyond four days.

The police then began studying events going back over six weeks, and learnt of a wild neighbourhood party at which a reveler had fired some shots. The shooter was identified, pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to 27 months in prison.

Crime investigators have long regarded flies, maggots, mites and other creatures that infest dead bodies as a disgusting nuisance. But now this new band of bug experts is proving that even the most repulsive insects can provide clues to crack a tough case. "Once you get past the repulsive part - that is, the victim, not the bugs - it becomes an ecological puzzle," said Catts, who is one of a dozen full-time forensic entomologists in the USA.

Bugs can tell a trained observor not only when a person died but whether the body was moved (most fly sub-species stay within 1.5 km or so of where they hatched). Soon, it is predicted, researchers will be able to link a suspect to a corpse by testing the blood sucked by mosquitoes in the area.