Offbeat

Bugs Tell The Real Tale in Grisly Murder Case

There are some things that never lie, and bugs and DNA among the two most prominent contenders. Bugs have no personal agenda, and evidence of their very existence is being utilized more and more in forensic science in helping to determine “post-mortem intervals;” namely, the time between death and body discovery.

In Cleveland, Ohio, the bugs have been very busy as is Joe Keiper, curator of invertebrate zoology from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Known affectionately as the “bug guy” by his colleagues, he is a big part of an ongoing investigation into the remains of eleven women found on the premises and grounds of a registered sex offender.

Keiper has been a consultant for law enforcement since 2001. His job is grisly but necessary; he identifies the bugs found on corpses to help develop a timeline for homicide victims.

“Bugs can be the most important evidence when it comes to pinpointing a timeline…Bugs’ sense of smell puts bloodhounds to shame.”

In a case reminiscent of Jeffrey Dahmer, the remains of 11 African-American women were all found in the home of 50-year-old Anthony Sowell. For one poor victim, all that remains is a skull wrapped in a paper bag that was stuffed into a bucket in the basement.

Police searched the property and premises intensely with ground-penetrating radar. Cleveland Police Lt. Thomas Stacho stated “although various items were removed, no more remains were found.” Sowell has already served 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempted rape, but now faces five counts of aggravated murder, rape, felonious assault and kidnapping in connection with the eleven deaths.

Bugs tell a significantly elitist story. Even the highly trained scientist has to be careful when coming to conclusions. As Keiper says:

“The difference between one bug and another can be minute, with some of them looking very similar. But the minute difference can be huge in terms of bug species, as different species can tell very different stories about the time of death.”

Ordinarily, Keiper would need a minimum of three weeks to complete a report on one body. He had to note the presence or absence of all of the few dozen species of flies that live in his part of Ohio, as each has a different rate of growth in varying temperatures. The reason temperatures are important is because some of the bodies found on Sowell’s property were inside and others were outside.

He hopes he will not be called upon to perform this grisly task again. In his words: “This is a singular situation that I hope is once in a lifetime. This is something, for the sake of our society, I hope I never have to do again.”

Indeed, even having to do it once would appear to be enough for anyone to lose his or her lunch. Still, this is a necessary effort if this madman is to be brought to justice and the families of the victims are ever to know any closure or peace.

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