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Consumer Reports

Master of maggots solves mortality mysteries | (KRT) Neal Haskell is bequeathing himself to the Body Farm.

When the time comes, his corpse will go to the farm otherwise known as the University of Tennessee Forensic Anthropology Facility, where it will rot with dozens of other bodies - locked in trunks, floating in water or sprawled in the sun - while researchers study their decomposition.

Haskell already knows how long it will take the maggots to make a meal of his more-than-6-foot, big-bellied frame.

"About two weeks," he estimated. "In the summer."

The man knows his decomposition.

Haskell, one of about eight board-certified forensic entomologists in the United States, also knows his maggots, what they can do to a body and exactly how long it takes them to do it.

"The bugs talk. They talk to him," said Charlie Green, a criminalist with the Metro Crime Lab, a joint operation of the Colorado Springs Police Department and El Paso County Sheriff's Office.

Green attended a seminar taught by Haskell and hosted by Colorado Springs police last week in Colorado Springs.

Forensic entomology is the study of insects to determine the time of human death, and law enforcement officials increasingly are relying on its practitioners to help pinpoint details critical to a homicide investigation.

"It can make or break an alibi," said Green, whose lab sends bug evidence to Haskell for analysis.

The first documented use of insects to solve a homicide took place in China in 1235 , when a peasant was hacked to death.

"The magistrate brought all the suspects into the center of town and had them set their sickles on the ground," Haskell described.

Flies immediately swarmed to one sickle, attracted by the tissue and blood that still clung to the blade. Its owner broke down and confessed.

The field has gained prominence in the past 10 years, according to the American Board of Forensic Entomology.

Haskell has gained prominence along with it.

A native of Indiana, he studied entomology in college but turned to farming when his father died, leaving him to run the family farm.

His knowledge of bugs was well-known, and when a local man turned up dead in 1981, a detective asked Haskell to examine his remains to see if the maggots could offer any clues.

Haskell recoiled when he walked into the autopsy room and saw the putrefied, blackened body on the table, its rib cage cracked open. He forgot his discomfort when he and the pathologist pried open the man's mouth.

"A maggot goes crawling across his tooth, and I grabbed it," he said.

These days, Haskell - who quit farming in the 1980s to become the first person in the world to focus on a graduate course of study in forensic entomology - is every inch the bug man.

He works on 50 to 70 cases every year and testifies often, most recently at the trial of David Westerfield, the San Diego man convicted of killing 7-year-old Danielle van Dam.

Haskell's daughter, 24-year-old Chrissy, said he loves nothing more than digging his hands into a mass of maggots squirming in a dead pig.

When she was little, he taught her how to catch blowflies.

"I'd say, `Can't I collect butterflies?' " she said.

The license plate on his Pontiac Montana reads: "MAGGOT."

"I'm not a maggot," Haskell bragged. "I'm a maggot master."

Haskell spent the first half of the week in Colorado Springs with the people who provide him his raw material.

They used two decaying deer killed by traffic and a cat to do their work, capturing the blowflies that swarmed over the carcasses, measuring temperatures and picking maggots off the flesh.

The flies and some of the maggots were killed and preserved. Other maggots were placed in "maggot motels," foil pouches with fresh liver the maggots could feast on until Haskell could examine them. They collected beetles found scuttling under one particularly mangled deer and took notes on the sun's position.

All that information allows Haskell to draw reliable conclusions about the person's time of death, he said.

Because he knows how long it takes to reach each stage in the insect's life, he can analyze the samples to see how old they are, then calculate backward to come up with the time the egg was laid.

Blowflies typically land on a newly dead body within two days and start laying eggs.

Information about the weather is as important as the bug specimens because temperature is a factor in how fast the insect develops.

His students said the seminar - organized by Megan Critser, a Colorado Springs forensic nursing graduate student and friend of the Haskell family - lent a new dimension to what they already knew.

Green said he learned more about conditions he'd seen before but hadn't understood, such as the residue maggots leave behind as they migrate across the body.

"There are things I've seen in the last two days that have new meaning to me now," he said.

Police in Colorado usually encounter maggot-infested bodies from spring through fall. Winters are too cold for maggots to thrive.

Haskell said the decay - gruesome to most - helps him focus on his job.

"By the time I get in with the body, they don't resemble live humans," Haskell said. "You can't tell young from old, male from female. They're nonhumans at that point. What tears me up are the antemortem photos, like Danielle van Dam's."

Little about his work, however, deals with the antemortem, the time before death. When he's not teaching at St. Joseph's College in Indiana, he spends time at his farm, studying the decomposing animals on his own animal version of the Body Farm.

He often visits the actual Farm, walking among the dead he and his mother, whom he convinced to donate her body, someday will join.

"I've got my tree picked out," he said. "I want to sit up against a tree so I can watch the Tennessee River."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services