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Slimy Sleuth : Entomologist Uses Insects to Help Solve Baffling Murders

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scribbled telephone message was brief, but it spoke volumes to San Diego insect expert David Faulkner.

“Murder,” it said, listing a Ventura County criminal investigator as the caller. “Has larvae preserved. Would like to talk to you about looking at them.”

Within days, Faulkner was investigating the murder of 34-year-old Jean Ellen Eubanks, an unemployed construction worker found dead under a pile of rocks north of Ojai. The coroner already had examined her body; Faulkner focused instead on the insects it had attracted.

From the ages and types of larvae he examined, Faulkner established that Eubanks had been killed three weeks before her body was found--a date for which the prime suspect had no alibi. And in March, after a jury had heard testimony from Faulkner and others, the investigator called and left another message.

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“Got a guilty verdict,” it said.

Faulkner, 41, the chairman of the San Diego Natural History Museum’s entomology department, is among only 20 scientists in the country--and just a few in the state--who specialize in this kind of slimy sleuthing.

The job is not for the squeamish. Faulkner is rarely consulted unless a murder victim has been dead long enough to start decomposing. But Faulkner is virtually unflappable when it comes to arthropods. After all, his colleagues note, this is a man who gets maggots in the mail.

“People cringe” when they first hear what his work is, he said recently. But Faulkner, who has been known to describe larval specimens as “neat,” is philosophical. “Once the soul has left the body, really, it’s just bug food.”

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Until a decade ago, Faulkner’s field, known as “forensic entomology,” was virtually unknown in the United States. But today, experts in insect identification are increasingly being called upon to help criminologists interpret these tiny, living clues.

The field, still somewhat obscure, owes its growing notoriety to a simple fact: Insects are usually the first at the murder scene.

“Before the police get there, there’s the blowfly,” Said Dr. Bernard Greenberg, a professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and one of the nation’s pioneering forensic entomologists. “They’re the most precise forensic indicators. They have an uncanny olfactory sense. And of course, this is the way they make their living.”

After these natural undertakers lay eggs, the developmental stages that ensue are so predictable that a trained entomologist can use them to pinpoint the time--and often the place--of death.

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“But,” Greenberg added, “he’s got to know his bugs, backward and forward.”

By all accounts, Faulkner knows his bugs.

Since childhood, when he first visited the museum where he now works and experienced the thrill of letting a tarantula crawl up his arm, Faulkner has been enthralled by the jointed legs, the segmented bodies and the exoskeletons of insects. He majored in biology at UC Santa Barbara, got a master’s degree in taxonomy, the classification of insects, from Cal State Long Beach, and in 1975 was hired as the San Diego museum’s top bug man.

His detective skills can be applied to other cases as well.

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Want to know where that big marijuana shipment originated? Want to identify whether an East Coast or West Coast storage company is liable for moth damage on a valuable Persian rug? Or to estimate how long termites have infested a newly purchased home? In cases like these, bug experts are providing the answers.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s, though, when National University invited him to lecture about the legal applications of entomology, that Faulkner first considered the crime-solving uses of his field. The literature on the subject was limited, and at first he admits he had to look up the word “forensic” in the dictionary.

But soon, Faulkner was onto his first case. He was hired by attorneys for Bernard Lee Hamilton, accused of murdering and decapitating a Mesa College coed, to help determine a time of death.

Faulkner, who has since been hired by defense lawyers and prosecutors to assist in 30 homicide cases from Texas to Oregon, looks back today on the case as a reminder that an entomologist’s conclusions are only as good as his evidence. The victim’s body had long since been buried, so Faulkner was working with a coroner’s report that made no mention of fly eggs on the body. But if the body had been outdoors for as long as prosecutors claimed, Faulkner speculated, there would have been significant insect activity.

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To test that hunch, he placed a headless rabbit atop the same rock where the young woman’s body was found. Hamilton’s lawyers argued that Faulkner’s rabbit test--which attracted several species of flies--suggested that the young woman’s body must have been dumped later, when their client was nowhere near the area.

In retrospect, Faulkner says he now believes insects were probably present on the body, but escaped the attention of the coroner. Evidently the jury thought much the same thing: Hamilton was sent to Death Row.

He was hooked. Fascinated by how insects could solve mysteries, he began to keep a file of daily weather reports; temperature has a direct impact on the rate of decay, and the clippings come in handy in researching a new case. And he kept his ears open for other tales of six-legged gumshoes.

He soon found that maggots aren’t the only bugs to solve crimes. There was the Florida murder suspect, whose presence at the crime scene was suggested by the preponderance of love bugs splattered in the grill of his car.

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Closer to home, the chigger case remains a standing favorite.

In 1982, after the body of a 24-year-old woman was found in a Ventura County canyon, investigators at the crime scene were stricken with itchy, red welts. They called in entomologist James Webb, who identified the culprit: a tiny mite known as the chigger, so rare in California that it was confined to within a half-mile of where the body was dumped.

Later, when the prime suspect was caught, he said he had been nowhere near the murder site. But he too had chigger bites. In large part because of Webb’s testimony, the man was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.


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