Bugnet : Jim Webb Is a Forensic Entomologist Who Is Part Biologist, Part Detective as He Seeks Clues From Insects to Solve Crimes


While other gumshoes strap on their 9-millimeter pistols when called to a murder scene, Jim Webb packs his butterfly net.

Upon arrival, he may not even notice the shell casings, blood splotches or murder weapon and steps right over the corpse itself.

“I’m not a real cadaver fan,” Webb says. “I’m just interested in the bugs.”

The only forensic entomologist in Orange County, Webb is part biologist and part detective. He is among a new breed of investigators who have made a career from the simple fact of nature that bugs are often the first--and only--witnesses to murder.


By studying insects found around dead bodies, Webb can help determine when a victim died, whether cocaine or other drugs were involved and if someone moved the corpse.

The insects can leave helpful clues that sometimes lead detectives to the culprits. Webb once helped link a suspect to a strangling by matching up telltale chigger bites on the suspect and others who had been at the crime scene.

“The guy can do wonders,” said Bill Green, an investigator for the San Diego County district attorney’s office, who recalled a serial murder case in which Webb used maggots to peg the time of death of one victim and poke holes in the killer’s alibi.

Nationwide, there are fewer than 20 forensic entomologists who do criminal investigations on a regular basis; only three are in California. Webb, 53, is considered a pioneer in his field and typically handles five to 10 cases a year in Orange and Los Angeles counties, and across the state.

In this esoteric and expanding discipline, Webb and his colleagues talk in terms of Calliphora vicina, Phaenicia sericata and Chrysomya megacephala-- all species of blowflies in Southern California that typically are the first insects to hover over a dead body. (That’s why Webb packs his butterfly net.)

Instead of motive, these sleuths concentrate on the weather, which can hinder or spur insect breeding. They look at crime scenes in terms of the amount of sunlight, not cross streets. Their file cabinets are loaded with critters soaked in alcohol.


Over breakfast at annual symposiums, these scientists swap photos of cadavers infested with maggots and beetles the way new parents show off baby pictures.

“I wake up every day looking forward to coming to work,” said Webb, whose county office is in a dusty Garden Grove trailer, decorated with drawings by his 8-year-old daughter and blowups of rats and maggots and flies.

The scientist wears many hats as Orange County’s foremost insect specialist, including monitoring the hantavirus when it surfaced in California about three years ago. He is sometimes called upon to help people who suffer from a disorder called “delusions of parasitosis,” in which they imagine that there are bugs crawling on their skin. “Some of those cases are very tragic,” he said.

Webb was first contacted to do detective work in 1982, when Ventura County sheriff’s deputies noticed that a murder suspect had chigger bites similar to the ones investigators at the crime scene had on their waistlines, ankles and behind the knees.

By analyzing the bites, Webb connected Michael S. Nottingham to a dirt road in the outskirts of Thousand Oaks where the naked body of 24-year-old Margie Jane Davidson was found on Aug. 5, 1982. She had been strangled with her own blouse.

“We went out there and did tests in several different locations,” Webb said. “And the only place we found to have been an unusual hot spot for chiggers was a narrow strip near a eucalyptus tree under which the woman was found. We couldn’t find chiggers anywhere else.


“That means he had to have been at the crime scene at some point, which didn’t correlate with his testimony,” Webb said. “He said the last he saw of her was at the bar.”

Nottingham was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

After that case, Webb began organizing seminars at the Orange County coroner’s office about the use of insects in criminal investigations.

“I think [coroner’s medical examiners] are pretty much still in the learning curve phase,” Webb said. “They still get disgusted with the maggots and they wipe them away. . . . But then, I guess I can’t blame them. Working with bugs isn’t all that attractive.”

Using maggots found on a victim’s body, Webb played a key role in building the case against David A. Lucas, who was accused of slashing the throats of two women and a 4-year-old boy, and attempting to kill a third woman in San Diego County.

One victim, Anne Swanke, a 22-year-old University of San Diego student, was found by a hiker in a remote area of Spring Valley four days after she disappeared Nov. 20, 1984.

Defense attorneys argued that the student was murdered sometime in the last three days before her body was discovered and Lucas had alibis for all three days, investigator Green said. The defense’s contention was bolstered by the hiker who discovered her body. The hiker--a Vietnam veteran who said he had seen many dead bodies during the war--testified that Swanke looked like she was “just killed,” Green said.


But Webb determined that the larvae found on the corpse came from a particular species of blowfly that only reproduced at temperatures of 68 degrees or higher, Green said.

“It turned out that temperatures only reached those conditions on the first day she disappeared, the day Lucas didn’t have an alibi for,” Green said. “[Webb’s] testimony was critical, absolutely critical.”

Lucas, 40, is now on Death Row.

In another case, Webb was hired by a fried chicken restaurant chain that was accused by two customers of serving them chicken with cockroaches in the batter.

By comparing a live cockroach and one that had been fried, Webb showed that the bugs found by the customers had not been exposed to high-level heat, said Costa Mesa attorney Kate Sakal, who represented the restaurant. Webb’s conclusion, Sakal said, led her to believe that the bugs may have been planted.

“We couldn’t have gotten the information anywhere else,” she said. “It would have been just speculation on our part.”

Webb’s methods have their roots in 13th-Century China when an investigator trying to solve the murder of a farmer who was killed with a sickle ordered all the men in his village to line up with their crescent-shaped blades.


The investigator paced by all of them and correctly identified the killer, who confessed to the murder on the spot, according to “Entomology & Death: A Procedural Guide.”

“There were flies on the sickle with blood remnants on it,” said Webb, his eyes beaming as he recalled the story. “You see, the blood was wiped off, but that didn’t fool the flies.”

In the United States, the field was pioneered by a group of forensic entomologists who call themselves the “Dirty Dozen.” Several of these scientists, including Webb, David Faulkner, a San Diego forensic entomologist, and M. Lee Goff, a University of Hawaii entomology professor, met during their college years at Cal State Long Beach.

So far, more than 90% of the work in forensic entomology involves dating decomposing bodies found long after being dumped, but technological advances, as well as a better understanding of insect habits, are expanding the field.

These scientists can sometimes use insects to help determine whether a victim has been raped, Faulkner said. That work is aided by the presence of ants, which are attracted to bodily fluids and cart them to their anthills.

The study of insect larvae also has assisted prosecutors in neglect and abuse investigations. In one Hawaii case, maggots found in the bed of a nursing home patient revealed that the patient had not been cleaned daily, as caretakers had contended, Goff said.


In the future, scientists hope that blood from mosquitoes lingering near a crime may yield blood types, possibly even DNA evidence, that could help police track down the killer.

“We’re only hitting the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential in this field,” Goff said.