The Darwin Exception

because it's not always survival of the fittest – sometimes the idiots get through

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He’s a Real Fly Guy

Posted by thedarwinexception on June 12, 2011

Another Saturday, another day in court. I think right about now is when the jurors are thinking “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself in to?”

Dr. Neal Haskell is on the stand – more bug stuff, I’m betting. Lovely.

Dr. Haskell is employed as a Forensic Science and Biology Professor at Saint Joseph’s College in Indiana Dr. Haskell’s main area of expertise is Forensic Entomology a field he pretty much single handedly pioneered. The book “Dead Reckoning” by Michael Baden has a whole chapter on Forensic Entomology and Dr. Haskell. The book is pretty good, but Baden irritates me anymore. I used to really respect him and I thought he was the shit, but in the past decade or so, I don’t know, now I just think he’s kind of phony. And a sellout. I don’t know. I think it started with the Ted Binion case. Burking, my ass.

Holy hell, my mind is wandering. Yeah, this is going to be a really tough trial watching day – you’ve been warned.

Haskell tells the jurors about his “Fascinating” field of study – that entomology is the study of bugs (“Fascinating! There are so many critters out there to study!”) And forensic entomology is applying the study of bugs to the study of death and bugs (“Fascinating in itself!”) Haskell may think this is “fascinating”, but what I find fascinating is that anyone would see a bug, see it feeding on flesh, and think “Oh My God! I would love to study this for a living!”

In August or September of 2008, Haskell was contacted by Michael Vincent about some possible entomological evidence associated with this case. Haskell wanted to determine if these entomological samples were forensically important, and Vincent told him “Well….there’s bugs in the car…” So Vincent sent Haskell some pupae and larva samples of some higher order flies from the car sometime in September.

The problem with the samples that Vincent sent to Haskell was that the pupae and larvae,while distinguishable as Phoridae flies, still only narrowed the classification down to about 200 different species. Haskell says that is is hard to narrow the classification down any further to a single species unless he has an adult fly to examine.

Vincent remembered that there were hundreds of adult flies in the trash that he had examined which came from the trunk – and that he had sealed this box of trash and stored it in the evidence locker. Vincent sent Haskell the paper towels and the trash bags themselves, and Haskell found 15 to 20 adult flies in this material Haskell contacted an expert at the LA County Museum, Brian Brown, who is an expert in these particular flies, and sent him some of the adult specimens for identification, while retaining the larvae and pupae. Brown identified the flies as Megaselia Scalaris (a humpback fly, or a scuttle fly), which is commonly found at sites where there is decomposing flesh.

When Haskell received the evidence from Vincent, he found specimens of this fly in the white plastic bag itself, as well as in the smaller plastic bag that contained the paper towels. He started pulling the paper towels apart and found an abundance of pupae and larva, all of them dried and dead. He even found a few adults. He shook the paper towels out individually into a white porcelain pan so he could see them – these are very small specimens. The larvae are generally from 1 millimeter to 3 millimeters, the pupae are

Haskell associated the presence of the flies with the presence of something on the paper towels themselves. Since the flies were there, feeding and completing their life cycles, Haskell thought that the material could be decompositional fluid. In order to determine exactly what the material was, he went tot he next step of requesting that someone analyze the paper towels to determine exactly what the material was. He sent the material to Dr. Arpad Vass. Vass examined the paper towels and determined that the material on them was adipocere – the breakdown of the fatty tissues in the body during decomposition.

Haskell then began to compose a time line – based on the presence of a decompositional event, and based on temperatures, and the presence of these insects at different times based on their life cycle, when would he have expected to see the flies?

Haskell had not only found the humpback flies, or scuttle flies, he also found the leg of a blowfly in the paper towels. The blowfly is a common fly to find in forensic cases. But none of the flies that Haskell found are specific to human decomposition. (Flies don’t discriminate). They are frequently found in scenarios with human decomposition, but they don’t only show up there. The Megaselia Scalaris will feed on anything.

Ashton then asks the doctor a hypothetical – if the body of a young child was stored in the trunk of that car for a period of time and then removed and deposited in another location, does that fit with the entomological evidence that the doctor found? The doctor says absolutely.

The doctor explains that at the time of death, decomposition begins. And although he doesn’t like to use the word “stages” of decomposition, the decomposition progresses. The tissues of the body go form one biochemical state to another. And as these different biochemical states occur, at each state you will find that different insects will come to feed. Scientists use the phrase “partitioning of the food resource.” Blowflies are one of the first to show up if the conditions are favorable and the body is accessible – within seconds to minutes if the temperatures are hot.

As decomposition progresses and the biochemistry changes, there comes a point when blowflies are no longer interested. The female blowfly is only interested in one thing, laying eggs on a resource that she feels will support her next generation. There comes a point in decomposition, where the blowfly will notice the changing environs of the body, and go on to another fresh kill where she can lay her eggs.

As the blowfly population drops out,other groups will start to come in. The Phorid flies will come in, but not as early as the blowfly, Some decomposition will have had to occur before the Phorid flies are interested. They will typically come in about three days – and then again weeks or even months later. These flies are extremely tiny – the mother fly can be as small as 1 millimeter in length. This particular species is a gnat sized fly. They can get through crack and very small openings- they have been known to breach concrete through cracks.

In this case, the relative absence of the “first arriver” blowflies and the abundance of the “later arrivers” – the humpback flies, tells us that the blowflies had left, or were excluded from ever entering the trunk, and the humpback flies found a way in and started colonizing.

Ashton asks the witness what the effect of wrapping the body in a plastic bag (or two) would have. Haskell says that this could cause the delay of the blowflies in feeding on the body – he has done specific experiments with exactly this – to determine if bodies had been wrapped in plastic bags or not. If the bag is completely sealed or tied off, it can delay the blowflies from entering even to the point that by the time the blowflies do enter, they are no longer interested in the body and won’t lay their eggs there.

Haskell says that from his examination of the evidence, his opinion on the source of the decomposing materials in the trunk that produced the fluids could not have been in the trunk very long because of the heat in Florida at that time of year. Whatever was in the trunk had to be out of the trunk by the time the vehicle was abandoned. Doing some calculations based on energy units and decomposition, Haskell says that he was able to make an estimate that three – five days in the trunk of that car with that heat would certainly produce enough of the purged fluids to attract the Phorid flies that he found.

The flies, incests and arthropods are cold blooded creatures – they are dependent for their growth on environmental temperatures. If the temperatures are warm, it will make these enzymes to work and grow quite fast. If it’s cold, it will slow down the enzymes, and if it’s too cold the insects will die.

Sometime in November/December of 2008, Dr. Haskell made arrangements to go to Florida to inspect the vehicle himself. Around the same time, he received news that Caylee’s remains had been found. He decided to stick with his original departure date, since he already had tickets. He arrived around the 16th of December. Between the 11th and the 16th he was in contact with law enforcement about collecting entomological samples for him.

When he arrived, he visited the scene where the remains were found and he also went to the impound yard. He also visited the ME’s office to examine some of the evidence that had been found with the remains. He collected specimens from both the scene and the ME”s office.

Haskell explains how he examined the specimens that he found – maintaining chain of custody. He had each sample in a vial, based on a protocol he and his associates developed 25 years ago. Then he did a microscopic examination of the specimens, to make an identification and identify as closely as they can the taxological classification of the specimen. Then, once they have identified the species of the insect, they can relate the specimen to the known growth and development cycle of that insect, and make an estimate of how long that insect would have been present with the remains. Temperature will also be a factor in these estimations, since the growth of insects, like decomposition, is temperature dependent.

In this case, when he examined the samples from the ME’s office and the scene, he found a number of species that he would have expected to find, given advanced decomposing remains. He found at least two species of blowfly pupae, some of the gnat like flies, relatives of the common housefly – members o the same housefly group, Musoda, and he also found a real long grower, the black soldier fly, Hermetia illucens. These specimens were all past their growth and development cycle. And they were all consistent with an advance PMI – post mortem interval. And since these specimens had all gone through their complete life cycle, a minimum time for the remains to have been present could be determined – but not a maximum time.

The absence of a large number of blowfly suggests that there was an initial placement of the body that excluded this species right off the bat. If the body had been placed where it was found right after death, the Doctor says he would have expected to see thousands of blowfly pupae. There were, as in the trunk, a lot of the humpback fly’s present, suggesting that some decomposition had occurred when the body was placed there. And from the specimens of insects he found,t he doctor says it is his opinion that the body was there many, many months prior to recovery. His estimate is that it was placed there in Late June/Early July. And the body that was placed there was partially decomposed, but not in skeleton form, most likely it was somewhere in the purging of fluids, bloat stage.

The doctor says that the findings in the car and the findings at the scene tell a consistent story – that decomposition had begun, the early colonizers had been excluded for the most part, at some later date – a few days at most – the body was removed and placed where it was finally found.

Cross Examination – Baez begins with the Doctor’s first knowledge of the case- Haskell was first introduced to this case by Dr. Vass. Vass had mentioned to Haskell that Vincent had seen fruit flies come out of the trunk when he opened it, and Haskell told Vass that those were probably “coffin fly’s” or “Phorid fly’s. Even before he saw any evidence in the case, he had determined this.

The first two vials that Haskell received were from the trash, not the trunk of the car, The flies he found were the humpback flies – gnat like fly’s that are very small. These flies are found in fungus, dead insects, garbage – about anywhere.

Then Haskell had Vincent check the trunk for adult specimens, and that turned up nothing. Then Vincent remembered he saw activity in the trash bag and he sent this sealed box to Haskell. Haskell found adult specimens to make an identification.

Haskell then looked at the paper towels. This is where he found the majority of the pupae and larval insects. Because of the presence of the adipocere.

And Baez asks the doctor is you can get DNA from insects. Haskell says some of his colleagues are extracting human DNA material from maggots, bed bugs, mosquitoes and lice. Haskell doesn’t know if the paper towels were sent for DNA testing. Baez says that the doctor didn’t send them for DNA testing, instead he sent them to his old buddy Vass. Haskell says his “trusted colleague”. But Baez clearly wants to imply some sort of evil collusion.

Baez asks the doctor if he knows what tests Vass ranont he paper towels – Haskell says he just trusted Vass to do the right tests. Baez says “So you can’t testify intelligently about what tests he did – just the results?” And Haskell says he can testify intelligently, but he doesn’t know what tests were run.

Baez asks the doctor about the one blowfly leg he found on the paper towel. Baez asks if you can also find blowfly’s in your house. Haskell says yes. And Baez asks if you can find them in trash/garbage – and the doctor says only if there is unprocessed meat. Haskell says again that these are the early colonizers, there are generally hundreds associated with early remains, and each female can lay 300-400 eggs. So sometimes when you have dead body you can have tens of thousand of maggots and flies on the body. And yet, Baez asks, you only found one leg? Not even a whole one? And it’s not uncommon to find a blowfly in trash or garbage? The doctor says no, it’s not uncommon.

Haskell says later on he was also given some filters that had been used to vacuum the trunk of the car before they removed the liner. (In 2011 he received the filters). He says he found a few phorid flies in here, and maybe a mosquito. These, in his opinion, were flies that made it into the trunk but didn’t make it into the trash bag.

Baez asks the doctor if part of his job is to determine the PMI – post mortem interval. The doctor says yes. Baez then asks – so on July 16th, when this car was first collected you would have had everything you needed to determine a PMI – you would have had live insects as well as maggots and pupae and larva – the doctor agrees. The doctor says not to the exact day – but within a range. He can only give ranges to correct for the biological variability.

Baez asks if it’s true that if the doctor had been given entomological samples from the trunk on the 16th if he could have tracked back almost to the day the date that an item was put in the trunk. The doctor says it depends on what item you are talking about being placed in the trunk. Baez then goes on to point out that the doctor wasn’t given this material on July 16th – he wasn’t given anything until September.

Haskell says that this crime scene was the most thoroughly processed scene he had ever seen. Haskell says that he is confident that the material collected was reflective of what was at the scene.

Baez says that the team collected a lot of blowflies from the scene – the Doctor says blowfly pupae, and that most of those were collected from the ME’s office. He checks his notes and finds he found 4 at the scene. Baez then extrapolates these four blowflies to mean that the body must have begun to decompose where it was found, since they found 4 blowflies at the scene. Which is odd because Baez had just got done saying that the one blowfly found in the trash/garbage could have come from someone’s house.

Baez then tries (a few times) to ask the doctor if submersion of the body or manually washing away of the larvae would have also resulted in delaying the appearance of blowflies, and the doctor agrees that this would have.

Baez then asks about the three reports the Doctor wrote. The first was to report on the initial items he analyzed from the trunk, the second was the items from the scene, and the third was for the filters from the vacuuming. And he was initially hired in September 2008. Baez asks how much he was paid for all of this from the State’s Attorney’s office – $22 or $23 thousand is the answer. Baez says – and this was all before he even had his deposition taken from the defense – and Haskell points out that Baez still owes him money for that. And the 22-23K doesn’t include Haskell being paid for his testimony. He gets $400/hour for that (and Baez is running up the bill….) Travel time is $150/hour, research is $200/hour (Good God – there’s money in bugs!) Baez observes that by the time he’s done, he should have a final tally of around $30K. The doctor says he doesn’t know. (oh yes he does….he’s got that money spent on more little pins for observing more little bugs….)

Ashton wants to know definitively what the hell is the difference between trash and garbage. The court has been laughing over and arguing over the distinction for a week. And Haskell gets quite indignant and says it’s no damned laughing matter!! He says that there is great significance to the difference – garbage is primarily decomposing organic material – plants or stuff you throw out like lettuce and french fries – versus trash which is non organic stuff you’re throwing out. Haskell says that the insects and bugs he deals with won’t go for inorganic material like an empty box. (An there’s your problem – an empty cardboard box is organic – paper is mostly cellulose – organic.) Haskell does go onto mention….or an aluminum can – and OK – I can agree aluminum cans are inorganic. But paper? Organic.

Haskell says that the Phorid flies won’t go to “trash” – only “garbage” to colonize and raise their families.

But paper is still organic.

Ashton asks if there was any food in the trash bags he analyzed in this case. The doctor says not as far as he could see. He says that it was trash – non-organic materials that weren’t decomposing. The doctor says that there were a few loose specimens of flies in the bag itself, but the majority of them were in the paper towels. Haskell further opines that rather than the Phorids finding the paper towels and colonizing – that the Phorid flies were in the adipocere when someone tried to wipe it up and they got transferred to the paper towel.

Ashton then asks the doctor that even if Phorid flies are attracted to any sort of decomposition – that there was nothing decomposing in the bag for the Phorid flies to be attracted to – there was no plant or animal decomposition of any kind in the bag.

Ashton then asks about the lack of blowflies that Baez bought up – and asks the doctor why the lack of blowflies. The doctor again says it was exclusion – the blowflies couldn’t get to the body. And by the time they could get to the body the time had passed for them to be interested.

Baez re-crosses – He says that this is only the doctor’s definition of trash/garbage. The doctor says yes. (But paper is still organic, people…) And Haskell wasn’t there when they collected the “bag”. And he doesn’t know if it was soaking wet with organic material or not. (And now Baez brings out his visual aids again.)

Baez shows him the two pictures of the trash/garbage – one dried, one not dried. The witness says he can’t tell if one pile is wet and/or moist, as Baez characterizes it.

Baez then asks if he inspected the car to see how easily blowfly could get in. The doctor says he didn’t.

Ashton then re-crosses – and asks one question – if the doctor can see any organic material in the pictures of the trash. The doctor says no. (But paper is organic.)

After Baez gets done grasping for straws once more (and straw is organic, too….) the doctor is excused.

Next up is Jennifer Welch again. The Crime Scene Investigator that took all those pictures of the remains at the scene.

She testifies that all the response teams from the OCSD and FBI were at the scene for 10 days. She thinks there were 50 or more people at that scene in one way or another. In order to document the process they set up a baseline, then set up search lanes, then they set up wooden stakes that helped to serve as a grid, and as items were found they were flagged and then photographed and documented.

This was an area of dense vegetation with hanging vines, leaf litter, roots, and underbrush. It was sometimes difficult to walk around because of the large roots. She is shown the picture of the machete and the sheath for the machete – she identifies these as standard issue to crime scene investigators for clearing.

She is then shown a picture of the ground after clearing with large Palmetto trunks rising from the ground, with an evidence flag wedged in between the trunks.

Welch said she documented and collected 390 pieces of evidence. That number includes bottles and other non-evidentiary items. She also collected pieces of bags and a piece of duct tape that was located to the South West of where the skull was collected. Welch identifies the duct tape she collected.

Welch also collected plastic pink strips with words at the scene. The letters spelled “In Packages”.

Baez crosses – he asks the witness if she knows the distance from the wooded area to the street. She doesn’t. She guesses 10 feet maybe. She didn’t document measurements – it wasn’t her duty to do any of the measurements. He asks her how far from the pavement it was to where the skull was found. She refers to someone else’s report that she brought with her and she says it was 19 feet, 8 inches. Baez then takes out a tape measure and has her illustrate exactly how far 19 feet 8 inches is. Welch points out that there was a lot of vegetation at the actual scene.

Baez asks where exactly the duct tape was found. She doesn’t know how far away, she says he would have to ask Mr. Murdoch with the actual measurements. She does testify that the duct tape appeared to have the same wording on it that the duct tape on the skull had.

Baez then asked about some stones that are visible near the remains. He asks her if these stones seem to be consistent with “pavers” and she says they do. She is excused.

The next witness is Ronald Murdock. He is the Forensics Supervisor for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. He was assigned to the Crime Scene on the 8900 block of Suburban Drive on December 12th . His responsibilities were to help with the clearing of the area, getting supplies and diagramming the crime scene. He uses a program called Total Station, the same program you will see surveyors using when they comes around with those tripods. He uses this program to gather all of the points and measurements of a location and they then can print out a diagram of the area using the measurements they have entered.

In this case he was getting the points of is diagram from Crime Scene Investigator Jennifer Welch and the evidence points she was marking. He would go behind her and take measurements of the locations of the evidence she collected, and that is how the diagram was created. He also used landmark measurements, such as the roadway, lights and other fixed items.

When they looked at the location of the bones that were marked as evidence, they circled areas where there were a lot of bones together and marked those major areas.

Murdock then goes through the diagrams showing all of the bones and evidence recovered marked on the diagram.

After he had plotted all of the points of interest in his program, Murdock testifies that he gave this information to a surveying company, Allen & Co. and they made drawings of the crime scene.

Murdock also served the search warrant at the Anthony home on December 11th. (Once the investigators saw the duct tape at the scene – it must have rang a bell with someone and they wanted the gas cans back.) He collected the gas cans. He also identifies a picture of a sheet of heart shaped stickers he collected. Which prompts a sidebar.

After sidebar Burdick shows the Investigator pictures of Casey’s bedroom. He identifies them as such. Burdick then shows him the picture of the stickers again and asks if these stickers were taken from Casey’s room. He says those were not taken until the next search warrant, on December 20th.

He then identifies a picture of Caylee’s room taken on December 11th. He identified the Winnie the Pooh bedding that was taken from Caylee’s room.

Murdock then identified other items taken from the home – including the square matching laundry bag to the round one found at the crime scene, and tons of garbage bags.

Baez crossed the witness and asked where, in relation to the skull, was the loose duct tape found. It was approximately 6.27 feet away.

Baez then asks about the search warrant – the detective knew that he was looking for a specific type of duct tape with a specific brand name on it. Baez says that he didn’t find any, though. The witness testifies that no, he didn’t find any in the garage or wrapped around anything, like pipes, and even though they searched the entire garage, they didn’t find any. And didn’t find any in the attic. And they didn’t find any in the backyard.

I’m beginning to get a sing song Dr. Seuss thing going here – You found no Henkel in the house. You found no Henkel with the mouse. You found no Henkel in the garage, You found no Henkel in the lodge. You found no Henkel in the cars, You found no Henkel on any bars.

Yeah, we get it. No Henkel. And no more questions. The witness is excused.

The next witness is Gerald Johnston. He is from Allen & Co., the surveying company that did the illustrations, animations and the 3 D Animation from the from the Total Station program that the prior witness had loaded all the data from the crime scene in to. The witness shows the video to the jury – it’s a cool kind of low tech CGI rendering of the data points. The witness points out specific areas of interest. It’s no Shrek, but it’s interesting.

And we are done for the day.

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10 Responses to “He’s a Real Fly Guy”

  1. tess said

    I have to say, you are a better woman than I am. I did listen to the fly guy and found my mind wandering just a tad. I am impressed with all the names you have managed to get in there. For me, big flies, little flies does just fine. I agree that “facinating” might be stretching it a bit . I try to kill any bugs I see so they are pretty unrecognizable when I get done.

  2. Anonymous said

    Hi Kim,
    I know just how important blowflies are to a murdered victim to determine time of death and before I heard of Dr Haskell……

    ……..CSI’s Gil Grissom often uses these flies in his study of murdered victims.

  3. Amy said

    St. Joseph’s College is only about 45 minutes from here. I had no idea there were forensics experts there. Weird.

  4. sophie said

    Are coffin flies really tiny? I know this will sound gross…but: My husband recently found a friend of his who’d died in his home probably 10-24 hours prior, and little tiny tiny flies were buzzing about his face and mouth. I’m guessing these were coffin flies?

  5. Suzanne said

    Another great overview of what went on. Try as I might I just could not see the point that Baez was driving at with that flip chart during Haskell’s testimony – thankfully Mason appears to have dissuaded Baez from flailing himself any further in front of an audience.

    Haskell I thought was a fascinating witness in himself – he even got ME fascinated in the domestic arrangements of bluebottles and Phorids. (Seen the fringe of hair round a fly’s face? .. just sayin …)

    What broke my heart in today’s evidence was the picture of the heart stickers. What became of the heart sticker on the duct tape? – I lost track of that.

    • Suzanne said

      Replying to myself .. so the imprint of the heart sticker was on a piece of duct tape – from today’s testimony.

  6. hetherfly said

    Thank God for you. Had to head up to Ottawa Friday and missed both Friday and Saturday sessions. Rushed home to read your blog, of course.

  7. pathgirl said

    Paper and cardboard are processed and treated with chemicals therefore not organic in the eyes of science or an entomologist. Have you ever thrown out a bunch of paper and found a thriving maggot colony? Very few things can digest cellulose, termites can, but I doubt anyone considers their home made out of organic material.

  8. Kelly Green said

    Decades later, the one thing I thought I remembered from college chemistry was the difference between organic and inorganic. Organic materials have carbon and hydrogen, while inorganic materials have salt-making properties. So I’m confused about paper–paper is mainly cellulose (organic) but the other properties in paper are inorganic. I’m just totally confused!

    • V. said

      Mentally, I separate “trash” from “garbage” by “dry and not attractive to bugs” or “wet and likely to smell if left.” So paper towels and pizza boxes can be either trash OR garbage, depending on what has soaked into them. I sometimes just chuck paper towels into the compost…and they are perfectly fine for a worm box (unless they’ve been used with cleaning solutions or other potential toxic solvents.)

      Unlike Kim, I’m fascinated by the secret lives of insects. I’m also fascinated by forensic pathology, so forensic entomology is fascination squared. I dunno about the jury, but I think I went into this thinking it was an accident that Casey had covered up…and I’m leaning heavily towards the “murderous bitch” theory now.

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