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Bugnet : Orange County Forensic Entomologist Seeks Clues From Insects to Solve Crimes

September 10, 1995|THAO HUA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

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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.

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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.

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