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A forensic study of human death through the life of insects

A Cleveland entomologist is studying insects collected from the bodies found in Anthony Sowell's duplex. 'I follow where the bugs lead me. Their lives tell a story about death.'

November 28, 2009|By P.J. Huffstutter
  • Joe Keiper works on specimens collected for a murder case. Keiper is one of only twenty or so forensic entomologists in the country who are able to help investigators determine when a person died based on the life cycle of the bugs found on the body.
Joe Keiper works on specimens collected for a murder case. Keiper is one… (Jason Miller )

Reporting from Cleveland — Joe Keiper squinted into a microscope and pressed the dead maggot with a pair of surgical forceps to determine how much human flesh the fat white larva had eaten.

The forensic entomologist had plucked hundreds of them off a corpse found inside a Cleveland house the day before Halloween.

"Understand insects, and you can understand death," said Keiper, a slender, balding scientist of 40.

For nine years, Keiper has studied all things creepy-crawly as the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's director of science and curator of invertebrate zoology.

Local cops just call him the bug man. Now he's working on one of the most puzzling cases in the city's history: the discovery of 10 bodies in a duplex.

Keiper is one of fewer than 20 people in the U.S. who do this sort of forensic work on a regular basis. He tracks the life of insects to solve the mysteries of human death.

From his windowless museum lab here in northern Ohio, he has helped local police and federal investigators solve 32 cases since 2001.

The clues he finds from maggots, flies, beetles and other insects rarely paint the whole picture of death: They are only bits and pieces. But there are usually thousands upon thousands of pieces available, each contributing to the whole story.

"I follow where the bugs lead me," Keiper said. "Their lives tell a story about death. You just have to know how to read the story they're trying to tell."

This latest case is as mysterious as any he has ever handled.

The remains of 10 women have been found at the duplex on Imperial Avenue. And a skull was found in a bucket in the house's basement. The duplex's sole resident, Anthony Sowell, 50, has been arrested and charged with five counts of murder. Investigators continue to search for more bodies.

"Working with bugs, in a crime scene or in nature, I've learned that everything has a role to play in life," Keiper said. "Everything has its purpose."

Life and death are crammed onto every flat surface inside the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's laboratory where Keiper spends most days.

A glowing blue tank with spiny lake sturgeon fish sits near a table of brown snakes curled inside bottles of preserving liquid. Dragonflies grow inside refrigerated trays, while metal cabinets that stretch from floor to ceiling house more than a million animal and insect specimens -- a collection that dates to the 1700s.

Keiper leaned back in his squeaky office chair and pulled a cart filled with glass vials toward him.

Each vial is full of bugs from Sowell's home. Keiper bottled them by species, location and proximity to each body.

"Dead flies taken from sills of basement where body/corpse was concealed," reads one vial.

"Casings found inside body bag upstairs," reads another.

Minutes after someone dies, nature begins its cycle of life by sending flies. In the Midwest, as in most places, it is usually the blowfly -- small and metallic-green or -blue.

They're like the bloodhounds of the fly world. Drawn to the scent of blood and the gases released by the body, blowflies find the corpse and lay eggs on it.

Those eggs are important to forensic scientists because the passage of time between the laying of an egg (day one) to an adult fly's emergence from its cocoon-like shell (day 14) is usually predictable.

As time passes, other bugs appear. By determining the age and size of the larvae, and figuring out what insect species they are, Keiper can backtrack and estimate the period between death and the body's discovery.

In the lab, Keiper picked up one vial off his work cart and held it up to his eyes. A dozen maggots, each no longer than a pencil eraser, floated in golden liquid. So did a slip of paper inside the bottle.

Keiper read his own neat pen strokes: "Under body on basement."

He unscrewed the cap and reached for a pair of tweezers.

The discovery of the bodies at the home on Imperial Avenue was a fluke.

Police had arrived Oct. 29 to serve Sowell with an arrest warrant after a woman said he had choked and tried to rape her inside the home a week earlier. Sowell, who had served 15 years in prison for attempted rape, wasn't home, but the smell of decay was so strong that the officers entered the building and walked upstairs.

There, they found the bodies of two women lying on the floor. Both had been dead long enough to be partially mummified.

They found two more stuffed into a crawl space inside the house. Another was buried in a shallow grave in the basement's dirt floor, while yet another was buried beneath an outdoor staircase. Four were buried in the backyard.

All were African American women, according to the Cuyahoga County coroner's office.

Coroner Frank Miller called Keiper. Miller doesn't need to call very often. In a county with nearly 1.4 million residents, his office said it averages 100 homicides a year. Fewer than six of those cases involve mysterious circumstances and a body so decayed that investigators can't identify it.

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