Drowned in the Desert

James Meek

  • A Fly for the Prosecution: How Insect Evidence Helps Solves Crimes by Lee Goff
    Harvard, 225 pp, £14.50, May 2000, ISBN 0 674 00220 2

In Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the killer demon Azazello has a wonderful talent. He can shoot someone in a named part of their heart – an auricle, say, or a ventricle. He puts a bullet hole through a marked spot on a seven of spades even though the card is covered by a pillow. His skill arouses Margarita, who has ‘a passion for all people who do anything to perfection’.

Lee Goff’s peculiar skill evokes the same delight and horror as that of the perfect assassin, though he is dealing with the effects of other people’s murders, and not doing any killing himself (except of pigs and rabbits). It is a fine thing, rare in fiction and not so common even in non-fiction, to read an account of how an expert applies his talent. It is the nearest thing to magic in the real world, and not to be despised merely because Goff’s skill lies in a place where people prefer not to look: where maggots feed on the flesh of dead people.

As a founding father of the modern science of forensic entomology, Goff is most often called on to determine the time of death of a murder victim, and his accuracy can awe. He recounts a case from 1992, when the corpse of a man was found at an airbase in California. The dead man had been stabbed several times in the chest and his throat had been cut. The body was discovered at 7 p.m. on 28 April; the autopsy was on 1 May. A week later samples and data were Fedexed to Goff’s Hawaii home – crime scene photos, insects from the body, soil samples and local weather information. On 14 May, he phoned in his final conclusions: the victim had been murdered between 10 p.m. and midnight on 25 April. He spoke to two detectives in turn. Both were speechless. Eventually they told him that just before he called, a suspect had confessed to killing the victim at about 10.30 p.m. on 25 April.

Neat stuff. But not many would have had the stomach for the work Goff did in the course of the week. I was glad there were no photographs in the book, only tasteful line drawings of insects. Beetles, ants, wasps, flies, mites and a centipede all parade in Goff’s bestiary, but it is maggots which rock his world. Masses of maggots. There is something reassuringly democratic about the maggot nurseries our bodies become if they are left in the open, or in a shallow grave. The insects make no distinctions of race, rank, sex, age or wealth. We’re just a place for them to grow up and feed. It’s more than humbling: it’s heartening – we’re organic, too, and in the end nature recovers the meals we’ve taken from it, by eating us back. Strictly speaking, of course, we’re not entirely organic, and some of the hidden chemicals we contain can have the strangest effects on creatures which consume us. A forensic entomologist was baffled by the unusual size of some of the maggots on the corpse of a 20-year-old woman found stabbed to death by a logging road. It turned out that the big maggots, which had grown more than twice as fast as they should have done, had been feeding from the victim’s nose, which was suffused with cocaine from years of drug abuse. The maggots thrive on Ecstasy, too.

Goff compares the human corpse to one of the Hawaiian archipelago’s islands: ‘A decomposing body is in some ways like a barren volcanic island that has recently emerged from the ocean,’ he writes. ‘A resource . . . waiting to be colonised by plants and animals.’ In Hawaii’s balmy climate, the insects may set to work with more speed, but the process Goff elaborates with such enthusiasm is characteristic of anywhere that is frost-free. One local species of blow fly can locate exposed human remains within ten minutes of death. The first flies arrive, feed on blood or other fluids in wounds or natural body openings, then lay their eggs there. Twelve to 18 hours later, the eggs hatch into maggots, which immediately begin feeding. These first colonists are joined by other species of fly – including the flesh fly, which doesn’t lay eggs but swoops down on the body like a dive bomber and squirts out a spray of tiny hatched larvae. Meanwhile, the corpse, inflated by gas released by bacteria working within, swells and heats up. As the maggot activity peaks, further beetles, ants and wasps arrive, some to join the feast, some to prey on the maggots. Others act as parasites, aiming to use living maggots as incubators for their own offspring. The combined efforts of maggots and bacteria breach the skin of the corpse, which deflates, releasing a foul stink. (Goff calls this the Decay Stage: his graduate students in the Entomology Department of the University of Hawaii in Manoa, where he holds the chair, have come to dread the discovery of a body in this condition.) As the corpse decays, the sated maggots drift away to pupate and hatch into flies, leaving the human remains, now largely skin and bones, to specialised beetles. Finally, when all that is left is a skeleton and hair, the beetles depart. Even this is not the end of the new world a human death calls forth: tiny carrion-linked organisms and mites can stay in the soil for years.

Beyond decay, a cleaned-out human skull still makes four walls and a roof. Goff helped identify a victim found in a metal toolbox by the side of the road on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Nothing was left of the dead man except a skeleton, wearing a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt, pants, short jeans, socks, steel-capped construction boots, a watch and a pager. When the post-mortem began, ants started pouring out of the toolbox. They had turned the inside of the victim’s skull into a nest, and a new generation of ants was about to hatch out. Goff calculated from the head-nest that 18 months had passed since the murder – information that was key to catching the killer.

Forensic entomology dates back at least to 13th-century China, when a magistrate picked out a murderer from among a crowd of peasants because his sickle alone was attracting a swarm of flies. In the Scottish Borders in 1935, an Edinburgh entomologist provided vital maggot-based evidence in the notorious Ruxton case, involving the dismembered bodies of two women, Isabella Ruxton and her maid Mary Rogerson. Ruxton’s husband, Buck, a local doctor, was convicted of the murder. Yet only in the US has the field extended to the point where it is now not unusual to have forensic entomologists on both the defence and prosecution sides.

Partly this is thanks to Goff and his colleagues, who in 1984 set up CAFE, supposedly standing for the Council of American Forensic Entomologists but actually indicating that they met in cafés. Not much more was asked of members than that they could look at pictures of decomposing corpses while eating breakfast. Partly it is thanks to the fact that America both provides the sheer quantity of dumped corpses required to sustain such a specialism, and has the open-mindedness to take a man such as Goff – first cautiously, then eagerly – into the fold of the criminal justice system.

Goff, whose university gave him tenure on the understanding he would study the effects of insects on agriculture, is a silver-haired individual with a wide beard, a diamond stud in his left ear and a fondness for the gaudy shirts of his islands. He tends to arrive at the morgue or the scene of the crime on a Harley Davidson. When he first began offering his services to Hawaiian investigators, they didn’t call him: he would call them, after reading in the papers about the discovery of a badly decomposed corpse. The authorities realised he was more than a transient figure when he started bringing students along. Marianne Early, for example, joined him in 1984 to gather maggots from the 19-day-old corpse of a murdered woman found close to Pearl Harbor. Early, Goff writes with a certain pedagogic affection, ‘had been conducting decomposition studies on pig and cat carcasses on various parts of the island of Oahu’.

Now that forensic entomology has become a routine part of investigations, the medical examiner calls Goff, who shows every sign of relishing the call-outs. He is the kind of man who seems to like being summoned from a family get-together on New Year’s Eve for an ‘enjoyable’ motorbike ride along the north shore of Oahu to the scene of a horrible murder – a dead woman wrapped in two blankets with a centipede moving between them, for example – where he collects maggots, beetles and other samples, takes them to his lab, rides home, then showers and changes in time to rejoin the family for their holiday dinner.

One result of the growth of forensic entomology is the increased killing of pigs. Goff slays them to simulate the effects of decay on human corpses in different conditions. He has left trios of dead pigs all over Hawaii and watched the flies and beetles strip them down. He ran into trouble early on in his studies when the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee questioned whether it was ethical to shoot three 50lb domestic pigs through the head with a .38 calibre pistol in order to simulate murdered humans. In the end it was deemed ethical enough, providing a policeman, rather than an entomologist, took the pigs out.

Since then Goff has burned pigs, hanged pigs and buried a pig in his own backyard under the curious eyes of his neighbours to try to understand decomposition in different cases. He still runs into trouble once in a while; he is indignant that he has to get the consent of eight public agencies to place a decomposing pig in the tidal area of Coconut Island, half a mile from a tourist centre. But each year he now gets to conceal five dead pigs in the woods behind the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, for the benefit of student agents: a pig rolled in a rug, a pig hanged from a tree, a pig dumped in the open, a pig in a shallow grave and so on.

Goff first hanged a pig to solve a time-of-death conundrum involving a man found hanging from a tree on a Hawaii golf course. It took a long time to identify him because in life he was only five feet two, but suspended in death over what turned out to be 19 days, his body stretched till it was six feet long. That didn’t explain why the body had decayed so slowly. Thanks to his pig on a gibbet, Goff discovered the simple explanation: the maggots, taking a breather on the skin of the corpse, just fell off, and couldn’t climb back up.

The strangest part of the case was the behaviour of the visiting Japanese golfer who discovered the body. The tourist’s ball, aimed at the 16th hole, flew into the rough, bounced off the hanging man’s head and dropped to the ground directly underneath the corpse. Noting the body, the golfer nonetheless decided to play through, and finished his game before reporting the corpse at the clubhouse. Goff might not have mentioned the fact had it not made his job more difficult. Put off his game by the proximity of a dead body, the golfer had needed several swings to play the ball out of the rough, destroying the ‘drip zone’ under the body that is such a boon to insects.

Occasionally Goff strays a little deeply into the realm of the technical. In parts the book could almost have been written as a text for his students. Yet it is still not detailed enough for some. He received a series of disturbing e-mails from someone who demanded to know how entomological evidence might be altered to prevent accurate estimation of post-mortem interval – as if the e-mailer wanted to commit the perfect crime. Writers of murder mysteries, indeed writers of any kind, will find plenty to nourish their darkest imaginations here (the ants-in-the-skull case, and another involving a wasps’ nest in the head of the corpse of a 15-year-old girl, are reminiscent of a core moment of horror in Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory). But as Goff points out, there are fewer murders in Hawaii than island-based TV series like Magnum and Hawaii Five-O suggest. He might have added, if the stories he tells hadn’t made it unnecessary to spell it out, that for all the indifference of maggots, they seldom get to feed on the bodies of the rich and the beautiful. Just as Inspector Morse’s real-life counterpart seldom comes across dead dons, aristos or corpses in cloistered quads, the corpses of Hawaii are usually of the disadvantaged, the dispossessed and the desperate, killed in rages and stupors or at the culmination of sexual frustration, petty schemes and banal grudges. Goff has the delicacy never to name victims he has worked on, like the pregnant woman strangled by her druggie husband and left in a cupboard in their flat for eight days while the man and their 20-month-old daughter went on living there. All the husband could remember was that he had strangled his wife ‘a little over a week ago’. Investigation doesn’t always involve corpses: the size of maggots in children’s nappies or on old people is used in court to prove the scale of neglect on the part of parents or carers. One case, involving a 16-month-old girl abandoned in the Oahu bush, was appealed all the way to the Hawaiian Supreme Court on the basis that Goff’s testimony about maggots was so graphic that the revolted jury would have been unduly prejudiced against the accused. At times like these, Goff’s detachment breaks down. ‘I imagine that it was indeed difficult to feel sympathy for a mother who had abandoned her child,’ he reflects. ‘Particularly if maggots were involved.’

The fresher the corpse, the worse. The more decomposed a body, the less it looks to Goff like a person:

I try to maintain my detachment by concentrating on the intense activity taking place on and around the corpse. In Hawaii, there are over two hundred different kinds of insects and other arthropods that may be associated with a decomposing human corpse. The longer the remains have been exposed to insect activity, the greater the diversity of insects and the more complex the puzzle I have to solve. Each insect is doing something different, and I frequently become so involved in the task of interpreting their activities that I can almost forget they are on a corpse.

Goff’s relatively low-tech approach to forensic entomology, with its roots in experience, observation and dead pigs, may be overshadowed by new advances in DNA analysis. Some of his students hope to begin analysing bed bugs for traces of human DNA from the blood of sleepers. The spaces in which we live are filled with potential witnesses, munching on microscopic bits we shower in our wake, and eventually science may be able to call these witnesses to the stand. Until then, insect-based justice relies on Goff and others like him, popping corpse maggots and pupae in vials, speeding back to the lab on his Harley, feeding them beef liver, studying them to see how they develop and drawing his conclusions.

Murder is not the only form of death where forensic entomology is called on. In 1992, Goff helped clear up the mystery of two hikers, a man and a woman, found a hundred feet apart, close to a trail on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The woman had a splint on her leg. The post-mortem showed they had drowned – yet their bodies lay in an arid desert area. Goff studied weather data, soil samples and a dozen different sets of insects from the corpses which were couriered to him in an extremely smelly package. Examining the maggots of three species of blow fly and of one species of flesh fly, together with adult maggot-eating rove beetles, he came up with a time for the deaths: the evening of 21 August, five days before the hikers were found. It turned out, when weather records were checked, that there had been heavy rain in another part of the Canyon that night, enough to cause flash flooding in the place where the bodies were discovered. The couple appeared to have left the marked trail and been forced to spend the night on the canyon floor after the woman fell and broke her leg. The flood hit them without warning and swept them downstream before the waters dispersed and evaporated, leaving their bodies a hundred feet apart. The heat of the day quickly dried them out and the insects arrived – the insects which were later to tell Goff the story of how a man and a woman drowned in the desert.