Since the beginning, scientists say 100.8 billion have lived and died on earth. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

Since the beginning, scientists say 100.8 billion have lived and died on earth. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

‘They’re the first witnesses to a crime’: insects key to solving murders

Dr. Gail Anderson specialises on insects that colonize dead bodies

It only takes seconds for creatures to appear after death with the intention to eat you.

As soon as we die, we start giving off volatile organic compounds, such as dimethyl sulphide, dimethyl disulphide and dimethyl trisulfide. These compounds attract a plethora of insects.

“If you’ve ever had a steak outside, how long does it take flies to get to you? They’re going to come really quickly,” said Dr. Gail Anderson, forensic entomologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

She specializes on insects that colonize dead bodies with particular focus on the amount of time that has elapsed since death.

READ MORE: This is what happens when you die in Revelstoke

Anderson said using insects to determine time of death largely depends on temperature. Insects are cold-blooded creatures and as temperatures increase, they develop quicker and if it decreases, they develop slower.

Anderson will collect insects from a corpse to determine at what stage the insect is through its life cycle and compare it to weather records. Using the weather records, she’ll be able to say how long that insect took to get to that stage in its life cycle.

“Maybe I’ll say the insects are five days old. So, the insects have been on this guy for five days. So, he’s been dead for at least five days,” said Anderson.

Dr. Gail Anderson said insects are extremely important for determining time of death.
“If it’s after 72 hours since death, it’s pretty much the only medical way you can estimate time since death.”
(Submitted)

She never gives a time of death.

“What I give is a minimum time that the insects have been there.”

READ MORE: VIDEO: Death Café puts mortality front and centre

The insects that are primarily attracted to a dead body are blow flies, the same ones that are attracted to meat in your garbage.

“They will come and lay eggs, those eggs will hatch into maggots and those maggots will eat you,” Anderson said.

“They’re the first witnesses to a crime.”

Later, flesh flies appear and as the body’s fat decomposes, beetles arrive.

There are only three fully certified forensic entomologists in Canada, including Anderson. One of which is Anderson’s former grad student and the other is a student she’s mentored. Both are in Ontario.

When Anderson was first offered a side job as a forensic entomologist, she thought she’d try it for a year to see how it went.

That was in 1988.

Now she’s a criminology professor, director of forensic research and has a suite of labs specifically for forensic entomology at Simon Fraser University.

When she first started in the 1980s, the subject wasn’t well known.

“I would get phone calls from police officers in nowheresville, somewhere. Who would say they heard insects were worth something. Is that true they would ask. Like someone has been kidding them.”

She’d say yes, it’s a recognized sign.

Today, studying insects is a normal part of police homicide investigations.

Blow flies are the first witnesses to a crime. (Unsplash)

Anderson said she works on cases from across the province, however she does not know specifics since she just gets a casefile number, without the name of the deceased or suspect.

She was also a key part of helping to exonerate an American woman locked up for nearly 17 years for a murder she did not commit.

In 2001, Kirstin Blaise Lobato was accused of stabbing a homeless man to death in Las Vegas, Nevada. The body was found behind a dumpster and the medical examiner estimated the time of death up to 24 hours prior. No one noticed absence of blowflies.

Lobato was sentenced to life in prison.

At no time during the trail or the second trail in 2006, did lawyers call on a forensic entomologist to clarify why there was no insect colonization on the body.

In 2009, Anderson got a call from the magazine Justice Denied to ask if she could help exonerate Lobato using forensic entomology. When Anderson heard there were no insects on the body, she knew something was wrong.

Although blow flies are typically the first insects to colonize a corpse, they do not fly after dark. Thus, time of death was determined to be wrong.

In 2017, a judge ruled Lobato’s lawyers were ineffective and failed to present forensic evidence, later the prosecution vacated the case and Lobato was released from prison.

The future of forensic entomology is continuing to evolve said Anderson and researchers are starting to look at the necrobiome, which is the community of organisms associated with a decaying corpse.

“There’s an intimate relationship between insects and bacteria,” Anderson said.

Insects will transfer bacteria from body to body and researchers are trying to determine how that impacts decomposition.

When one life ends, thousands more begin.

“It’s a complete ecology,” said Anderson.


 

@pointypeak701
liam.harrap@revelstokereview.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Authorities have confirmed a case of COVID-19 within a school in Kelowna. Someone within the Rutland Elementary School community has tested positive. (Aman Parhar/Omineca Express/FILE)
Authorities confirm COVID-19 exposure in Kelowna school

Interior Health (IH) states they will be following up with anyone potentially exposed

Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran said the city won’t look at changing its policy regarding automatic cost of living pay bumps for himself and city councillors, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. (File)
Kelowna won’t look at nixing automatic pay raises for council, mayor

Mayor Colin Basran said the raise is minuscule, won’t look at changing policy amid residents’ COVID struggles

Kevin Lee Barrett is charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault. (Facebook)
Court hears of victim’s injuries in West Kelowna attempted murder trial

Two-week-long trial continues for Kevin Barrett, accused of trying to kill mother in West Kelowna

Homeless man lying on the bench. (File photo)
Temporary emergency shelter opens in Kelowna

The shelter, located at the former location of Tree Brewing, will offer 38 beds

Interior Health reported 91 new COVID-19 cases in the region Jan. 20, 2021 and three additional deaths. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
95 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health, two deaths

Another member of Vernon’s Noric House has passed

Icewine is thicker and sweeter than regular table wine, and takes longer to produce. (Twila Amato - Black Press Media)
Mild winter brings small icewine harvest for Central Okanagan vintners

It must be -8 C or lower before grapes can be harvested for icewine

A specialized RCMP team is investigating a suspicious trailer, which might have connections to the illicit drug trade, found abandoned outside a Cache Creek motel. (Photo credit: <em>Journal</em> files)
Police probe U-Haul trailer linked to illicit drugs left outside Cache Creek motel

Hazardous materials found inside believed to be consistent with the production of illicit drugs

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

A mother hold hands with her daughter while sharing about her struggles with addiction during Overdose Awareness Day. (Jesse Major/Black Press file)
Overdose and suicide support group starts in Penticton

Penticton was one of the province’s communities hardest hit by the overdose crisis in 2020

The steel mills in the Hamilton waterfront harbour are shown in Hamilton, Ont., on Tuesday, October 23, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Dyer: Stay the course on Carbon pricing

Kristy Dyer has a background in art and physics and consulted for Silicon Valley

Voting is the number one, bare minimum way to have your voice heard by government. (File photo)
Jocelyn’s Jottings: Want to make change? Here are some suggestions

As a citizen you have a voice, you just have to know who to talk to

Hedley residents are advised to not drink the water until a pump in one of its wells is fixed. Photo Andrea DeMeer
Hedley residents under do-not-consume-water order due to arsenic levels

Residents in Hedley remain under a do-not-consume-water order, due to higher than… Continue reading

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns, apologizes for ‘tensions’ at Rideau Hall

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Most Read