Updated: June 9, 2013 6:06AM
“Agent Starling, meet Mr. Acherontia Styx, better known to his friends as the Death’s-head moth... . Somebody fed him honey and nightshade, kept him warm. Somebody loved him.”
— from the film “The Silence of the Lambs”
I met Neal Haskell, 66, at The Pub, an extremely popular restaurant and bar next to The Ritz movie theater in Rensselaer. While noshing on lunch and sipping iced tea, we had a delicious discussion about six-legged creatures that must have three parts to the body (head, thorax and abdomen) to qualify as insects.
You see, Dr. Neal H. Haskell, PhD., B.C.E. is a world-renowned forensic entomology consultant to hundreds of law enforcement agencies across North America and Europe who also teaches about 10 classes at St. Joseph’s College. And I’m a little-known high school graduate who just happens to be a former Newton County 4-H entomology grand champion.
Talking about blowflies the size of dried fruit and maggots munching on carrion doesn’t bug guys like us.
Could you pass the prunes and fried rice, Doc? Thanks.
“I’ve lived in Rensselaer all my life,” he said.
“Growing up on a farm, I was a driving a tractor by the time I was 6. By the time I was 10, I was doing the work of men. Dad grew corn and beans and raised cattle on 800 acres. My mother taught art and music in the Rensselaer school system for 37 years.”
Did you become interested in insects at an early age?
“Yes, I started collecting them when I was about 10. They were everywhere; that’s what fascinated me about them. I remember the first time I encountered major maggot masses, I was about 8.
“There was this 350-pound calf that had died; it was all bloated up and encased in maggots. I was totally repulsed. Little did I know, 20 or 30 years later, these would be the guys my livelihood would depend on.”
Is there a certain group of insects that really grabbed your interest early on?
“I liked the beetles. There are more than 330,000 species worldwide.”
I’d use Ma’s bleach as a form of euthanasia when preparing to mount by bugs.
“In my college days, we used to carry around jars of potassium cyanide. We had enough cyanide in our killing jars to kill 40,000 people. They trusted us with that. Amazing.”
Tell me more about your college education.
“Over four decades at Purdue University. I got my bachelor’s in the ‘60s, did post-graduate work in the ‘70s, earned my master’s in the ‘80s, and my PhD in the ‘90s.”
As a college freshman, did you know going in that you were going to be an entomologist?
“I started out in biology, but one of the dean’s talked me into coming over to entomology.”
“For me, there wasn’t really any forensic entomology. Nobody had ever studied it. I’m the first academically trained forensic entomologist in the world.”
You’ve appeared on television.
“More than 45 television programs, not counting court TV.”
Can you expound upon your particular niche a little more?
“One of the main things that we do is determine how long a person has been dead based upon the growth and development of the insects feeding on them.”
You were the forensic entomologist for the prosecution in the Casey Anthony case down in Florida.
“We had the car that was found July 15. It had been abandoned and then put in an impound guard. When the grandmother picked the car up, she called the police and said: ‘It smell’s like there has been a dead body in here.’ That’s when the police became involved — no one had seen the little girl in 31 days and she wasn’t reported missing.”
“An investigation ensued. The police opened the trunk and some ‘fruit flies’ flew out and that was that.”
Or was it?
“I finally learned of the ‘fruit flies’ about two months later. I said, ‘Boys, those weren’t fruit flies, they were coffin flies feeding on the decomposing fluids that remained in the trunk of that car.’ That’s what gave it the smell.”
“I was able to prove with a reasonable degree of scientific certainty, that she had probably died the 16th of June and was in the car no longer than the 18th or 19th of June. In my estimation, she had been wrapped up in a blanket and put in the trunk of the car.
“At 130 degrees in a trunk of a car, the girl’s body would begin purging fluids from the nose and mouth. Hence, the smell.“
Another of your more prominent cases?
“I did the Danielle van Dam trial out in San Diego. I was testifying for the defense in that one.”
Another little girl. So sad. How many times have you been under oath?
“About 125. As far as I know, that’s more than anyone else in forensic entomology.”
A local case?
“I was involved with the McCowan case up in Porter County. Obviously, my problem with that one was they had insect evidence and the county decided that it wasn’t important. I don’t know if the kid murdered the girl or not, but the insect evidence could have told the story.”
One of your more bizarre cases?
“I call it the Bates Motel case, which took place down in Indianapolis. This guy had been taking care of his sister and aunt. All three of them were in their eighties. The two women had fallen and broken their hips. They were bedfast.
“Well, the guy had a normal itinerary everyday and the people that he’d usually see, hadn’t seen him for three or four days. So, they went to check on him.”
“They found him dead on the living room rug. So, they checked on the women of the house.”
“They were really dead. These ladies had been dead at least two years. I estimated that the aunt died in late September or early October; she was pretty much consumed by the blowflies — the soft tissue was cleared off. The mummifying of the sister would have been brought about by a period of time when the insects weren’t flying. I figured she died in the months of December, January or February.”
The brother-nephew obviously had mental issues.
“I believe he had taken care of them for so long, he couldn’t bring himself to depart with them. He was buying groceries as if there were three of them living there.”
Wow. Any parting thoughts?
“Maggots are our friends.”
What a wonderful opportunity; a chance to earn a master’s degree in forensic science at nearby St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer under the tutelage of its native son and his hand-picked, blue-ribbon panel of experts.
Dr. Neal Haskell. A man who has given hundreds of scientific lectures and seminars all over the world, yet has remained close to his roots.