Sleuths hold their noses for forensics lesson with real pig

Published 8:24 pm Wednesday, July 21, 2004

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
DOWAGIAC -- Bill Westrate's teaching on insects would normally be like a breathe of fresh air. The Cass County farmer has been an entomologist for 25 years and is also an accomplished botanist and zoologist.
But hot summer sun beating down on his dead pig turned the "three R's" of Tuesday afternoon's Dowagiac Police Department Junior Detective Academy second annual excursion into forensic entomology into reading, 'riting and retching.
Imagine an aromatic blend of "C.S.I." (Crime Scene Investigation) and the reality show "Fear Factor." It was a little too real for a few plucky investigators who, to their credit, bent but did not break while collecting maggot evidence from the carcass with tweezers in their gloved fingers.
They may not want to get any closer to careers as medical examiners than watching "Crossing Jordan" on television.
Ten young detectives -- five boys and five girls -- conclude their week of learning about the tools and techniques of the law enforcement trade with a mock trial before "Judge" Liz Rapalee of Juvenile Court Friday morning at the Law and Courts Building in Cassopolis.
Participants also include Tim Rutkowski, Allissa Wright, Brittany Munson, Donald Beck, Jared Wesaw and C.J. Lloyd of Dowagiac and Evan Anderson of Niles.
Westrate reminds them that CSI, as entertainment programming, is cleaner and tidier than real life because evidence technicians know everything at a glance.
Plus, careful inspection can provide valuable clues, he noted. Maggot growth could indicate the presence of poison in a body. Maggots which feed on tissue containing cocaine grow two to three times faster.
The presence of pale, freshly-formed puperia can be a critical indicator of the time a corpse has been exposed.
Freezing a body will reduce moisture, which a trained eye can detect.
Westrate passes a jar of specimens suspended in liquid collected for laboratory examination.
One boy is reluctant to touch it. "Flies can't swim," a braver boy goads.
Westrate has been studying insects for a quarter century because "they can let you know an awful lot about the world."
What some see as "disgusting" bugs, he regards as natural and essential.
Even at the time of the first Thanksgiving, when Indians taught the Pilgrims to plant corn, a dead fish was placed in each hole so the nutrients would make the soil fertile.
Outside SMC's Mathews Conference Center, by the bed of his pickup truck, Westrate demonstrates catching flies with a long-handled net and uses a thermometer to show the corpseis 10 degrees warmer than the air.
Turned over, its moist underbelly teems with maggots. Even the flap of its ears provides a bit of porchlike shade for flies to lay eggs under.
Forensic entomology is "just another tool" an investigative team can turn to in the process of gathering evidence, Officer Susan Worley said.