It was five days before the start of fall semester. Students loaded with fish tanks, suitcases, and bags of books were already moving into the dorms. Professors in their offices were readying their first lectures.
Washington State University was waking from its summer slumber. For the grounds workers, it was a day for feeding animals, checking fences, and tending the giant compost pile at the back of the University’s grounds.
But in a nearly forgotten corner of campus, a body was rotting.
A man atop a tractor was the first to spy a patch of black in the weedy growth beneath an old apple tree. Fighting off wasps, he went in for a closer look.
It had black hair, was covered in bugs, and, by the smell of it, had been dead for a while. His curiosity gave way to disgust, and he went looking for his supervisor.
It must have been easy to drop the body in this part of Pullman, a section that sees so little traffic. The old county road where locals once dumped worn tires and broken stoves was now research land where hardly anyone but the groundskeepers ventured.
But somebody had an ugly secret to hide. This is where he left it.
This is a strange tale of death and dismemberment, links to a legacy of forensic investigation, and lots and lots of bugs.
Farm manager Fred Loaiza was among the first to see the victim up close. The worker who grabbed him and drove him out to the site wouldn’t say what he had found.
When they got to the secluded spot, Loaiza rolled down his window. “It was like a wall slamming me in the face with that stench,” he says. He could tell by the mass of black fur that it was a bear.
Loaiza called campus police. They called the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. A game agent soon arrived to study the scene. He determined the creature had been killed, harvested for parts, and then illegally dumped. Before driving off, the agent advised Loaiza to leave the carcass and let nature take its course. That was something the farm manager couldn’t do. “It was right in front of our equipment yard entry,” he says.
He asked his crew to “go out there and scrape the bear up,” adding that the remains were like Jell-O. They moved the carcass to a hay field.
“Then someone said, ‘we’ve got to bury it,'” he says. “I agreed. I was worried that someone else would discover it.”
So they returned with a backhoe and left the bear several feet beneath the ground.
Loaiza figured that was the end of the strange story.
But then, he had yet to meet Bethany Marshall.
Bugs and bodies
Assistant professor Bethany Marshall is a small, intense woman with hair like fine copper springs. Her office is a museum of oddities, with maps, a skull, framed moth specimens, vials of soil, and a half-eaten bag of Mission tortilla chips stuffed under the desk. Her bookshelves are filled with a standard selection of biology texts spiced with titles like Maggots, Murder, and Men and Death’s Acre. Near her computer, she has taped up a bumper sticker that says,”Friends help you move. Real friends help you move bodies.”
Marshall came here four years ago to teach entomology. She describes her professional journey to WSU as a “twisty path” that included teaching junior high in Chicago and earning a Ph.D. in entomology at Michigan State University. While she was working on her doctorate, she stayed connected with the Chicago school and created science outreach programs for the students. She also found herself consulting with officers about bugs and the role they play in decomposition, a field still fairly new to crime solving.
Not long into her work at WSU, she found a group of students who shared her interest in insects and crimes. They are young adults who like science, but who are not necessarily looking at vet or medical school, she says. “Through their needs, I started the forensics club.”
Over the past few years she has arranged for field trips with real homicide investigators and hard-core training in “man-tracking,” which once took her students on a backwoods manhunt near Priest Lake, Idaho. She also put them through her own forensic entomology experience, using real pigs as victims. “I have this relationship with the [WSU] swine center,” Marshall explains. She collects stillborn piglets and larger pigs that had to be put down. She deposits or buries many of the carcasses at Smoot Hill, a research preserve north of Pullman, where they can attract a “carrion community” of insects, mostly maggots, beetles, and flies. Other pigs get placed at special sites in northeast Washington and Idaho to be used in training professional investigators.
While forensic entomology is a relatively new field in the United States, the first recorded example of someone using insects to solve a crime dates back to 13th-century China. In 1235 A.D. Sung Tz’u, a Chinese death investigator, wrote a book in which he described the story of a victim in a small village who was slashed to death with a sickle. After interviews failed to turn up a suspect, the local investigator asked the townspeople to bring their sickles to a meeting and lay them out. Just one drew flies, probably because there were traces of blood on it. The evidence pointed to the sickle’s owner as a prime suspect and prompted a confession.
At WSU, the history of forensic entomology goes back to the late Professor Paul Catts. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he and a few colleagues around the country pioneered the use of bugs in American criminal investigations. “They called themselves the ‘Dirty Dozen’,” says his wife, Dana Catts.
Part of their mission was to encourage the use of insect evidence and to teach investigators the proper way to handle the bugs at a crime scene. Often evidence like maggots and flies were ignored or even washed off the body. Catts and his colleagues wanted officers and medical examiners to realize that insects could help pinpoint things like time of death, location of the crime, and location of wounds. Catts set out to formalize forensic entomology, putting together guidelines and criteria for training experts in the field. Then he wrote the book on the subject. With Neal Haskell at Purdue University, Catts assembled Entomology and Death: A Procedural Guide, a small spiral-bound booklet to help scientists and officers use insects in their forensic investigations. Illustrated with Catts’s own whimsical drawings, the book details everything from how to get insects from a crime scene-“collect only those stages of insects which can be seen readily on the body”-to how to testify at a trial-“be objective, nonpartisan and scientifically honest.”
As a professor, Catts was an internationally recognized expert in parasitology and medical entomology. His expertise included insects that survive on living flesh. He worked to make the study of insects palatable to his students. He is perhaps most famous in Pullman for the “insect luaus” he threw for his students, where the menu often included honey bee pupae fried in garlic, tempura cockroaches, and cricket tacos. Catts held the buggy smorgasbord to get the students over their big anxieties about insects.
From his fly and live flesh work, it was a natural progression to dead flesh, says Richard Zack, a WSU colleague. “If you’re doing research on maggots in a body, you can see where you would get into forensic entomology.”
At the time, the use of insects in forensic investigations was viewed as a novelty and seemed the sole domain of insect experts who had day jobs at universities. “It was a hobby for a lot of these people,” says Zack.
Even so, Catts was trusted and respected by both colleagues and law officials. He consulted with investigators on a number of high-profile Northwest cases, including the Green River killer. His untimely death in 1996 left a hole not only in Pullman, but in the forensic entomology community nationwide.
Now Marshall has inherited Catts’s legacy. Like the well-known professor, she eagerly drops to the ground to dig through soil and pick through bugs. She is constantly seeking opportunities to help local officers use insects in their investigations.
She makes time for extracurricular work, including several cold cases from King County and a recent murder near Anatone. In the latter, she played a role in helping officers identify a suspect.
Marshall has also taught officers around the state the art of recognizing and collecting insects at crime scenes. King County detective sergeant Mark Toner says his basic training provided some insect instruction, but nothing compared to what he’s learned from Marshall. “It’s hands on digging pigs and picking bugs,” he says.
And if there’s something he’s stuck on during a real investigation, “I’ll call her and say, ‘This is what I’ve got, what can you do for me?’ She tells me how to pick them up. I send them to her. She will then give me all the information I need.” “There are plenty of scientists who have her knowledge,” says Toner, “but they don’t have her interest level or energy for this work.” It’s gory, smelly, and tedious, and you should never go bug hunting in a stylish outfit like the detectives do on TV, says Marshall. “But I’ve been given the stomach and passion to do this.”
Digging for the truth
It was Marshall’s mother who first read about the mystery bear in a newspaper she picked up in a doctor’s office waiting room. She called her daughter that very day, and the scientist wasted no time trying to obtain the grisly remains for her students.
“It had all the attributes of a real homicide,” Marshall says. The animal is about the size of a human, it was killed somewhere else, dumped in one spot for a number of days, and then moved to a shallow grave.
Knowing they would find useful insects at both sites and that there was a possibility of turning up new evidence in the bear’s death, Marshall pushed University and state game officials to let her and 10 students dig up the site of the first dumping and later exhume the victim.
“When she called me, I said, ‘Wow, you’re just like CSI,'” says Madonna Luers, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Marshall’s was such an unusual request, getting permission for her wasn’t easy, especially since a crime had occurred, and an official investigation was underway.
Even if the person responsible for the bear’s death was a hunter with a license, to remove parts and waste a carcass is illegal, as is dumping it where he did, says Luers.
Because the paws seemed to be missing, game agents suspect the bear was harvested for parts that would fetch several hundred dollars on the black market. The paws, for example, are used to make a soup as an Asian folk-medicine remedy for respiratory problems.
After some deliberation, the game department officials decided that since the bear remains could be a learning tool and they no longer needed the carcass for their investigation, they could give her access.
Once Marshall knew she had the bear, she completely changed her curriculum to focus on the animal. Where Loaiza saw Jell-O, Marshall saw opportunity.
So did her students, who quickly picked up her enthusiasm for the project.
“This was a real case for us,” says Tiffany Schmitz, a senior majoring in psychology who plans to go into forensics work. “We wanted to see if we at all could help figure out how the bear had been killed.”
On two separate days this past fall, the students willingly combed over the initial dump site and the burial site and painstakingly sifted through the soil for evidence of insects and other materials. They created grids on the ground with string and markers and set to with trowels, vials, and maps.
On September 18, they went after the bear. The small forensics crew started mid-morning out at the edge of a field, next to a hog-wire fence. While the rest of campus was folding down tailgates and firing up barbecues prior to the 2 p.m. football game against Idaho, Marshall and her crew were digging in with shovels, nets, and baggies.
“We scoured the ground for live insects, took soil samples, and then worked our way to ground zero,” says Schmitz, who recalls the day as cold and overcast. “As we started to pull up soil samples, you could immediately smell the decay.”
Without taking a break, they worked straight through the morning. Four hours in, they got to their first sign of fur. “At this point, we’re not even using trowels, we’re using brushes,” says Marshall.
While the scene was gruesome and the smell awful, the students kept working. “At this point, the science really overtakes the yuck factor,” says Marshall.
Clearing away the cover of soil, several students climbed into the pit to lift out the bear. “It was pretty far along, but a surprising amount of tissue was left,” says Marshall.
As they were putting the bear into body bags, Schmitz noted that all the students were treating the remains with extra care. She understood why. “I thought, this could be somebody. A real person,” she says.
The tissue was too far gone, and the relocation by tractor could have caused new breaks and damage, making it more difficult to determine what injuries the bear had at the time it was dumped.
Still, the team found no evidence of a bullet. The bear was taken to WSU’s Veterinary Hospital to be X-rayed. It’s possible the bear wasn’t shot, but that it died by some other means, says Marshall.
With that information and some other leads, the game agent is still hopeful of catching the bear’s killer, says Luers. Laws were broken, an animal was killed and dismembered, and the case is still a priority for the fish and wildlife department.
Though they haven’t yet solved the mystery of who brought the bear to the campus, Marshall says the team’s efforts were a success. “We were able to actually see in the ground what we’ve been talking about in class,” she says. She was able to give her students a real mystery to solve.
The bear lives on as a tool for teaching. Marshall left the hide on a hillside to weather through the winter, and she wrapped the bones in plastic to speed decomposition so future students can study them. And the hundreds of insects they collected now reside in vials in her laboratory.
Her greatest success is that she infused a small group of students with a passion for forensics work and an appreciation for bugs. Marshall’s hope is that some day forensic entomology will become as important a tool in solving crimes as fingerprinting.
“Nature has the answers,” she says. “We just don’t know how to read the book yet.”