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Researcher Uses Insects to Help Solve Crimes

Jeff Tomberlin has little law enforcement background. But the knowledge he has could be essential in solving murder cases.

Tomberlin, a doctoral student in the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, is the state's only forensic entomologist and one of only a handful in the Southeast.

A forensic entomologist is trained, among other things, to identify insects on corpses. Studying the insects on or near a murder victim's body can reveal many answers.

Different Insects Reveal Different Clues

"Different insects are found at different times of decomposition," Tomberlin said. "So the kinds of insects you find can often tell you when a person died."

An insect's age can also help determine the victim's time of death. "Insects," he said, "can find a person pretty fast, especially in the summer -- sometimes in less than 10 minutes."

If the insect is a larva, for example, Tomberlin knows the person hasn't been dead as long as if it were a pupa.

Insects can help find the cause of death, too.

"If the person died of a drug overdose, but there isn't any way to take a blood sample, I can take the insects and have them analyzed," he said. "The chemicals from the drugs will be in the insects."

Bugs can show where a person died, too, and whether a body has been moved.

"Some insects live only in certain areas," Tomberlin said. "So insects collected from a body can give officials an accurate picture of a move."

Studying Insects on and Around Animals

Meanwhile, Tomberlin is completing his UGA research on controlling houseflies in livestock facilities at the 0021 Coastal Plain Experiment Station 30F3 in Tifton, Ga.

He loves his work in veterinary entomology, but he also loves forensics. The problem with his forensics work is that most Georgia law enforcement officials don't know he exists.

He's working on that.

Tomberlin is spreading the word that his services are free for now. "I'm not charging because I need the experience," he said. That may change when he completes his studies next year.

To advertise his crime-solving services, Tomberlin met with Tony Clark, a medical examiner in Moultrie, Ga. With Clark's help, he earned approval from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to help with law enforcement cases.

Working with Law Enforcement Officers

So far, he's helped with three Georgia cases. He's also offering training to interested officers on how to use insects to help solve crimes.

"I don't always have to be at a crime scene," he said. "Officers can save insects and send them to me."

As helpful as forensic entomology is, most people wouldn't find it pleasant. Tomberlin became fascinated with it as a UGA undergraduate student.

"I was taking an entomology class and working part-time in a funeral home," he said. "That's when the seed was planted. Everything took off from there."

Learning from the Best

After earning his bachelor's degree from UGA, Tomberlin completed a master's degree in forensic entomology at Clemson University.

He then traveled to the University of Hawaii to learn from forensic entomologist Lee Goff, one of the best in the field. He returned to UGA to complete his doctoral studies.

Forensic entomologists don't just work on murder cases, Tomberlin said. They work on nursing home cases, too, to see whether elderly patients are being abused or neglected. In similar cases, they can help detect child abuse.

"In these cases," he said, "they check for things like flies infesting bedsores on the elderly or diapers on infants. If you find flies in a diaper, you know right away the child hasn't been changed in about three days."

Whether he's fighting pests on animals or using insects to solve crimes, Tomberlin believes in his work.

"I want people to realize I'm here to help," he said. "Forensic entomologists aren't silver bullets. But we know ways insects can sometimes be helpful."

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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