Sought-after forensic entomologist digs deep for clues

February 02, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Correspondent

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Call it the case of the tattletale bugs.

The bookstore owner was tied to the kidnapping and murder of the bank manager's wife by seemingly ironclad evidence: A 22-point plan for the crime found in his home computer and his fingerprints on the ransom notes.

But the state's pathologist said the victim probably was shot in the head and left in the woods on Saturday morning, a period when the bookseller was seen around town. Had someone else pulled the trigger?

Enter bug expert Ke Chung "K. C." Kim, a dapper, compact entomologist who teaches "Insect Taxonomy" and other courses at Penn State University here.

Dr. Kim never bothered to find out what the pathologist concluded. Instead, he studied the insects found on the victim's ear.

"Bugs don't lie," said Dr. Kim, one of perhaps 20 scholars nationwide who practice forensic entomology -- the application of insect science and research to the courtroom. "Bugs tell us exactly what happened."

Putting the larvae and flies collected by police under his microscope, Dr. Kim decided that the woman must have died Friday afternoon, not Saturday. After the scientist's testimony, the defendant, David Copenhefer, found himself without a strong alibi.

Copenhefer was convicted of the 1988 murder and sentenced to death. He is being held in a state penitentiary in Pittsburgh.

"If you were categorizing witnesses, he [Dr. Kim] would be one of the most important," said James Vogel of the Erie County District Attorney's office, a prosecutor in the Copenhefer case.

"I spent an hour educating the jury," recalled the 58-year-old Dr. Kim with a satisfied smile. "The maggot data was major evidence."

Forensic entomology has emerged in the past decade as an important investigative tool, and not only in criminal cases.

Dr. Kim, for example, was hired by an auction company after a Philadelphia minister who bought a Persian rug later sued, claiming that the rug contained allergy-causing bugs. (Not so, concluded the scholar.)

In another case, a Pennsylvania town sued a local tire company, claiming that its stacks of rainwater-filled tires were breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Dr. Kim, working for the town, confirmed that the company was incubating insects -- even calculating how many millions of bugs were hatching there. The firm was forced to move out of town, he recalled.

But it is the homicide business that is booming for Dr. Kim and other forensic entomologists. The Penn State researcher is currently working on four cases, where he usually handles that many in a year.

The main reason: Insect evidence can be a highly accurate method of determining the time of death, which is frequently a crucial question in murder investigations.

As the body cools, bacteria swiftly multiply, generating gases that attract the first of a series of flies and beetles whose life cycles -- especially in the larval stages -- have been extensively documented.

The time of death can often be pinpointed by determining the developmental stage of the insects found with the body. Sometimes authorities can determine where a person was killed, and whether the body was moved, depending on the type of insects found on the clothing.

If a body is found within 10 days, Dr. Kim said, he can often pin down the time of death to within five or six hours. Longer than 10 days, he said, time estimates become increasingly less precise.

Entomological investigation has become so popular that some pathologists are trying their hand at it -- though not always with great success.

Dr. Kim testified recently at the trial of Alan Borger, 34, who was accused of sneaking up on his sleeping uncle and bludgeoning him to death. When the case reached a courtroom in Lehigh County, Pa., in December, a pivotal issue was when the body had been dumped in the woods. The police pathologist testified that he found "common houseflies" and their larvae at the crime scene.

Dr. Kim looked at the two vials of insect material preserved by police. He said the species of fly could not be determined, because there was only one specimen and it was badly decayed. He didn't find any larvae -- only dried-out eggs, which are not the same thing.

Dr. Kim looked up from his well-worn microscope.

"I said to myself, 'This man really doesn't know what he's talking about,' " he said.

On the witness stand, Dr. Kim spent an hour outlining his case against the pathologist's findings -- concluding that the only thing anyone could say for sure was that the body had been dead at least 24 hours when the specimens were collected.

Jurors, Dr. Kim noted, "are the most captivated students you could have."

Karen J. Schular, the assistant public defender who represented Borger, said Dr. Kim's testimony showed that the pathologist didn't know his bugs. But neither did it take Borger off the hook, at least in that jury's mind.

L The defendant was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

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