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Bugs and crime: Professor share creepy insight

October 28, 2004|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

SHENANDOAH JUNCTION, W.Va. - Jim Amrine is an expert in using bugs to determine when someone died.

And he's got a trick for collecting flies off dead people.

"I would kick the body a few times and knock the flies loose," Amrine told students at Jefferson High School on Wednesday.

"I might get as many as 400 flies," Amrine said.

Amrine was at the high school as part of the annual WVU Days, when professors from the university in Morgantown come to the school to talk to students about different fields of study.

It is hoped the talks will generate student interest in college. WVU officials also spent time Wednesday in middle schools throughout the Eastern Panhandle, sharing information about college, financial aid and preparatory classes, according to a university release.

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Amrine teaches forensic entomology, which involves the use of critters like maggots and flies to determine time of death for people involved in crimes.

Amrine can determine the time of death based on the stage of growth of the bugs. He checks his work by taking some of the insects back to a lab and raising them through the rest of their growth cycle.

Amrine told students that maggots can be grown by putting them on various sources of food.

Amrine likes to use cat food.

"They just love it," Amrine said.

Amrine showed students a work kit that can be taken into the field to do forensic entomology.

The kit included bottles of alcohol to collect the bugs and a net.

He pulled the long white net out of the box and stretched it out as he showed it to the students. To catch flies, Amrine said, he typically passes the net over the head of the body because that is usually where flies congregate.

If it's maggots Amrine is dealing with, he just scoops them up.

To show the students how he collects them, he held up a black spoon, which appeared to be a typical kitchen spoon.

Then he puts the maggots in old yogurt cups.

To clean up, Amrine said he has a spray bottle in his car that has a mixture of detergent and bleach.

"You get used to the smell and you get used to this work," Amrine told a room full of students representing four science classes.

Amrine recalled some memorable cases through the years, including a man who was found dead in Augusta, W.Va., as a result of a drug deal gone bad. The man's body was cut into pieces with a table saw, Amrine said.

"We never did identify this guy. It was a cold case that will probably never be solved," Amrine said.

Amrine also recalled the work of another expert in forensic entomology who wanted to study closely how human beings decay after death. The expert set up a "body farm," Amrine said. The bodies were observed as they decayed in various situations, including being dunked in water or left in cars, Amrine said.

While Amrine talked, he passed out several books for students to flip through, including, "Maggots, Murder and Men."

Jessica Shillingburg, 17, said it was an interesting presentation, but not a field she will be going into.

"I think my stomach is a little weak for something like that," Shillingburg said.

WVU Days concludes today with more faculty lectures in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties.

Also today, Shepherdstown, W.Va., native and Jefferson High graduate John Hendricks, director of the West Virginia University Mountaineer Marching Band, will direct the band's drum line in performances at Jefferson and Martinsburg high schools.

The Jefferson performance is scheduled for 10:32 a.m. and the Martinsburg concert is scheduled for 1:50 p.m., said Jim Davis, a university spokesman. Both performances will feature the WVU Jazz Ensembles.

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