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'Bug guy' faces grisly task in Cleveland case

From Ross Levitt, CNN
  • Consultant identifies bugs found on bodies and determines their age
  • He is helping police investigate remains of 11 women found in Cleveland, Ohio
  • His work could help authorities establish timeline in case

(CNN) -- As part of the investigation into the remains of 11 women found inside and outside the Cleveland, Ohio, home of a registered sex offender, police have turned to the self-described "bug guy."

Joe Keiper, curator of invertebrate zoology from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, started consulting with law enforcement in 2001. His job is to identify the bugs found on bodies and determine their age, to help police determine the "post-mortem interval": the time between death and body discovery.

It's a grisly task but a useful one, as it can help police determine a timeline for deaths.

Bugs "can be the most important evidence when it comes to pinpointing a timeline," Keiper said, adding that bugs' sense of smell "puts bloodhounds to shame."

And in this case, with 11 deaths -- each with their own mystery -- bugs could play a huge role in helping investigators figure out how and when each of these bodies ended up at the home of Anthony Sowell, 50.

From the beginning, Keiper was involved in the case of the remains found at Sowell's home. All the remains are of African-American women, police said. All that remains of one victim is a skull, wrapped in a paper bag and stuffed into a bucket in the basement.

Police conducted an additional search at Sowell's home and an adjacent property Wednesday, Cleveland police Lt. Thomas Stacho said. Although "various items" were removed, no more remains were found, he said. Police had used ground-penetrating radar to analyze the properties.

Sowell, who served 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to attempted rape, now faces five counts of aggravated murder, rape, felonious assault and kidnapping in connection with the deaths.

Typically, Keiper said, he requires three weeks to a month to complete a report on one body, but in the Sowell case, he hopes to have an initial report completed "before Christmas. ... It isn't going to be a three-week process."

The difference between one bug and another can be "minute," with some of them looking "very similar," he said. But the minute difference can be huge in terms of bug species, as different species can tell very different stories about the time of death.

For instance, there are only a few dozen species of flies in his part of Ohio, he said, but the presence or absence of each one can tell a story, since each has a different rate of growth in varying temperatures.

Temperature will be a factor in this case, he said, because some of the bodies were found inside and others outside. Keiper said he'll need to determine what effect the bodies being "hidden" will have on the bugs he finds, as well.

In research done with dead pigs, he said, bugs will cover the pig's face within an hour.

Keiper said his job is to be "meticulous," as any mistakes can disrupt an investigation.

Preliminary information is generally not useful, he said, so he has not spoken to police or the coroner regarding any of his findings.

Asked how exact his findings will be concerning time of death, he declined to answer, saying that would mean giving specifics on the conditions of the bodies when they were found.

He said only that he believes he can do "better than years" in trying to pinpoint a time of death for each victim.

"This is a singular situation that I hope is once in a lifetime," he said of the Sowell case. "This is something, for the sake of our society, I hope I never have to do again."

CNN's Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.