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David Faulkner, San Diego Natural History Museum’s entomologist, solves crimes

When the fly found the cadaver

Faulkner speaks matter of factly. "These are fully developed maggots, been on a body for a week. These were on a transient, found dead.
  • Faulkner speaks matter of factly. "These are fully developed maggots, been on a body for a week. These were on a transient, found dead.
  • Image by Dave Allen

How long after you die before a fly will lay its eggs on you? To which David Faulkner (San Diego Natural History Museum’s entomology department chairman) responds: “That is one of the wonderful variables, because some of these flies attack while you’re still alive. Say you went into a coma, brought on, for instance, by a stroke. No one discovers you. You’re laying there comatose, almost dead. A fly lands on your nose or mouth, your usual reaction is to hit it off, but you’re comatose, you can’t move, so the flies will deposit their eggs. A day or two passes before you’re found. They’re taking you to the hospital, they stick tubes down your nasal passages and throat, and maggots will crawl out of the nasal passages. Actually, that happened here in town.”

"If it’s a blowfly maggot and it’s alive, it feels pretty sturdy. They give a lot, but they’re resilient. They are soft. They’re not warm.”

"If it’s a blowfly maggot and it’s alive, it feels pretty sturdy. They give a lot, but they’re resilient. They are soft. They’re not warm.”

A Saturday morning, Faulkner, in jeans and T-shirt, tennis shoes, leads me through the third floor of the museum, an area not open to the public. Nodding toward long wooden tables heaped with the balsa wood cubes and boards on which insects are mounted, with white labels, straight pins, and boxes spilling dead moths and flies and beetles, he apologizes, "This area is a mess. There’ve been three people working here, identifying and mounting and labeling new specimens.” Faulkner directs my gaze to a brown and black owl butterfly. If I did not see the pins that secure its mottled wings to the mount, I would think the butterfly any moment ready to take flight. Markings that suggest an owl’s round eyes accent the underside of the butterfly’s hind wings. “When this butterfly opens up its wings, these markings — to a predator — look like two eyes. It gives the potential predator pause, something to think about — eyes wider spread than its eyes — and gives the butterfly time to escape.”

Asian lotus fly

Asian lotus fly

His eyes, behind round glasses, dart to mounting blocks at the table’s end. Insects, pinned in neat rows to blocks, glitter. “Weevils from Madagascar, and over here,” Faulkner points to red insects on whose long thorax a head extends, “giraffe snout beetles."

A high school and college football player who has retained his muscular bulk, Faulkner, 40, shifts and sidesteps gracefully between and around tables, over cardboard cartons, to the room’s other side. We stand before ranks of shoulder-high wooden cabinets. The cabinets hold rows of 20- by 18-inch, 3-inch deep drawers. “The general collection,” says Faulkner, “the stuff that has accumulated over 100 years.”

Atlas beetle

Atlas beetle

In addition to acting as curator of the museum’s 900,000-specimen insect collection and adding 15 to 20,000 specimens to that collection every year, Faulkner also teaches museum classes and serves as answer man on insect queries. But what I have come to ask him about is his work as a consultant in forensic entomology. While he opens one after another of the drawers, revealing tier upon tier of beetles, lacewings, butterflies, and moths, Faulkner tells me that he came to the forensics field in 1981 when he was invited to speak to a National University criminal justice class about legal aspects of entomology.

Milkweed butterfly

Milkweed butterfly

Preparing lectures, Faulkner outlined topics on endangered species, food contamination, customs importation, insect confiscation and detection at the border, pesticide law. “Then I found several articles about a woman who tried to kill her roommate with a tarantula and included that. I titled the talk 'Forensic Entomology,’ but I had to look up ‘forensic’ because I didn’t know what the word meant — basically, forensic entomology is the science that deals with application of entomological facts to legal problems.”

Goliath beetle

Goliath beetle

Forensic entomologists are frequently asked to render an opinion in food contamination cases. Most often the question is “When and where did the insect get into the food?” In a not atypical case, says Faulkner, “A couple in El Cajon bought some chicken

in a bucket, went to a movie, parked in the movie house’s parking lot under artificial light. It was during summer, early evening. When the movie let out several hours later, they drove home, opened up the bucket, and there were maggots on the chicken. They were immediately repulsed, took the bucket back to the chicken outlet, said, ‘Hey, listen, you sold us maggoty food.’

“The manager at the chicken outlet called the district supervisor. They took photos of the chicken in the bucket, and then I was contacted.

“I talked with the couple. They’d picked up the chicken, driven to the movie, put the chicken bucket on the floor of the car, where it was in direct view of the fluorescent lights under which they parked — this was before they went to sodium lights. They left the back car window cracked just a bit. So what happened is that female flesh flies flew in through that window, probably 20 or 30 of them, and found this cool chicken and deposited maggots on it, then flew back out the window. It was a double feature. So when the couple got back, these maggots were going at it.

“That was the scenario. It wasn't the chicken outlet’s fault.

“But what interests everyone about forensic entomology is its use in murder cases. That’s where its notoriety has been gained.”

The homicide aspect of Faulkner’s work in forensic entomology began in 1982 with a local law firm that was defending Bernard Lee Hamilton, accused of murdering a Mesa College coed. Hamilton’s attorneys were trying to pinpoint the time of the victim’s death so as to allow possibility of an alibi for Hamilton (now on death row). The coroner’s report made no mention of any significant insect activity on the body. Because presence or absence of certain insects on a corpse can indicate when a victim died, Hamilton’s attorneys were curious as to whether or not Faulkner might see, In photographs, any indication of insect presence.

Faulkner was shown photos of the cul-de-sac south of Pine Valley where the body was recovered — “Blood,” he shudders, “splattered all over the place” — and photographs taken during autopsy. "I was with the defense attorney. I was looking through all of this. I was trying to be straightforward, professional, unemotional. I wasn’t letting it get to me.”

Faulkner opens a drawer in which pale, translucent moths rise atop mounting pins, gazes down at the moths, says, ‘‘Then, about two weeks later the nightmares hit.”

He closes the drawer, slides open another, this one displaying neat rows of moths, wings mottled in browns and reds. “I have 23 homicides now. Of those 23, only 3 or 4 have been concluded. Most are still open investigations, and the majority of the open investigations involve prostitutes murdered and dumped out in East County.”

While Faulkner talks about the application of entomology to homicide investigation, he continues to stroll through the banks of cabinets, opening drawer after drawer, showing lineups of beetles in commonplace blacks, tans, browns, and then others in bright unexpected lime greens, turquoise, midnight blues, gleaming like enameled jewelry.

Forensic entomology was being practiced in China in the 13th Century. A medical manual from that century cites a case in which, following a murder by sickle, local farmers were rounded up and ordered to lay their sickles before them on the ground. When flies settled on only one sickle, the sickle’s owner then confessed. In the Western world until the 17th Century, educated belief was that "worms” (actually maggots) on corpses were induced through spontaneous generation. Then in 1668, experiments showed that the maggots emerged from flies’ eggs laid on decomposing bodies.

The classic works, still referred to in identification of insects found on cadavers, were by French entomologist Jean-Pierre Megnin (1828-1905). “Megnin,” says Faulkner, “went into tombs and burial sites outside of Paris and examined bodies. He’s still the world authority on forensic entomology and probably looked at more human remains than has any other entomologist.

“Insects,’’ he says, “are a major factor contributing to decomposition of dead plant and animal material. Anytime you have a body out of doors, in a natural setting, particularly if the body is totally or partially nude, you are going to have insects attracted to it.”

After death, body temperature drops. Glycogen breaks down and lactic acid accumulates in the body, inducing the stiffened muscles of rigor mortis — hence, the expression "a stiff.” A body left outside will retain rigor mortis for 48 to 72 hours. At high temperatures, this stiffening may not develop completely; low temperatures may extend the time stiffness is maintained.

Next, the body undergoes biochemical fermentation. This fermentation produces gases — ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen. During this stage the lower body acquires a greenish hue and the body bloats. Putrefaction — rotting — due largely to action of intestinal flora, follows. This rotting gives off putrid odors, particularly cadaverine, a syrupy, colorless, fuming ptomaine formed in decaying animal flesh.

Sarcosaprophagous insects (insects that feed on dead flesh) arrive at a food source in wave after wave in a distinct sequence associated with flesh’s successive stages of decay. Entomologists speak of this parade of insects across dead bodies as “faunal succession on cadavers.” This succession begins with various fly species and is concluded by scavenging beetles, which take advantage of the desiccated remains.

“The decomposition rate,” Faulkner notes, “normally will be consistent with what the temperature is, where the body is located, and with the microhabitat — whether the body is under a bush or partially buried or buried very deep.”

In homicide or suspicious death cases, the question entomologists are typically asked to help answer is “When did this person die?” (Sometimes the question is also "Where?”) The entomologist, within limits, can answer the question of time with the help of flies because, in general, flies develop through metamorphosis in four stages — egg, larva (or maggot), pupa, and adult.

Faulkner closes a drawer filled with turquoise beetles, “a color,” he says, “you don’t see in many insects. In the tropics you tend to see brighter-colored insects than those you see in more temperate areas. There, you see more blacks and browns.”

We return to the work tables. Faulkner points out mounting blocks on which flies, wings folded, are pinned. “The life history for a fly can last from nine days, from egg to adult, to as much as three or four months.” With an understanding of “faunal succession,” says Faulkner, “of insects involved in decomposition, you can say approximately how long a body has been in the location in which it’s discovered, whether the body was buried first and then later exposed or exposed and then buried, whether the body had been moved — say, killed in downtown San Diego and then two or three days later carried out and dumped in the desert.”

Faulkner offers me a chair at the table on which the mounted flies rest, then takes a seat across from me, puts his hands behind his head, leans back.

“Ants you note on a body as to presence or absence. In early stages when fluid is oozing out of the body, when perhaps there’s a wound with moisture around it, the ants will take advantage of that. They will also be attracted to the eyes and mouth, for the liquids there.

“Ants are very opportunistic, so something like a body that seemingly arrives from the heavens, they take advantage of that resource as fast as they can. And of course, if a body lands on an ant hill, the ants are going to be curious as to what’s on their hill. Perhaps they will even act in a defensive manner, may even do some biting.

“There have been cases in which acid burns are seen on the body; the burns are there because ants drop formic acid — little chemical markers — to mark their path. These acid trails could be interpreted as something else if you didn’t know that ants were there. In later stages of decay, ants may use the body cavity to live in.

“Moths will occasionally show up. For instance, someone had purchased a home in the Firestone area of Los Angeles. Back of the house, there was an old shed, and the new owners noticed something in the shed, something sticking out of the ground. They dug around, and there was a human foot. They called the police, police came, exhumed the body. The body had been wrapped in a wool blanket, and as the police were unwrapping it, moths flew out of its abdominal cavity.

“Because the body was buried underground, in the shed, it was excluded from attack by flies, which would have deposited eggs. Flies have to lay eggs in either direct contact with the host or direct contact with body fluids from the host. If even a quarter-inch of soil is covering the body, flies won’t get at it. But this body had begun rotting without benefit of insects’ help, and when the body started to mummify, these clothes moths moved in and took advantage of food offered by dried-out internal organs.

“The police saved some soil samples that held larval and pupal stages of the moths and sent the samples down to me. I identified the moths as clothes moths. The moths had been in the blanket when the body was wrapped in it. After the body desiccated, there was enough gap between the blanket and the deflated abdomen that the moths could fly around in there.

"I couldn’t render much of an opinion as to time of death. The person had been dead for over three months. For a clothes moth, a single generation from egg to caterpillar stage to moth —one generation — takes three months minimum; maximum is about two years. Several generations of moths were present. So I had to assume that the body had been there for over three months. But I couldn’t give a definite time on it.

"There have been carcasses found with wasps’ nests inside them. And yellow jackets, because they are meat-eaters, will come to a dead body. Especially if there are open wounds. They will tear little pieces of meat off. The yellow jackets are only getting food and give you no timetable. But they may tell you where the body has been. And you may get birds. Coyotes.”

Faulkner looks toward the block on which row upon row of flies glitter. “Flies,” he says, “usually arrive on a body first. They react to odor quite readily. They also respond visually, but they do that only when they are close to the object. Most often it’s odors that draw them to the area.

“As the body decomposes, mucous builds up and body fluids drain out. Adult flies are not attracted to these fluids as a food source. They are looking at the fluids strictly as a medium for egg deposition and at the decomposing body for its value as a larval — or maggot — food source. They are there because the females can deposit eggs, the maggots can hatch and then feed.

“A body was found out by Jacumba near a pig farm where cluster flies were swarming. A cluster fly will lay 250 eggs in one clump, and those eggs hatch maggots, and the maggots start feeding. That’s what they’d done on this body. The face was gone, eaten away.”

“So when you murder someone,” I say, “dump the body near a pig farm?”

“Or simply introduce maggots onto it. The minute you have a maggot, it can start feeding. They’re their own little food processors, eating machines that use the decaying body for food, and very efficient, very.”

Faulkner asks if I have seen the ’80s version of the film The Fly in whose bizarre dream sequence a woman, impregnated by a mad scientist, gives birth to a giant maggot. I have. Faulkner notes that other than size, the maggot’s depiction there was quite accurate. Depending on species, a fly maggot will be in size anywhere from 1/32nd of an inch to an inch in length, will be white or cream-colored, cylindrical in shape with a pointed head and flattened posterior.

From time to time, coroners and police departments (local and outside the county) ask Faulkner to assist in homicide investigations. “Usually, what has happened is this: The police call, they say, ‘We have a homicide, or, we have a body. It has a lot of insects on it.’ ”

He takes with him “killing jars — jars filled with alcohol — empty jars, insect net, a trowel to dig in the soil — because after a maggot is fully developed, it leaves its host and goes into the soil and pupates. So, you have to dig around.

“Until recently, I was not wearing gloves. But when you're dealing with drug abusers, prostitutes, you wear gloves. Not that insects are known AIDS transmitters; there is no evidence of that, but I'm a lot more careful now than three, four years ago.

“Anyway, I will go out to the scene and hope the body is still there so I can perhaps pick up something in terms of insects that the police could care less about — they’re looking for guns or whatnot.

“You don’t, of course, touch anything at a crime scene unless you have permission. The last thing you want to do is to screw up a crime scene. So if you have permission, then you can go in and pull some maggots off.

“Separate bags are put on the hands and feet and head, and then the body is placed in a body bag. Once that is out of the way, you can look at where the body was, at the soil, for evidence of insects.

"In the field, I collect adult flies that are what I term ‘residents,’ adults that are in attendance, waiting for that moment to lay eggs, or males waiting for a female to come in and congregate around a host. I collect those just to have examples. I pick up any other insects that are around — beetles, ants. You don’t know at the time, maybe they will tell you something, maybe they won’t. Once you’re finished, you can’t go back and hope to recover a lot of it a week later.

“At the scene, when you see maggots, you pick up several hundred. You are indiscriminate, totally random — large ones, small ones. You put them in the alcohol and kill them immediately and note the time that you did this. The other group you throw into another container with some liver in it to keep them alive.”

I stop Faulkner, ask what a maggot feels like when he holds it in his hand. "If it’s a blowfly maggot and it’s alive, it feels pretty sturdy. They give a lot, but they’re resilient. They are soft. They’re not warm.”

An optimal situation for the forensic entomologist, “the one you really want,” says Faulkner, would be “a totally nude body in a chaparral area in East County, with partial sunlight, partial shade where the body’s dumped, nighttime temperatures not below 50 degrees, daytime temperatures maybe not above 100 degrees, and the body laying out by itself not close to any dwellings, and the body’s found from between a week and a week and a half after death. That would be beautiful. Oh, and a nice large wound caused by a knife or gunshots — something where more than the usual orifices are available so that you have exposure of more surface area.”

In this East County chaparral situation, “Within the first hour of sunlight, within the first minutes as a matter of fact, when that body is dead and placed in an area, you will have flies attracted to that body.

“Flies are everywhere. Buzzing, in random flight. Usually, they will approach a potential host and land on or very near that host, sit there for a minute, pick up scents, decide whether or not to make the commitment to remain. Then they will start probing with their mouthparts, lapping up fluid, picking up blood, whatever is available, in order to decide whether or not this host is or is not a proper egg-laying site, whether it is in the correct state of decomposition for the maggots to be able to survive.

“In a rural or semi-rural area you have two main groups. The Calliphoridae, more commonly known as ‘blowflies,’ come in the first wave, almost always arriving and laying their eggs within hours of death. They pick up the odors quickly, and it doesn’t take them long to get there. They will search the body for areas that offer greatest success for development of the larval stages, warm and moist, fluid, the first stages of decomposition. Then the flies will deposit eggs. Blowflies will deposit singly, one here, one next to it, one over here, one here.

“Usually the second flies to arrive are the family Sarcophagidae, or flesh flies. The flesh flies will land on it, and depending on what parts of the body are available to them, they may or may not immediately deposit maggots.” Flesh flies, says Faulkner, are viviparous; they do away with the egg stage and deposit maggots directly onto the host. "This fact really didn’t enter my consciousness until one day when I grabbed a female flesh fly that was in the window up here. When I grabbed it, I pressed the abdomen a bit and tossed the fly into a killing jar just to get rid of it. Then I looked at my thumb,” Faulkner wriggles his thumb, grins, “here were three maggots.”

Apologizing for the digression, Faulkner tells me that at National University he now regularly teaches a forensic entomology section in a criminal justice class. “To demonstrate for the class, I put a couple female flesh flies in my hand and squeezed them a little, and maggots popped out all over my fingers. People in the class said they weren’t going to be able to eat dinner that night.

“There was one body up in L.A. several years ago, in the Silverlake area, dumped beside the road near the reservoir. It was just wonderful, I mean it had everything on it. It was wrapped in plastic, and then the plastic was sealed with duct tape. With the body being sealed so tightly, it heated up and bloated and started decomposing, and insects couldn’t get into it. Probably sometime after the first week, the tape came apart, and the plastic opened at one end. That opening allowed in the entry of every insect that had been around, attracted to the decomposition odors but unable to get into the body. It was really hard to say what the maggots and other insects were telling me. Usually you don’t have quite that big a mess. Usually it's pretty straightforward.

“But the strangest one was when the Museum of Man called me up one day and said, ‘We have some insect stuff from a body that was found that we thought you might be interested in looking at.’ I said, ‘Oh, great.’ I got a couple of jars and walked down there and got there and found it was all the remains of someone that had been found up there by Santa Ysabel.

“The remains were laying on this plastic tarp. They were pretty much skeletonized from the upper chest on up but had a lot of meat left from the waist on down because the person was partially clothed, and the animals got to the upper part, ripped it apart. So the body was not in what I would call optimal condition. You had different stages of decomposition. Plus the body had been out in the field for a few months, at least. Also, it was during the winter, and there isn't a hell of a lot of insect activity during that time.

“I was trying to grab these maggots, and they’re hopping. ‘God,’ I said, The static electricity on this is ridiculous.’

“I brought the maggots back here along with everything I gathered from the remains. I am laying them out. All of a sudden these things are hopping on the table. ‘What the hell!’ I say.

"Then I remembered a book I'd read that had a thing called cheese skippers.’ The cheese skipper is a pest in places that cure ham. During the fatty acid stage of decomposition, the adult flies attack. They come in and lay their eggs, and the maggots feed on the fatty acids. When you go to grab the maggot, they curl up and B-O-l-N-G! they spring and make a straight line — cheese skippers. It's an escape mechanism they have evolved. This body, of course, was in the fatty-acid stage of decomposition.

“If I had worked in the Midwest, curing meat, I would have known what they were right away. There are just things in different environments you are familiar with.

“Some flies will not fly in the rain. Some flies will only fly in shade or in sunlight.

Therefore, if you have a large proportion of maggots that should have been in shade that are flies that only fly in sunlight, it makes you wonder.

“Only one fly, the coffin fly, will go underground. The adult will dig down as much as six feet to find a food source and deposit its eggs on it. They are tiny, wimpy flies, and you wouldn’t expect them to do that. So if you come up with a body with those flies on it, you can expect that it was buried deep or at least not exposed to sunlight, that it was hidden away somewhere.

"You can get into quite a bit of game-playing when you start to figure where victims are killed. For instance, if I found a body — I'll use Buckman Springs as an example because it tends to be a popular dumping grounds these days for murdered prostitutes. If a body were found out in the Buckman Springs area, not at the rest area but off in the hills somewhere, and if it were found, say, within a week and a half to two weeks after this person was missing and the majority of insects on the body were the blowfly, say, 89 percent of the maggots turned out to be this particular group of flies, that is not something you would suspect from that area of East County. What you’d expect out there are flesh flies, which are more of a rural thing. You would expect some of the other species of blowflies. Your findings would indicate that the victim met her demise elsewhere.

"On the other hand, if you came upon a body that had primarily beetles on it, and there was no evidence that there had ever been fly activity, then you would have to say, ‘Well, it looks like this body decomposed somewhere where it was protected from flies and then dumped later on or buried, and that’s when the beetles came in and started eating.’

"The last insects you usually see in the decomposition process are hide or skin beetles. They have a rather slow rate of development and can feed on food that probably isn’t as nutritionally good as is the fresher material. After a while you only have skin, hair, bones, cartilage, and then you get stored-product insects, feeders on grain such as the Indian meal moths, Mediterranean flour moth, the kinds of insects you get in cabinets."

We start downstairs to Faulkner’s office. There he keeps maggots preserved in alcohol that he has offered to show me. I ask him how he came to be an entomologist.

He tells me that he grew up in North County, went to grade school in Cardiff, to San Dieguito High School, and during those years he always worked with insects in one capacity or another. "1956 was the first time I got into here, on the same floor we’re just leaving. I was seven. I was taken around by Charles Harbison, the curator in this department from 1934 to 1969, a wonderful man, probably the foremost naturalist in San Diego for over 30 years, he simply knew everything. ‘Harbie’ — everyone called him that — brought me around, brought out the drawers, said, Look at this, look at that.’ It was fabulous.

"And as a kid, I collected insects for John Comstock, who for a time was director of the L.A. Museum of Natural History and had retired to Del Mar.

"As I got older, my interest would wane. I would get involved in other things, then for some reason, every time I got away from entomology, I would meet somebody or take a class that would lead me back to the science again. That kept me in it.” Faulkner, 40, received a master’s from the University of California at Santa Barbara. In 1974, he started work as a volunteer in the museum’s entomology department and in October 1975 was hired by the museum as director of the entomology department.

In his second-floor office and laboratory, at a desk surrounded by metal filing cabinets, Faulkner sits down in his chair, offers me a seat across from him. He brings out onto the desktop (tidily arranged with stacked papers) stoppered clear plastic tubes in which maggots bob. "Dentist’s ampules," Faulkner says about the tubes, "in which dentists keep Xylocaine. I pop the tops off, put the cork in.”

Faulkner arranges on his desk a half dozen of these tubes, each labeled with a name and date. "After I leave a crime scene, I will bring back here what I’ve collected. I will make sure the maggots that were alive stay alive and raise them out to adults and keep track of how many days it takes for them to develop.

"I will also separate through the dead maggots and determine what species I have and at what stages of development each species is. The group you kill, that’s your baseline information. You trace back from the point of development at which you killed them to the time when your specimen was either a maggot or an egg, depending on what group of fly it is. There’s no real hurry about doing that,” Faulkner pushes his glasses back onto his nose, looks up from the tubes on the desk, smiles. "They’re not going to go anyplace.”

Faulkner shows a tube that he has partitioned vertically with thin paper strips into four sections. Definite stages of a maggot’s growth can be identified, says Faulkner, and each of the stoppered tube’s sections holds a preserved maggot in one of those definable stages.

In most fly species, explains Faulkner, the maggot hatches out of the egg and begins to feed. Entomologists describe this period in the maggot’s life as the first larval stage. In Faulkner's tube, the maggot at this stage isn’t any bigger than two or three pinheads.

"As this maggot feeds, it gets larger. But it can only get so large before it grows out of the cuticle that surrounds it. Therefore, it moults, or sheds, its first skin and enters the second larval stage.” Faulkner points to a slightly larger white blob.

"Yet again, then, the maggot feeds and grows and commences the third larval stage.” Faulkner puts a fingertip next to an even larger maggot, perhaps three-quarters of an inch in length.

"In this stage it will continue to feed on the body for one to three days and then stop feeding and go into the pre-pupal stage in which it will move away from the food source and find a place to pupate, usually in soil.

"Then the maggot starts to shorten and become rather stout and forms the puparium or pupal case. It will stay in the pupal stage for a week to a week and a half, depending on the species." Faulkner indicates, in the tube, a pale grey cylinder. "These are puparium, empty pupal cases, from which the fly emerged.”

Faulkner concludes: The pupal stage ends when the adult fly, its body soft and legs spindly, emerges from a circular opening at the end of the pupal case. Within several hours, the adult’s exoskeleton hardens, and the fly then is fully functional: it flies, it looks for a mate, it mates, the female lays eggs, the maggot emerges.

Some maggots Faulkner can simply look at with an unaided eye and identify. Others must be examined under a microscope. Faulkner throws these into a solution of potassium hydroxide. "This solution dissolves all the soft tissue, leaving only the maggot's externalized breathing apparatus and the mouth hooks that it uses to grab flesh and pull it in.” It is these hooks that are keys to maggot identity.

For the first time this morning, it sinks in. I study the stoppered tubes lined up on Faulkner’s desk. I tilt my head, squint, peer at the maggots, which look rather like white cocktail onions. "How,” I ask, "do you know if a maggot has been eating someone?"

"If the gut is filled with fluid, usually red, you know it’s fed.”

Faulkner hands me a tube packed with maggots. The plastic feels cold in my warm hand. The maggots — ghostly, ghastly swimmers — roll in the liquid in which they are suspended.

Faulkner speaks matter of factly. "These are fully developed maggots, been on a body for a week. These were on a transient, found dead. She wasn’t murdered; she died of exposure, I think. She was beaten up and raped and dumped up in the Laguna Mountains, and she tried to get down the mountain and was caught in the chaparral and died of exposure. They were all flesh-fly maggots that were on the body, which was unusual because I would expect in the mountains, during summer, you would have had blowflies.”

He gives me another tube, this also aswim with creamish-colored cylinders. “The maggot for a soldier fly, found on a body out in El Cajon last year on an undocumented who had probably been dead between 20 to 24 days. He had died from whatever and been dumped in a ditch, which had filled with drainage water from a construction site. These things were in the soil, feeding on roots and plants, and when the body had been there for a certain length of time, the flies migrated into the body and started using it as a food source. What’s interesting about that particular maggot is that it’s one of the few that will actually infest you while you’re alive. If it's ingested into your food, it can live in your alimentary canal, and you will pass it out in your fecal material. They can live inside your body and won’t be killed by your digestive juices. Those are tough fly maggots.”

Faulkner passes across a third tube, like the other two, cool to the touch. “These came off the body of one of the murdered prostitutes.”

I am holding this tube in my hand, barely peeking at its contents. I am thinking: “Mouth hooks that it uses to grab flesh and pull it in.”

Rolling across the floor in his desk chair, Faulkner stops at the bank of metal file cabinets, pulls open the bottom drawer, takes out a sheaf of color photographs. He sorts through the photos, looks up at me. looks back at the photographs. They are pretty horrible, he says. He studies me, says he doesn’t know if I want to look at them or not.

I do.

I return the tube filled with the “eating machines,” who with their mouth hooks grabbed flesh from the prostitute’s body (the tube warm now from my hand), to its place on the neat desk in the lineup of tubes.

The photographs, says Faulkner, form part of the evidence in the kidnapping and slaying of a young child. He passes over an 8V2 by 11-inch photograph.

“This is the victim.”

A tow-headed nude child rests atop an examining table. Except for the blue rot spread from knees to pelvic region, the body might be that of a youngster dozing on a summer afternoon.

“The body had been laying in the desert. In winter. It was dry, and it was cool. The preservation in this was incredible. Look at the hand, it is mummified. So you didn’t have a lot of decomposition immediately. There were not a lot of maggots.”

The only sound in the room is the sound of our breathing. Then Faulkner places his index finger on a white blob that almost covers the child’s ear. “Maggots were coming out of the ear canal right there."

I nod, say that the maggot is bigger than I had imagined maggots being.

Faulkner takes the photograph from me. “This case,” he says, slipping the photo back into its file folder, "has never been solved. There’s someone out there who did this; they are still out there.”

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