Gail Anderson (left) and Stacey McCann

Criminology professor Gail Anderson, left, and graduate student Stacey McCann burned pig carcasses to discover whether there is enough insect evidence left behind to determine elapsed time since death.

Crispy critters could catch crooks

September 7, 2007

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By Marianne Meadahl

Torching a car with a homicide victim in the trunk should incinerate all hopes of solving the crime—or so a murderer might think. But SFU criminologist Gail Anderson has found evidence that not everything goes up in flames.

Anderson and criminology graduate student Stacey McCann put a match to the test, to see how insects on bodies burned in car trunks might help reveal the actual time of the victim’s death.

The researchers recently set fire to three compact cars with trunks containing pig carcasses (obtained from a local butcher shop). The carcasses had already decomposed in the cars for several weeks, so the researchers could see what effect confinement in a vehicle had on insect colonization.

After the fires, little was left of the carcasses in the first two cars. “But there was still enough insect evidence from what we can see so far to be able to say that there was a body in there—and enough insect evidence left behind to still estimate elapsed time since death,” says Anderson.

The carcass in the third car was badly charred but intact, due to a partition between the trunk and the back seat.

The unsavoury pig roast was undertaken at the Justice Institute of B.C.’s fire and safety division.

Anderson says cars are sometimes torched after murderers get antsy about better disposal of the body. “They think with the fire the body will vanish, but that’s not the case.”

Anderson has previously studied pig carcasses burned in a house fire and has carried out several studies on carcasses in a variety of scenarios that mimic human homicides.

She is continuing research that involves submerging carcasses in the ocean to see the effects of marine creatures. That research, under way in connection with the University of Victoria’s VENUS project, carries on with her next drop in mid-September.

Anderson’s previous research has typically shown that despite attempts by criminals to hide homicide evidence, insects always have a story to tell.
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