From a purely statistical perspective, we should not be shocked when a parent kills a child. After all, the chance that a child is murdered by someone he or she knows is greater than the likelihood of death at the hands of a stranger — it’s that way for all of us.
Biologists, also, are probably nonplussed by infanticide because of its frequent appearance in the animal kingdom.
Even The Malefactor’s Register offers some anecdotal evidence that child-killers are likely to be parents of their victims: Paula Sims, Dale Cavaness, Audrey Hilley, to name a few.
Still, there is something disturbing about a parent who kills a child, particularly when the parent is calculating and rational about the act. Somewhat paradoxically, it is easier to understand why someone like Andrea Yates, suffering from a serious mental disease or defect, could kill her children than someone like Susan Smith, who did the same thing just because the kids were in the way.
Therefore, we should not be shocked by the actions of Ronald Clark O’Bryan, a doting Deer Park, Texas, father who poisoned his 8-year-old son with a cyanide-laced Pixy Stix (Stix is apparently singular in this usage), though his crime is notorious.
O’Bryan is no worse than Cavaness or Hilley, who killed their offspring for money, but “worse” is a relative concept when dealing with parents who murder their children. Perhaps what makes O’Bryan particularly evil is that he was willing to kill at least five children to cover his tracks, and that it didn’t matter to him which child of his died — they were all equally insured. In fact, the best outcome for him was that they both would succumb.
And on a much lesser scale, O’Bryan can be partly credited with ruining Trick-or-Treat for everyone by making parents paranoid that some maniac is going to put poison in the Halloween candy.
In his feeble defense, O’Bryan repeatedly denied that he killed his son or put the cyanide in the Halloween candy, and he had plenty of character witnesses who were shocked when he was arrested for his crime.
Active in his Baptist church, O’Bryan was described by his shocked pastor as “a good, Christian man — an above-average father.”
“Until I hear his own statement that he did it, I’ll never believe it,” W.C. Gill told an Associated Press reporter.
“There has to be a foul up somewhere,” another neighbor told the press. “I don’t feel that he could do that at all.”
But his final statement before he was put to death leaves unanswered the question of whether or not he admitted his guilt. If his final words were an admission of guilt, then he failed miserably:
“What is about to transpire in a few moments is wrong!,” he wrote in a statement. “However, we as human beings do make mistakes and errors. This execution is one of those wrongs; yet it doesn’t mean our whole system of justice is wrong.”
There is no doubt that O’Bryan was guilty of poisoning his son to death. His plan to kill his children and collect some insurance money was so pathetically planned that poor Timothy O’Bryan was hardly laid to rest before his father was jailed for the crime.
The best we can come up with for motive is money. There is some indication that the O’Bryan family was financially troubled, but there is also evidence that Ronald just wanted to live better off thanks to the insurance proceeds. Shortly before the crime the O’Bryan family had downgraded its living situation and the family budget had just an $11 reserve at the end of the month. Another story reported that Ronald planned to give some of the insurance money to a friend to go to the seminary.
It really doesn’t matter; there is no excuse for killing one’s own children.
The murder of Timothy O’Bryan by his father was planned weeks in advance of that Halloween night of 1974.
On October 2, 1974, O’Bryan phoned a friend in the insurance business and asked about insuring his two children, Timothy, 8, and Timothy’s sister, at the time 5 years old. The insurance agent didn’t know it, but O’Bryan had already insured the children through a savings plan at his bank. The plan provided a $10,000 accidental death policy for the head of a household who had a checking account with the bank. The premium was $3 per month. Additional family members authorized to use the account could also be insured for an extra $1 each.
“We didn’t have that much money,” Daynene O’Bryan testified at her husband’s trial. “I thought it was foolish to have two small children on a checking account and have that much insurance on them.”
When O’Bryan sought the additional $20,000 insurance for each of his children, the agent tried to steer him toward a college savings plan that would allow the children to cash in the policy to use the money for their education.
O’Bryan insisted on the traditional accidental death insurance policies despite the higher premiums. He also raised red flags when he insisted on paying for those particular policies with cash, rather than by check as he did for other policies.
The prosecutor in the case assumed that O’Bryan did so in order to hide the insurance from his wife. In fact, Daynene O’Bryan testified that she did not know of the other insurance policies until the day after Timothy died.
At the same time he was insuring the children, O’Bryan was also seeking the weapon for their deaths. He worked as an optician, making glasses for a large optical company in Houston. Through his work O’Bryan knew that cyanide had been used to polish gold frames, but the technique had been replaced by safer methods in the last decade or so.
He spoke to several people about purchasing cyanide, telling coworkers that he was interested in learning the old polishing method. The state was able to prove that O’Bryan spoke to at least 12 people about cyanide, including asking one chemist-friend about the amount of cyanide needed to kill a person.
What the state could never establish was where and how O’Bryan got the cyanide. Prosecutors could, however, provide a witness who saw O’Bryan carrying a stapler and a bag about the size one would need for the giant Pixy Stix candy. The state was also able to establish that the Pixy Stix manufacturer never used staples to seal the plastic tubes. Instead the candy maker used heat sealing to avoid contamination.
Halloween night 1974 was cool and rainy in Deer Park but though the drizzle may have required the witches and fairies and pirates prowling the suburban streets to wear raincoats, it did not diminish the excitement of the evening.
Jim Bates, a close friend of O’Bryan’s arranged the night’s festivities. The Bateses and O’Bryans started off with a dinner of pork roast and lima beans and then the two fathers gathered flashlights and raincoats to take the children — Timothy and his younger sister, and Bates’s 9- and 11-year-old kids — trick or treating.
“The children were very excited,” Bates recalled later. “They were running from door to door. They would shout ‘trick or treat!’ There wasn’t really any tricking…They were enjoying it so much.”
Toward the end of the adventure the children went up to a dark house but received no response. Bates said he watched them run from the porch to the next house. After a brief pause, O’Bryan stepped down from the porch, holding purple and white plastic tubes.
“You must have rich neighbors,” he said to Bates. “Look what they gave out.”
O’Bryan showed the giant Pixy Stix to the children, but kept them in his hand until the troop reached the Bates home. He put the candy on a coffee table — there were five of them, Bates recalled.
“He handed one to me, one to my brother, and one to each of his children and there was one left,” Bates’s daughter testified at O’Bryan’s trial. “The doorbell rang and there were some trick or treaters.”
O’Bryan handed out the extra Pixy Stix to one of them.
“I came within just a whisker of losing both of my children,” Bates testified.
After the evening’s adventure was over, Bates’s son took a bath and then told his mother that he was going to enjoy the Pixy Stix.
“No you’re not,” his mother replied. “I don’t want it all over the house. That’s an outside candy.”
The random child who was given the fifth Pixy Stix also dodged death by twist of fate.
The boy’s father related how his son had come downstairs at ten minutes before nine and went into the kitchen in search of a knife to open the Pixy Stix.
“His bedtime was 9 o’clock that night because of school the following day,” his father said. “I told him that he couldn’t have it because it was too late. He went back upstairs and set it with the rest of his candy.”
Over at the duplex where the O’Bryans lived, the children were allowed to choose one candy to eat before going to bed. Timothy chose the Pixy Stix.
O’Bryan helped Timothy open the Pixy Stix and watched as the boy poured some of the cyanide-laced candy into his mouth.
Timothy then complained that the candy had “hardened” and that no more would come out. O’Bryan took the plastic tube and rolled it between his hands, loosening the candy. Then, according to his first statement to police, he “poured it down the child.”
Timothy quickly complained about the bitter taste of the candy and was given some Kool Aid. Shortly after, he vomited and then went into convulsions. An ambulance was called and Timothy was taken to the hospital where he died.
O’Bryan sort-of acted out the part of the shocked and distraught parent, according to his wife.
“He didn’t seem upset,” she testified about O’Bryan’s appearance before their son died. “I did not see any tears.”
When the couple was informed that Timothy was dead, O’Bryan hit the wall and questioned out loud, “why did an 8-year-old have to die?”
Returning home from the hospital, O’Bryan dropped off his wife and daughter and told them he wanted to be alone.
“He said he just had to be alone and rolled the windows up and screamed,” she testified.
Once the police were informed of the death, an all-out effort was made to alert parents that someone had handed out poisoned Halloween candy. The story went viral in a 1970s fashion, and within days the O’Bryan family was known around the country.
Once again, O’Bryan played the part of a grieving father. He told one newspaper reporter how Timothy had once “witnessed Christ” before his first-grade class.
“He stood up in front of all the children and the teacher said that it was so wonderful that she didn’t have the heart to stop him,” he said.
“He was all boy,” O’Bryan told the press. “He loved football, basketball, anything, He never met a stranger, but I have my peace in knowing Tim is in heaven now.”
At a Sunday service after Timothy’s funeral, O’Bryan stood amid the congregation and sang a version of the hymn Blessed Assurance, paraphrasing the refrain: “This was Tim’s story, this was Tim’s Song/Praising his Savior all the day long”
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the church when he was through,” a member of the congregation said. “He had the entire church in a very emotional state, that this man was so strong in his faith and his convictions that he could do this.”
O’Bryan wasn’t that strong.
Obviously police wanted to know where the children got the poisoned Pixy Stix from and O’Bryan was the link. At first he told investigators that he could not identify which house had distributed the candy, or who handed it out.
By November 2, at which time the story had spread nationally, the police were leaning on O’Bryan pretty hard. He needed to give them a suspect, and that’s where he finally tripped up.
He managed to locate the house and gave authorities a detailed description of the man who handed out the candy. Police escorted him through the neighborhood and he pointed out Courtney Melvin as the man who gave him the poisoned Pixy Stix for the children.
Unfortunately for O’Bryan, Melvin easily proved that he was at work at Hobby Airport near Houston until 10:30 p.m. on Halloween night and the women who were at the Melvin home that night forgot to buy candy and were not answering the door.
That misfire led to a polygraph test for O’Bryan, which he failed.
All that was left was to tie up a few loose ends and then the state had a pretty open-and-shut case against Ronald Clark O’Bryan.
At the end the few people who cared about O’Bryan were mostly anti-death penalty advocates who weren’t really interested in the particulars of his case, a few surviving family members, and a Texas A&M student who had been his pen-pal for the last six months of his life. A few pro-death penalty advocates wore Halloween masks outside the Huntsville prison where O’Bryan was the second Texan to die by lethal injection on March 31, 1984.
From a purely statistical perspective, we should not be shocked when a parent kills a child. After all, the chance that a child is murdered by someone he or she knows is greater than the likelihood of death at the hands of a stranger — it’s that way for all of us.
Charles Walton was loner who lived in a very small village near Stratford-on-Avon, home to William Shakespeare. He had always been considered a bit odd by the 450 other people who lived in Lower Quinton village. He wasn’t disliked, but Charlie apparently preferred the company of the birds and animals to his human companions and claimed that he could communicate with the birds. When he was younger, Walton had also been an accomplished horse whisperer, a person who could control a horse from a distance with just a motion of his hand or a glance. This ability only increased the awareness of the community that Charlie was different.
Although it was 1945, the people of Lower Quinton were a superstitious bunch quite willing to believe in the paranormal. This was an area of England that had a long history of belief in witches and supernatural occurrences. As late as the 19th century an elderly woman had been murdered by the “village idiot” because he suspected her of being a witch. The man confessed that his victim was “a proper witch” and the description of how he had pinned her to the ground with a pitchfork and then carved the sign of the Cross on her body with a knife would be eerily similar to how Charles Walton’s body was found.
Beyond the witchcraft that was so prevalent in Lower Quinton, the community also had the Legend of the Black Dog. According to local legend, when the Black Dog of Lower Quinton appeared, someone one was going to die. Many of the townspeople of Lower Quinton believed in the legend, and some believed that Charles Walton had some connection to the animal.
The Black Dog was larger than most dogs and apparently had glowing red eyes. The hound would appear out of nowhere and disappear the as mysteriously as it came.
Charles Walton was linked to the black dog because back in the late 1880s as a young man he reported seeing the dog nine straight days. On the last day, Walton told his fellow villagers, the dog turned into a headless woman. The next day, Walton’s sister died.
All of this, plus Walton’s fondness for toads — often believed to be connected to witchcraft — set him apart from his fellows.
Someone killed Charles Walton because they thought he was involved in witchcraft. There is really no other reasonable motive. He wasn’t rich, although he did have a bank account, and he had no known enemies – except those who apparently blamed him for the bad luck area farmers had experienced in prior years.
Despite decent weather, crops in the area had failed and, according to some of the very few people who would even talk to the detectives sent by Scotland Yard, the beer made from the last wheat harvest was especially bitter and barely tolerable.
On February 14, 1945, someone attacked Charles as he headed out to trim some hedges for a neighbor and viciously murdered him.
He was last seen alive when Alfred Potter, the farmer for whom Charles was cutting hedges, observed a man he thought to be Charles Walton swinging a sharp trimming hook on the hedgerow that ran up the crown of Meon Hill. However, Potter stood more than a quarter-mile away from Walton and could not testify positively to the man’s identity.
Charles told his niece, Edith, that he would be home at 4 p.m. to make his own evening meal, and if anything Charles was a stickler for routine. Thus, when 6 p.m. came by and he had not returned from Meon Hill, she became convinced that the septuagenarian had fallen or otherwise injured himself.
She contacted Potter and along with another farmer, Harry Beasley, the group went in search of Charles.
Potter was several steps ahead of Beasley and Edith Walton, carrying a flashlight. As he approached a hedgerow at the foot of Meon Hill, he saw Charles’s body. The flashlight revealed a grisly sight.
Charles lay on the ground, awash in blood. His walking stick lay nearby, covered in blood. His sightless eyes were still open and, according to witnesses, his face bore an expression of great fear – not unexpected considering how he had died.
His pitchfork had been driven through his throat with such force that the tines embedded themselves six inches into the peat. The trimming hook he had been using on the hedges had been used to scratch a sign of the Cross in his face, throat and chest. The hook was still hanging from a gaping wound in his chest when the searchers found him.
The way Charles was found was identical to the way 80-year-old Ann Turner had been slain in 1875 by “feeble-minded” John Haywood.
With absolutely no leads, the Warwickshire police force turned the case over to Scotland Yard for help.
Detective Superintendent Robert Fabian and his able partner Detective Sgt. Albert Webb arrived shortly after the body was found to take charge of the investigation.
Fabian was known among law-enforcement as “Fabian of the Yard,” which conjures up images of dime novels and Agatha Christie parlor murders, but Fabian was a skilled and relentless detective. He and Webb, along with Warwickshire detective Alex Spooner, began to look at the clues.
The crime scene had been hopelessly trampled by the search party and the local constabulary had removed the body from the scene without appropriately marking the location and conditions.
Fabian and his team found the locals equally unhelpful. Their only assistance was that the murderer could not have been a local. There was a prisoner-of-war camp located nearby, but after interviewing the 1,000 internees, the police came back to Meon Hill empty handed.
Reverting to the tried-and-true approach of re-examining the crime scene in hopes of locating that one overlooked clue that would unravel the mystery, Fabian walked the route Charles Walton followed to his death over and over.
One evening around dusk, he was walking along the slope of Meon Hill when he had an encounter with a mysterious black dog. There are two different accounts of how he spotted the dog – one states that he noticed the dog sitting on a stone wall watching him, while the other says it merely ran past him. A few moments later, a young boy traipsed past Fabian.
“Are you looking for your dog?” Fabian asked the child.
“What dog?” the boy asked.
Fabian said later that he noticed that the dog had vanished and the boy, knowing the local legend, fled down the hill in terror.
Fabian told of the encounter while he was interviewing residents in the local pub – interestingly known as The Gay Dog, and they, in turn, told him of the Legend of the Black Dog. Fabian did some investigating and uncovered a reference to a young Charles Walton and his encounter with the black dog in a book on local superstitions.
Shortly afterward, a black Labrador Retriever was found hanged on Meon Hill.
Fabian was soon forced to admit defeat. Stonewalled by the locals, having conducted well over two thousands interviews and examining samples of blood, skin and hair, he was unable to uncover anything that pointed to Walton’s killer.
“When Albert Webb and I walked into the village pubs silence fell like a physical blow,” Fabian wrote in his memoirs Fabian of the Yard. “Cottage doors were shut in our faces and even the most innocent witnesses seemed unable to meet our eyes.”
The local press considered the matter part of a local “fertility rite” and published an interview with a woman from nearby Birmingham who claimed that Charles had been murdered by members of an ancient cult still active in the area.
Police pooh-poohed that idea, but acknowledged that there were “black magic” groups active in the area.
While Fabian and Webb returned to Scotland Yard to investigate more run-of-the-mill crimes, Detective Alec Spooner of the Warwickshire Criminal Investigation Division remained on the case. For the next 19 years he returned to Meon Hill on the anniversary of Walton’s murder, hoping that either the murderer would return to the scene of the crime or that some clue would present itself.
“Detectives deal in facts, ” Fabian told a newspaper years later. “But there was something uncanny about that investigation.”
The murder remains unsolved to this day.
This is a rough draft that is longer than I want, but I also wanted to let people know the site is, well, if not well, it is alive. Edits and photos to come in the next day or so. Promise.
As anyone who has ever attended a picnic on a warm summer afternoon can attest, insects, particularly flies, have an almost uncanny ability to show up whenever food is around.
As we watch these arthropods buzz from potato salad to Jello to the plate that once held a hot dog, if we think about it at all, we probably assume that these unwelcome guests are looking for food. This assumption is only partly correct. While adult female flies do feed, their primary objective, programmed into their genetic make-up, is to find the proper environment to propagate their species. When flies crash our picnics, they come in search of carrion – dead, decaying flesh – in which to lay their eggs.
Insects are creatures of rigid habit and limited preferences. They are very specific about when and where they will lay their eggs, and the larvae that emerge and mature from those eggs do so according to well-documented rules. Because of the regularity and measurability of an insect life cycle, when forensic entomologists – scientists who use insects to help solve crimes – can control for other variables like weather, moisture, and clothing, they can use the information left behind by bugs to provide police with guidance about time of death, whether a body was moved, and other essentials. Forensic entomology requires its experts to make qualified “guesses” based on circumstances, but more often than not, a careful reading of the signs left behind by bugs can help catch a killer.
The idea of using insect activity as a means to catch criminals is not new. In the Yuan Dynasty (around 1300 A.D.), a Chinese mandarin named Sung T’zu made the first recorded observations of the usefulness of insects in solving crimes. Sung, who was responsible for investigating mysterious deaths for his emperor, wrote in one of the earliest criminology works, poetically entitled Washing Away of Wrongs, that “during the hot months, if maggots have not yet appeared at the nine orifices [of the body], but they have appeared at the temples, hairline, rib cage, or belly, then these parts have been injured.”
Half a world away and 700 years later, a man who had very likely never heard of Sung T’zu or even the more recent concept of forensic entomology drove his vehicle with the bodies of two children he had just murdered into an empty field next to a rural Ohio township cemetery.
As the killer took the naked bodies of 11-year-old India Smith and her 4-year-old half-brother Cody from the car and laid them in the tall grass, he wasn’t thinking about how within minutes, dozens of blow flies would be able to pick up the smell of death and follow it to the culvert separating the hayfield from the small Ohio grave yard. As he carefully arranged the corpses, he wasn’t aware that the hot, dry summer had caused the tall grass to hold its seeds longer than usual, or how the seeds that he would unknowingly carry away with him would link him to this particular site.
Instead, the killer was thinking that eventually these bodies would be found, and when they were, their location and position would send a very clear message: A twisted message of anger and revenge that he wanted to deliver loud and clear.
The Children are Missing
Kevin Neal told police he was cleaning up inside the far house on Knight Road in rural Champaign County, Ohio, when he realized that he no longer heard the children playing in the yard. It was about 1:30 p.m. on July 9, 1997. He told authorities that he looked for the children for about half an hour, then picked up the phone and called police to report them missing.
“One minute they were there, the next they were gone,” he would say later.
On the phone with the 911 dispatcher, Neal made a curious request. He asked the dispatcher to call his wife at work because she would be less upset hearing about the situation from an authority figure than from him. Champaign County sheriff’s deputies, their plans to spend the day eradicating marijuana fields scuttled by fog in Columbus that kept their helicopters grounded, arrived on the scene within minutes and the hunt for the missing children began in earnest.
Shortly after that, Sue Neal, the mother of the two children, drove up and leapt out of her car. She made a beeline for Kevin, screaming over and over, “What the – have you done with my kids!” She was so emotional that she had to be restrained by deputies so she would not physically assault her husband. Apart from each other, Kevin and Sue Neal told similar stories about the home situation.
All was not well at the farmhouse the Neals were renting. The morning that India and Cody disappeared, before Sue went to work, she fought with Kevin over their mutual infidelities and had issued an ultimatum. She wanted him to move out or she would make plans to move herself. Kevin continued to cooperate with authorities, and as the media learned of the missing children and began reporting the story, the couple presented a united front in public.
While searchers began combing the area in an ever-widening radius looking for the children, police began to piece together the family dynamic that existed in the house on Knight Road.
It turned out that the only child permanently living with Kevin and Sue Neal was Cody Smith, Sue’s youngest child. Cody’s father was Gary McGraw, while India Smith and her sister, Britney, were Sue’s children with her ex-husband, Rick Smith. Rick and Sue divorced in 1995, and he was awarded custody of the girls. India and Britney spent the week of June 29 with their mother. Then Britney returned home, and India was to spend the week of July 6 with the Neals. When she came home, Britney would return to the Neals for a week.
With so many complex relationships, it was inevitable that conflict would arise. Both Gary McGraw and Rick Smith found it difficult to be civil with the Neals. The difficulties with the Neals did give rise to problems with noncustodial visits, both men said.
Over the course of four days, Champaign County Sheriff David L. Deskins coordinated a search of the area surrounding the Neals’ rented farmhouse using police, dogs, and hundreds of volunteers. But it was as if the children had simply stepped off the planet.
Deskins said he was using four theories to determine his actions: first, the children were lost and wandering; second, that family members had knowledge they did not share; third, someone else was keeping the children in “protective custody”; fourth, a stranger abducted them.
“We’re pursuing all four equally, but the possibility of the first scenario is diminishing,” Deskins told members of the media who were covering the search.
While volunteers combed the fields and woods, other investigators began looking at family members. Everyone was brought in for questioning and polygraph examinations. Rick Smith and Gary McGraw both took lie detector tests and passed. The tests for Sue and Kevin were inconclusive.
On July 13, Deskins was forced to call off the search when it became obvious that the children had not simply wandered away.
In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, a tearful Rick Smith continued to hold out hope that his daughter would come home alive, but did address the unspeakable.”They stopped the search but they’ll continue the investigation,” Smith said. “Now they wait for someone to make a move.”
His daughter was much too bright to simply get lost, Smith maintained, which left him with little hope. “Something happened to Indy,” he said.
The sheriff’s official in charge of the scene, Sgt. Chuck Stroud, was equally emotional when he notified searchers that their services were no longer needed.”They’re no longer the kids,” Stroud said. “They’re our kids. But, I’m out of places to go. There’s nothing more I can do here.”
Behind the Scenes
After he had all but eliminated the possibility that India and Cody had just walked off and gotten lost, Deskins was confronted with the strong probability that the two children were no longer alive. His four scenarios now narrowed to three – a stranger’s abduction, a lying family member or a “protective custody” abduction.
Deskins had to accept the fact that most child kidnappings by strangers that go on as long as this case usually end up turning into homicide investigations. A family member who was withholding information more than a week into the investigation was also very likely trying to cover up a murder. The best-case scenario appeared to be a custody-related dispute.
Publicly, Deskins refused to commit to any single scenario. Privately, circumstantial evidence was mounting against Kevin Neal.The weightiest piece of circumstantial evidence was Neal’s criminal past. He had a 1983 rape conviction and he was scheduled to go to trial in Indianapolis on July 28, 1997, in connection with an incident where police said he tied up a female neighbor, held her a gun point and threatened to rape her.
Then there was the problem with Neal’s time line. He told investigators that he had started calling for the children at about 1:15 p.m., before calling 911 at 1:52 p.m. However, two farmhands working nearby both told police that they had been outside during that same time for 30 to 40 minutes and had not seen Neal looking for the children or heard him calling.Furthermore, when sheriff’s deputies arrived at the house, there were no toys in the yard or any other indications that children had been outside playing, as he had claimed. That, combined with neighbors’ statements that they had not seen or heard the children playing all morning, made Kevin Neal a prime suspect. Deskins also learned through interviews that Neal was so strict with the children that they wouldn’t leave the porch of the house without permission.
Neal was also unable to account for approximately six hours between telephone calls he made to his aunt, looking for a place to stay. During those telephone calls, the aunt, Carolyn Gragg, noted that she did not hear the sounds of children, the usual background noise during calls from Kevin.
Just as damning was the fact that Neal had told investigators that a Bonneville automobile parked near the house didn’t work and hadn’t been driven in more than a month because the brakes were shot. The farmhands were willing to testify that when they arrived at the scene, the Bonneville was not present.
A search warrant was issued for the car, and it was taken to a local garage, where a mechanic was asked to examine it. When the tow truck arrived to take the vehicle away, the truck operator slowly backed the vehicle out of its storage spot and surprised everyone when he instinctively applied the brake and the car stopped. When it was put on a lift at the garage, the mechanic found a set of vise grips sealing a brake line as some sort of temporary fix.
At various times, police asked Neal to provide written statements with details of the activities in the home from the time Sue Neal left for work at 6:30 a.m. until he phoned 911. The declarations contained glaring inconsistencies. In the first statement, Neal said India was asleep on a couch, but awoke to kiss her mother goodbye. Cody was asleep in his bedroom and did not awaken, he claimed. In another written account, Neal said Cody woke up, talked to his mother and then went back to bed. Both statements indicated that the children were given breakfast at around 10:30 a.m. The children played inside until noon, when they went outside.
As family and friends gathered for a prayer service to petition for the children’s safe return, investigators began to lean on Kevin Neal. But Neal proved to be a tough nut to crack and was adamant about not being responsible for the disappearances.Less than three weeks after his stepchildren disappeared, Kevin Neal pleaded guilty to one count of sexual battery and one count of criminal confinement in a Marion County, Indiana, courthouse. He was sentenced to a term of three to 15 years in prison and ordered to register as a sexual predator.
When he began serving his sentence at the end of July, the children still had not been found. Eventually, Kevin Neal would use his custodial status as an alibi that he claimed would prove him incapable of killing his stepchildren.
Bodies in the Cemetery
Andy Stickley had already mowed the strips of hay around his Nettle Creek farm twice during the summer of 1997, once before the disappearance of India and Cody, and a second time about three weeks after they had vanished. On September 6, he was out on his tractor again mowing the band of hay that bordered the corn and soybean crops he and his father had planted. The first time around the field, Andy noticed a rotten smell in the air as he neared the part of the farm that bordered Nettle Creek Cemetery.
“I just kind of made a mental note of it, and I thought ‘I’m going to check that out,'” he would later testify in court. “I kind of forgot about it then until I was finishing up the field.”
After making a last sweep around the field, Stickley was reminded of his mental note when he again passed through the putrid smell of death. He stopped the tractor and got off to investigate.
“I got off and I started walking,” he testified. “I couldn’t see anything. And when I got in (the cemetery) a little bit further, I could see something brown. It looked like a leg. I thought it was a deer at first. And then I kind of walked another step closer and that is when I saw the two small human skulls.”
Stickley said he felt “a needle shot through my body” and he quickly backed out of the crime scene, got on his tractor and called authorities to report that he had “found the two bodies that I presume were Cody and India.”
India Smith, who would have celebrated her 12th birthday the following day, was lying on her back, her legs spread in a sexually provocative position, less than 100 feet from the grave of Sue Neal’s mother.
Sheriff David Deskins and Harry Trombitas, an FBI Special Agent, made the drive to Indiana to interview Kevin Neal while crime-scene experts gathered evidence at the cemetery. On the way over, they decided only to tell him that the children “had been found” to see how he reacted. Neal surprised even the two experienced law enforcement officials.
“I guess if they were walking around, you would have told me,” he replied after digesting the news. After he was told that they were dead, Neal stood up, silently pushed in his chair, and asked the corrections officer to take him back to his cell, leaving Deskins and Trombitas simply staring at each other in shock. They had expected that at least he would have asked where or how the children had been found. The person who killed them, of course, wouldn’t need that information.
Left to the forces of nature and unimpeded by the sentimental attempts by society to slow the inevitable entropy that accompanies every manner of death, a body is very active after a person dies. While poets may note the stillness and peaceful appearance of the dead, in fact, postmortem activity begins almost immediately to break down the corpse into its component parts in a process that can continue, under certain circumstances, for years.
In the case of India and Cody, even before their bodies were moved from the site where they were killed, decomposition began the moment they ceased to live. This decomposition, which begins as autolysis when the body’s cells begin to digest themselves, is determined by physical laws based on the variables of temperature, body mass, manner of death and other factors, but generally follows a distinct process. Investigators can use this information to help answer many questions about a death.
One of the most important concepts of a proper forensic investigation is determining the postmortem interval (PMI), or the time elapsed from the onset of death to discovery of the corpse.
The Stages of Death
“It is practical to divide this postmortem interval into arbitrary stages, with the understanding that these stages frequently overlap and are poorly defined temporally,” writes forensic pathologist Glenn M. Larkin, M.D. in Forensic Sciences.
“The evaluation of changes that occur in a body after death is important for several reasons: it may be helpful in estimating the length of the postmortem interval (time since death) and, therefore, the actual time of death … and postmortem changes may be helpful in evaluating the accuracy or reliability of witness statements and other information,” write pathologists Randy Hazlik and Michael A. Graham in Forensic Pathology in Criminal Cases.
Each body passes through a series of stages, but as noted previously, the many variables make only broad generalizations possible. Different scientists have their own personal preferences for the names of these stages. For example, Hazlik and Graham describe three stages: Early: “demonstrable onset in minutes to hours after death”; advancing: “…days to weeks after death”; and advanced: “usually apparent weeks or more after death.”
Noted forensic entomologist M. Lee Goff of the University of Hawaii uses a five-stage model (fresh, bloated, decay, post-decay and skeletal). Another common classification described by Larkin divides the stages into “perimortem, early postmortem, and decomposition.”
When Andy Stickley found the bodies of India and Cody in the Nettle Creek Cemetery that September day, the children had by every definition passed into the last stages of post-mortem activity. Trace evidence linking them to their killer would be difficult to find because the remains had been exposed to the elements of a hot Ohio summer. Nature had taken its course and left investigators little to work with. But nature is subject to physical laws, and the investigators called in to trace the children’s killer knew this. The key to catching the murderer would depend on a careful reading of the clues Mother Nature had left behind.
The Bureau of Criminal Identification
In Ohio, the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, a division of the Attorney General’s Office, is available to assist police departments that do not have criminalists on staff to process crime scenes. BCI also functions as a central crime laboratory for examining all types of evidence, from fingerprints to DNA samples, or tire marks to computer hard drives.
BCI Special Agent Eva Hall was on duty September 6, 1997, when she received a call to assist the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office with a crime scene at the Nettle Creek Cemetery. She had already been involved in processing other evidence related to the children’s disappearance, visiting the Neal homestead back in July, shortly after India and Cody vanished, to collect trace evidence as suspicion fell on Kevin Neal. Now she had the sad task of ensuring that the recovery of the children’s bodies was performed according to crime scene protocols.
When she arrived at the cemetery around 5 p.m. that evening, the area had already been cordoned off by yellow crime scene tape. She noted that the area where the bodies were found was “a heavily wooded area. On first glance you couldn’t really see anything in there.”
Hall later testified that it would not have been possible to properly extricate the bodies until a deputy used a machete to chop down some of the high weeds around them. After she took photographs of the crime scene and some of the weeds had been cleared, Hall began the process of recovering the bodies. She noted how India’s body had been deliberately posed in a sexual pose.”The larger of the two bodies was lying on its back on top of some discarded fencing,” she said. “The one leg was lying straight across the fence post straight out, and the other leg – the left leg is bent at an angle laying on its side so the pelvic region would be exposed at that point.”
After donning coveralls to avoid contaminating the crime scene, Hall and two other BCI agents began the process of recovering the bodies. Using garden trowels, they loosened the dirt surrounding the remains, taking samples of the soil for examination purposes later.
“When a body decomposes,” Hall told the court, “fluids tend to seep down and that is why it was necessary to loosen the bodies from the dirt. We tried not to disturb the bones in the way the bodies were found … during our retrieval, so we were able to lift the bodies with the shovels and also a lot of dirt.”
The agents lifted the bodies and laid them out on the body bag. At the same time, they collected other biological evidence at the scene, including some of the many insects the investigators encountered.
“There was quite a bit of insect activity, and at the time we also collected a sampling of the different bugs and made sure when we moved the body we tried not to disturb the bugs at that time.”
The bodies were taken to the regional crime lab, where a forensic pathologist would conduct autopsies.
Manner of Death
Although there are an infinite number of ways to die, the medico-legal community recognizes just four manners of death: accident, natural causes, suicide and homicide. The task of the team of medical examiners, coroners, technicians and scientists who took possession of the children’s remains was to determine which of these manners appropriately accounted for the deaths of India and Cody. While they play an essential part of the criminal investigation process, coroners do not have the legal jurisdiction to determine whether or not a death is the result of a crime. After all, “homicide” simply means death at the hands of another person and does not imply criminal activity. For example, the manner of death for an executed criminal is listed as “homicide.” The responsibility to determine whether or not a crime has occurred and requires the involvement of the criminal justice system lies with the county prosecutor or district attorney.
Because Champaign County is a smaller rural county, autopsies are performed by forensic pathologists on call with the Miami Valley Crime Laboratory, where in the case of India and Cody Smith, Montgomery County Deputy Coroner Lee Lehman, a veteran of more than 2,000 autopsies, was put in charge of the examination.
Based on the circumstantial evidence surrounding the discovery of their bodies, their youth and medical histories, the pathologist quickly ruled out suicide, accident and natural causes as being responsible for ending the lives of the two children. As he stated in court, Dr. Lehman considered it highly unlikely – based on the history he compiled, the examination and the circumstances – “that they walked in (the cemetery) naked and died a natural death together.”
“They died of undetermined – which means, I don’t know – homicidal violence,” he would later testify. “In other words, they were killed.”
Having determined the manner of death, Lehman and his team turned toward gathering evidence to assist in finding out the cause of their deaths, and hopefully, the identity of their killer. The team had not been left much to work with. In fact, Lehman had to call in a forensic anthropologist from a nearby college to assist in determining the genders of the bodies. Confirmation of the children’s identities was made through dental records.Their skulls had been completely stripped of flesh – skeletonized is the term pathologists use. The skin on India’s chest, abdomen and legs was still present, but exposure to the sun and wind had caused it to dry out and become leather-like in a process known as mummification. During mummification, nature “embalms” and preserves the corpse in a manner resembling the human ritual that creates a mummy. In fact, it is impossible from visual inspection to determine the post-mortem interval of a mummified body – absent any other clues, India could have been dead as long as King Tut.
But there were other clues present. The little girl’s body was infested with insects, which Lehman and his colleagues collected and preserved. The medical team carefully sifted through the material in the body bag, separating India from the dirt, flora and fauna that had accompanied her into the morgue. Some of her neck bones were missing, while others indicated animal activity – canine teeth marks and such.
The toxicology report came back indicating India had a blood-alcohol content of .02 percent. Although this may surprise a layman, the pathologists expected such a result. Just as with grapes turning to wine, the decay process of a body often leads to sugar fermentation within the body; as bacteria break down cellular material, one of the byproducts is ethyl alcohol. The tox screen also revealed that the girl had not been poisoned.
There were also no telltale marks on the corpses to indicate that a weapon had been used to kill the children. Nature had left more flesh on Cody’s remains than on India’s, but neither his mummified soft tissue nor the bones on either child showed evidence of obvious entry or exit points for bullets or scratches on their bones that a knife blade would normally leave. There was not any flesh on the children’s skulls to examine for the typical signs of asphyxiation, but the coroner’s opinion was that some manner of asphyxia was the cause of the children’s deaths.
This conclusion was supported later by the forensic entomologists who would review the case. The entomologists did so by examining how the insects had consumed the flesh of the bodies. Following the doctrine espoused by Sung T’zu, they expected the skulls to be skeletonized and bleached by the sun – after all, there were so many orifices on the head where the blow flies would lay their eggs. The lack of clothing also gave the insects access to the children’s genital regions, which meant that the feeding larvae would eat their way up through their abdomens to their chest cavities.
If there had been knife or bullet wounds, the pattern of insect consumption would have been different because wounds are even more attractive places for oviposition (egg laying). It isn’t unusual for one hand to be skeletonized or at least infested with insects while the other is untouched. Wily investigators will know that this indicates the victim probably had defensive wounds on the hand that attracted the insects.One other clue led Lehman to believe that the children had been dead for some time when their bodies were found.
“One thing that was interesting … from the point of view of a forensic pathologist is that where the bodies are lying the grass is dead,” Lehman said. “It’s like if you leave something on your lawn … for a long time, the grass disappears. The same thing has happened where these two bodies were lying.”
Much later in the criminal justice process, another expert would dispute this assumption, pointing out that decaying fatty tissue will kill vegetation much quicker than Lehman estimated. In the end, Lehman, based on his 14 years as a pathologist, was convinced the children had been dead “an extended period of time.”
“You have a skeletonized – completely skeletonized – head, very decomposed body,” he told Assistant Attorney General R. Daniel Reif. “Everything points to someone who had been dead for an extended period of time.”
How extended, asked Reif, who was on loan from the state Attorney General’s Capital Crimes section to assist Champaign County Prosecutor Nick Selvaggio with the case.
“It’s consistent with two months,” Lehman said. “Anything less than that is less probable or less likely.”
“We Are Not in a Rush”
In late September 1997, days after nearly 300 people said farewell to India and Cody in a “Celebration of Life,” Sheriff Deskins held a press conference and warned the public that any arrest in the case might be months in the future.
“We want to make sure we are correct,” Deskins said. “We are not in a rush. We are not going to be pressured into naming suspects ahead of time. We’re doing this in a checklist fashion.”
Deskins and Prosecutor Nick Selvaggio had no reason to hurry – they knew exactly where their only suspect was, and Kevin Neal wasn’t going anywhere for a long time.
Deskins told the media that forensic evidence was central to the investigation and that meant waiting for lab results.
“We have a great deal of evidence submitted to different laboratories. This will be a case of waiting for results,” he said.
While botanists were examining seeds found in a blanket recovered by BCI Agent Hall from Cody’s bed and on blue jeans worn by Kevin Neal the day the children disappeared, some of the nation’s best forensic entomologists were studying the various species of insects found in the siblings’ remains to establish a time of death. The FBI was examining some blood stains found on a sheet in the Neal home.
Other detectives were talking to friends and family of the Neals, looking for more conventional clues to help strengthen the case. The prosecution has no obligation to establish a motive for a crime in order to secure a conviction, but juries often expect to hear an answer to the central question of “why.” In a case like the one the authorities were building against Kevin Neal, a motive was critical.The evidence against Neal was mounting, but it was all circumstantial. There was no direct evidence linking him or anyone else to the crime – no “smoking gun,” no bloody knife with the murderer’s fingerprints, no eyewitnesses. Murder convictions had been achieved with nothing more than a circumstantial case, killers had even been put to death without direct evidence of their guilt. Still, although courts instruct jurors to give equal weight to direct and circumstantial evidence, the lack of a direct link can be troubling for some juries.
Building the state’s case against Neal would take almost two years and involve nearly 5,000 pages of investigatory records and interviews with more than 170 persons. The case had long fallen off the front pages of the newspapers when Selvaggio announced in May 1999 that a Champaign County grand jury had indicted Kevin Neal on 11 criminal counts ranging from murder to kidnapping to gross abuse of a corpse in connection with the murders of his stepchildren. Selvaggio said he would seek the death penalty.
During his arraignment, Neal told his wife that he was innocent and that his accusers owed him an apology.
“You know damn good and well in your heart I didn’t do this,” Kevin Neal said before the brief hearing. “I’ll prove it.”
“I don’t owe you nothing,” Sue Neal replied.
To others, Sue Neal shared some of the blame.
“You shouldn’t marry a rapist,” said Rick Smith. “If you are a rapist, you shouldn’t be allowed to get with someone that’s got kids.”
“Hurt Someone They Love”
It would be another year before Kevin Neal stood trial for the murders of India and Cody. Declared indigent by Champaign County Common Pleas Court Judge Roger Wilson, Neal was defended by three attorneys from the state Public Defender’s Office led by Gregory Meyers, senior attorney in the Office’s capital crimes section.
After denying a motion to change the venue of the trial out of the small county west of Columbus, Ohio, Wilson had his clerk send out juror questionnaires to 500 residents on the voter registration rolls. In the weeks leading up to the trial, Wilson, Meyers and Prosecutor Nick Selvaggio pared the list down somewhat by excluding the potential jurors with obvious conflicts. Finally, in mid-April 2000, the remaining potential jurors, veniremen in legal parlance, were summoned for the selection process.
Taking the veniremen a dozen at a time, the sides narrowed the group down to 12 jurors and three alternates. The care exercised in finding an unbiased jury was evident. The court needed a group that was not affected by the massive pre-trial publicity, was capable of weighing only the facts placed in evidence and who could recommend the death penalty if necessary. In the transcript of Kevin Neal’s trial, the eight-day jury selection process – voir dire – takes up more than 2,000 pages.
On May 11, 2000, the trial of Kevin Neal began with the jurors taking a trip to the Neal farmhouse and the cemetery where the children were found. Following the jury view, they heard the opening statements of Selvaggio and Assistant Public Defender Marc Tripplett. In his opening, Selvaggio laid out the basis of the State’s case.
“India and Cody did not simultaneously die of natural death or disease. They were murdered,” Selvaggio said. “India was left to rot on top of discarded fence posts lying on her back, and little brother Cody was found lying with his back next to his big sister. India and Cody did not casually walk into a wooded area, take off their clothes, and lay down and die. The killer left (them) to Mother Nature’s care.”
For the first time, the public learned about Sue and Kevin Neal’s marital problems, and their mutual accusations of infidelity. The jury also heard Selvaggio provide the state’s theory about motive: Revenge. When Neal, serving a brief sentence in the Champaign County jail, learned his wife had “laid under another man” (Neal’s words), he was asked by another inmate if he planned on beating up the man who slept with his wife. Neal said no and added, “the way you hurt someone who has hurt you is to hurt someone they love,” Selvaggio told jurors during his opening statement.
Even more damaging to the defense, Selvaggio promised that the state would present testimony from three witnesses who would swear that Kevin Neal made incriminating statements about himself.
The morning of the murder, Selvaggio said, Neal called his aunt, Carolyn Gragg, and told her “something terrible had happened” and that he was considering suicide. The next day, after a day of intense questioning by authorities followed by a night of heavy drinking, Neal told Sue Neal’s sister, Libby Wyatt, “Libby, I might as well just confess so all this will stop and get it over with. The only thing I’m afraid of is the death penalty.” Finally, Selvaggio said Neal told another woman that he “took the whole blame” for the children’s disappearance, adding, “I couldn’t walk to the electric chair.”
Tripplett responded in his opening statement by pointing out there was no physical evidence linking Kevin Neal – or anyone else – to the crime. Later, Meyers would question the accuracy of Gragg’s recollection of the conversation she had with Neal, who insisted to his attorneys that he had not said “something terrible had happened,” but that he told Aunt Carolyn that “he was in deep shit” because Sue Neal wanted him out of her home.
“This is a case about earnest police efforts that simply reached … a very wrong conclusion,” Tripplett said in his opening statement. “Before (the day the children vanished) was over, sheriff’s deputies and others began to point an accusing finger at Kevin Neal despite the lack of any indication of wrongdoing on his part,” he said. The state “cannot show you how these children died, when these children died, and cannot show you where they were killed. And yet he will want you to supply the who – Mr. Neal.”
After using Champaign County deputies who were the first responders to the scene after Kevin Neal called 911 to establish the mood and overview of the early stages of the investigation, Selvaggio quickly introduced the little physical evidence produced in the two-year probe. He called agents from BCI, who collected bedding and clothes from the Neal home. When they were collecting evidence, three items were of particular interest to investigators: a sheet with stains that were determined to be blood belonging to India, a pair of blue jeans worn that day by Kevin Neal, and a blue blanket taken from Cody’s bed. Agents later learned that India was entering puberty and there were no signs of struggle in the area where the sheet was found, so they could draw no inferences from that finding.
The blue blanket and the jeans, however, contained evidence in the form of seeds that tied them to the cemetery. Because forensic botany is such a specific subspecialty, there was no one at the BCI lab who had knowledge enough to interpret the significance of the seeds. Instead, the agents contacted two specialists who would be able to shed some light on just what inferences could be drawn from the evidence.While the children were still missing, criminalists at the Knight Road home found large, burr-like seeds attached to the blanket and much smaller seeds in the pockets of Kevin’s jeans. Working from the premise that knowing the type of seeds they had found could point investigators toward the location of the children, an agent from BCI took the evidence to Seed Technology, Inc., a private laboratory that contracted with the Ohio Department of Agriculture on seed purity issues.The larger seed was determined to be Galium aperine, or catchweed bedstraw. The smaller seed was from the genus Poa, and was identified as Kentucky bluegrass. While bluegrass will propagate through the air, Galium aperine does not, and is transferred from the bedstraw plant to the coat of a passing animal and eventually to the ground. The identification of the two seeds presented additional questions for investigators, as neither bedstraw nor mature Kentucky bluegrass was found at the Neal residence. If the plants were not present at the Neal farm, where did the seeds come from?The answer did not present itself until September 9, when the bodies were found in Nettle Creek Cemetery.
After the cemetery crime scene had been secured, the investigators once again called on the experts at Seed Technology and a plant expert from Scott’s Lawn and Garden, Inc. to determine if bedstraw and bluegrass were present where the bodies were found. Working under klieg lights as the sun went down, Robert Hesson, the plant expert, and Anne Daniel from Seed Technology, scoured the crime scene in search of the plants.At first, the search was futile because Galium aperine is an extremely fragile weed and could have easily been destroyed by the many crime-scene workers who had trampled over the area. Hesson was on his knees looking near the bare spot where Cody and India were found, and when he stood up, Daniel noticed a seed had attached itself to his blue jeans. It was Galium aperine. Almost immediately after that, Daniel’s husband noticed that her pants had picked up another Galium seed. Some time later, the experts located the remains of the Galium plant.
Later Daniel and Hesson conducted a survey of the plants at the Knight Road property and found no Galium aperine. The team did find bluegrass; however, that particular grass only produces mature seeds after reaching a height of 12 to 18 inches and the shorter, mowed bluegrass at the Neal house was producing only immature seeds. The bluegrass at Nettle Creek Cemetery was producing mature seeds like those found in Neal’s pockets, Hesson testified.It was time for Selvaggio to move the heart of his case – using forensic entomology to establish when the children had died, and by inference, that Kevin Neal was still free when they were murdered. Selvaggio could not prove the means by which the children were murdered because of their advanced state of decay, but he could establish motive – revenge – and with the help of flies and maggots, he would prove opportunity.
The fate of a fly is essentially determined by temperature. Anyone who has ever encountered a fly buzzing against a warm window on a bright, but cold, winter day, has witnessed the influence heat has on the insect. It may be barely above freezing outside, but the sunlight passing through a window has awakened a dormant fly by raising the temperature to such a point that the fly is fooled into “thinking” it is safe to emerge from stasis and become active.
Under normal circumstances, as with other cold-blooded arthropods whose body temperatures are dependent on the environment, flies can only thrive if the temperature is between two extremes. Too cold and the fly dies or goes dormant, depending on where it stands in its life cycle. Too warm, and it rushes through its developmental stages too quickly and cannot reproduce. But if the temperature is just right, the life cycle of a fly is amazingly predictable – and useful to criminalists.
Generally speaking, flies pass through six stages during their lives. Some of these stages can be further divided based on the activity of the insect. Flies start out as eggs, and hatch into first instar maggots – the beginning of the larval stage. Because maggots have a rigid exoskeleton, as the maggot feeds, it eventually must molt its smaller shell and thus passes into a second instar maggot. How quickly the maggot passes from first to second instar is – assuming there is food for it to eat – regulated by heat. As the maggot continues to eat, it grows, and again must molt, entering the third instar phase. This developmental phase can be divided into “feeding” and “migrating,” because after the maggot eats its fill, it begins looking for a dry place, safe from predators, where it can pupate, forming the cocoon that will allow it to transform into its adult phase. Maggots will travel hundreds of feet from their birthplace and feeding spot in order to find an acceptable place to pupate. Once the third-instar maggot finds this location, it develops a hard shell similar to a caterpillar cocoon and makes the final transition to adult fly. After it emerges from the cocoon, the fly spends several hours in the sun, inflating its wings, developing its coloring and hardening its final exoskeleton. If the adult fly is a female, after it is able to fly it begins the search for carrion to start the cycle all over again.
The number of different fly species on the planet has never been calculated, but fortunately for forensic entomologists, the species that prefer carrion for food and oviposition are relatively few and often localized to a specific region of the country. In fact, it is not uncommon for scientists to be able to point out that a body has been moved from where it was killed because of the difference between “urban” and “rural” species. And just like different human cultures prefer different foods, necrophilous fly species vary in their preference for decaying flesh. Depending on what species are present (or not) and their stage of development, criminalists can make accurate estimates of the post-mortem interval. They can do this because of the flies’ dependence on temperature.
Ideally, entomologists should be part of the initial crime scene investigation so that bug evidence can be collected and preserved correctly. The techniques that work for a collector who wants to pin his or her trophies to a card do not work in a criminal investigation. There are also chain-of-custody issues to be addressed and some methods of storing and preserving insect evidence are counter-intuitive to criminalists who may not have been instructed in how to properly collect bugs.
If the presence of the entomologist is not possible at the crime scene, the next best chance to collect insects for examination is at the autopsy. Finally, a later visit to the scene where the body was found can yield important entomological evidence long after the scene has been cleared. The bottom line for investigators is that if evidence is not collected according to established protocols, the efforts of the best forensic entomologist will be for naught. “Entomological evidence must be properly recognized, collected, and preserved if such evidence is to be used in evaluations of death cases, writes pathologist Glenn Larkin. “It is only when the physical characteristics of the specimens are intact and properly preserved that an accurate determination to the species level can be accomplished by an entomologist.”
At Nettle Creek Cemetery, and later during the autopsy, investigators gathered sufficient entomological evidence to allow Dr. Neal Haskell and Dr. Robert Hall – the former working for the state and the latter for Kevin Neal – to draw vastly different conclusions about the post-mortem interval (the time between Cody and India’s murders and the discovery of their bodies). It would be up to the jury, most of whom didn’t know the difference between a blow fly and a beetle, to decide which expert among two of the world’s top forensic entomologists was correct.
How Flies Tell Time
When he received the evidence at his home in Rensselaer, Indiana, where he was on staff as a professor of forensic entomology and biology at St. Joseph’s College, Dr. Neal Haskell began his analysis by taking inventory of the shipment. At his direction following a conversation with detectives in Champaign County, Haskell was sent both live and preserved specimens of the insect fauna found at the body site, soil samples gathered at the scene and, equally important, from the body bags in which the cadavers were delivered to the medical examiner.
He further instructed the detectives to send climatological data for the nearest National Weather Service station, which in this case was in Dayton, about 45 miles away from Nettle Creek Cemetery. Each of these components was necessary for Haskell to make an estimate of the minimum and maximum post-mortem interval.Entomologists use a technique called Accumulated Degree Days to measure fly development on a corpse. One of the most common necrophilic fly species is the blow fly, known formally as Phormia regina. Over the years, P. regina has been studied under carefully controlled environmental conditions, so scientists know, when temperature is controlled, just how long the species takes to go from newly deposited egg to first instar, to second and third instar and through the pupal stage to adult.
“After the medicocriminal entomologist has calculated the degree-hours or degree-days available, this information can be applied to the template of known development of the species in question at a temperature regime similar to that recorded from the field,” writes Larkin. “The result will give an estimate of the time required for that fly to progress from the stage produced by the female (and deposited on the corpse) to the stage collected.
This, then, is the minimum PMI – all else being equal, the corpse must have been dead for at least that period or the developing flies would not have been able to get to the noted point of maturity.”
At a mean temperature of 20 degrees centigrade (68 degrees Fahrenheit), P. regina takes between 19 and 25 hours to hatch from a fresh egg. The average time for what entomologists call egg eclosion is 21.2 hours.
To calculate Accumulated Degree Hours, an entomologist will multiply the number of degrees by the number of hours needed for eclosion. In other words, based on laboratory studies of P. regina, Haskell knew that on average, it takes 424 ADH (20 degrees C x 21.2 hours) for a blow fly to emerge from its egg. If the mean temperature at a crime scene is 25 degrees Celsius, the time for eclosion is simply calculated at 424 ADH divided by 25, or approximately 17 hours.
Each stage of the blow fly’s life cycle has been calculated and tabulated for entomologists, so when Haskell examined his preserved specimens and found 40 or 50 puparia that had hatched, he knew he could calculate the maximum post-mortem interval – the earliest time the children had been dead.
The fact that no P. regina were still present on the bodies told Haskell that “we had passed well beyond the time that the black blow fly would be active,” he would later testify. “It had done its thing at the early stage of decomposition, fed. They have done their thing and have long since been gone.”Although the blow flies had skeletonized the bodies – the maggots had eaten almost all of the soft tissue on Cody’s body and a large portion of India – there were still other species of flies who prefer more decomposed flesh that Haskell could use to firm up his PMI estimates.
While Haskell was not surprised that there were no blow flies present, the fact that another species of fly, the secondary screwworm, or Cochliomyia macellaria, was also absent was especially significant. After all, the screwworm is just as adept at finding a corpse as a blow fly, and the two species prefer their carrion at similar stages. However, C. macellaria is a warm-latitude species that is killed off in northern climates when the weather turns cool. As the screwworm fly prefers fresh carrion, the absence of the fly indicates that it wasn’t present in the area when the children were killed.
“It has to repopulate every spring as it warms up,” he told Selvaggio during the trial.
Explaining that it takes several months for C. macellaria to reach a one-to-one ratio with P. regina – something at occurs in central Ohio around August – Haskell pointed out to the jury that the total absence of the screwworm meant the children had been dead long before the warm-weather fly arrived in Ohio.
“It tells me what time of year the colonization occurred,” he told the court.
“And what time would that be, sir?” Selvaggio asked.
“It would be prior to mid-July.”
Enter the Cheese Skipper
One additional species of fly, Piophila foveolata, helped Haskell determine an approximate date of death for the two children. Known by its common name, the cheese skipper fly, Piophilidae prefers carrion in a significantly decayed form.
“Unlike the blow flies, which come in very, very quickly, the cheese skipper is one that likes more advanced decomposition,” Haskell testified. “They like it when it’s goopy and yucky and in a putrefaction state or beyond, in a liquefaction stage.”
When he examined the tissue samples and the body bag soil, Haskell found “literally hundreds” of skipper larvae in the third instar – the final – larval stage. Using the Accumulated Degree Day method, he knew that to find larvae at that stage on September 6, 1997, meant that the adult skippers had to have visited the corpses between 45 and 90 days prior. That put the cheese skipper oviposition at July 23, 1997 at the latest.
Selvaggio wanted to remind the jury of the skipper’s preferred carrion.
“Is it possible, based on your finding of the specimens on that frozen tissue sample, that a body could have ….started its decomposition on July 23?”
“No,” Haskell replied. “Because the cheese skipper needs a more advanced decomposition.”
“How much time would these skippers need?” Selvaggio asked.
“A minimum of a week, usually more.” Haskell replied. “It could be two or three weeks.”
Combining the information – the disappearance of P. regina, which appears almost immediately upon death, the lack of secondary screwworms, which should have been present in the area in mid-to-late July, but who would not have laid eggs in a body in an advanced state of decay, and the third-instar cheese skippers that require a minimum of 45 days and advanced decay to thrive – Haskell explained to the jury that the earliest the children could have died was July 9 and the latest was July 14.
After discussing the foliage and the stream around the crime scene to determine if Haskell took that into account when he came up with his time frame, Selvaggio returned to the main point he wanted to make.
“Can you give us an opinion based on a reasonable degree of scientific certainty about how long India and Cody Smith had been located where they were subsequently found on September 6, 1997?” he asked.
“Yes, I can,” Haskell replied. “And I believe it was between the 14th of July and the 9th of July.”
The Secondary Screwworm in CourtDefense attorney Greg Meyers immediately homed in on Haskell’s assumption that the absence of the secondary screwworm was significant.
“Is it your testimony that the secondary screwworm was not in this area of Ohio until on or after July 14 of that summer?” he asked.
“No, that is not my testimony,” Haskell replied. “My testimony is that I did not find that in the combination of puparia with Phormia regina…There could have been one fly flying around here. I definitely did not say that it could not be present somewhere in this area.”
“You are trying to prove the positive by the negative,” Meyers countered. “You are trying to prove the positive of July 14 by the negative – meaning the absence of the screwworm. Is that fair to your testimony?”
Haskell stuck by his assumptions.
“We have a positive with Phormia regina here by itself. And in the seasonal distribution study that I’ve done, we find that if we have Phormia regina by itself in the puparial stage that we would be sometime prior to mid-July.”
Battle Over Bug Evidence
At the time of Kevin Neal’s trial, there were fewer than ten people in the United States who were board-certified by the American Board of Forensic Entomology, and the fact that two of the Board’s leading practitioners were testifying in his trial clearly demonstrated the importance of bug evidence in the case. Dr. Neal Haskell, who testified for the state, was one of the first people to ever study entomology for forensic purposes, and Dr. Robert Hall, who was about to take the stand to rebut his testimony, was the chair of the entomology department at the University of Missouri and had served on Haskell’s doctoral committee.
To say that this was a battle of the field’s giants was not an understatement.
Dr. Hall took the stand several days after Dr. Haskell testified, and the defense wasted no time in attacking Haskell’s conclusions.
Unlike Dr. Haskell, who based his conclusions on the serial theory of insect activity – where scientists theorize that a corpse is colonized by successive “waves” of insects – Dr. Hall was only willing to accept the more conservative temperature-based model. In his opinion, the timing of when any particular species of arthropod would show up was simply too variable to use for drawing scientific conclusions.
“Do you believe there is any conclusion that can be reached from the absence of the secondary screwworm at the same time that the pupa cases from the black blow fly are found at the scene?” defense attorney Marc Tripplett asked.
Dr. Hall was quite blunt. “No.”
Tripplett pushed the point further and asked Hall what conclusions he could draw based on the evidence that was present.
“The only conclusion that I can reach is that the temperature development of the black blow fly is such that about 215 accumulated degree days on a base temperature of 10 (degrees Celsius) is required for that fly to go from the stage that the female deposits the egg, to the point at which the adult fly leaves the pupa case that then stays behind,” Hall answered.
Assuming that the temperature at the Dayton airport accurately reflects the temperature at Nettle Creek Cemetery – a big assumption, the defense expert pointed out – Hall then said that he drew an entirely different PMI than Haskell did.
“The decedents must have been at the site at least long enough for the insects to grow up at the stage collected, and that would have been from about the first week in September,” he said
Cheese Skippers for the Defense
As for the cheese skippers, Hall disputed Haskell’s conclusions there, as well. Pointing out that his research showed that skippers are only known to be “not among the first arrivers,” Hall added, “How much later it arrives is open to question. There are no discrete data that would allow one to say categorically it’s going to require seven days or 14 days or three days. It’s simply too variable. I am unable to support the conclusion that there would be a 45-to-90 day period,” he said.
Well, what, if any, conclusion can a forensic entomologist draw from the presence of cheese skippers? Tripplett asked.
“Other than to say that the cheese skipper would not be among the first insects to arrive, I can’t produce any entomological conclusions that I would find useful from the cheese skipper in this case,” Hall concluded.
On cross-examination, Prosecutor Selvaggio addressed Hall’s rejection of the serial wave theory of insect propagation.
“Isn’t it true that within the last four years … you and Dr. Haskell authored a chapter entitled “On the Body: Insects’ Life, Stage, Presence and their Post-Mortem Artifacts” and in it you indicate that two main approaches exist? One is the analysis of the pattern of corpse colonization by successive waves of arthropods?”
“That’s correct,” Hall said.
“So when Dr. Haskell is looking at this, this wave of colonization from black blow fly to cheese skippers to black soldier fly, he’s not doing anything that your own literature, that you and he co-authored, promotes?”
“I think you mischaracterize my response,” Hall countered. “I said in this particular case, I couldn’t find any compelling evidence to be able to apply it that specifically.”Selvaggio next got Hall to agree that because secondary screwworms are restricted by cold temperatures, the fact that Ohio had a cool spring and cool early summer in 1997 might have delayed the species’ entry into the area.
Tripplett, during his redirect examination, posed a series of questions to his witness that he hoped the jury would remember during deliberation. He wanted to establish that despite the scientific nomenclature, the PhDs and the expert qualifications, there was still a bit of guesswork involved in using bugs to predict the time of death.
“Although you’ve been involved for some time in what we’ve been referring to as forensic entomology, would you, Dr. Hall, acknowledge that forensic entomological evidence will have its limits in certain cases?” Triplett said.
“Yes,” Hall said.
“And would you therefore conclude that there are some limits in this case?”
“Yes, I do,” Hall said.
“And is it your conclusion that Dr. Haskell has stretched beyond those limits?”
Hall replied, “Let me phrase it this way. From my analysis of this, I don’t see how a forensic entomologist could be as precise as is reflected in Dr. Haskell’s report.”
The Body Farmer
On a three-acre patch of land outside Knoxville, Tennessee, where the University of Tennessee used to burn its trash, lies the Department of Anthropology’s Research Facility. From looking at the high chain-link fence surrounding the site, one wouldn’t think much of the operation, but there is no other research station quite like it anywhere in the United States. At the U-T Anthropology Research Facility, some of the most advanced forensic experimentation is being conducted, 24-hours a day, seven days a week. The knowledge gleaned from the facility over the past 25 years has advanced the science of forensic anthropology and provided scientists and law enforcement with more knowledge about the fate of post-mortem remains than the previous 200 years.Better known as “The Body Farm,” the Anthropology Research Facility is the creation of Dr. William Bass, the nation’s foremost forensic anthropologist. Bass, who has consulted on literally hundreds of criminal investigations, created the facility to “systematically study human bodies by the dozens,” he wrote in his book about the Body Farm, Death’s Acre.
Back in 1980, Bass, then the head of the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Department, managed to convince the university that such research was not gruesome or disrespectful, but was essential to advance the science of anthropology. It was Bass’s goal to create a place “where nature would be allowed to take its course with mortal flesh, under a variety of experimental conditions … We would pick up where Sung T’zu had left off seven centuries before.”
Over time, the Body Farm and Dr. Bass earned a reputation for excellence in post-mortem research. So, it wasn’t unusual for Kevin Neal’s lead defense counsel, Greg Meyers, to summon Dr. Bass – normally a witness for the prosecution – to the Neal trial as part of his effort to cast doubt on the State’s case that India and Cody had been killed on July 9.
An expert in decomposition, Dr. Bass testified shortly after Dr. Robert Hall, providing the jurors and courtroom observers with an opportunity to see two of forensic science’s greatest pioneers in action on the same day. It was Meyers’s hope that Bass would be able to convince the jury that the state of the children’s remains was inconsistent with the state’s theory of the case.Defense attorney Diane Menashe questioned Dr. Bass. After laying the groundwork that allowed Bass to qualify as an expert witness in both anthropology and human decomposition, she questioned him about the time line of human decomposition. What was the quickest he’d ever encountered for going from “How I am today?” to a skeleton? she asked.
“I’ve seen the number at 14 to 21 days,” he replied.
Next, she addressed another point raised by Dr. Lehman, the coroner. How long does it take for the fatty acids in a putrefying body to kill the vegetation where the body lays? Menashe asked. Five to seven days, Bass responded.
“By seven days, it’s very prominent,” he added. “By five, you can see it if you know what you’re looking for. By 10 days to two weeks, it’s very obvious.”
She then turned to the consumption patterns of the blow fly maggots, questioning why the skulls of the children would be skeletonized, the torsos essentially hollowed out with some mummified skin and liver tissue remaining, and the legs apparently untouched by bugs.
“How long would it take, based on your expertise, to get a skull to be that bleached, or essentially that bare?” she wondered.
“Two to three weeks,” Bass replied. “Certainly by two weeks the skull will be off, and it’s lying in the sun and it will bleach.”
‘The Liver Bothers Me’What did the presence of maggots in the liver tissue tell him? Menashe asked.
“The presence of liver would tell me that those bodies hadn’t been there very long – very long meaning three weeks to a month,” he said.
Finally, Menashe led Bass in a discussion of the stench of decomposing bodies. The defense was hoping to prove to the jury that the stench that farmer Andy Stickley smelled could not come from a pair of bodies that had been dead and decomposing for nearly two months.
Bass recounted how one of the earliest experiments at the Body Farm was designed to answer how a human corpse could lay in a vacant lot a stone’s throw from several houses for four years and not be detected. The results of the experiment showed that the average human cannot smell decaying flesh beyond a distance of 30 yards. Furthermore, the stench varies over time, beginning to be detectable after four days, peaking in intensity after three weeks and finally dropping off totally as the remains begin to mummify.
After two months, “you have to walk up and get awful close to it,” he added. “You’d have to stick your nose down close to it.”
At the conclusion of her direct examination, Menashe asked Bass if he had an opinion about how long the children had been in Nettle Creek Cemetery. His answer was direct and blunt.
“If there was liver tissue that was taken out of the body, I don’t think those bodies could have been there longer than three weeks to a month,” he responded.
On cross-examination, Selvaggio was forced to get Bass to acknowledge several cases where his estimates of post-mortem interval turned out to be incorrect, including the “Colonel Shy case,” where the decedent had been dead more than 110 years, when Bass estimated the PMI of one year. Despite the glaring error of the Colonel Shy PMI, Bass recounts the story of that case and the reasons for the error in his book. In fact, Shy, a Confederate colonel, had been embalmed and buried in an airtight cast iron coffin in civilian clothing. When he was disinterred, his skin was still intact.
“That’s one of the reasons I started the Body Farm,” Bass told Selvaggio.
Most importantly, after questioning by Selvaggio, Bass admitted that if the tissue containing the maggots was not liver, he would be forced to revise his PMI for India and Cody. But Bass pointed out that the coroner’s report indicated a “tissue mass” infested with maggots was taken from India, while Cody’s autopsy reported “one container of maggot-infested liver.”
“The liver bothers me,” Bass countered. “It really does.”
The Jury Decides
For the first time over the course of the nearly month-long trial of her husband for killing two of her children, Sue Neal was in the courtroom to hear the jury’s verdict.
Following closing arguments and lengthy instructions from Judge Roger B. Wilson, the jury deliberated for six hours over two days before announcing to the court that it had reached a unanimous decision. If the jury found Neal guilty of aggravated murder with the death penalty specifications – in this case, that he was guilty of the purposeful killing of two or more people – the court would then move to the penalty phase of the trial where the jurors would be deciding between life and death for Kevin Neal.
Wilson admonished everyone in the courtroom to keep their emotions in check as the verdicts were read.
“If there is reason to express emotion, it takes place outside the courtroom,” he said. “Everyone is required to observe that rule of procedure, difficult as it may be.”
Then Wilson read the verdict forms. On the two counts of aggravated murder, the jury convicted Kevin Neal and found that the state proved the death penalty specs beyond a reasonable doubt. Neal was also convicted of gross abuse of the children’s corpses and guilty of tampering with evidence. Earlier, at the conclusion of the state’s case, Wilson had tossed the kidnapping charges from the indictment for lack of evidence, so those charges were not considered by the jury.
Neal maintained his innocence as he was led from the courtroom. “I did not do this,” he said. “My conscience is clear.”
Three days later, the same group gathered for the penalty phase of the trial – in effect, a mini-trial to determine if the aggravating factors of Kevin Neal’s crimes outweighed the mitigating factors, both sides would be allowed to call witnesses to help make their case.
The only sworn witnesses in this phase were a pair of corrections officers who testified that Kevin Neal was a model prisoner while under their direction.
Kevin Neal took the stand to give an unsworn statement, which meant that he could not be questioned by either the defense or the prosecution. As expected, he stood by his claim of innocence.
“The whole ten months I sat here, and I stood my ground and said I did not do this,” he said. “Now, you people have found me guilty of it. And I still say I did not do this. I did not kill my kids.
“All I can do is tell you people the same thing I’ve told them. I didn’t do this, and I’m standing my ground. How it’s gotten to this point, I don’t understand.”
After Neal’s statement, the jury retired again to consider his fate. This time they took just one day – five hours – to reject the death penalty and to decide that Kevin Neal should spend the rest of his life behind bars.
“It’s not fair!” Sue Neal shouted as the decision was announced. “All he’s going to get is (expletive) life!” She started toward the defense table. “I hate you!”
Just like they had to do three years earlier outside a farmhouse in rural Champaign County, sheriff’s deputies had to restrain Sue Neal to keep her from attacking her husband. Across the courtroom, unnoticed amid the commotion, in the corner of a window that overlooked the carefully manicured courthouse lawn, a solitary fly buzzed futilely against the glass, driven by instinct to seek the Kentucky bluegrass on the other side where, most assuredly, there would be a place for her eggs.