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Insects help convict killer

When two FBI agents and a Bakersfield detective hauled a radiator and an air filter, splattered with insects, into the Bohart Museum of Entomology, they weren’t there to contribute to the museum’s seven-million insect collection.

They wanted museum director Lynn Kimsey, a UC Davis professor of entomology, to identify the insects and their geographical location for an upcoming mass murder trial.

“I saw it as a puzzle to be solved,” Kimsey said of the car parts embedded with several hundred insects. “I’ve never heard of anyone doing this.”

The prosecution claimed that Vincent Brothers, a former vice principal, drove a rental car from Ohio to California and killed five members of his family. The defense argued that the car had never left the Ohio area.

The trial began Feb. 22 and ended May 15 with the jury convicting the 44-year-old defendant of five counts of first-degree murder in the July 2003 shooting and stabbing deaths of his estranged wife, three children and mother-in-law. On May 29, the jury recommended the death sentence. Formal sentencing is scheduled for August.

GrasshopperKimsey, one of 137 witnesses called to testify in the internationally publicized case, told the court that several insect species picked from the car parts are found only in the West and one was abundant in California. They included a large grasshopper, a paper wasp and two “true bugs.” (A true bug is a wingless or four-winged insect in the order Hemiptera, with mouthparts adapted for piercing and sucking.)

The grasshopper is found in the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rockies. The paper wasp’s territory is west of the 100 meridian, with California as “its center of abundance,” she said. The two true bugs are also found only in the West; both are found in Southern California, Arizona and Utah.

When Kimsey and senior museum scientist Steve Heydon picked off the insects from the car parts (it took them seven or eight hours), “we found no butterflies–no painted ladies, no sulphur butterflies. That indicated to us that the car wasn’t driven during the day, but at night.”

“The insects we found were consistent with two major routes to get to California from the East,” said Kimsey, adding that court testimony revealed 4500 unaccounted-for miles on the rental car.

Kimsey described the landmark case as “interesting but terrifying.”

“I’ve never been to a criminal court before,” she said. “It was nothing like what Hollywood portrays it. It was all seriousness. The judge tolerated little off-track behavior.”

During her five-hour testimony, illustrated with a slide show, the UC Davis entomologist showed the distribution of the insects on a U.S. map, and compared insect photos from the car parts with specimens from the Bohart Museum.

Kimsey identified the large grasshopper by its leg, comparing the size, coloration and markings to a specimen at the museum. She testified that the hind legs of the grasshopper “help us identify” the species. The size of the large leg (red with black markings) indicated that the grasshopper measured close to two inches long.

“The jury seemed very interested in what I had to say,” Kimsey said.

Following her testimony, the defense called four entomologists to counter her evidence–three from Purdue and one from Illinois.

“The defense tried to make a case that insects are easily distributed,” Kimsey said. They also questioned her expertise in diagnostics, systematics, field work and publications.

Kimsey, director of one of the country’s largest insect museums, has identified insects for more than 30 years. She manages the insect diagnostic service on the UC Davis campus (through the Department of Entomology). The author of some 90 publications, she focuses her research on the biology and evolution of insects; biogeography of insects; functional morphology, dealing with the form and structure of insects; and systematics, or the science of classification.

Kimsey was trained by world-renowned entomologist Richard M. Bohart (1913-2007) of UC Davis, who founded the Bohart Museum in 1946.

“I didn’t know anything about the court case,” Kimsey said. “I couldn’t even identify the defendant when I entered the courtroom.”

A Kern County radio station referred to Kimsey as “The Bug Lady” In a piece posted on its Web site (www.kernradio.com) on April 2:

“The Bug Lady was on the stand in the trial today. Entomologist Dr. Lynn Kimsey of UC Davis testified about the insects found in the radiator and air filter of the car rented by Vincent Brothers in Ohio. This is the Dodge Neon that prosecutors say he drove to Bakersfield to kill his family before driving it back to Columbus. The bugs found included several that she said were specific to living west of the Rockies. They included a paper wasp, a certain grasshopper and a pair of ‘true bugs.’ The defense will bring their own insect expert to counter Dr. Kimsey’s testimony.”

Brothers’ third wife, Joanie Harper, 39, their three children, Marques, 4; Lyndsey, 2; and Marshall, 6 weeks old, and Harper’s mother, Earnestine, 70, were found dead on July 8, 2003 in their Bakersfield home.

In April 2004, Bakersfield police arrested Brothers–an employee of the Bakersfield City School District since 1989, and vice principal of Fremont Elementary School since 1996–on suspicion of committing the murders.

Brothers said he was in Columbus, Ohio, at the time of the murders. The prosecution successfully argued that he caught an airline flight from California to Ohio, rented a car, and then drove to Bakersfield to kill his family.

As for Kimsey, she suspects that the Bohart Museum of Entomology will wing its way into court testimony again.

“This may open up a whole new path for us,” she said.

(Thanks to Kathy Garvey of the Department of Entomology for contributing this.)

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