Crime scene invaders

Wed, 09 May 2012 10:47:00 BST

Forensic scientist Stefano Vanin can tell detectives whether wounds were caused by a killer or by legions of insect assailants

FORENSIC scientist Dr Stefano Vanin is unmasking the planet’s tiniest criminals – minute creatures who contaminate crime scenes and threaten to throw detectives off the scent.

Stefano Vanin

Italian-born Dr Vanin (pictured), who lectures at the University of Huddersfield, is making valuable discoveries which will enable crime scene investigators to determine whether injuries to a body or damage to a corpse’s clothing were caused by a human killer... or were the work of insects which moved in after death had taken place.

Very often, says Dr Vanin, tiny creatures can cause lesions to a dead body which closely resemble injuries left by a human assailant.  For example, ants which clamber over a corpse’s face can deposit marks which mimic the effects of a punch.  It is vital that detectives are quickly able to separate post-mortem insect damage from wounds that were caused before death by a killer.

Dr Vanin is building up a body of knowledge about the various ways in which insects can distort crime scenes and he reports on some of his latest findings in the new issue of the journal Forensic Science International.  This time he investigates the damage caused to dead bodies that are found underwater, where they are preyed on by aquatic creatures.

It was the retrieval of the body of a 28-year-old man in the River Brenta, at Padova in Italy, that provided Dr Vanin with the opportunity to add another piece to his jigsaw of knowledge.

The man had drowned – witnesses had seen him struggling in the water – and there were no signs of injury on the body.  But during the autopsy a series of small abrasions in the upper eyelids were discovered. These were caused by large numbers of amphipods – tiny, eyeless crustaceans which had been feeding on the body and were discovered when the corpse was pulled out of the water.

This enabled Dr Vanin and his colleagues to analyse and record the post-mortal damage caused by the amphipods.  The marks were very similar to those deposited by ants on dry land.

As a result, when detectives and forensic scientists are examining future corpses recovered from fresh water, they will have data which will help explain unusual markings on the body.

Born in Treviso, Dr Vanin came to the University of Huddersfield in March 2011.  His previous post was at the University of Padua.  His research is wide-ranging.  For example, he is involved in a project to analyse some of the hundreds of mummified bodies, possibly 500 years-old, that were discovered in the vaults beneath a church at Roccapelago in Italy.

And he has played a role in one of Europe’s most notorious murder cases, which culminated earlier this year in the jailing of Italian killer Danilo Restivo, found guilty of the gruesome killing of Heather Barnett in Bournemouth.

Restivo’s alleged first murder victim was the Italian girl Elisa Claps in 1993.  Her body was not discovered until 2010, but a link – the fact that Restivo cut the hair of his victims – was made between the two crimes.  Dr Vanin was asked to estimate the season of Elisa Claps’s death and to analyse modifications to the crime scene that were possibly due to insect activity.


  • The article ‘Post-mortal lesions in freshwater environment’, by Stefano Vanin and Silvano Zancaner, appears in Forensic Science International 212 (2011)


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