Zakaria Erzinçlioglu

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Date: 2002-11-11

Zakaria Erzinçlioglu who has died of a heart attack aged 50, was Britain's leading forensic entomologist (an expert in the application of insect biology to criminal investigations) with three decades' experience in solving all manner of grisly crimes; he was also the author of the fascinating, if gruesome, Maggots, Murder and Men (2000).

In this book Erzinçlioglu, who described himself as a "maggotologist", explained the scientific basis of his work: "When a body begins to decompose, it releases volatile compounds with particular chemical compositions. These are the odours that attract a fly to a corpse."

Once the odours disappear, usually within a few weeks of death, flies ignore the corpse, so by calculating the age of the flies and fly larvae found on the body, a forensic entomologist can determine with a degree of confidence how long ago (and often in what sort of environment) the person died.

Erzinçlioglu, or "Dr Zak", as he was affectionately known, was a professed admirer of the methods of Sherlock Holmes and, like his hero, was unsqueamish about death. He observed that "viewed dispassionately a dead human body is a magnificent and highly nutritious resource," and claimed to find "a great deal of beauty" in the blowflies and other insects whose maggots thrive on decaying flesh.

During his career, Erzinçlioglu helped to solve more than 200 murders, including those committed by Robert Black, alias "Smelly Bob", who was convicted in 1994 of the murders and rapes of three young girls. He was also consulted in 1985 during the investigation of the murder of 14-year old Jason Swift by members of a paedophile ring. Erzinçlioglu's evidence in this case showed that Jason had been killed indoors and not in the woods where his body was discovered.

In 1984, Erzinçlioglu's evidence helped to convict Dr Sampson Perera, a dental lecturer at Wakefield accused of murdering a 13-year old girl he had adopted illegally and kept as a slave. Perera had chopped his victim in pieces and hidden her remains round his house, laboratory and garden.

When the remains were found, he claimed they were sterile bones he used in his medical research. But by identifying a particular fly which was still present on some of the bones, Erzinçlioglu was able to prove the bones had been recently dismembered, a crucial piece of evidence in the prosecution.

Despite his evident relish for his subject, Erzinçlioglu was a soft-spoken man of immense compassion and integrity who never forgot the human tragedy behind the forensic evidence, believing that "the last aspects of your life have to be dealt with as well".

Zakaria Erzinçlioglu was born on December 30 1951 in Hungary to parents of Turkish origin. He was partly brought up in Egypt and the Sudan and partly in England, where, as a child, he contracted polio, and as a result developed a limp.

He started out an as entomologist interested in how insects transmit diseases and obtained a degree in Applied Zoology at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1975. From 1976 to 1981 he worked for the Zoological Society of London as a compiler for the Zoological Record.

In the early 1970s, he was telephoned by police who needed someone who knew something about maggots. They came back to him again and again and, as he recalled, "soon I thought, 'well, this is an interesting area'." In 1981 he moved to Durham University to study for a doctorate with Lewis Davies. His thesis was on blowfly eggs and larvae and their development.

Not all his forensic investigations were grisly. On one occasion he was consulted by a firm of vintners accused of negligence by an aggrieved customer in Scotland who had found a spider in one of their bottles of wine. Erzinçlioglu identified the spider as Clubonia diversa, a species which does not occur indoors but is common in boggy areas of the north.

He concluded that it was difficult to see how the spider could have entered the wine during bottling and since the complainant lived in a marshy area of lowland Scotland, it was likely that it had entered after the bottle had been opened, probably during an alfresco party.

In 1984, as an employee of the Field Studies Council, he moved to Cambridge University, where he worked with Henry Disney in the Zoology department. Among other publications this resulted in Blowflies (1996 - volume 23 in the Naturalists' Handbook series). He was then funded by the Home Office to undertake research in forensic entomology and was later appointed director of a new Forensic Science Research Centre at Durham University.

Erzinçlioglu fought constant battles for funding, and in 1995, shortly after the Royal Army Medical College had awarded him their John Grundy Medal for medical entomology, the centre was forced to close. He returned to Cambridge as an affiliated researcher at the Department of Zoology and continued to do case work for the police.

In 1997, however, he announced that, in future, he would only carry out forensic work if paid by the judiciary. Explaining his decision in an article in Nature in 1998, Erzinçlioglu claimed that that incompetent and dishonest forensic scientists were undermining Britain's criminal justice system.

The Government's decision to make the forensic science service an agency of the Home Office, he argued, had led to the development of an unregulated market in which lawyers acting for one side or the other in criminal trials could effectively buy the evidence most favourable to their cause.

Erzinçlioglu recommended that a fully-staffed statutory body should be set up, answerable solely to the judiciary and not dependent on the "goodwill" of its customers. Much of Erzinçlioglu's later forensic work was concerned with miscarriages of justice - work he often carried out for nothing.

In the last years of his life, Erzinçlioglu spent much of his time working from home writing books. Maggots, Murder and Men was the runner-up in the Crime Writers' Association 2001 Silver Dagger Award for non-fiction. He also wrote Every Contact Leaves a Trace (2001), as well as a children's story, Ivo of the Black Mountain, and a thriller, Jackdraw Crag, which have yet to be published.

Erzinçlioglu served, variously, on the council of the Linnean Society and of the Zoological Society and as a member of the National Trust Wicken Fen Management Committee and the advisory committee of the Centre for Albanian studies. He was a trustee of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Rescue Foundation.

At the time of his death he was working on books on poisons and on miscarriages of justice as well as a play. He participated in television programmes on forensic science, including the documentary The Witness was a Fly, which was shown on the BBC.

Zakaria Erzinçlioglu married, in 1984, Sharon Wynne Davies. She and a son and two daughters survive him.

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