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Death of roach-eating contest winner remains a mystery

By Anna Edgerton, The Miami Herald –

MIAMI — Eddie Archbold ate so many live roaches he had to cover his mouth with his hand to keep them from crawling out. He swallowed the 3-inch insects faster than he could chew, trying to down as many as possible in four minutes to win a pet python in a most unusual eating contest.

It could be weeks before an autopsy can determine why the West Palm Beach, Fla., man died. But experts said that eating roaches, while disgusting, shouldn’t have killed him.

None of the other participants in the “Midnight Madness” bug-eating competition at Ben Siegel Reptiles in Deerfield Beach on Friday night got sick. There were four ball pythons to be won, and so many people signed up, the store owner decided to have a meal-worm-eating qualifying round.

“It was pretty disgusting, but I like to participate in the reptile community and I don’t mind putting on a show,” said Matthew Karwacki, a 26-year-old student at Florida Career College in Lauderdale Lakes who won a lesser platinum ball python in the cricket-eating contest. “I guess if you really want a snake you can eat a hell of a lot of bugs.”

Over the course of the night, Archbold ate more than 60 grams of meal worms, 35 three-inch-long “super worms” and part of a bucket full of discoid roaches. He started vomiting after the last contest and collapsed outside the store.

Dr. Bill Kern, a professor of entomology at the University of Florida, said it could have been an allergic reaction to so much foreign protein that killed Archbold.

“We know cockroaches shed a lot of allergens, but they’re not toxic in and of themselves,” Kern said. “Very few (human) cultures tend to eat cockroaches because they store large amounts of uric acid and nitrogenous waste. And they tend to be scavengers and feed on things most people wouldn’t consider to be desirable.”

Luke Lirot, an attorney representing Ben Siegel, the store’s owner, said the roaches Archbold ate sell for a dollar a piece as reptile feed. He said these insects are “raised in a sterile container from the time they’re little critters” and are perfectly safe to eat.

All the contestants on Friday night signed a waiver acknowledging the risks of “1) Gastrointestinal illness; 2) Adverse allergic reactions — especially in those with shellfish allergies; 3) Injury or pain associated with consuming live insects as they pass through the esophagus.”

Karwacki said he stood right beside Archbold as they gobbled down super worms to win a pastel ball python. All eight contestants in that round finished their 35 super worms, prompting store owner Siegel to bring out the discoid roaches he had been saving for the last round.

“I just had one roach and tapped out after that. The taste did not suit me, but the texture for sure was the worst part,” Karwacki said. “If you could look inside a dirty gutter and scoop up what’s in there, that’s what went through my head. All the other contestants kept eating roaches, but I had to look away.”

The event had been well publicized in the close-knit community of reptile breeders and snake aficionados, and the store was packed.

Siegel is a well-respected name in the reptile trade, and this was the first time he had hosted such an event, although he regularly puts exquisitely colored snakes, frogs and lizards up for auction on Facebook. The trade is largely unregulated, and people who are active in the community say reputation goes a long way when expensive pets are at stake.

Ball pythons, like the ones up for grabs in Friday night’s competition, are “the biggest commodity in the reptile industry,” said Karwacki, who used to breed snakes. Because of the 75 to 100 single base gene mutations, he said there are “literally quadrillions of different color and pattern combinations” that breeders can develop.”

Archbold entered the competition to win the ivory ball python — worth $850 — for a friend.

When Joe Ellis, a snake breeder from Virginia Beach, Va., heard about Archbold’s death, he was worried about the image such a story would create for the reptile-breeding community.

“Even though we can be looked at as freaks, most people in the reptile community are extremely intelligent businessmen, doctors, and very compassionate with the animals.”

Archbold leaves behind two daughters, ages 6 and 9, and Ellis helped organize a fund to help support his family.

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