From nothing but bones, forensic artists give a face to the unidentified
When you think of an artist, drawing dead people is probably not the first thing that comes to mind, but that’s exactly what a forensic artist does. In this episode, we meet two forensic artists who piece together clues allowing them to take a human skull and turn it into a portrait of how a person looked when he or she was alive. Going from skeletal remains to a drawing or 3-D likeness of a person is part science, part art and part magic. In this episode, find out how they interpret the clues to turn a skull into a human likeness that helps solve cold cases and unsolved murders.
DISCLAIMER: This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Tim Horne, Orange County, NC Sheriff’s Department: So our first, you know, composite looks more like a white child later composites look more Hispanic, Latino, you know, you go with your best available information. At the time and that's what we had.
Amanda Lamb: Tim Horne is the retired investigator who solved the Bobby Whitt case. The boy whose remains were found beneath a billboard in rural North Carolina. Early DNA testing in that case led detectives to believe the victim was Caucasian, then possibly Hispanic. It wasn’t until years later that better testing suggested the boy actually had an Asian mother.
Tim: And so after all these years of pumping out fliers of Caucasian, Hispanic looking children, we find out boom, this child is, is Asian descent as well.
Amanda: While this was a huge break in Horne’s case, he still beats himself up over the early attempts at creating a picture of Bobby that turned out to be wrong.
Tim: Cause I mean, you feel like my God, I've wasted how many years trying to find this child? And I’ve, when you show a flier to someone, you have to get pretty close for someone to recognize it. And so there's a lot of luck involved and, and, you know, I felt very defeated. Like how many people, if I'd had the correct composite, may have identified this child back in the day?
Amanda: But after the boy was identified as Bobby Whitt, Tim Horne finally got a real photograph of him. He put that picture side-by-side with that flawed, early portrait they’d made. Surprisingly…
Tim: At the end of the day, the composite that they sent back to me looked very, very similar. To Bobby Whitt.
Amanda: Since the early days of that case, with the advent of more sophisticated DNA testing and anthropologists who can give forensic artists very specific characteristics of a person, facial reconstruction is getting more precise with less information.
From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains: stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb.
Today on the show: How DO investigators make these sketches of peoples’ faces - when all they have to work from is a skull?
Amanda: The first documented facial reconstruction dates all the way back to 1883. Perhaps the first famous use of this technique occurred in 1895 when a Swiss anatomist created a 3D facial reconstruction using the skull of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach. This became the inspiration for an 8-foot bronze statue of the musician which still stands in front of St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, Germany today.
And while we’ve come a long way since then, the practice is still as subjective as it is scientific. No two facial reconstruction pictures by two different artists will ever be exactly the same.
But these imperfect pictures are still one of the most recognizable tools investigators use when they’ve exhausted all other leads in identifying someone. Because if you can create an image of a person from their remains that’s similar to what they looked like when they were alive, there’s a chance someone might recognize them.
Mike Mullins: Well, I'm Mike Mullins. Um, I, uh, I was a police officer in New York, just north of New York City. And then I started working in law enforcement here in, uh, North Carolina, the Raleigh area.
Amanda: Mike Mullins has cop written all over him. He’s a small man with dark hair and chiseled features. He looks and talks like someone who just walked off a TV crime drama set in character.
Mike is now fully retired. And while he still comes across as a tough guy who’s seen some mean streets in his career, he became known for something else during his many years as an officer.
Mike: I had a side, um, training as a composite and forensic artist where 90% of the time I'm doing composite sketches of suspicious persons, but I had been trained also in postmortem drawing, which is the drawing of deceased remains in the hopes of identification.
Amanda: Mike fell into forensic sketching by accident.
Mike: I could, uh, brag about, uh, that I showed all of this, uh, prowess as an artist, but I got into it by, uh, drawing a cartoon on somebody's locker of them. I got called into the lieutenant's office and he goes, did you draw that? Did you draw that cartoon on Donovan’s locker? And I was like, am I in trouble? No, I just want to know. And so, I said yeah. Then he asked me if I could draw real people. And I said, I think so.
Amanda: At the time, Mike says, he didn’t know that by “real people” his lieutenant meant sometimes he would have to draw dead people.
Police are usually reluctant to release photographs of a corpse to the media. So, they often ask a forensic artist to draw a picture based on the body of what the person most likely looked like. Police then release that picture hoping someone will come forward with an identification.
Mike: I had a case where somebody was hit by a car. He had no identification on him whatsoever. I went up to the ME's office and basically. I stood over the cadaver and I took a few pictures of his face, but it was, uh, he had received, uh, lacerations and a broken nose when he was struck by the car. So I, uh, kind of corrected the features to try to figure out what he would have looked like before the, the accident and they eventually identified him through the newspaper.
Amanda: But there are other cases where all police have is a person’s bones. And starting from that is a whole other ball game.
Mike: We've probably trained together thousands of hours, over probably at least 15 years.
Gina Barry: Mike and I both went to the FBI Academy and took the forensic facial imaging. Which was like some of the best training I ever got.
Amanda: I’m not exactly sure what someone who draws pictures of dead people looks like, but Gina Barry is definitely not it. She wears her dark hair in a sleek, youthful ponytail and sports a baby blue polo shirt and shorts. She’s more soccer mom than a person who handles skulls.
She retired from the Dutchess County DA's office in New York. She and Mike often worked together on cases. Gina’s since moved to North Carolina. So they’re coincidentally, in the same state again and still open to working on cases together.
Gina: I also, like Mike, did composites, facial reconstruction. I've been doing this since 2000.
Amanda: Gina and Mike are part of this small group of incredibly specialized artists around the country who are certified to do these kinds of drawings from skulls, and they’ve worked on dozens of cases.
But they still remember that first case. It was in the early 2000’s. They were both working in the same precinct.
Mike: It was New York State Police had a cold case. Some body…skeletal remains found in, I think it was Harriman State Park.
Amanda: The park is about 30 miles north of New York City and spans more than 47,000 acres. It’s the second largest park in the state. So, trying to figure out who someone is and where they came from, it’s pretty much a needle in a haystack situation.
A million people visit the park every year. To give you some perspective: when you Google “remains found” and “Harriman State Park,” you get pages and pages of cases that date back years. Apparently, it’s not that uncommon for bodies to be found there.
Mike: They shipped me the skull. And, uh, the first thing I did was call Gina to come on over because we hadn't done one like it.
Gina: I hadn’t done one yet either.
Amanda: The skull was sent to them by the Medical Examiner up state. Mike says they were told it was a white man who had been shot in the head. His remains had likely been in the park for a very long time.
Investigators had hit multiple dead ends on the case. Their only chance was to put a picture of the man out there and hope the right person saw it and could identify him.
Gina: Well, we had to partially reconstruct that one, right? Because it was missing part of...
Mike: I think it was missing part of the skull.
Amanda: In the park case, because the man had been shot in the head, a piece of his skull was missing, so they had to fill in that piece before moving on to anything else.
Gina and Mike say every good facial reconstruction begins with an anthropologist’s report. The report tells them about the person’s sex, age, and ethnicity. These details inform everything they do as they try to reconstruct a picture of that person.
Gina: An anthropologist’s report is key, you know, this is a, a joint effort, not just with the artists, but it's, you have to have anthropologists, odontologists the police.
Amanda: An odontologist is someone who studies the structure of the teeth. Like an anthropologist, they can discern a lot about people by just looking at their teeth, especially the age of a person.
Mike: They can get the, um, tell you where this person, um, was born. You know, by testing the minerals in your teeth and bones and stuff like that. Cause I wish I had had the information before I started a few of the skulls that I had done only because I drew them a certain way because of where they were found.
Amanda: So the more information you guys have, the more accurate the picture will be.
Mike: Yeah. And that's again, that's where the anthropologist comes in. She pointed out that this person has a severely broken nose, you know, just cause of the way that, um, the, uh, the tip of the nose just bent, And so I, you know, I drew him with him, you know, a pronounced, broken nose.
Amanda: Then, they take this information to the forensic artists’ bible of sorts.
Forensic Art and Illustration was written by the guru of forensic artists, Karen Taylor. Mike and Gina have actually done some training with her.
In this book are a lot of different charts. Each chart lists 21 locations that correspond to a place on a skull. Beside each of those locations is a measurement referencing the average depth of a person’s tissue at that point on the face.
Knowing a person’s age, sex and stature helps the artists narrow down which depth chart use.
Mike: Like if you, if you touch your jawline, your cheeks, you'll, you'll feel there's a lot more meat there. Cause that's, cause you have a lot of muscles there cause you're, you know, eating and talking and you're always using your jaw. So it’s one of the strongest muscles in the body. So that's naturally going to be a lot thicker than say right over here. That's the thinnest part of, you know, right. To be like on the forehead. It's not something we make up, but we're going by scientific measurements that were done years and years ago of various races.
Amanda: So basically you've got the skull and you've got all the measurements of the skull and if you know the race and the measurements of the skull, you can look up, okay how would they be, how would the face be shaped?
Mike: So you're going to cut all these tissue depth markers, and there's a whole list of them. Some, you have to make two of them because you're putting along both sides of the face
Amanda: For this example we’ll use an average white male since that’s the type of victim Gina and Mike were dealing with in the park. The center of his forehead should have a tissue depth of about 4.25 millimeters, cheeks approximately 13.35 millimeters, and his chin should be somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.25 millimeters.
And again, these are just averages. It’s not a perfect science, but it’s about as close as they can get to understanding what someone’s face may have looked like.
Gina: And then we would cut the tissue depth markers to place where those numbers are. I brought this. That shows you where all the tissue depth markers are.
Amanda: Gina shows me a photograph of a skull with little white markers sticking out all over it. They kind of look like cigarettes cut at different lengths. Sometimes she says she uses long pieces of pink erasers.
Mike: And then you're gluing them.
Amanda: So you're literally using the person's skull to recreate what they look like.
Gina: The skull pretty much acts as a template for the drawings that we do.
Amanda: The skull with all these markers is then photographed from different angles. That’s the basic template they use to draw the face. But that just gives them the rough shape of the face. The nuances come from a person’s features.
Gina: When you smile, people generally show 10, 12 teeth depending on how big, like Julia Roberts, I think you can see her entire set of teeth. You see a lot of teeth because her smile is so wide.
Amanda: Most of us have our lips parted when we are interacting with others, not closed. So when Gina and Mike draw a picture from a skull, they put something in between the rows of teeth as they draw to simulate someone with a parted mouth.
Gina: Usually I'll put a pencil in here
Mike: I usually roll up a piece of masking tape to put in the middle and I put them between the teeth because nobody ever has their teeth clenched together. There's always an openness in your mouth. So that's how your face will look.
Amanda: And then, there are the eyes – the windows to the soul. And in the case of forensic artistry maybe one of the most important details in identifying someone.
Gina: And the fact I love is that when you're born, your eye is the same size as it is now.
Believe it or not only do our eyes not grow, they’re also the same size as everyone else’s.
Gina: When you look at the skull you can actually see two parts where the muscles actually connect. So right here is where this muscle connects.
Amanda: Gina says what makes your eyes look different from someone else’s is a combination of the shape of the bone around your eye and the muscles that attach to the bone that help you move your eyes. There’s bumps and ridges on the skull that can help them figure all this out.
Gina: You actually take a quarter because that's how big your eye is 20, it's 25 millimeters. And it's like the size of a ping pong ball.
Amanda: For her drawings, she literally tapes quarters into the eye sockets to see how they sit in the skull.
The next feature, uses toothpicks.
Gina: These little toothpicks, actually what they are, they, they are right here. So that's what you see, so it gives me a sense of where the ear would be.
Amanda: A sense of how far they stick out.
Amanda: So you said ears in general line up. How?
Mike: Kind of the top of your eye, especially when I'm drawing composite with the top of your eye to the, to the bottom of your nose, somewhere in there.
Amanda: But Mike and Gina agree that the ears are a bit of a guessing game.
Amanda: The human nose is a lot of cartilage, so by the time Gina and Mike get a skull, what they’re working with is a hole, something they call the nasal aperture. The size and shape of the hole helps them determine the size and shape of a person’s nose.
Gina: And then you would just measure out depending on the race, certain millimeters…five millimeters, eight millimeters, and then you would just draw the wings of the nose based on also the bottom part.
Amanda: Sticking up from the bottom of the nose hole is the nasal spine. It’s a really small and fragile bone… but it can help them figure out the angle of the nose.
Mike: You can tell it’s a downturned nose, a big nose or a small upturned nose just by the, um, by the nasal spine, which if you're lucky enough that it's still on.
Gina: So sometimes they're broken off.
Amanda: This whole process: gluing tissue depth markers, taping coins in the eye sockets, toothpicks for ears, it all seems incredibly tedious, time-consuming. But both Gina and Mike say it’s how you get the most accurate drawing of a person.
And even with all this, well it’s not perfect. No one’s face is actually as well-aligned as their drawings are.
Gina: There's no sides that are exactly the same thing.
Mike: Tom Cruise, only person who has almost an exactly symmetrical face.
Amanda: And so for Gina and Mike, there’s no bit of information that is too small when it comes to facial reconstruction. Anything investigators can give them helps them to visualize the person and in turn, translate that vision onto paper.
Gina: When they got a body or they have skeletal remains, I always ask for clothes if they have clothing, because that's key to somebody’s size, you know, if there's a sense of style, you know, things like that, that would help, you know, help us do the drawing.
Amanda: Even if we don’t recognize it at the time, the way we see people takes all this in. A face without all that is harder to recognize, and that’s what they’re ultimately trying to make – an image that someone sees and immediately goes “I know who that person is.”
After the break how art can solve a case.
Amanda: When someone is missing, or murdered, investigators always hope their loved ones will come forward and identify them. But when this doesn’t happen, detectives often resort to asking a forensic artist to reconstruct the person’s face in a picture that they can share with the public.
Gina: We’re kind of a last resort almost because they don't have anything else.
Mike: You know, by the time they get to facial reconstruction. They've kind of run out of everything else.
Amanda: Do you ever do a reconstruction like this, and then they identify the person and you go, wow. I was spot on. Or do you go, eh, I was close?
Gina: Kind of Close… Like they're never exact.
Mike: Some people refer to them as facial approximations, because you could tell, um, the approximate thickness of the lips and the length of the mouth and where the eyes supposed to be but, you know, and even the, uh, the length and thickness of the nose, but you really don't know a hundred percent the shape of the nose.
Amanda: Mike Mullins and Gina Barry both have drawings on the NAMUS website, the National Missing And Unidentified Persons System. That's often where law enforcement puts information about missing people in the US.
If you go to the site, the portraits come in a range of styles. Many are pretty rudimentary. Some are photographs of 3-D clay busts. Some are drawn digitally. Others, like the kind Gina and Mike do, are hand drawn.
What we’ve described so far with toothpicks and coins and erasers, that’s just the underlying framework for these completed drawings. How Gina and Mike take that skull and turn it into a picture of a person, well that’s where the artistry and interpretation comes in.
Gina shows us a hand-drawn picture of a skull with depth markers on it. Then she flips the page on her sketch pad that superimposes a picture of a woman on top of that skull.
Amanda: This was the remains of a woman that was found. A skull.
Gina: Yes. And other and other skeletal remains were found.
Amanda: On December 17, 2015 a road crew found the skeletal remains of a Black woman believed to be in her late teens or early twenties in a town called Ephratah in upstate New York.
Based on what they found around her--bedding, some clothing, other personal belongings--they thought she was probably homeless, and possibly a sex worker. An anthropologist estimated she’d been dead between 3 to 9 years.
Where the woman’s bones were discovered, investigators also found several short dreadlocks along with her skeletal remains, and they found a wig.
Gina: They found these parts of her hair. So, um, They weren't attached because there was really not any tissue, but they were in, wrapped in the blanket they found her in.
Amanda: After putting together the underlying framework for her sketch, Gina drew one portrait of the woman with the short dreadlocks. And then she drew a few others with different wigs.
Gina: So I have the wig, I looked online, found pictures, and so I drew her with different, different hair. So I drew her with hair like that. So you can see how hair changes what somebody looks like.
Amanda: Gina says it’s important to give people choices, not to remain so narrow in your approach. She showed me the different versions of the woman on her sketch pad. Flipping through them one by one.
Gina: Here's the wig. So yeah, they put all of the drawings out, the three different ones so that it helps possibly identify somebody that didn't know, that maybe knew her with the wig.
Amanda: The picture is detailed – a Black woman with a round face, engaging eyes, detailed enough that it seems like a picture someone who knew her might recognize.
The woman had one other key feature, a unique feature that Gina knew could be a game-changer in terms of identifying her. She included it, prominently, in the picture.
Gina: Because of the gap in her teeth, I felt like that was an identifying feature. So I drew her with her mouth open because that's something people might recognize. I mean, it's never going to be exact, but you just want to capture a likeness so that it generates a lead to identify the person.
Amanda: The local Sheriff was really hopeful that Gina’s work could help identify this young woman. He’s quoted in the community’s newspaper at the time, saying “We wanted to put these pictures out so people can really see what we believe she looked like.”
To this day, Gina doesn’t know if her picture helped, if the police were ever able to identify the woman. It’s the same way in the park case she worked on with Mike. They never did find out if their reconstruction helped solve the mystery.
Unfortunately, that’s usually how it goes. Once the portraits are done, the police take it from there and don’t often follow up with the artists about further developments in the case. If there is a resolution, the forensic artist usually finds out by accident.
But every once in a while, they get a chance to see how their pictures have a direct impact on these investigations.
Mike: I was drawing from a photograph that they gave me, but this was a woman who was beaten to death.
Amanda: The photo was taken at the crime scene. It was pretty brutal.
Mike: Her body was thrown in a ditch and set on fire, but the killer wrapped the head in a towel because I guess it must've been so much blood from beating her to death. That, you know, they were able to save the face, and when they took the photographs and, um, so I took the photographs and I tried to, you know, educated guessing, remove as much distortions as possible, the swelling…
Amanda: While the woman’s features were distorted, Mike did the best he could to create an accurate post-mortem drawing. Based on what he could make out, he believed she was Latina. So, he strongly urged investigators to make sure the drawing was visible to that community. It was just a hunch, but it was a strong hunch.
Mike: I said that to them and they finally put it in a Spanish newspaper, a local newspaper. And somebody called and they, um, and this guy who called and said, that looks like my neighbor, who I haven't seen in a while.
Amanda: The tip generated by Mike’s picture of the dead woman led investigators right to the killer’s doorstep.
Mike: Police officers knocked on the door. Guy answers the door. Yes. She no longer lives here. She went back to Cuba. That was my girlfriend. We broke up. Can we come in and talk to you? Yeah, they come in, they talk and they saw a few things they thought were suspicious.
Amanda: Police got a search warrant for the boyfriend’s house.
Mike: They went back in and they found a shrine dedicated to her, you know, you know um, lighted candles and crucifixes and stuff like this.
Amanda: Then a cadaver dog located a pair of hands in the home that the killer had cut off and saved from the woman’s body. DNA testing proved they belonged to the dead woman Mike had drawn.
Amanda: Had you not done this, post-mortem drawing that they disseminated to the media and specifically the Latino community, this case probably wouldn't have been solved.
Mike: Right. It felt great.
Amanda: It’s passion for this kind of resolution that pushes people like Mike and Gina to keep doing this even now that they’ve both retired.
Gina travels around and speaks to groups about forensic art, explaining how it can make or break a case. But even when she is using a real skull to explain something – to me, to a group, she and Mike are always keenly aware that this person lived.
Mike: We never forget that this is the remains of a person.
Gina: Correct, we don't use it as a prop. You don't joke around with that. It's actually, somebody could be somebody's daughter, somebody's son, you know, somebody's mother. So you want to do the best you can to help, you know, give this person a name so that the family can have some peace.
Amanda: So while facial reconstruction and post-mortem drawings aren’t an exact science, they are evolving along with the forensic science that supports these artists.
We’re asking someone to reach beyond the grave and create a likeness of someone they’ve never met. And there are lots of documented cases when doing just that was the key to solving the mystery.
Amanda: On the next episode of What Remains… a young man disappears without a trace.
Chris Thomas: Not knowing where your kid is at…it's almost like, I feel like I'm drowning and I can't breathe, but I never get to die. That's what it feels like.
Amanda: This episode of What Remains was written by me, Amanda Lamb, and produced by Anita Normanly. Our executive producer was Wilson Sayre who also edited the episode with mixing from Marc Maximov. What Remains was directed by Shelly Leslie. Please subscribe to our podcast on whatever app you use. That makes it easier for us to get you the latest episode. Thanks so much for listening.