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Forensic reconstruction gives faces, but not yet names, to long-dead victims

By Keith Morelli
Published: October 16, 2015 Updated: October 17, 2015 at 08:54 AM
CHRIS URSO/STAFF
The bust of an unidentified individual who was found in Pasco County in 1981 is seen during a presentation at the University of South Florida at the campus in Tampa. Several busts of unsolved Florida cold cases were on display during the presentation.

TAMPA — To attach a name to the nine long-dead, unidentified corpses found between Hillsborough County and Alachua County over the past four decades, forensic anthropologists first must put a face on the dead.

Nine skulls got makeovers this past week in the hopes someone somewhere might recognize the sculpted faces and come forward with information to identify them and give clues about the circumstances under which they died.

The sculptures of what the dead might have looked like when they were alive were unveiled Friday in the Interdisciplinary Sciences building on the campus of the University of South Florida. The busts are part of a project called the “Art of Forensics: Solving Florida’s Cold Cases.”

“Unknown victims are buried in John and Jane Doe graves, and years turn into decades,” said Erin Kimmerle, USF forensic anthropologist and director of USF’s Forensic Anthropology & Applied Science Department, who hosted the project to help solve cold cases.

“Cold means forgotten,” she said. “Cold means a file cabinet in the basement of a police station somewhere.”

But technology now can assist cold-case detectives assigned the task of identifying unidentified bodies and bring them back into focus years or even decades later. Skeletal analysis and chemical isotope testing, for example, can determine the national origin of victims, and that figures into reconstructing facial features.

Partial skulls can be shaped and reconstructed.

Of the nine busts unveiled Friday, two are from Hillsborough County, two from Pasco, two from Alachua and one each from Polk, Marion and Hernando counties. Seven were unsolved homicides and two were juveniles. The oldest unsolved case dated to 1967.

All the busts and details about the bodies are posted online, taking them out of that file cabinet in the basement, Kimmerle said.

Law enforcement agencies submitted their cases, the ones they think are most likely to be solved, to the project, hoping someone will recognize them and that will lead to positive identification - and in some cases to a murderer.

“In homicides,” said Hillsborough sheriff’s homicide detective Greg Thomas, “the first step is identifying the victims and then who killed them.”

One Hillsborough case was opened on March 14, 2009, when skeletal remains were found in woods near the intersection of Palmetto Road and Surona Road. The victim had been dead from six months to five years.

The skull had been fractured, as were the ribs. The victim was a juvenile.

Paloma Galzi, of France who is studying in London and interning with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reconstructed the facial features.

“You have a skull, a 3D printed skull, and you start building muscle structure to be more anatomically correct,” she said. “It is a best guess, based on science.”

The second Hillsborough case was opened March 14, 1988, when a skeleton was discovered in the Wilderness Park Flatwoods off Morris Bridge Road. The victim had been dead for one to three years and the skull had two bullet holes in it.

Twelve artists began work on Monday on the nine skulls and were finished by Friday. Typically, such sculptures take weeks or longer to finish, Kimmerle said.

Pasco County sheriff’s Capt. Jeff Peake said the collaboration of scientists and law enforcement is long overdue.

“These artists have done an amazing job of bringing these victims to life,’’ he said. “There are nine sculptures here and each one is an untold story; an untold story with a tragic ending, without a name.

“There are families out there searching for their loved ones, and in many cases, offenders out there who haven’t been brought to justice.”

One of the Pasco cases was opened on Feb. 2, 1981, when two boys found the skeletal remains of an unidentified male in a ditch between U.S. 98 and the railroad tracks at Tuskeegee Avenue in Dade City. The individual was between 40 and 50 years old.

The other Pasco case came in on July 16, 1990, when Pasco County detective Rodney Bishop, now retired, was searching an area off State Road 54 near Wesley Chapel for a victim of an unrelated murder. He discovered the skeleton of a man between 40 and 60. The cause of death was a fractured skull.

The idea of pairing 3D printed skulls with a team of artists was introduced by forensic artist Joe Mullins, who has worked for National Center for Missing and Exploited Children for the past 15 years.

Mullins led the workshop in Kimmerle’s lab this week.

“This is the last-ditch effort for these people to get their names back,” he said. He hopes the applied science will lead to answers for families of missing people.

“Not knowing,” he said, “is a nightmare you never wake up from.”

This ground-breaking fusion of law enforcement and modern science might help solve cases far beyond Florida, he said.

“This may clear the shelves of medical examiners’ offices around the world,” Mullins said.

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