Virginia officials hope facial sculptures solve mysteries

AP News
|
Posted: Apr 09, 2016 10:49 AM
Virginia officials hope facial sculptures solve mysteries

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Their identities are a mystery: the remains of eight people found dead in Virginia between 1972 and 2014, two of them victims of a double murder nearly three decades ago.

In some cases, clues are abundant. There are post-mortem dental charts, clothing, personal possessions, DNA.

But there's no answer to the ultimate question: Who are these people?

The Virginia medical examiner's office is hoping facial models constructed by FBI experts will be recognized by friends or family of the dead and provide long-awaited answers.

It's worked before, most recently in 2012. Lara Newell, an investigator at the Virginia chief medical examiner's office, said a family was notified by a friend who recognized the FBI-created facial approximation of remains found in Richmond in 2004. The deceased person's sister provided a DNA sample that led to a positive identification.

"They were surprised but relieved" to finally know what became of their loved one, Newell said in an interview at the medical examiner's office, where the pale green sculptures of the unidentified eight reside.

Those eight are among nearly 300 unidentified remains cases being tracked by the office.

"Two-thirds are homicides or suspicious deaths," said Dr. William Gormley, the state's chief medical examiner. Learning their identities can help authorities solve cold cases and perhaps apprehend murderers, he said.

But Gormley said there is a more fundamental reason for striving to identify the dead, even if it doesn't seem like anyone has been looking for them: "Everybody is somebody."

So periodically, the medical examiner picks out some human remains to ship to the FBI Laboratory Trace Evidence Unit at Quantico. According to the FBI, a forensic anthropologist determines the possible age range, sex, ancestry and physical stature of the person and relays the information to a forensic artist. The anthropologist also notes skull features that should be emphasized in the sculpture — a square chin or crooked nose, for example.

A three-dimensional laser is used to scan the skull and a copy is created in resin. From there, the forensic artist sculpts the facial features, keeping the actual skull as a reference while working. Because hair and eye color usually are unknown, the sculpture is created in a neutral color so the viewer will focus on facial features that are vital for recognition, the FBI says.

Once models are complete, the medical examiner's office holds news conferences to publicize the facial approximations and enter photos of them into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a searchable database established by the National Institute for Justice.

The FBI performs this service for medical examiners throughout the country, where about 4,000 unidentified remains are found every year. FBI spokesman Christopher M. Allen said that since October, the agency has received requests for 15 facial approximations from eight states.