Skulls provide clues to police Images reconstructed to help identify dead

October 18, 1998|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

It's been more than two years since the bones were found, and Philip Marll still wonders who she is and why no one misses her.

The Baltimore County homicide detective hasn't turned up many leads since workers stumbled across a skeleton and clothing in the woods near Falls Road south of Gunpowder Road. An autopsy showed no signs of trauma. Forensic investigation determined the bones to be those of a black female about 18 years old and approximately 5 feet 3 inches tall, who had been in the woods for at least two years.

"She's got a mother somewhere out there," Marll says. "You would think you would have somebody calling about their missing daughter."

But no one has -- and without an identity, there is no one to interview, no records to search, no starting point for an investigation.

Stymied, Marll has turned to a relatively new forensic tool: computerized skull reconstruction that works outward from the facial bones to create a likeness between a drawing and a photo.

Only two agencies (and a handful of individuals) offer such a specialized service: the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Marll asked the center, a quasi-public agency in Arlington, Va., to reconstruct a likeness that could be reproduced on television and in newspapers.

Using the skull, the medical examiner's report and a computer program, forensic specialist Glenn Miller undertook the task of reconstructing the face.

From the medical examiner's report, "we knew that she was a black female in a certain age bracket," he said. So the eyes were most likely brown, and the hair was black.

With a few clicks of his mouse, eyes and hair were superimposed on a computer image of her skull. "The skull is telling us where to place the eyes, where the eyebrows are, where the hair begins," he explains. "The skull tells us [where to put] the bottom of the nose."

Next came the mouth -- where the skull provided a big clue.

"She had good visible teeth with one missing," Miller says. "I wanted to open the mouth because she's missing that tooth -- and that's distinctive."

The reconstructed image -- disseminated to the media and police agencies -- has generated a few leads but no positive identification.

"This case has been a sputtering type of investigation," says Marll, a homicide detective for 12 years. "We haven't had a whole lot to work on."

The technology of skull reconstruction using computer-generated images is relatively new, Miller says -- he's done about a dozen of them, including the missing woman's. None has resulted in a positive identification.

At the FBI, skull reconstruction has been used for about eight years, says Richard Berry, head of the agency's Investigative and Prosecutive Graphics Unit. The agency does about 20 reconstructions a year, he says, and gets "hits" -- identifications -- in approximately a third of its cases.

The FBI's artists can do two-dimensional reconstructions using the computer or three-dimensional forensic sculptures in clay, a laborious and painstaking process.

Berry said a composite is often easier to distribute publicly and takes less time to assemble than a clay sculpture.

"It just seems the two-dimensional composite image has worked out the best for us," he says.

Age progression

For the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, skull reconstruction evolved from the center's primary mission of finding missing children. Founded in 1984 by John Walsh after his son, Adam, was abducted, the center employs Miller and a second forensic artist, Steve Loftin, chiefly as "age-progression specialists."

Working from family photographs of the missing child, as well as parents, grandparents and siblings, Miller and Loftin "age" a youngster. To find a little girl who may have disappeared a decade ago, they will study family photographs to see how "dad's eyes" and "grandma's nose" would look on her as an adult.

Next come hours at a computer. The child's face is lengthened, maybe filled out. Her mouth is widened, and adult teeth replace baby ones. Throughout the process, Miller says, the forensic artist works to preserve and duplicate the qualities that distinguish one person from another.

"It's very elusive," Miller says.

The technical challenges of reconstructing a skull are similar to those used to age missing children, he says. An artist uses the same "toolbox" of computer images.

There is one critical difference. For aging of children, the finished image looks like a photograph. For skull reconstruction, the image looks more like a drawing. That is deliberate, the experts say.

"If you show a photo to somebody, they're going to key in on that singular image of that individual," says Berry of the FBI. "But if you do a drawn image, they will key in on the general likeness."

Triggering memory

The process of reconstruction is highly precise, involving tiny measurements of bone and skin, nuances discernible only to a highly trained eye. But the result remains art, not science, say Miller and Berry -- choosing eyes or a mouth or a wrinkle depends on the artist's skill and intuition.

It is impossible to quantify what someone will recognize, what will spur a recollection of a once-familiar face.

"You never really know what's going to trigger somebody's memory," Berry says.

That uncertainty sustains Marll, the Baltimore County detective, as he waits for the lead that will help him identify the young woman.

"You hope that phone call comes in, saying 'She does resemble ' " he says. "We would like to see her put to rest."

Pub Date: 10/18/98

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