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Forensic Artists Bring The Dead Back To Life For Cold Cases

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Associated Press/Chris O'Meara
The Florida Channel
Forensic artist Joe Mullins of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children works with fellow artists on facial reconstructions at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla.

In a basement classroom on the University of South Florida campus, Joe Mullins is bringing the dead back to life.

He's doing it with clay, scalpels and 3D printing technology in hopes of reviving a cold case out of Alachua County, Florida. In 1987, a teenager was driving a stolen Corvette when he struck a tractor-trailer head-on. The teen was burned beyond recognition.

No one ever came forward to report him missing or claim the body.

Now Mullins, who is a forensic imaging specialist with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, is recreating the teen's skull and face. It's part of a weeklong class put on by the center, Tampa-area law enforcement agencies and the university's Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science school.

There are a dozen students in the class, which is led by Mullins. They're working on sculptures for unidentified people from nine cold cases, some of which have been unsolved for 40-plus years.

The first step is to construct the skull. Since the forensic artists can't use the actual skulls because they're evidence, Mullins figured out that skulls can be 3D printed from plastic. It takes hours for each skull to be printed as a thin thread of plastic feeds into a machine, which builds the skull layer by layer. Then the clay is put over the plastic model of the skull.

"It's a bit of a challenge to create a face from a skull," said Mullins. "You have to have that artistic ability flowing through your body."

The artists smooth over, pinch and sculpt the faces out of the clay. Eyeballs are inserted into sockets. Among the most challenging tasks: forming lips.

"Has anybody gotten frustrated yet?" Mullins asked the class. "Today is going to be the worst day ever. Lips are going to be the hardest thing you've ever tried to sculpt in your entire life."

He showed how the instinct will be for the artists to pinch the clay to form the mouth — but that will result in duck lips. Instead, they should mold the lips around the curve of the face, so they look more natural.

The students are spending the week sculpting, never forgetting that the works of art in front of them were once someone's husband, daughter or mother. At the end of the week, there will be a show — "The Art of Forensics" — and the images and information will be released to the public and featured on law enforcement websites, in hopes of generating leads and solving the cold cases.

"What you're doing is fantastic," Hernando County Sheriff's Det. George Loydgren told the class. "It's priceless, to be able to identify somebody for a family. Somebody hopefully reported these people missing."

The Tampa workshop is the second such session. Earlier this year, Mullins held a similar class at the New York Academy of Art, and one of the 11 unidentified victims from that workshop was positively identified. More workshops are planned in Tampa.

The students and Mullins are also working with Erin Kimmerle, an anthropology professor who explains details about each unidentified person — gender, age range, ancestry. She's known for her excavation of unidentified graves and DNA testing of students at the now-closed Dozier reform school on Florida's Panhandle.

"The first thing the artist has to do is take their artistic license and set it aside, because they don't have any," said Mullins. "They have to stick with what that skull is telling them ... There's no wiggle room. An artist can slap a face on here but that's not going to do any good if you don't capture the unique characteristics of this individual."

Mullins said that it takes days to capture the right face and the proper feel of a victim.

"The hardest part of sculpting the face is the emotional impact it has on you," said Mullins. "I stop when I see somebody stare back at me."