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Death Masks

Forensic sculptors aid investigators by transforming skulls into faces.

January 01, 2006  |  by Kelly Kyrik

When Tara Exposito, 14, went missing from her family home in Gulfport, Fla., in November 2002, officers at first considered her a runaway. Even when the skeleton of what was determined to be a small-framed, teenage girl was discovered in East Hillsborough, about an hour’s drive away, it wasn’t at first linked to Tara’s disappearance.

It took the perseverance of Det. Dale Bunten and the skill of forensic sculptor Wesley Neville, a lieutenant at the Florence County (S.C.) Sheriff’s Office, to link the remains to the girl.

Florida teenager Gina Exposito went missing in 2002. Forensic sculptor Wesley Neville helped investigators identify her remains.

First, Bunten sent the girl’s skull to Neville, a full-time certified forensic artist. Neville reconstructed the girl’s face, using markers and clay to flesh out her unique features.

“Upon completion of the reconstruction, I sent the package back to the Florida investigator in charge of the case,” says Neville. “Then, while searching through various missing persons Websites, I came across Tara’s photo, and the likeness was uncanny to that of the reconstruction that I had just completed. The investigators obtained DNA from Tara’s mother, submitted the sample to the FBI lab for analysis, and the match was confirmed.”

Forensic sculptor Wesley Neville was able to recreate the face of 48-year-old Larry Fishman.

Another case that Neville worked on involved the skeletal remains of a man found in Tenille, Fla., in the summer of 2000. There were few leads until the bust that Neville had created using the man’s skull was spotted and linked to Larry Fishman, a 48-year-old man from New York who’d been missing since early 1999. Photos of the man bore a striking resemblance to Neville’s sculpture and a DNA match confirmed Fishman’s identity.

The C.S.I. Effect

The use of forensic art in police work is nothing new. Composite drawings have been part of police investigations for more than a century. Also age-progression drawings are often used to identify missing persons and fugitives who’ve been on the lam for numerous years.

The art and craft of forensic sculpting and three-dimensional imaging using a person’s skull, however, is a relatively new tool for law enforcement. Although the practice has been used for anthropological purposes for many years, it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that these techniques began to make their way into police work.

More recently, forensic sculpting received a burst of publicity when a team of forensic artists and anthropologists used CT scans to famously reconstruct King Tut’s face. In addition, the process has been featured in television shows such as “C.S.I.” and “Bones.”

A lot of criminal investigators and prosecutors bemoan the effect of these shows on the public. But some forensic sculptors say their effect has been good and bad.

“One of the best effects of the exposure of these TV shows is that young people are interested in science in a way they haven’t been before,” says Karen Taylor, author of “Forensic Art and Illustration” and a noted forensic artist. “And that’s giving kids a real-life application and example of physics and science, which facilitates learning. The downside is that we have some confusion about how certain things are done because of compressed time frames [on the shows] and there are also often increased juror expectations due to the media exposure.”

Media exposure is also increasing demand for forensic artists to assist in investigations. Consequently, more and more cold cases are now being investigated using facial reconstruction.

Seth Wolfson, forensic sculptor and author of the book, “Forensic Sculpting, Step by Step in Pictures,” worked on his first case after being contacted in 2004 by Det. Chris McMullin of the Bensalem (Pa.) Police Department.

Investigators found the decomposed body of a Caucasian woman behind a diner, and believed that she had been strangled a year or two before she was discovered. McMullin sent her skull to Wolfson, who crafted the woman’s face in clay, while Sgt. Danny Sollitti, a Jersey City, N.J., officer, worked on a two-dimensional illustration.

“We never looked at each other’s work because we wanted to make sure we were both doing it right,” says Wolfson, who also crafts prosthetics and does freelance artwork. “When we were done, we put it in Photoshop and looked at how each half connected, and it was pretty much on the money. There were a few little discrepancies here and there, but they’re to be expected.”

While the woman has yet to be identified, McMullin feels strongly that Wolfson’s facial reconstruction will be instrumental in solving the case, which was his first working with a forensic sculptor.

“We’ve gotten a lot of leads,” says McMullin. “Nothing has resulted in a match yet, but we’re still at it and I think the sculpture will definitely be key in identifying our victim.”

CONTINUED: Death Masks «   Page 1 of 3   »

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