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Computerized Skull Reconstructions

Fri, 02/10/2012 - 3:00pm
Ernie Allen

CT scans and computer modeling allow for faster facial reconstructions to expedite missing persons cases.

For more than two decades, Coroner Del Atwood Jr. has been haunted by the discovery of human remains at the base of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains. This was someone’s child. But whose? He turned to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), one of only several places in the world that performs computerized skull reconstructions. Perhaps someone there could help identify “Baby Doe.”

Deer hunters discovered the partial skull in 1988, tightly wedged in the crevice of a large rock. Because of the position of the skull and other remains, the child’s death appeared to be a homicide. Despite a thorough investigation, the child’s identity remained a mystery. Baby Doe was buried in an unmarked grave. Then in 2009 new information emerged about two missing children, and a judge gave permission for the remains to be exhumed. Atwood launched a coroner’s inquest.

Atwood, the longtime Big Horn County coroner, said a task force was formed and more testing was initiated on the remains. Learning that NCMEC has had success with skull reconstructions, the coroner carefully packaged the fragile skull and sent it to the nonprofit organization’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

Most skull reconstructions performed by the center’s Forensic Imaging Unit have been done the traditional way, placing clay directly on the skull to rebuild the face. So far, eight of those 68 clay faces have been recognized, providing answers to their families. About five years ago, the four-person unit, which also performs thousands of age progressions on missing children, began exclusively doing computerized skull reconstructions.

Performing a CT scan on the skull at INOVA Alexandria Hospital.

While the results are the same using either method, there are advantages to this sophisticated technology, said Glenn Miller, supervisor of the unit.

“It is cutting edge as far as skull reconstruction,” said Miller, a senior forensic imaging specialist. “You don’t have to put clay on a fragile piece of evidence. And in the virtual computer, you can move it around at any angle. There’s no question that it’s the way to go in the future.”

The process requires that a CT scan [computed tomography] be performed on the skull, producing a three-dimensional photograph that can be loaded onto a computer. David R. Hunt, a physical anthropologist at The Smithsonian Institution, works closely with NCMEC to help identify skeletal remains. But when Baby Doe’s skull arrived, the Smithsonian’s CT scanner was broken. Under a unique partnership, INOVA Alexandria Hospital performed a CT scan on the skull during off hours to help identify the child, as it has done three times before.

Joe Mullins, a skilled forensic imaging specialist at NCMEC, has reconstructed about 30 faces on his computer, including one that helped crack a cold case from 1995, when a 20-year-old California woman suddenly vanished.

As he does with each skull, Mullins used the 3-D photograph as a blueprint of what the child looked like before it died. Hunt, the anthropologist, believed the Wyoming child was no older than two. By studying the child’s skull, Mullins can determine the thickness of the lips, the width of the nose, the shape of the eyes, even whether the earlobes were detached. A skull cannot, however, reveal other features, such as the type of hair, skin tone, or eye color. And a child this young has not fully developed, making it impossible to determine gender.

Joe Mullins' workstation in the Forensics Imaging Unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

That’s why, when the skull is the only evidence, it is vital to recreate a generic face and to always do it in black and white, Mullins said. The goal is not to produce an exact image, which simply can’t be done, but one that will “spark recognition.” There is no room for artistic license, said Mullins, who came to NCMEC eleven years ago with a background in fine art and graphic design.

“As you’re putting the face on, you eventually see a face staring at you,” said Mullins. “I stop when I see the victim looking back at me.”

Mullins went to Scotland to study under Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, a renowned expert in 3-D skull reconstruction. Wilkinson was the first person to realize the enormous potential of this technology, which was developed for use in industrial design, not human identification.

Mullins said the software enables him to do a skull reconstruction in three or four days, about half the time it takes to sculpt one with clay. INOVA Alexandria’s help with the CT scans has been invaluable, said Mullins, who teaches the technique and hopes that one day other hospitals around the country will help law enforcement solve cold cases.

 

 

The CT scan provides a framework for the reconstruction.

Joe Mullins performing the skull reconstruction.

“It’s like CSI in real time,” said Robert L. Winters Sr., INOVA Alexandria’s CT clinical coordinator, as he watched a CT scan being performed on the skull found in Wyoming. “It’s breathtaking. It could bring closure to a lot of families.” The hospital and Mullins also worked on an infamous cold case known as “Lady of the Dunes,” in the hopes of helping law enforcement learn the identity of a young woman whose remains were found in 1974 in the dunes near the northern part of Cape Cod.

There are an estimated 40,000 sets of unidentified human remains in this country, described as “the silent scream” and the “nation’s silent mass disaster.” That estimate includes as many as 25,000 skulls—and 25,000 opportunities to help solve mysteries and bring a measure of peace to relatives.

Atwood, the Wyoming coroner, said that the deer hunters also found rib bones, leg bones, and a mound of what appeared to be flesh at the site. Bruce R. Wiley, DMD, a forensic odontologist on the task force, sent the child’s lower jawbone to the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas for DNA testing. But over the years, water flooded the grave, and only partial DNA was found, he said.

The task force decided to return to the crevice and conduct an archeological dig in the area, just in case other evidence had been washed away from the site. To their amazement, they found a very rare ceremonial pipe, one of only seven ever recovered, along with 13 beads like those that trappers once traded with Indians. This time, they sent a vertebra and tooth to the University of Wyoming for carbon testing. The results were stunning.

“It’s clear we have an historic find,” said Atwood. The child was Caucasian of mixed ancestry, either Hispanic or Native American, and lived in the 1700s. “How in the world could we have a Caucasian child from that time? How do you rationalize still having flesh present?”

Those will all be questions the coroner’s inquest will tackle when it reconvenes later this month. Mullins’ skull reconstruction won’t be needed now to help determine the child’s identity, but it will shed light on what this child may have looked like, long before Lewis and Clark set off on their journey from St. Louis in 1804.

“That’s why I love my job,” said Mullins.

Ernie Allen is President and Chief Executive Officer of the NCMEC. He has brought technology and innovation to the Center, including computer age progressions, a CyberTipline, and a Child Victim Identification Program. He also founded and is CEO of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children which is helping to create a global response to the crisis of missing and exploited children.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Since it was established in 1984, the organization has operated the toll-free 24-hour national missing children’s hotline which has handled more than 3.4 million calls. It has assisted law enforcement in the recovery of more than 169,000 children. The organization’s CyberTipline has handled more than 1.2 million reports of child sexual exploitation and its Child Victim Identification Program has reviewed and analyzed more than 58,000,000 pornography images and videos. The organization works in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Justice’s office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. To learn more about NCMEC, visit its Web site at www.missingkids.com.

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