When Lisa Bailey begins to construct a face, she always begins with the eyes.
Bailey is a forensic artist for the FBI, and, for her, the deep wells of the eye cavity mark a clear, tactile starting point as she molds and shapes clay over the dull yellow of a cured resin skull.
Those skulls — copies of the originals — represent the found but still lost human remains sitting in coroner or medical examiner’s offices across the country. As she works with an anthropologist counterpart — who guides the artist along the way — she constructs what are called “facial approximations” for investigators. The hope is that the life-like clay heads will help family or friends recognize a lost loved one — someone who may have been missing for years.
“This was a person,” Bailey said in her lab at the FBI’s sprawling campus on the Marine Corps Base in Quantico. “There’s something about having that physical presence there.”
On Thursday, the fruits of work from Bailey’s office were on display as Virginia authorities unveiled three “approximations,” belonging to those found in spots around Northern Virginia. Authorities don’t know how they died and don’t necessarily suspect foul play. In each case, other methods of putting a name to the unidentified skeleton, such as dental records or DNA, have failed. But they hope the images will lead to tips, and, ultimately, to names.
Two sets of skeletal remains were found on National Park Service-controlled land in Alexandria and Arlington and the third in Fairfax County. One was found with a broken rosary and Bible in his pocket. Another was stumbled upon by a man walking his dog at a popular fishing spot called Jones Point. And a third was discovered by a maintenance worker under the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.
Leah Bush, Virginia’s chief medical examiner, said that the 220 unidentified remains dating to the 1970s in the state represent a “silent mass disaster.” There are about 40,000 such unidentified remains across the country, according to the National Institute of Justice.
The Manassas news conference marked the third such event statewide by state health department authorities, who have used a federal grant of about $430,000 to take advantage of new technology and hire additional staff members. The FBI lab does not charge states or localities for the facial approximation work.
Authorities are enthusiastic about the results from the first news conferences in the Hampton Roads area and Richmond.
Andre Macklin was 19 when his father reported him missing in 1996, according to the Virginian-Pilot. For years, his family did not know whether he was dead or alive.
But after state officials this year released images of the clay figure created from remains found at a cinder-block factory in Portsmouth, Macklin’s family reached out. Authorities confirmed the remains were Macklin’s. His death was ruled accidental.
And Bush said Thursday that they think they have a match in one of the cases unveiled in Richmond but are waiting on DNA confirmation to be sure.
Bailey and Richard Thomas, an FBI forensic anthropologist, said their goal is to accentuate the knowable — a hooked nose, pointed chin or missing tooth for example — while downplaying that which they don’t know.
At the FBI lab on Wednesday, Bailey pointed to the cheekbone on the man found on January 16, 2003, by a maintenance worker who was cleaning debris from underneath the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. The shape of the pelvis told him the remains were those of a man. The bone structure often indicates ancestry. In this case, Thomas believes he is black, in his mid-30s, and between 5-foot-7 and 5-foot-8.
The cheekbone of the man was pronounced — so Thomas said that his job as an anthropologist was to ensure that the final “approximation” drew the eye to that feature.
The artist will “know how to connect that into the actual flesh,” he said.
The bridge case is one of two the National Park Service is looking into. The other remains are those of an Asian male in his late 30s to early 40s who was approximately 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-9. He was found Feb. 13 by a man walking his dog near Fords Landing Way in Alexandria.
In the Fairfax case, investigators have had leads only to be stymied. On Thursday, officials said writing that they found led them to interviews in Texas, Virginia and the District. A homeless encampment is nearby, so they think he lived there, said Lucy Caldwell, a Fairfax Police Department spokeswoman. He had a broken rosary and a small Bible in his pocket and wore a striped shirt and blue-and-white running shoes.
Officials believe he is an older white man who stood between 5-foot-5 and 5-foot-11. The remains were discovered on April 6, 2006, near Interstate 66 East and Route 7100 in Fairfax.
“Everybody deserves to have closure,” Caldwell said.