The computed tomography scanning machines at Inova Alexandria Hospital are typically used to diagnose strokes, blood clots and other internal injuries. But recently the hospital utilized its CT scanners for an unconventional purpose: to examine the skulls of deceased children who have gone unidentified for years. Over the past year, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children joined forces with the radiology department at Inova to help unlock the mysteries behind three such cold cases, plus that of one adult. ¶ “It’s already a horrible story by the time the skull gets here,” says Joe Mullins, a forensic imaging specialist at NCMEC, a nonprofit based in Alexandria. “Opening up a little box and pulling out the skull of a 7- or 8-year-old who has been found in the woods is tough. But someone’s got to do it, so we use our powers for good to help find missing children and help give them their names back.”
Mullins’s job seems straight out of “Bones” or “CSI.” He uses Adobe Photoshop to reconstruct what the victim looked like, building virtual layers of muscle and skin based on the person’s presumed ancestry and age. A technology called FreeForm modeling allows him to feel the work he’s doing on the computer screen as if it were clay, via a joysticklike arm called a Phantom. The image is then distributed on flyers and to the media in hopes of sparking recognition among the victim’s acquaintances.
But to do facial reconstruction, Mullins first needs to have the skull digitized with a CT scan, which can produce three-dimensional images using X-ray and computer technology. Mullins has been employing this method — CT scan, FreeForm and Photoshop — for about five years. He knows of only two or three other forensic artists in the world who use it. Most forensic artists reconstruct skulls using molding clay as a stand-in for soft tissue.
Although she has never used the technology, Barbara Anderson, a forensic artist with the California Department of Justice, thinks it is especially valuable in cases where the skull is old and fragile, because the specimen receives less handling.
“I think it’s allowing people to do things they’ve never been able to do before with cold cases,” she says. “Only time will tell if it will replace clay.”
Mullins and Anderson both cite the expense of the software as the reason that more forensic artists haven’t gone digital. But just because the technology seems more sophisticated, it’s not necessarily better, Anderson says.
“Your success is all vested in the artist’s ability, 100 percent,” Anderson says. “You can have the best tools in the world, but if your artist doesn’t take the time to understand the case and the bones, you’re not going to get a good likeness.”
For years, Mullins used the CT scanner at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, where the machine is normally devoted to examining artifacts such as mummies, dinosaur bones and Stradivarius violins. There, physical anthropologist David Hunt analyzed skulls to find out the victim’s ancestry, general health and any identifying details. But Hunt’s machine broke a little more than a year ago, so NCMEC had to get creative when authorities in Provincetown, Mass., sent in the skull of the “Lady in the Dunes,” a murder victim whose body was discovered on a Cape Cod beach in 1974. Mullins couldn’t start the facial reconstruction without a CT scan.