Using little more than modeling clay and a set of soft, eraser-like dowels, Ms. Gatliff transformed unknown skulls into eerily lifelike busts. Her work helped identify murder victims, catch killers and give solace to grieving families. “She was kind of the grand doyenne of forensic facial reconstruction,” said her former student and collaborator Karen T. Taylor, a leading forensic artist.
Ms. Gatliff developed a new method for facial reconstruction in the late 1960s and then spent nearly five decades refining her technique and teaching it to hundreds of students, including at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. She worked on at least 300 cases, with an estimated 70 percent “hit rate” of positive identification, as police used photographs of her work to generate leads and give a name to John or Jane Doe.
Working out of a home studio dubbed the SKULLpture Lab, she put a face to victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, sculpted a bust of President John F. Kennedy for a congressional committee investigating his assassination, and reconstructed the face of Tutankhamen, the ancient Egyptian pharaoh, and Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador.
“I think everybody deserves to be identified,” she told the Oklahoman newspaper in 2002. “Family and friends need to have that closure and know what happened. Everybody’s somebody’s daughter or mother or cousin. Everybody’s got somebody.”
Ms. Gatliff was 89 when she died Jan. 5 at a hospital in Oklahoma City. The cause was complications from a stroke, said her nephew John Gatliff. She never married and leaves no immediate survivors.
Decades before the creation of high-tech crime procedurals such as “CSI” and “Bones,” and years before the widespread use of DNA profiling, Ms. Gatliff worked to give criminal investigators a powerful — if not always effective — new tool in identifying victims. Her work emerged out of a partnership with Clyde Snow, an eminent forensic anthropologist and colleague at the Federal Aviation Administration’s office in Oklahoma City.
Together they developed what is known as the Gatliff/Snow American tissue depth method, in which more than 20 short stubs of soft plastic are glued directly to the skull, at different heights according to the average depth of tissue at various points, such as the top of the forehead and thick sides of the cheeks. Ms. Gatliff would then use the stubs as guides, spreading clay from one marker to the next.
The height of each dowel was determined with the help of tables created by Snow and other forensic anthropologists, who poked needles into the faces of recently deceased bodies as part of their research, factoring in age, gender and ancestry.
But if the sculpture was in part a kind of “connect the dots” project, with clay spread from dowel to dowel, the results of different forensic artists varied widely. “There are some people out there, what they turn out doesn’t even look human,” Snow told the Wall Street Journal in 1987. “When Betty Pat does it, we know the end result will look like the person.”
Features such as the nose were difficult to judge from the skull alone, and Ms. Gatliff drew on ophthalmology, dentistry and a deep understanding of craniofacial anatomy to render her sculptures as accurately as possible. She rubbed the clay with sandpaper to incorporate a lifelike texture, added glass eyes, eyebrows and a wig, and whenever possible showed the teeth, which she noted was “the only part of the skull a family’s ever seen.”
After about three days of work, she would photograph her completed bust from several angles, then clean off the clay and return the skull to the police. Photos were used to generate leads, and identifications were confirmed using scientific evidence such as dental X-rays. One of her subjects, an unknown man who had hanged himself, was identified by police after comparing photos of Ms. Gatliff’s sculpture with 327 mug shots.
Her work was not always successful. In 1980 she reconstructed the faces of nine unidentified victims of Gacy, the suburban Chicago serial killer convicted of 33 murders; one of the victims was later identified with help from dental records, and two more were confirmed using DNA evidence.
Ms. Gatliff also reconstructed the face of King Tut using a plaster skull casting; victims of Gary Ridgway, a Washington state murderer known as the Green River Killer; soldiers who died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; and members of Imperial Russia’s Romanov family. Much to her surprise, she was also enlisted to help a living subject, a young salesman who had nearly died after being impaled during a car crash in 1990. Surgeons asked her to help them rebuild his skull, by creating a model of what it was like before the accident.
“That was beyond my expertise,” she later recalled in an interview with the Oklahoman. But after meeting the salesman, identified only as Mark, she used a CT scan to build a clay reconstruction of his undamaged skull, enabling technicians to fashion a metal implant that returned many of his normal features after a 13-hour procedure.
It was “the most excited I ever saw Betty,” said Taylor, the forensic artist.
Betty Patricia Gatliff was born in El Reno, Okla., on Aug. 31, 1930. Her father was an architect and carpenter, and her mother was a homemaker and accomplished quilter.
Ms. Gatliff studied mathematics and art at the Oklahoma College for Women (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) in Chickasha, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1951. She worked briefly as a Phillips Petroleum Co. draftsman before entering the civil service as an illustrator for the Navy and then the FAA.
Her forensic sculpting grew out of a suggestion from Snow, who later helped identify Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele and died in 2014. He encouraged her to look at a recent textbook by anthropologist Wilton M. Krogman, who had “a little thread of an idea” about “putting a face on a skull” — an idea that had previously been carried out by Soviet researcher Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov, said Taylor.
“According to what Betty Pat told me, Dr. Snow saw it as a potential technique worth exploring, should it be needed for crash identification victims in the future. She wasn’t too enthused about doing it at the time,” Taylor added by phone. But the project took on an additional urgency after Snow, who was also a consultant for the state medical examiner’s office, was asked to examine the unidentified remains of a young man. It became Ms. Gatliff’s very first reconstruction project, ending with a positive identification.
Her forensic work effectively remained a side project until 1979, when Ms. Gatliff retired to found the SKULLpture Lab out of her home in Norman, Okla. She taught at schools including the University of Oklahoma, the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Scottsdale Artists’ School in Arizona, and was a technical consultant for the NBC medical mystery show “Quincy, M.E.” as well as the 1983 movie “Gorky Park.”
Ms. Gatliff retired about five years ago.
While her work was literally a matter of life and death, she was far from dour. Her home was filled with playful skull-shaped cookie jars and knickknacks; a collection of at least 400 large belt buckles (many adorned with skulls as well); and a trove of cowboy hats, some of which she stored on bronze busts of her reconstructed skulls.
“I’m more amazed by the human skull every time I work with one,” she told People magazine in 1980. “What the Creator has given us just can’t be improved on.”