With the holidays season behind us I thought I would take some time to talk about the people we miss and those who miss them.
The missing person phenomenon is often referred to as America’s ‘Silent Epidemic’. It’s not just the United States, it’s one shared universally. People are reported missing around the globe daily for a variety of reasons. Those cases that go unreported, create difficulty for law enforcement and medico-legal investigators tasked with identifying human remains that remain unidentified.
Sadly, it’s an all too familiar story. Skeletal or decomposing human remains are found by a person out walking their dog in the woods. Or they’re walking downtown in a big-city and peek down an alley where they see someone laying near a trash dumpster. If investigators are lucky enough to find identification nearby, or they’re able to match the remains to a missing person’s report or they make an identification using many of the available forensic science techniques, then it’s “case-closed”, unless of course the person is classified as the victim of a homicide. But if all the above fails, investigators will often reach out to their local forensic artist for help reconstructing the person’s face to make it suitable for media release.
Working on unidentified deceased persons is always challenging. In my opinion many are homeless drifters who are transitory by nature and far away from home. That posed a challenge for police many years ago, when the only avenue they had for release were local news stations or newspapers.
With many of the unidentified decedents likely being from outside the broadcast or circulation areas, they had little to no chance of being identified because their family or friends would be less likely to view the sketch. Today, social media, provides increased opportunities for a positive ID because it provides more reach and a much larger audience. These sketches garner even more interest around birthdays or holidays when we’re missing our friends and loved ones.
Though I have been creating faces from unidentified remains and skeletal cases for many years now, I have recently enjoyed some of my greatest successes.
During the last 6 months I’ve been asked by Baltimore Police Homicide Detectives to assist them with two young unidentified women. In both cases there were no signs of foul play. One was white and the other black. Both were found in alleys with no identification and nobody who could account for their identity.
Because they were found in various states of decomposition, it would be thoughtless and unprofessional to show them as they appeared in death. Not to mention it would be callous and undignified.
Homicide detectives hoped that I could use my experience as an investigator and skilled forensic artist to restore how they might have appeared in life. This would allow detectives to unleash the power of social media as a strategy to attract the attention of someone who might recognize them.
When I receive a request from law enforcement, I ask for ALL relevant facial photos. This allows me the opportunity to review the photos and select the best quality photograph. Especially those with a frontal or near frontal pose.
Next, I’ll open the photo in Adobe® Photoshop® Elements. They have a couple of great photo enhancement tools I often use – Adjust Facial Features and Open Closed Eyes.
To begin I open the photo and use Adjust Facial Features. It allows me to rotate, change the tilt and rotation the face. Once it’s in the proper position, I switch to the Open Eyes tool.
I recommend that you maintain a robust supply of facial reference photos. You’ll need them when you use Open Eyes. Select a set of open eyes that look similar in shape to the deceased person’s closed eyes. Open Eyes will seamlessly transfer them and voila! Your deceased person suddenly looks alive.
Now, it’s time to save the updated image and move back into Adobe Photoshop CC. To clean up facial trauma I use the Healing Brush and/or the Clone Stamp. To make other adjustments, I use Liquify. To update hair and clothing, I pull from my trusty supply of facial reference photographs.
To finish, I transfer the image to Corel® Painter where I create a new layer. This allows me to make some light brush strokes and enhance certain features, such as using hairbrush tools to touch up their hair. The completed work is a hybrid of photo and sketch.
I rarely, if ever, create a NEW sketch. It’s my opinion that important information can sometimes get lost in translation. That’s why I always try to work directly from a photograph. Some artists are very good at sketching from a photograph to create a portrait without sacrificing the likeness. Really, all that matters is the person is identified, and their most valued possession – their name, is returned to them.
The persons in the Baltimore Police cases highlighted above were identified within 48 hours of their release on the department’s Facebook page. Luckily, their friends and/or relatives saw the department’s post and recognized them from my sketches. Posting photos of wanted persons and sketches of unidentified remains creates an unheard-of level of engagement. The posts that displayed these images were shared over 1,000 + times.
Despite the efforts of law enforcement, medico-legal and volunteer groups many cases remain unresolved. Go online and you can find their websites for reference. One that I use consistently is NamUs.org.
Forensic artists who are reading this probably have your own technique for producing these images. Investigators in our audience who have open, unidentified cases should consider producing facial images to post online.
Here at SketchCop® Solutions we are working with organizations to add new tools and training to offer our law enforcement clients. I am currently undergoing training to learn Craniofacial Superimposition techniques as an identification tool, including access tools driven by artificial intelligence technology that we can’t wait to share.
In the meantime, I still try to squeeze in some time to practice sketching. I hope you’re all working to improve your creative edge as well.
Oh…one more thing. Don’t forget to stop by www.SketchCopAcademy.com and check out our new course – Forensic Art in the Age of COVID-19. We’ll be recording the audio for our next course – Introduction to Forensic Art which should be ready by our next newsletter.
In the meantime, stay safe and be well. And as always – Keep on Sketching!