Delaware crime: A fresh look at cold cases
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Nearly a quarter-century ago, a construction worker clearing a rural field near Marydel found her.
The man noticed a round, whitish object poking out of the ground. He unearthed it, and realized he held a human skull.
State police dug down three feet and found only her lower jaw. On the chin, officials could make out the red block letters "EL,'' part of an illegible word. Though a few teeth were broken, a coroner was unable to determine when or how she died.
Detectives could not identify her, and the case first investigated in 1985 languished for more than two decades.
This year, the cold case was revived. Courtesy of a retired cop in New Hampshire, the state Medical Examiner's Office had a clay face molded over the skull in an attempt to create an impression of the dead woman.
With the facial reconstruction, state police are now investigating whether she could be a Sussex County woman of Asian descent who vanished in 1975, 10 years before the skull was discovered.
The skull from Marydel is one of six that Hal Brown, deputy director of the Medical Examiner's Office, has begun trying to identify, in part by using advances in facial reconstruction. The other five had been reconstructed in earlier efforts, but one -- that of a woman whose head was bashed in with a blunt object -- was reconstructed again this year by a police artist in Michigan.
The Medical Examiner's Office also has eight more full or partial skulls -- found from 1964 through 1998 -- that need further research before facial reconstruction.
Reconstructions in recent years have been instrumental in giving a name to the dead. In one case in England, a reconstruction helped lead to a murder conviction.
The first step in putting a killer behind bars, though, is identifying the victim, which allows investigators to interview friends and family to gather clues about why he or she vanished. But even if a crime isn't solved, identifying the remains allows relatives to finally learn a loved one's fate.
"We speak for the dead," Brown said. "In the case of skeletal remains that are unidentified, there's somebody, a mother or family member or friend, who probably still grieves. Anything we can do to reunite those unclaimed remains with their loved ones, we'll do."
Reviving dormant cases
Brown began trying to revive the six long-dormant cases earlier this year. The unsolved cases had been nagging at him, so he had a college intern take an inventory of the skulls: two from Wilmington, two from the Odessa-Townsend area and one each from Kent and Sussex counties. Brown then set about trying to publicize the cases in the hope of identifying the victims.
All but the one now thought to be Asian had been given facial reconstructions over the past three decades -- at a cost to taxpayers of up to $1,200 each -- to no avail. Science has progressed over the years, so Brown decided to take another shot at getting faces and publicizing the cases, though his budget doesn't include money for reconstruction.
But Brown, a former cop and deputy medical examiner in New Hampshire, ran into former police colleague Mary Fish while teaching a forensic science course in that state. Fish, who dabbles in facial reconstruction, agreed to take one of the skulls free of charge, and Brown sent her the remains from Marydel.
Brown also sought to get a new reconstruction for the Kent County murder case, that of a woman whose battered skull was found with her skeleton at an old dumping ground in Sandtown near Camden-Wyoming in 1993. A Michigan state police artist performed that work for about $250 in expenses for shipping, fake eyes and a wig. All six cases have been enteredinto a database of about 5,800 cases maintained by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a federally funded clearinghouse known as NamUs.
Anthony Falsetti, lead forensic anthropologist for NamUS, said that with facial reconstructions, "we're just hoping to get people interested again, that there's some recognition and other things come to light and ultimately the person could be identified through dental records or DNA."
Mixing science and art, reconstruction expertsuse skull measurements and characteristics to determine race, gender and age. For example, males tend to have a protuberance above the eyebrows and different jaw shape than women. Nasal and jaw structure help determine race.
The basic technique in making the face hasn't changed over the years. The artist places markers made from eraser sticks at 21 spots on the skull to show the depth of the tissue over the bone, and then molds the face using the markers as a guide.
The tissue depth is based on information from male and female cadavers of people of European, Asian and African descent that have been put in databases over the years. As more data has been entered, Falsetti said, artists have been able to better gauge tissue depth.
"Standardization has led to the recognition that skulls of people from different parts of the world are different, even in where the fat is on their face," Falsetti said. "As the data has increased, so has the technology."
Hair length and color, complexion and body weight, however, are tougher to approximate, Falsetti said. If a remnant of clothing such as a pair of pants or shirt is found near the skeleton, artists can use that to help gauge a person's size.
But even with the best clues, Falsetti said, facial reconstruction still takes "a lot of guesswork."
Solving cases elsewhere
Though Delaware has not had any successes so far, they do happen.
This July, a facial reconstruction helped Ohio authorities identify an 18-year-old Wisconsin woman who was slain and found dumped in a cornfield in 1970. Police found the body about the same time her family reported her missing, but authorities did not make the connection. This year, the victim's aunt saw a photo of the reconstruction in a newspaper and called police. The aunt and other relatives provided DNA samples, which proved the woman's identity.
In the late 1990s, an artist in England created a face for a battered skull after a skeleton was found in a shallow grave. The face was put on BBC's Crimewatch UK program, and within days identified as that of a 40-year-old Essex man whose wife had been involved in a love triangle and did not report his disappearance. Authorities later convicted the wife's boyfriend of murder; he had bludgeoned his rival to death with a hockey stick.
In Michigan, trooper Sarah Krebs, who handled Delaware's Sandtown case, has seen three of her nine creations identified. Two were skulls fished out of Michigan waterways: in one case, a police officer saw Krebs' reconstruction and realized it resembled a 19-year-old man who had vanished in 1983; in the other, Krebs was studying a missing persons' database and realized her sculpture was that of a Canadian man who vanished months earlier. The case has since been classified as an apparent suicide.
"When I get a case, it's like a last-ditch effort to getting this person identified," Krebs said. "There's nothing on DNA, nothing on fingerprints and whatever other leads police had have gone cold by the time I get it."
Krebs, who spends about 80 hours on each face, said she gets professional satisfaction from matching a skull with a missing person but called it a mixed blessing. "There's a family on the other end," she said, "that is going to find out that their loved one is no longer alive. No matter how long they have been missing, the family might still think they're possibly out there."
Recreating face and social status
Krebs agreed to handle a Delaware case after being contacted by Brown's intern. "She asked me if it would be possible to work on one of their skulls, and I said sure," Krebs said.
The skull Krebs received had been reconstructed in 1997, without generating any substantive leads. Four years earlier, the woman's skeleton had been found, with a gaping hole in the skull, at the bottom of a 15-foot pit near Sandtown. Leads never panned out, so this year Brown decided to try again, and get a new reconstruction done.
"Someone murdered this woman because her skull was caved in," Brown said, pointing to the spot where the cranium has been rebuilt. "Somebody took something like a baseball bat and bashed her head in."
Krebs spent about two months working on the sculpture to create what she believed would be a true likeness.
"Most of the cases I get are people from the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, such as prostitutes," Krebs said. "When you are trying to make a facial image to put out to the public, you have to pay attention to those kinds of details. You don't want the person to look over-glamorous if they were living out on the street."
With the Delaware victim, Krebs decided she was probably a woman of meager means, partly because she was missing a front tooth and had poor dental work. "So I sculpted her with her mouth partially open," Krebs said, "in case somebody noticed that and recognized her."
Because a barrette with a clump of hair was found at the scene, Krebs theorized she had long hair she tucked into the clip.
"There's quite a bit of science that goes into it early on," she said, "but then it turns into a very artistic piece."
Tracking Marydel leads
Fish faced similar challenges with the Marydel skull, and also had to deduce ethnic origin.
Marks on the skull led her to agree with the coroner that it was from a woman. The way the nasal bone was connected to the rest of the skull led Fish to believe she might have been Asian; so she created such a face, working with the skull's shape to mold the clay.
While she worked, Fish reflected on the woman's fate. She kept her work on a table in her home and studied it every night, making modifications to make her look more realistic.
"I wondered what her story was and what happened to her," she recalled. "I thought, 'Wow, was she an immigrant?' There were a million different things that could have happened to her. I really hope that somebody will figure out who she is."
Because the skull had bore holes on each side, investigators first thought it might have been used for teaching purposes. Brown said the holes and red lettering suggested it might have been used in a ritual. He also theorized a soldier brought it back from Southeast Asia in the 1960s or 1970s. Or that the woman was slain in Delaware, cut into pieces and dumped.
Brown said the skull also will be sent to an anthropologist in Maine to do more research on her ethnicity. Lab analysts will try to extract DNA from the skull, in hopes of being able to match her to a family member should someone make a claim to her identity.
After seeing the reconstruction, state police detectives began investigating whether she might have been one of three women who vanished from Sussex County in the 1970s, with the thought she might have been a victim of foul play, Capt. Robert Hawkins said. "There's a lot more work to be done on this case, but it's worth checking out."
Identifying a person's remains is always important, Hawkins said, whether simply to inform relatives of the death or as a first step in solving a crime.
"Once you can identify the body," he said, "you have something."
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