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FBI Unravels the Stories Skulls Tell

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FBI Unravels the Stories Skulls Tell


FBI Unravels the Stories Skulls Tell

FBI Unravels the Stories Skulls Tell

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Third of a three-part series.

An example of one of the sketches FBI forensic artists can make from a skull. Courtesy FBI hide caption

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Courtesy FBI

An example of one of the sketches FBI forensic artists can make from a skull.

Courtesy FBI

Lisa Bailey looks like your favorite high school teacher — petite, brunette and bubbly — so it is a little startling when she tells you that she is obsessed with skulls.

"My husband can tell whenever I am working on a reconstruction because I will be talking to him, and I will be staring at him, and he'll say, 'You are looking at my skull again aren't you?'" she says, laughing. "And I say, 'I am just studying. I am just looking.'"

Bailey works as an FBI forensic artist — a job the FBI calls a "visual information specialist."On a recent tour of her section of the FBI Crime Lab in Quantico, Va., I see skulls stashed away in drawers and clay heads sitting at attention on the counter.

Bailey does visual reconstructions, creating drawings or three-dimensional representations of people based on their skull remains. And, she says laughing, she takes her work with her wherever she goes.

"I have to stop myself from looking at people in grocery lines because I am going 'What's going on under there?'" she says.

In fact, no one is safe from Lisa Bailey's slightly ghoulish scrutiny, but I will get to that part later.

Giving the Dead a New Life

Facial reconstruction is part science, part art. And FBI experts will tell you that the trick is getting that balance just right. New advances have made the job a little easier, but when people like Bailey, or her boss, Eugene O'Donnell, get a skull, they all start the same way: by talking to an anthropologist.

The anthropologist provides clues about ancestry, O'Donnell says. "They usually can tell shovel-shaped teeth and that might indicate an American Indian," O'Donnell says. "I take all that information and any evidence found, like hair, and try to adapt that into a drawing."

O'Donnell and his team look for clues about where the deceased lived and, by extension, what his or her life might have been like. A Floridian, for example, would likely have skin that has aged more quickly than normal. Features on the skull — like a brow ridge, can reveal whether it is a man or a woman. The anthropologist's job is to provide any snippet of information that might help the special projects team put together a likeness of a John or Jane Doe.

Consider the case of Cynthia Vanderbeek who went missing in 1995. Robert Nichols, a police detective in Montgomery County in Maryland, had been working on the case for 10 years when he stumbled on an FBI reconstruction photograph in 2005 that looked like Vanderbeek.

Nichols said the photograph stopped him cold.

"You just look at the photograph and you just froze," he said. "It was exactly what I would envision Cindy to look like from a reconstruction. The hair was almost to a tee."

Nichols had Vanderbeek's mother send a DNA sample to the lab, and it was a match. Vanderbeek's husband ended up pleading guilty to third degree homicide. The FBI's facial reconstruction was one of the keys to cracking the case. Those reconstructions, actually built right on the skulls, can give the dead new life.

How It Works

The reconstructed faces that sit on the counter at the crime lab look like real heads — only gray and of clay. There are little round tabs peaking through the clay — markers on the face that indicate average skin depths for that particular skull. The markers look like little cigarette butts.

In fact, they are erasers. O'Donnell cuts them to the right length and then puts them on the skull as a marker.

Here's the high-tech, cool part: The FBI is using a laser to scan actual skull remains and build a replica of them.

Bailey aims the laser gun at a skull perched on a wooden stand. A red laser beam appears on the skull. Almost magically, as she runs the laser over the skull, its outline begins to appear in luminous green on the computer monitor. It looks like one of those design systems that construction firms use that allow you to stroll around a virtual building — except in this case, you are poking around a 3-D view of a skull.

The laser can capture fine detail, so Bailey will be able to see sutures in the skull and fillings in the teeth.

Once the scan is complete — it takes about an hour — Bailey sends it to a special machine that builds a 3-D full scale model out of resin. That means increasingly, specialists like Bailey don't have to put clay right on bone. Instead they put it on the skull copy, which is less fragile and easier to work with.

The Anatomy of Dimples

Wes Neville is one of the FBI's visual information specialists who builds a face on the resin replica.

He starts with knowing the anatomy of the face. He knows how muscles wrap around the skull, where they attach to and how to start laying strips of clay on the bond taking into consideration the movement of the muscles and the way they lay on the skull.

Neville, like Bailey, finds himself looking at people differently than you or I might. He narrows his eyes and seems to be looking right through your skin. He and Bailey turned their gaze on me. Then they ask a rather obvious question: "What causes dimples?"

It is an obvious question because I have rather big dimples. I pipe up that dimples are a muscle deformity. They agree.

"But is it the structure of the skull that might cause dimples?" Bailey asks. Bailey says she was looking at some skulls the other day to see if there was some structure in the zygomatic bone — which forms the cheekbone — that causes the split. "We're hoping if we look at enough skulls and live photos we can figure it out."

Then Bailey laughs that she just gave herself goose bumps. "We talk about this all the time," she says.

So, apparently my bones would tell a story, too. Bailey and Neville weren't exactly licking their chops to get to my skull and unravel the mystery of dimples...but almost.