FBI Unravels the Stories Skulls Tell There is an old saying that dead men tell no tales. But forensic experts at the FBI's special projects lab could write a book from the information they get from a simple skull. The reconstructions that forensic artists build on skulls can give the dead new life.
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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

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

There's an old saying that dead men tell no tales. But the forensic experts at the FBI's special projects lab in Quantico, Virginia, would beg to differ. They could write volumes on the information they get from one skull. In the third part of our series on high-tech forensics, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports on the stories bones tell.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Lisa Bailey looks like your favorite high school teacher — petite, brunette and bubbly. So it's a little startling when she tells you that she is obsessed - and obsessed is the right word - with skulls.

Ms. LISA BAILEY (Forensic Artist, Federal Bureau of Investigation): 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? And I'm like, I'm just studying. I'm just looking.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bailey and the man giggling in the background are forensic artists. They call themselves visual information specialists. And they are taking me on a tour of their section of the FBI Crime Lab. This is a place where there are skulls stashed away in drawers and clay heads sitting attentively 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.

Ms. BAILEY: And I have to stop myself from looking at people in grocery lines because I'm just going, what is going on under there?

TEMPLE-RASTON: No one is safe from Lisa Bailey's slightly ghoulish scrutiny. But I'll get to that part later. Bailey's preoccupation is actually a good thing. She's part of a team that teases vital information from slightly deformed eye sockets or unusual tooth shapes. She comes up with those drawings of missing people you see on the news or those clay models you've seen on cop shows. 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. They start by talking to an anthropologist.

Mr. EUGENE O'DONNELL (Forensic Artist, Federal Bureau of Investigation): They're talking about ancestry, whether or not they're Middle Eastern or whatever country they're from. It may be a blend - part Indian, part white, part black, whatever. They usually can tell, you know, shovel-shaped teeth might indicate an American Indian. And I take all of that information and any evidence that was found, like hair, and I try to adapt that into the drawing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The anthropologist is looking 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 had 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 is a Montgomery County, Maryland, police detective. He had been working on the case for 10 years when he stumbled on an FBI reconstruction photograph in 2005. It looked just like Cindy Vanderbeek.

Mr. ROBERT NICHOLS (Montgomery County, Maryland detective): I mean, you just look at the photograph and you just froze. It was exactly what I would envision Cindy to look like, you know, from a reconstruction. I mean, the hair was almost to a tee.

TEMPLE-RASTON: 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 built right on bone, right on the skulls, can give the dead new life.

Mr. O'DONNELL: You can see the three-dimensional reconstructions over here.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Eugene O'Donnell guides me over to some reconstructed faces on the counter. They look like real heads, only gray.

Mr. O'DONNELL: Those are done in a clay that's — that never dries. So if they actually work on the remains, they can remove all the clay after they photograph it and send the remains back to the contributor.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He beckons me to come in closer. There are little round tabs peaking through the clay.

Mr. O'DONNELL: These markers on the face are indicating the average skin depths for that particular skull, all right? And they…

TEMPLE-RASTON: They look like little cigarette butts.

Mr. O'DONNELL: In actuality, those little erasers you push through the pencils, you know, you can push it? That's what they are. And they measure by millimeter for that particular area of the face, cut them and put them on as marker.

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

(Soundbite of beeping)

Ms. BAILEY: That beeping you hear, that's letting you know that the scanner's active and when you get close to the skull.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bailey aims the laser gun at the skull perched on the wooden stand.

Ms. BAILEY: The red line that you see, that's where the laser's hitting the skull. You can actually see it on the skull itself. And that's reflected on the monitor. So when we start the scanning, that tone changes depending on how far away you are from the skull. So we're going to hit go…

TEMPLE-RASTON: Almost magically, an outline of the skull begins to appear in luminous green on the computer monitor. It looks like one of those CAD/CAM systems construction firms use that allow you to stroll around a virtual building. Except in this case, you are poking around a three-dimensional view of a skull.

Why, it looks like you're painting the skull.

Ms. BAILEY: It is. It would be similar to if you're spray painting. You just go very smoothly and evenly over the skull and it's capturing all the fine detail. This will be so detailed you can see the sutures in the skull and the fillings in the teeth.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Once the scan is complete, and it takes about an hour, Bailey sends it to a special machine that builds a 3D, full-scale model of the skull out of resin. So now, specialists like Bailey don't have to put the clay right on bone. Instead, they use a skull copy, which is less fragile and easier to work with. Wes Neville is one of the FBI's visual information specialists who builds a face on the resin replica.

Mr. WES NEVILLE (Forensic Artist, Federal Bureau of Investigation): You kind of know how, where the muscles wrap around the skull, where they attach to and then you start laying strips of clay, taking into consideration the movement of the muscles, the way they lay on the skull. Then the artistic part of it comes in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: 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. And he and Bailey turn their gaze on me.

Ms. BAILEY: Like what causes dimples?

Mr. NEVILLE: Yeah. We're discussing how dimples…

Ms. BAILEY: We're trying to figure that out.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They are asking this because, well, I have big dimples.

Ms. BAILEY: Was it the structure on the skull that might cause dimples? We were looking at some skulls the other day, we have several. We have — I mean, it's a split. It's actually a split in the muscle.

TEMPLE-RASTON: I know it's a deformity in the muscle.

Ms. BAILEY: It's deformity in the muscle, but is it possible…

Mr. NEVILLE: But what's causing it?

Ms. BAILEY: …what's causing that deformity? Is it possible that there is some structure on, on the zygomatic bone on your cheeks that is causing that muscle to split? And we're hoping if we look at enough skulls and the live photos, we can figure it out. I just gave myself goose bumps. We talk about this all the time.

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

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And you can catch up on the previous reports in this series at our Web site, npr.org.

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