When it comes to solving crimes, many skill sets are needed. Many people will have to contribute their knowledge for a case to be solved. Forensic Sculptors combine elements of science, art, and math to recreate the faces of people whose skulls have been left unidentified. While it is not a field for which university training exists in the US, it is a fascinating job that requires both excellent technical sculpting ability and working knowledge of anatomy, biology, and anthropology.

When unidentified remains are found, detectives will explore many avenues in attempting to determine who the remains belonged to. For skeletonized remains, the identification process typically is resolved with dental records or DNA extracted from bone marrow. If an individual has had some sort of skeletal repair or cosmetic implant, the serial numbers can be used to determine the identity of the patient. 

These methods work well for individuals who were well documented in their lifetimes. But what happens when someone has limited or no access to medical care? What if the individual is not listed with DNA registries? With individuals who are homeless or undocumented, these are very common realities. Also, people who are younger, such as children, can be difficult to identify due to their not being old enough to have government issued identification. 

For the more elusive victims of crime, more creative methods of identification must be used. When an unidentified skull comes through the medical examiner's office, various formulas can be used to determine the age, biological sex, and racial ancestry of an individual. Our forensic anthropologist uses these formulas to help us provide fuller information about the skulls in our collection. A forensic sculptor takes this information and builds upon it, literally.

This photo is from Frank Bender's obituary in the New York Times, featuring some of his sculptures.

In the past the forensic sculptor would quite literally sculpt with clay on a skull to restore the identity. Using pegs placed at key points on the skull to show the depth of flesh that would occur, the forensic sculptor applied formulas based on the age, sex, and ancestry of the individual to make educated guesses about the appearance of the individual. These pegs then informed the application of plasticine clay to form the face of the deceased. This process is not exact, and relies on the skill and instinct of the sculptor. Artists like Frank Bender pioneered this field, but much has changed with the introduction of technology to the process.

This Is Forensic Sculpture, A Combination Of Art And Science That Aims To  Solve Cold Cases | HuffPost
A photo from the Huffington Post from the article: "This Is Forensic Sculpture, A Combination Of Art And Science That Aims To Solve Cold Cases"

We had the privilege of speaking with Forensic Imaging Specialist Paloma Galzi about her work at the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children. Her job is a fascinating blend of modern design tools, mathematical equations, artistic rendering, and computer knowledge.

Paloma, holding a skull.

Paloma received her Masters Degree from The University of Dundee in Scotland in Forensic Facial Imaging. This is the only program in the world of its kind, and it focuses on four expertise areas: age progression, forensic facial reconstruction in both 2D and 3D, composite sketches, and facial analysis. 

Age progression helps law enforcement give an estimation of what a person who went missing many years ago might look like in the present. Forensic facial reconstruction is using skulls to determine the way people looked in life. Composite sketches are what you often see in crime shows, where a victim or witness will describe a person in question, and an artist will work with them to create an image of that person so the public can help in identifying them. Facial analysis is used in identifying a found person and determining their identity based on how they might have aged, comparing them to photos of missing persons . 

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 2020 Heroes' Awards at  Nationals Park
The Logo of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

Paloma uses all of these skills at the NCMEC. She primarily works with a software called Freeform Modeling, made by 3D Systems, that was originally made for interior and industrial designers. The software has been adapted for forensic use, and the setup includes an arm on the side of the monitor that allows her and other Forensic Imaging Specialists to physically feel the things they are sculpting digitally. The FBI releases new standards of how to properly reconstruct skulls every year, so Paloma and her team use these equations to go through the process of forensic facial reconstruction. They might also use morgue and crime scene photos to add to their knowledge. Much like the clay sculpting of the past, the process used is called “pegging the skull” where markers are put on the skull to determine where tissue would rise and fall from. Using the Manchester Method that says applying muscle before facial features for improved accuracy, the facial muscles are then applied, followed by the facial features such as the nose and mouth. While the skulls might be 3D printed for training purposes, most professionals do not use physical sculpting anymore because digital sculpting is faster and more accurate. Because the artist can see all layers of the skull, muscle, and facial structure digitally, it allows for a more correct interpretation of the skull. It does help with understanding the process though. 

A still of Paloma's process on TikTok @galziforensics

When providing these images to law enforcement, usually a bust of the person is required. Often, Forensic Imaging Specialists will put their 3D scans through photoshop to make them more realistic.  Because forensic imaging cannot predict eye color, hair color, or skin color, these images are typically black and white, to prevent inaccurate judgments from both the artist or the public being asked to identify the person. 

The Bear Brook Murders are still unsolved – and totally terrifying – Film  Daily
Forensic Images that helped to identify victims of Terry Rasmussen.

Paloma also described a famous case she worked on, the Bear Brook Murders of Allenstown, New Hampshire. Serial killer Terry Rasmussen disposed of the bodies of one woman and three children in Bear Brook State Park in two sealed barrels in 1985. Many years later when the bodies were discovered, they were unable to be identified at the time. Forensic reconstruction of their faces was required. Paloma was responsible for two images that helped identify the victims, helping to solve a decades old crime. 

Paloma, who is originally from Paris, France, says that her journey to becoming who she is today was difficult, but possible. After getting her masters, she waited three years to have a full-time job in her field. Because Forensic Facial Imaging is considered by some to be an art, and therefore the last resort of police departments, it is not a popular field in Europe, but there are some opportunities in the UK. Paloma came to the United States so she could find opportunities, and eventually landed her job at NCMEC. If you are interested in this field, she suggests you apply to the program she went to, or if you are unable, to attend as many trainings and conferences on the topic as possible, build up your skills and knowledge, and make connections with local law enforcement to offer your services. 

Forensic Imaging is an incredible tool that can change the course of investigations. We are thankful for people like Paloma who make such important contributions to the world of forensics.