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Faces in Clay

Date Published
May 19, 2019
Paul A. Haskins

Sidebar to the article Searching for the Missing in a City of Millions, by Jim Dawson, published in NIJ Journal issue no. 281.

Bradley Adams stands in a room where human skeletal remains are laid out on tables, sculpted clay heads of crime victims line shelves high on the walls, and a few odd skulls and bones are scattered on sideboards. As macabre as this room appears, it is the office Adams works in every day as the director of forensic anthropology at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

The cases in the room — be they the heads looking down on Adams or the worn bones on the tables — are all unidentified people. Many of them died violently, as evidenced by injuries to their skulls, and some just turned up dead, the cause unclear.

What they all have in common is that neither the medical examiner’s office nor the police know who they are. Crime scene investigations have been completed, DNA has been taken and submitted to the FBI database, missing persons reports have been studied, but nothing to identify the individuals has been found.

So it falls to Adams and Joe Mullins, a private forensic sculptor, to give faces, and perhaps identities, back to the dead. Adams scans the skulls with a laser and then creates replicas using a sophisticated 3D printer purchased with an NIJ grant. Mullins, who for years has created age progression drawings of missing children for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, takes the replica skulls to the New York Academy of Art in lower Manhattan. There, students enrolled in the forensic sculpting workshop spend a week laboring over the skulls in an effort to give them back their faces.

Mullins comes to New York once a year to conduct the workshop at the art academy with the 3D-scanned skulls provided by Adams. As the five-day workshop begins, Mullins admonishes the students with a fundamental rule: No artistic license.

The class begins with Mullins giving each student the replica skull of an unidentified person. There is a system to constructing a face from a skull that requires an understanding of the relationships between bone structure, muscles, and soft tissue. The shape of the nasal opening is also important, as are the orbits around the eyes.

Usually it is Wednesday afternoon, the third day of the workshop, when the eyes are in place and enough clay has been sculpted that the faces begin to emerge. The class gets very quiet. “It’s hard to articulate,” Mullins says, “but by Wednesday afternoon the students understand the scope of what they are working on, and they’ve gotten a face. It’s no longer just some abstract sculpture. They see that face staring back at them, and it’s dead quiet.”

A connection inevitably forms as the skull turns into a person and the students realize that what started out as an interesting facial reconstruction project has become personal. The faces stare back at you, Mullins says, and you understand that you are, in a sense, resurrecting a person, revealing a lost identity.

The results of four years of the forensic sculpting workshop are the heads that line the walls in Adams’ office. Images of the heads are uploaded into NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, with the hope that one of the faces will look familiar to someone and trigger a phone call.

“We want the face to be in the ballpark,” Mullins says. “That’s where you want to be with these sculptures because there is ambiguity in there. You can’t stray far off the path of what the skull is telling you about the features, but things like hairstyle and facial hair get lost.”

Although the goal is to get the face right, he says, given the ambiguity, “almost is good enough.”

What is critical to remember, both Adams and Mullins note, is that these were real people, mostly the victims of violent crimes, who have lost not only their lives but also their identities. Ultimately, this isn’t about the art of sculpture, it’s about respecting the deceased, finding identities, solving cases, and reuniting loved ones with their families.

As many of the clay faces sculpted in past classes look down at him, Adams turns to the skeletal remains on the tables and explains the graphic stories of the bones. “She was found in a park and had been buried under some leaves and garbage,” he says of what is left of a smaller skeleton of a woman. On an adjacent table is another set of bones. “This case right here was found in a wooded area and had been wrapped up in a carpet,” he says.

He nods toward a third skeleton. “This guy had been shot in the head and had been out there for years.” Next to the shooting victim was a dismemberment case, a skeleton that had been found in pieces. Investigators found the head in a trash bag in a community garden in Brooklyn, while the torso was found at a recycling plant.

“We were able to take the lower-most vertebra that was associated with the head and the upper-most vertebra associated with the torso and fit them together,” he says. “You can see those cut marks — where the head was cut off — you can see those cut marks on both vertebrae.”

He does not know who this person was, but he knows he was male and, based on the “growth zones” in the bones, he can get a good estimate of age. “See how that is bumpy right there,” he says, pointing to the end of a collarbone. “The cap on the collarbone doesn’t happen until your mid-20s, and here it is totally missing, so he’s probably under 25.” He points to a small gap in another bone. “That’s where part of this bone hasn’t fully fused, so that’s more looking like late teenage years. Based on all of his indicators, I bet he’s 18 or 19 years old.”

Other violence was done to the man, all to prevent identification, Adams says. Even if DNA is recovered from the remains, if it doesn’t get a “hit” in the FBI CODIS database — the Combined DNA Index System — the remains, like dozens of others that come through Adams’ office each year, will be unidentified. And the investigation into the murder will go nowhere because the police do not know who the victim is.

Mullins says he and his students have completed the reconstructions of the unidentified skeletal remains in Adams’ office and now the forensic workshop is looking for replica skulls from other jurisdictions. “I want to spread the word [to other medical examiners’ offices] that if you have the skulls of unidentified people, we can get them scanned and work with them,” he says. “Don’t let them just sit there collecting dust. I mean, that’s somebody’s mom, cousin, uncle, aunt, and their family is frozen in uncertainty.”

About the Author

Paul A. Haskins is a social science writer and contractor with Leidos.

About This Article

This article was published as part of NIJ Journal issue number 281, published May 2019, as a sidebar to the article Searching for the Missing in a City of Millions, by Jim Dawson.

Date Published: May 19, 2019