Albuquerque Journal (NM)
October 21, 2007
Section: New Mexico
Office of Medical Investigator allows forensic artist to use skulls to re-create models of unidentified victims
Author: T.J. WILHAM Journal Staff Writer
Putting a face on John Doe hasn't been easy for cold case detectives. For the past two years, the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department and Albuquerque police have been trying to convince the Office of the Medical Investigator to allow their forensic artist to use skulls to re-create models and images of unidentified bodies, some of which have been sitting nameless for as long as 30 years.
Obtaining skulls, though, hasn't been easy.
OMI says using clay to reconstruct a skull is destructive, and the office points out it has its own artists who can do the same work.
But, last week, the agencies reached a compromise.
OMI released to police and the sheriff's department the skull of a recent murder victim who was found on the mesa. The person's body was badly decomposed and had no identification.
OMI is allowing the agencies to use the skull as long as they refrain from using clay. They can, however, put temporary markers on the skull, making it easier to draw a picture of the face.
"This is fantastic. This is something I have always dreamed of doing," said forensic artist Mary Brazas. "It's awesome that all three agencies are working together. I am very exited to work with OMI now and in the future."
OMI Chief Examiner Ross Zumwalt said the agencies were always allowed to use his department's skulls for their own forensic work. They just needed to contact him.
But the new case marks the first time Brazas has been allowed to work hands-on with a skull.
To obtain that skull, it took a letter from Sheriff Darren White and several meetings with Albuquerque police officials.
"I believe that (Brazas' work) is an important and proven tool both for solving crimes and assisting families whose loved ones have gone missing," White wrote in a letter to Zumwalt back in February. "But in order to do so, we are requesting that she be allowed access to the skulls of these unidentified individuals.
"For the sake of the nameless victims within our community, I respectfully request that you allow Deputy Brazas to continue this important work."
A Journal investigation two years ago shed some light on the difficulty police and the sheriff's department have in identifying bodies.
More than 300 bones of unidentified bodies were sitting in rose-shaped boxes at OMI, some of which dated to the 1970s. The investigation revealed that an inadequate computer database, a lack of cooperation among law enforcement agencies and the reluctance of families to provide DNA samples were making it difficult to identify the remains.
Two years later, a solid statewide database is still lacking. But more families are providing DNA, and OMI and the sheriff's department and police are cooperating.
"OMI has been instrumental in this investigation," said APD Detective Rich Lewis, who is the lead investigator on the case that Brazas is working on. "Through the cooperation of all agencies, we hope to identify the victim and find the killer."
Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz said police and the sheriff's department have had trouble obtaining skulls for decades.
"It's always been a jurisdictional issue," he said. "(OMI is) concerned about the integrity of the remains — as they should. It is their responsibility.
"I am very pleased that we have all come together. All three agencies have a very good working relationship."
Zumwalt said this week that his agency would continue to allow police and the sheriff's department to use skulls to create two-dimensional models.
And Zumwalt said his agency has worked hard to identify John Does. OMI has provided about 180 DNA samples to the FBI, which started a database three years ago that compares the DNA of the unidentified bodies to possible relatives.
About 80 possible relatives have given their DNA to FBI to use in its database.
So far, there have been about a dozen matches.
Zumwalt said he doesn't know how many John Does are still sitting in OMI that have not been identified.
Last week was the first time Brazas was allowed to work hands-on with a skull.
Over the years, her skills have been recognized by the FBI and utilized in other jurisdictions across the country.
Previously, Brazas had to rely on photos to make twodimensional recreations. She has received more than 400 hours of forensic training to do facial reconstructions, ageprogressed sketches and drawings of suspects seen by witnesses.
"This is fantastic," she said. "This is something I have always dreamed of doing. Families can be reassured that we are all working together to identify their loved ones."
PAT VASQUEZ-CUNNINGHAM/JOURNAL The temporary markers on this skull are part of the process for reconstructing the face.
Forensic Artist Mary Brazas is using this skull from the Office of the Medical Investigator to reconstruct the face of an unidentified body found recently in the mesa.