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Cold Cases Revived with Forensic Artists at USF

USF forensic anthropologists hosted a week-long course culminating in the Art of Forensics event.

Forensic artists brought their focus to 20 cold cases at a workshop, held Oct. 17 to 21, led by the USF Institute for Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science (IFAAS). Their goal was to reconstruct facial profiles of decades-old missing persons that included nine exhumed Jane and John Does from Kentucky, Pennsylvania and the Tampa Bay area.

“It’s stressful but it’s fascinating,” said Paloma Galzi, one of the attendees of the workshop. “Every single one is different so every face, every time is a new experience.”

Forensic artists reconstructed faces from cold case files during a week-long workshop at the USF Department of Anthropology.

This is the second year of this special week-long course culminating in the Art of Forensics event on Friday, Oct. 21, that revealed the completed faces along with other details of each case provided by the team of forensic anthropologists.

The course is an opportunity to combine education with the application of forensic science and modern technology and present the final busts to a wider audience.

 “It’s a neat opportunity to provide some education about this issue,” said Erin Kimmerle, PhD, a forensic anthropologist and associate professor at the USF College of Arts and Sciences, who helps rebuild cold cases through strong collaboration with law enforcement and medical examiners nationwide. 

More that 900 unidentified individuals in Florida and as many as 50,000 nationwide are unidentified.

Erin Kimmerle, PhD,  forensic anthropologist and associate professor at the USF College of Arts and Sciences, addressed a roomful of law enforcement officers, forensic scientists and media.

“We look for cases that need the most help. Those that don’t have DNA profiles on file, those that need chemical isotope testing and facials and that would really benefit from everything that science has to offer,” Dr. Kimmerle said.

 Her team carefully reexamines all remains, such as the bones, hair, and teeth and does approximations to build “as complete a picture as possible.” A 3-D print is generated when a skull is available, which then allows workshop artists to methodically overlay clay to reconstruct facial details.

“I'd like to go crazy with artistic freedom but we can't. We have to keep it very specific,” said workshop attendee Sergio Soto, a patrol sergeant with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. Soto’s goal is to use the right amount of artistic skill in conjunction with the forensic evidence.


Artists use skulls reproduced with 3-D printing technology.

Joe Mullins, course instructor and forensic imaging specialist at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, conceived the course eight years ago to help alleviate some of the cold-case load using facial reconstruction art classes. The class work was featured in a New York Times article and led to the facial recognition by a family member, a match.  

 “It’s a combination of art and science,” said Mullins. “It’s kind of a balance when you put the details on the face, because the skull tells you a lot of information.”

The skull, which provides the foundation for this type of reconstruction, was a hurdle to get over to start the class since actual evidence can’t be used. “We had to wait for technology and scanning and 3-D printing to catch up,” Mullins said.

Last year Mullins and Dr. Kimmerle decided to join their skills and tools together and host the first Art of Forensics event. Nine cases were featured and one was resolved.

This year’s event was held at the Tampa Bay History Center and hosted dozens of forensic scientists, law enforcement officers, and families hoping to make a match.


Det. George Loydgren, from the Hernando County Sheriffs Office, featured his case at the Art of Forensics event.

“To me it’s priceless if you can solve one case, bring closure or resolution to one investigation and connect a family member,” said George Loydgren, a cold case detective from the Hernando County Sheriffs Office who’s Case #17 was featured at the event. Dr. Kimmerle and her team conducted a chemical isotope test to estimate the geographic origins from the remains of what is now confirmed to be a 40+ year-old black and/or Native American male.

“We’re passionate about solving real-world problems” said David Himmelgreen, chair of the Department of Anthropology at USF, during his opening remarks.

“Our work today will continue to honor our missing and unidentified individuals throughout this nation” said Mark A. Ober, J., state attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit of Florida.

Speakers included leaders in law enforcement who all share the need to advance this type of work that is threatened by limited funding.

“This is an issue of great public importance,” said Mark A. Ober, JD, state attorney of the 13th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida. “Think about the power of your name, think about the power of your identity, the very mention of your name reveals a history of your existence, the very mention of your name broadcasts a panoramic view of your life.” 

 The Art of Forensics event gave family members the opportunity to see the final busts.

Photos and story by Sandra C. Roa, University Communications & Marketing.

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