Thursday, April 30, 2009

About Face: Forensic Artist Volunteers Skill, Time To CCSO

The killer buried the man’s body underneath some palm fronds in a vacant field off Immokalee Road near Interstate 75.

A survey crew found the remains on July 31, 2003. Deputies investigated, but couldn't identify the victim, let alone the killer. The case has sat cold for nearly six years.

About three months ago Tricia Blair walked in the door of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office’s Major Crimes Bureau and the case found new life.

Deputies only knew the victim’s gender, race, and approximate age and height. They also knew he had a congenital shortening of the neck.

With that information, Blair, a forensic artist, has been working on the victim’s skull to reconstruct his face, hoping someone might recognize a long lost relative.

She says she’s not aiming to recreate an exact image.

“What you get is a resemblance,” Blair said. “There is something about the face that reminds somebody of someone.”

Blair is nearing completion of this project and detectives expect to release images of the reconstructed skull and information about the case soon.

Blair learned her craft from two giants in forensic art – Betty Pat. Gatliff, who the Wall Street Journal called a “forensic legend,” and Lois Gibson of the Houston Police Department, whose composite sketches have led to the arrests of more than 950 suspects and who is listed in the 2004 Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most successful forensic artist.

Blair’s techniques include two-dimensional facial reconstruction that involves portraiture and pencil sketching and three-dimensional facial reconstruction that involves sculpting with modeling clay.

There are only a few trained forensic artists nationwide who are working full time in the field, said Blair, noting that forensic artists are generally viewed as a luxury and not a necessity.
It’s a purpose-driven discipline, Blair explained.

“It’s not so much a creative pursuit as it is a means to an end,” she said. “My sole objective in forensic art is that it will ultimately contribute to the welfare of the public: identifying suspects and locating the missing.”

The 55-year-old grandmother who dabbles in stand-up comedy is volunteering her skills and her time twice a week to CCSO. Previously, she did some facial reconstruction work for the San Bernardino (Calif.) Sheriff’s Office, also as a volunteer, while working as an emergency dispatcher and studying forensic art. Most of her work was conducted out of the coroner’s office.

“I worked in the morgue next to where the autopsies were performed,” she said. “It wasn’t a very pleasant place to work.”

Blair left California in 2005 and moved to Miami to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren, who live in Naples.

“I was fully prepared to let go of forensic art,” she said.

But three years in Miami was enough. She said she was unprepared for the cultural gap and language barrier, which left her so lonely that she even tried stand-up comedy to meet new people.

She also felt drawn back to forensic art.

“I knew it was a gamble, but I just felt a calling to it,” she said.

She relocated to Naples six months ago. One of the first things she did was sign up for CCSO’s Citizens Academy, which gives participants an up-close look at the inner workings of the organization over several weeks. It was there that she introduced herself to General Crimes Bureau Lt. Chad Parker, who was one of the guest speakers, and offered to volunteer her services as a forensic artist. Parker put her in contact with Lt. Mike Fox in Major Crimes.

Fox gave Blair an office in his bureau and put her to work.

About three weeks ago Detective Ray Wilkinson showed up at Blair’s office after a trip to the medical examiner’s office. He gave her a bucket with a skull inside, along with the scant details of the case.

First she placed paper over the skull and sketched a face. Then she started rebuilding the man’s face, sculpting with clay right on top of the bone. She used prosthetic eyes, guessing the color. She also used clay to fashion the hair, making the top straight and bottom curly so as not to lock into one particular texture.

Wilkinson said this is the first time in his 14 years as an investigator with CCSO that facial reconstruction has been used in one of his cases.

“I think it’s great,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a wonderful investigative tool.”

Both Wilkinson and Fox said they are hopeful Blair’s efforts will help generate fresh tips from the community about the identity of the victim as well as the killer.

CCSO has used facial reconstruction in a handful of cases, according to Fox. Two of the cases are unsolved homicides in which the female victims’ identities remain unknown. One of the bodies was discovered in 1990 in the Big Cypress National Preserve and the other was found in 1978 on State Road 29 near Alligator Alley. Details of both cases, along with images of the reconstructed skulls, are on the CCSO Web site at

While Blair is also hopeful that her work will help lead to the identification of the victim, she also seeks to provide closure to his family.

“There could be any number of possible scenarios of the life he led,’’ she said, “but it’s possible he had children. And if they never knew what happened to him it’s possible they were left with the belief that he walked out on them. If that were the case, one possible positive outcome could be some healing in knowing that it wasn’t his fault and it wasn’t their fault that he went away forever.”

This is the second project Blair has worked on for CCSO. The first was a facial composite drawing of a woman in a separate case.

Blair sees her work in this field as her way of contributing to society.

“It’s an oddball kind of thing,” she said. “I just felt it was a way to do something valuable.”

Forensic artist Tricia Blair is reconstructing the face of a homicide victim using his skull. A survey crew discovered the man’s remains in a vacant field in North Naples in 2003. Blair moved to the Naples area six months ago and has been volunteering her time and skills to the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. Photo by Natalie Felber/CCSO

Click here to watch a CCSO video about Tricia Blair and this project.