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An artist uses a stylus to add fine details to the sculpture.

RCMP teams up with art school to identify human remains

Students held back their artistic expression instead allowing the shape of the skull to dictate their work. Credit: Charity Sampson, RCMP


Police in Canada are hoping for new leads in 15 cases of unidentified human remains after the RCMP partnered with the New York Academy of Art during its annual forensic facial reconstruction workshop.

Cpl. Charity Sampson, an RCMP victim identification specialist, says the technique is often a last resort used to identify someone after other methods are unsuccessful.

"We want to give these people an identity," she says.

In January, Sampson brought 15 replica 3D-printed skulls to the New York Academy of Art where artists spent five days using clay to recreate facial features matching information about the deceased.

Sculpting faces

The artists worked under Joe Mullins, a forensic reconstruction expert with more than 20 years in the field.

He showed them how to incorporate factors like age and ancestry when trying to capture the subjects' appearance using the natural shape of the skull.

"You have to be a fine artist before you can be a forensic artist," says Mullins. "But it's all based on the skull. It's like a paint by numbers."

Mullins started the program in 2015 and it has since led to four visual confirmations in missing persons cases in the United States. In previous years, students worked on files from the Office of the New York Medical Examiner, historical cases from the U.S.–Mexico border and two unidentified Civil War casualties.

The artists put their skills to the test while expanding their knowledge of facial anatomy.

"You're building and sculpting then, all of a sudden, a face is looking back at you," says Anita Clipston, one of the artists who worked on the project.

Mullins says students have to hold back their artistic expression and follow a more scientific route.

"There's a responsibility to capture the person's face," says Adam Lupton, another artist who participated in the workshop. "The case I worked with is from 1996. Families have been looking for answers for over 20 years."

The reconstructions are not designed to be 100 per cent precise but rather to share features that would spark memories and recognition with those who knew the deceased.

"We're hoping someone recognizes a loved one or an acquaintance," says Sampson. "The longer a person is missing, the harder it can be to identify them."

This year, the skulls are from cases of unidentified human remains found between 1972 and 2019. Fourteen cases are from British Columbia and one is from Nova Scotia. The B.C. Coroners Service and Nova Scotia Medical Examiner Service selected cases with complete skulls in good condition.

Printing partners

Before any sculpting, the reconstructions started with National Research Council Canada (NRC) scanning the skulls and printing 3D copies.

Tom Kay, a surface-modelling technologist with the NRC, says teams used the latest technology to make the models an exact replica of the police evidence.

Technicians used extra care in intricate areas like the eye sockets and jaw, and used new techniques to prepare the scans for printing more quickly — within hours instead of days.

"We needed a breakthrough to make this project happen and indeed we got one," says Kay.

Sampson says the preparation and the workshop highlights the value of partnerships across departments and borders.

"We all worked together on this unique opportunity to have 15 reconstructions finished in only five days," she says.

The entire process started when Sampson took a digital-imaging course taught by Mullins. He says that the forensic reconstruction class had worked on almost all the suitable skulls with the local medical examiner and he was looking for cases for the January 2020 class.

Sampson brought the idea to her colleagues at Canada's National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains who supported the concept and the international partnership began.

The reconstructions are now on the Canada's Missing website alongside other case details. Anyone with information is encouraged to contact police.

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