Fifteen years ago, hikers in a suburban Minnesota park discovered the skeletal, unclothed remains of a woman, 35 to 45 years old, with brown or reddish hair and evidence of significant dental work. The woman was never identified, and the case remains open as a homicide investigation.
In a bid to develop fresh leads, police in New Brighton, Minnesota earlier this year circulated new images showing what the woman may have looked like when she was alive. The facial approximation—rendered in clay using a forensic analysis of the women’s skull, along with a detailed anthropological workup and a deft artistic hand—was aimed at putting a distinctive face in front of as many people as possible, raising the odds that someone will recognize her. The process is a free service provided by the Trace Evidence Unit at the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia to support the law enforcement community.
“This process has given me new hope that my unidentified person will be identified someday,” said Mike Lochen, a detective in the Police Division of the New Brighton Department of Public Safety.
Nationwide, about 4,400 unidentified remains are found each year—and more than 1,000 of those are still unidentified a year later, according to the National Institute of Justice, which maintains searchable databases of missing and unidentified persons (NamUs.gov). Medical examiners and local police departments most frequently become the stewards of unidentified remains. And each year, about 20 requests are made to the FBI Laboratory to develop facial approximations of unidentified individuals to help investigators ultimately put a name to a face.
In recent years, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Virginia posted images of FBI facial approximations, hoping to generate leads. The ensuing media coverage led to three positive identifications. In Massachusetts, a woman was recently identified after her brother saw the approximation on the news.
“We need the right person to see this image pretty much at the right time,” said Lisa Bailey, a visual information specialist at the FBI Lab who produces the Bureau’s facial approximations in a collaborative effort that includes forensic anthropologists and technicians who extract as much data as they can from human remains. “That’s one of the biggest things with these approximations—to get them out there. All we need is that one person to see it.”