Solving cold cases: Art meets science at USF

Forensic artists gather at USF to put a face -- then a name -- on skeletal remains to solve cold cases.

Tampa, FL -- This week at the University of South Florida they literally hope to put a face -- and ultimately a name -- on the skeletal remains of more than a dozen people.

It’s a combination of art and science that could help solve mysteries that in some cases have gone cold for decades.  

Joe Mullins is one of the nation's top forensic imaging specialists.

[To view a gallery on a mobile device, CLICK HERE]

He’s part of a group of detectives and artists from all over the country gathering at USF.

Their mission? Use their skills to solve as many as 20 cold cases from around the country. 14 of them, using specialized sculpture techniques. Creating bust – using only skulls – that they hope someone out there will be able to identify.

“These are people. They're individuals,” said Mullins.

The forensic artists work to reconstruct victims’ faces layer-by-layer using points on a skull that’s been duplicated with 3-D printing.

The clay sculptures ultimately show what the victims might have looked like, based strictly on the evidence. No room for artistic license. 

“You have to stick with what the skull is telling you. That's the foundation that you build your face on” said Mullins.

Last year, another group tried the same thing with nine cold cases. And one of them, a Polk County mystery, was actually solved.

Maggie Florence, who was the artist who sculpted the woman later identified with DNA as Jessica Rousseau, is back again this year.

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“It's my way to be able to speak up for somebody who no longer has a voice themselves,” said Florence.

Each artist and detectives takes their work very seriously and personally. Knowing it may be the last chance these nameless - and until now, faceless - victims have of being ID’d. 

Their 14 sculptures will be on public display Friday. It’s a skill they hope could help solve thousands more cases.

“No matter who that person is, or how despicable life could've been, nobody needs to just be thrown away,” said Investigator Daniel Marion.

“I mean there's thousands of people that don't have names. And that's really a tragedy. I don't think anybody should ever lose their name forever,” said Samantha Molinar, a Forensic Investigator from Ohio.

If you’re curious to see how the sculptures come out, they’ll be finished Thursday and put on display Friday.

We’ll make sure to update this story and provide pictures and information about each cold case victim as soon as they’re made public.

To learn more about the individual cases USF is working on, CLICK HERE.


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