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Using Art to Help Close Cold Cases

May 27, 2014

In April 2013, the decomposed remains of a woman were discovered behind a truck stop at I-75 and State Road 44 in Sumter County. Authorities there weren’t able to identify her, so they turned to Dr. Erin Kimmerle and the USF Forensic Anthropology Laboratory for help.

Combining a three-dimensional scan of the woman’s skull with photos from the scene and other details, Kimmerle says they were able to use Photoshop and put together a composite image of what the woman likely looked like.

"The more information that we can learn from the scene or autopsy helps inform us about those individual characteristics, for example, using her own glasses in the image," Kimmerle said at a press conference earlier this year. "But it’s really just based on skeletal anatomy and we hope that it will trigger someone's memory or bring new information to light."

The image was distributed nationwide, and in November 2013, Kentucky State Police called, saying the woman resembled a missing person there, Martha “Jane” Wever.

"After receiving the background information for the Kentucky State Police, the two cases did appear to be linked," Sumter County Sheriff Bill Farmer said. "It was later confirmed through fingerprint analysis by the FBI that Martha “Jane” Wever was in fact our homicide victim."

The power of such sketches in solving cold cases was one of the reasons the USF Department of Anthropology once again hosted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and its forensic imaging workshop. The workshop has been held at USF since 2007 and has trained more than 150 people.

"We’re the only university partnering with NCMEC and we’re the only university that offers this suite of methods as well as this training," Kimmerle said.

A dozen law enforcement professionals came to USF from around the U.S., as well as England and South Korea.

USF's Erin Kimmerle (center) & NCMEC's Joe Mullins (right) assist a student in the forensic imaging workshop.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

For a week, they huddled around computers and tablets; furiously manipulating images and age progressing them, maybe by changing the color of hair or adding wrinkles.

"The key component is Adobe Photoshop and it’s the focus on our training to teach them how to use it, how we use it, hopefully benefit them," said Joe Mullins, a forensic imaging specialist with NCMEC and leader of the workshop. "Sometimes, this class is pretty savvy, and everybody’s very familiar with Photoshop, so myself and the other instructors—we’ve learned things from them too."

While Kimmerle and her fellow researchers at USF know how to handle these tools - Kimmerle did the progression on the Wever sketch - Mullins says the art of forensic imaging that he practices compliments the science that other forensic anthropologists do.

"We have to have a forensic anthropologist like Dr. Kimmerle to assess the skeletal remains and they also give us information on how a face changes, like facial growth, so it’s key information that we need to create these images," Mullins said. 

"It’s a great partnership for the anthropologist and the artist (who) have to work together to come up with an image...so they need us just as much as we need them," he added.

Cynthia Marsh is a composite artist for law enforcement agencies around the Denver, Colorado area. Normally she works with pen and paper, but came to the workshop to improve her digital skills.

An example of the age progression work done in the NCMEC forensic imaging workshop at USF.
Credit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

"A computer can be a lot quicker than working with pen and paper. And you can use a lot of reference images, family member reference images, when you’re trying to make someone look older," Marsh said.  "And (you can) import, with those images, the characteristics that that face will have as it ages, maybe more easily than you can if you’re just sketching on paper."

'"I’m hoping to be able to apply what I am learning here to help to identify missing individuals...and children that have been missing a long period of time, trying to progress them what they might look like today," she added. 

For someone like Mullins, who does such work on a daily basis, that's music to his ears.

"I think I have the coolest job in the world, I get to do this all day every day, help find missing kids," he said. "So I don’t have, there’s no words to explain how awesome it is when an age progression is successful."

And he quotes John Walsh, host of America's Most Wanted, in saying it's not about giving people closure.

"He said, 'I don’t like the word ‘closure,’ it’s like a better way to explain the service that the National Center provides with the facial reconstruction is you’re providing answers to families,'" Mullins said. "'Because not knowing is a nightmare you can’t wake up from.'"

And Kimmerle's sketch provided answers - and possibly justice - for the family of Martha "Jane" Wever. Ralph Harold Penrod was charged with her murder earlier this year. That brought relief to Wever’s brother.

"Even with a pacemaker, my heart skipped a beat when I heard that they were going to make an arrest in the case," said Dale Sturtz, a former sheriff from Indiana, at a press conference announcing Penrod's arrest.

"The job that this department did, I can't say enough good things about it," he added, his voice breaking. "The effort they put in and the resources they were able to put in solved this case."