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National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media

Sharon Scott and Sheila Williams of Tampa had been searching for their sister, Brenda Williams, ever since she disappeared in 1978.

Last year, the two had their DNA tested to see if it matched a cold case victim they saw at a University of South Florida symposium. It didn't.

Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

Forensic artists at a recent workshop hosted by the University of South Florida wrapped up their week of work by presenting their creations - fourteen clay busts of unidentified victims in cold cases - to local law enforcement.

But in the middle of their presentation, a woman looking at one of the works at the rear of a downtown Tampa conference room broke down sobbing, sure that the face staring back at her was that of her sister, some thirty-eight years after she went missing.

In a basement classroom on the University of South Florida campus, Joe Mullins is bringing the dead back to life.

USF Dept. of Anthropology

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."