Afterlife Insight

Nov 22, 2017

Words by Lily Nickel | Photos by Kassi Jackson

Sight is a gift given to most, but the ability to truly see and observe is one few possess. To the average eye, a skull is nothing more than another part to the human body, but to the observant eye of a forensic artist, it’s a puzzle. It’s the key to identifying those lost.

With the ability to imagine the face that once existed using proportions and features of the skull, forensic artists work closely with coroners and medical examiners to sketch and sculpt what they believe a person once looked like, working backward from remains.

Forensic artistry is a trade practiced by few, but those who have mastered it are the unsung heroes in the world of criminal justice. Linda Spurlock has a natural curiosity for life and the workings of it — a curiosity that led her into the world of forensic art.

Linda Spurlock in her backyard on Saturday, Oct. 7, with students as they excavate buried pig corpses standing in as homicide victims.

Students of Linda Spurlock carefully clear the dirt and debris away from the skeleton of a pig buried in Spurlock’s backyard over a year ago. Spurlock spent a year planning a homicide mystery for her forensic students.

Spurlock, an assistant professor of anthropology who has practiced forensic art professionally since 1992, got her sketch pad involved in a case this past summer when she successfully identified a Cleveland woman who went missing in December 2015. The victim was Brooke Cameron, whose remains were discovered in October 2016, leading to a lengthy investigation.

“The identity department worked on it for months, trying to match that biological profile with

pictures of people who are missing,” Spurlock says. “I have piles of these pictures where they would send them to me — ‘Could this be her? Could this be her?’”

After examining the remains, Spurlock was able to conclude they belonged to a female in her mid-40s, and that she was possibly Native American. These findings were able to form a biological profile of the victim.

“We are showing a likeness of how the person may have looked in life,” she explains. “We use the proportions of the skull to indicate where the features go and there are many guidelines for how to set the eye slits and how broad to make the nose. It’s all on the skull.”

Charred skeletal remains of a found pig skull hang from a tent in Dr. Linda Spurlock’s backyard. Spurlock’s Forensic Archaeology Field School class spent their Saturdays of October digging up mock clandestine graves and solving a “murder” case.

After multiple non-matches, the hope of an identification began to dissipate. Luckily, Spurlock

was able to finish a forensic sketch of the skull in July 2017. After publication of the drawing, it only took eight hours before phone calls began pouring in.

While there’s a moment of satisfaction after a positive identification, reality soon steps in.

“I realized when we got this case identified that this was a good use of my skills,” Spurlock says. “But you don’t feel all fluttery and excited and happy because now her mother knows she’s dead. All of this is tempered with how serious it is, and you need to have a lot of respect. It’s heavy.”

While investigation on Cameron’s case is still ongoing, Spurlock’s work is done, her skills ready to use in another case.

Currently, she’s working to identify the skeleton of a victim in a case that has gone cold. Her sketch shows a man who looks rather anxious, but she justifies the choice of facial expression, explaining human faces are “animated” for the majority of a day, expressing many emotions.

Linda Spurlock helps coach her students along as they dig up mock grave sites in her Tallmadge backyard on Saturday, Oct. 7.

Students of Linda Spurlock carefully brush away dirt and other natural debris from the skeleton of a pig buried in Spurlock’s backyard over a year ago. 

“We have reason to believe that the individual may have suffered from a genetic disorder that caused his eyes to bulge, but we don’t know,” Spurlock says, “I thought if he had really big eyes, I don’t want to leave that out, but if he didn’t have really googly eyes, I don’t want to put that in. So I decided to make him look a little bit anxious. That way, if he didn’t have this genetic disorder, he just looks anxious.”

The man in the sketch is yet to be identified, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. These slight details make all the difference and can be the deciding factor between whether or not a case is identified.

Spurlock’s ability to observe makes her successful as a forensic artist, and without her astute vision, these victims would still only be known as Jane and John Doe. Her art has given names and faces back to victims of atrocities, providing  desperately needed closure to families and friends. A positive identification, while heartbreaking, puts an end to uncertainty, and finally presents answers, allowing for the start of the healing process.

Lily Nickel is a writer, contact her at lnickel2@kent.edu. 

Look for the Fall 2017 issue of The Burr Magazine, on stands Tuesday, Nov. 28.