For the First Time: NCMEC Uses Color for Facial Reconstruction
Written by John F. Clark   

ONE FALL WEEKEND IN 1985, on a sprawling ranch in Parker County in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a father and son were walking the property, looking for a possible home site. Instead, they were stopped in their tracks by a startling discovery: a murder scene.

A shallow grave, partially concealed under a tree and by low brush, had been dug up by animals. Skeletal remains and clothing, including a pair of “Guess” blue jeans and a “Union Bay” white fleece jacket, were strewn over a wide area. They immediately called the Parker County Sheriff’s Office, which launched an investigation.

After studying the skeletal remains and dental features, the medical examiner’s forensic pathologist believed the victim was a white male between the ages of 15 and 20. A lock of his hair was found in the grave.

Clues found at the crime scene, including four coins, the most recent dated 1984, revealed a possible time of death. Dry leaves covered the grave, and the leaves on the tree above it were still green, so the homicide likely happened a year earlier, sometime in early to mid-1984.

Sheriff’s deputies began checking missing-person reports, but there was still a lot they didn’t know. What was his ancestry? How tall was he? What color were his eyes? Who killed him and why? And most vexing of all: Who was he? Answers have eluded investigators for more than three decades about “John Parker Doe.”

“We’ve ruled out many missing persons over the years,” said Dana Austin, a senior forensic anthropologist with the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office. “We have a fairly narrow window of disappearance, a good biological profile and clothing description.”

Since the grim discovery in Parker County in 1985, tremendous strides have been made in the use of DNA and technology in criminal investigations. The vast reach of the internet, and the popularity of social media, have made it easier to share information and make identifications. So, in 2011, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) began proactively reaching out to law enforcement, coroners, and medical examiners in more than 700 unidentified deceased children cases.

A year later, NCMEC’s Forensic Services Unit began deploying 45 of its Project ALERT volunteers (America’s Law Enforcement Retiree Team) all over the country to lend fresh eyes to cold cases and gather any available biometrics.

Ashley Rodriguez, a forensic case manager, sent two members of the team, both with experience in death investigations, to Texas to see if more could be done in the John Parker Doe case. They recommended that NCMEC do a computerized 3D facial reconstruction on the skull.

Austin, the senior forensic anthropologist, sent John Parker Doe’s skull to a Texas hospital, which performed a CT-scan. The scan was then sent to NCMEC’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.

Putting a face back on John Parker Doe’s skull

Colin McNally, supervisor of NCMEC’s Forensic Imaging Unit, is studying the three-dimensional skull from Parker County, Texas on his computer screen. To the novice, it looks like any other skull. But, McNally says, just like with fingerprints, no two skulls are alike.


Colin McNally, supervisor of NCMEC’s Forensic Imaging Unit, uses a Phantom Desktop tool to put the face back on John Parker Doe’s skull.

McNally’s four-person team has performed 516 facial reconstructions, 198 of them on skeletal remains, and 318 on soft tissue from morgue photographs and medical examiner observations. So far, NCMEC has helped provide more than 100 identifications. But this one is different.

For the first time, McNally will be able to do this facial reconstruction in color, thanks to a new partnership between NCMEC and Parabon NanoLabs. The Reston, Virginia-based company has developed a process, called Snapshot DNA Phenotyping, that uses DNA, in this case extracted from the skeletal remains, to determine traits including eye, hair, and skin color, facial features, any freckling, and ancestry.

Austin and Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler are hopeful this new technology will help someone recognize John Parker Doe.

A trained fine artist and graphic designer, McNally knows he cannot take any artistic license when sculpting a face onto a skull, which is why NCMEC forensic artists have always done them in gray tones. They believe that adding arbitrary skin, hair or eye color would dramatically decrease the likelihood of someone recognizing the face.

Joe Mullins, who performed some of NCMEC’s first 3D facial reconstructions and teaches others how to do it, is excited about the potential of DNA phenotyping. “Anything that helps spark recognition,” says Mullins, who tells his students to keep guesswork out of a facial reconstruction.

“I teach religiously, that if you don’t have the details, don’t add them,” said Mullins. “So this is huge. I’ve been waiting for 18 years to have information on skin tone, eye color, hair color.”

As he begins rebuilding John Parker Doe’s face, McNally feels an enormous sense of responsibility. This is not a piece of art. This was a real person. Family members may still be looking for him, still haunted by his disappearance. McNally wants to help get his name back.


Dr. David Hunt, a physical and forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, gives insight into the shape of John Parker Doe’s face.

“We really want it to work,” McNally says of being able to add color for the first time. “People seem to gravitate more toward pictures that are colorized.”

Do they ever. Christi Andrews, a forensic artist on McNally’s team, did a soft tissue facial reconstruction of a child in Boston whose remains washed ashore. The child’s eye, hair, and skin color were still discernible, so she was able to do the facial reconstruction in color. Once posted on Facebook, the image of “Baby Doe” went viral with more than 65 million views. It didn’t happen right away, but the right person finally saw the image and thought it looked like a little girl named Bella Bond. Turned out, it was Bella. The two-year-old not only got her name back—her killer was also sent to prison.

As he works, McNally lets John Parker Doe’s skull guide him as he reconstructs the face, a process that takes about two weeks. Following the contours of the bones, he places 24 tissue-depth markers all over the skull so he’ll know how to uniquely shape the face.


Colin McNally uses tissue-depth markers to help him rebuild the John Parker Doe’s facial features and eyes.

Just as he would use clay to make a sculpture, McNally uses “digital clay” to build the face on his computer. He applies the clay with what is called a Phantom Desktop tool, which gives him tactile feedback as he works. “Just having that resistance makes you feel like you’re doing actual sculpting,” said McNally.


A trained fine artist and graphic designer, Colin McNally knows he cannot take any artistic license when sculpting a face onto a skull.

McNally’s team receives invaluable guidance from Dr. David Hunt, a physical and forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, who oversees more than 30,000 catalogued human remains. He volunteers his time and expertise to NCMEC to help in the identification of deceased children.

After examining the CT-scan of the skull, one of thousands he has studied, he gives McNally insight into what the bones are telling him about the shape of the eyes, the face and the neck, the ancestry. He agrees that this was likely a Caucasian male between the ages of 15 and 20. Judging from the development of the teeth, Hunt believes he could have been 16 or 17 at the time of his death.

McNally uses the tissue-depth markers to help him rebuild the face, sculpting the tissue first, then the muscles, the nose. The skull tells him where to place the ears – but not what they look like. The ears, like the hairstyle, will have to be generic. Otherwise, he’d be guessing. He then moves to the facial features, the eyes, the muscles in his thick neck.

The process can be painstaking and tedious – until John Parker Doe appears to come to life. Suddenly, the face on McNally’s computer screen is looking back at him.


John Parker Doe is NCMEC’s first facial reconstruction done in color thanks to Parabon’s Snapshot DNA Phenotyping.

In Living Color: Enhancing Facial Reconstructions

Inside a nondescript office building in Reston, Virginia, exciting things are happening. Parabon NanoLabs, a biotechnology company, is on a mission: to create breakthrough products to help fight crime and diseases using recent advances in DNA.

Between 2011-2015, with funding from the Department of Defense, Parabon developed what it calls the “Snapshot Forensic DNA Phenotyping System” to predict genetic ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape in people from any ethnic background or mixed ancestry.

Some traits are partially determined by environmental factors, not DNA alone, so Snapshot predictions are presented with a corresponding measure of confidence. Traits, such as eye color, are predicted with higher accuracy and confidence than those with lower heritability.

Much of its forensic work involves helping law enforcement predict what an unknown suspect may look like from DNA collected during an investigation. The goal is to generate investigative leads in cases where there are no suspects or database hits, or, when there are suspects, to narrow the list. It’s also being used to help solve unidentified human remains cases.

Parabon’s CEO, Dr. Steven Armentrout, says DNA has historically been used by law enforcement for identification, like a fingerprint, not for the genetic information it can provide. Armentrout assembled a team of scientists and technologists who found it was possible to figure out patterns in DNA that explain why one person has blue eyes and another has brown.

“We’re treating it like a blueprint, not a fingerprint,” said Armentrout, who has a doctorate in computer science from the University of Maryland.

His team created a reference database of genomic data and the physical traits typically associated with those genes. With each sample Parabon receives, a mathematical model helps determine what that person’s traits are—or were.

Armentrout says his company is honored to partner with NCMEC and hopefully help bring answers to families wondering what happened to their children. He stresses that his company’s composites are not photo IDs. Rather, they will enhance NCMEC’s facial reconstructions to help jog memories.

“Partnerships are the cornerstone for NCMEC’s ability to support the needs of families and law enforcement,” said Alan S. Nanavaty, who oversees its Forensic Services Unit. “It is only through collaboration that we leverage the best processes and technology to increase the likelihood of identifying a missing child. Parabon brings us one step closer to that goal.”

The Snapshot analysis found that John Parker Doe had the following traits (the confidence is given parenthetically after each). Very fair or fair skin color (92.8 percent) and brown or hazel eyes (97.5 percent). It showed that his dark hair was brown (74.9 percent), or that it was brown or black (96.8 percent). He had no freckles (69.3 percent), or he had none or very few (80.7 percent). His genomic ancestry best matches northern or western European (98.4 percent).

“It’s interesting how they can use this technology for what appears to be an accurate description of his facial structure,” said McNally, as he applied color for the first time. “I think that’s pretty fascinating. I’m hopeful it will make a difference with facial reconstructions going forward.”

Rodriguez, the forensic case manager, said John Parker Doe’s facial reconstruction will be featured on NCMEC’s “Help ID Me” page on Facebook. Her team started the page after realizing that a lot of identifications were coming from outside the victim’s family—doctors, teachers, classmates—and they wanted to capture as large an audience as possible. Any leads are sent directly to law enforcement.

Even though the case is 34 years old, it’s still possible for an identification with all the advances in DNA and technology.

“We’re taking today’s technology and applying it to yesterday’s cases,” Rodriguez said of the colorized 3D facial reconstruction. “It just takes one person to see it. We want to get it in front of the right person.”


About the Author

Before John F. Clark became CEO and president of NCMEC, he was director of the U.S. Marshals Service for five years. His career with the USMS spanned 28 years.


For More Information

To learn more about NCMEC, visit missingkids.org and missingkids.org/training. For information about Parabon NanoLabs, visit parabon-nanolabs.com.


This article appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.

 
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