The Skull In The River

by Ingrid Dean

skull-517599_1280As a forensic artist and road patrol trooper for the State Police, I have worked on many interesting cases. Little did I know that a cardboard box placed on my desk one sweltering August day would contain one of the most challenging and emotional cases of my career. A year earlier I had completed a facial reconstruction course at the FBI Academy in Quantico.

The box contained a human skull and was my second skeletal case. The first case I worked on was still unsolved—the charred body of a black female was still at the morgue, waiting to be identified. This new case held little more promise. It had already sat on a property room shelf for nine years.

As I leafed through the police reports, I learned that the skull had been dredged out of the Clinton River, which runs through Mt. Clemens, Michigan, in 1992. A construction worker on a bulldozer thought he had found the “biggest mushroom he had ever seen.” When he jumped off the earthmover to kick it from its position in the soggy marsh, he was shocked to discover it was actually a human cranium. The rest of the body, including the lower jaw, was never recovered.

Although missing person reports were carefully checked, the skull remained unidentified and was packed away in a property room at the sheriff’s office. In the summer of 2003, the property room was cleaned out and the skull was sent to a Michigan State Police crime lab for possible DNA and comparison purposes. One of the senior members at the lab suggested it be sent to a forensic artist to do a reconstruction. Several weeks later, the skull was placed on my desk.

First I took it to the Michigan State University Anthropology Lab, where I asked the anthropologist to examine it and give me a biological profile of who the person I would be reconstructing. He told me it belonged to a Caucasian male, between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Since I wanted to do a three-dimensional reconstruction with clay, the missing mandible posed a huge problem. The lab was nice enough to let me borrow a specimen from a body that had been donated.

I fished through several boxes of bones in the lab labeled “Caucasian males” before finding one with a similar bite pattern. With my borrowed jawbone and several x-rays of the seven teeth that were left in the cranium, I took the skull back to my post to start work.

For the next eight months, I juggled the reconstruction in between normal working duties. As the face began to emerge, I began to get a feeling about what this man must have looked like. For instance, I could see that his teeth had been extremely well cared for. He could afford a dentist and he took good care of himself. From this I assumed his socio-economic place in life.

I also surmised that he was good looking. Since the skull was dredged out of the river in 1992, I figured he must have been in the water for some time to become completely disarticulated and skeletal. Therefore, I guessed his hairstyle would be from the late 1980s or early 1990s. I decided to sculpt a longer, falling-behind-the-ears hairstyle, in brown, since that is the dominant hair color of the Caucasian race. I also gave him brown eyes—both an intuitive and practical guess. I reminded myself that a reconstruction doesn’t have to look exactly like the person—but there has to be something about it that triggers a sense of recognition in just one person who sees it and thinks, Hmmm, that might be so-and-so.

Finally in April 2004, the reconstruction was ready to be released to the media. I held a press conference and was shocked to find that almost every media source in the metropolitan-Detroit area showed up to get the story. The following days were filled with newscasts, phone calls, and interviews.

About a week later, a District Sergeant who worked as an accident re-constructionist in my district phoned me. He had seen a photo of my reconstruction in the Detroit Free Press and it reminded him of a young guy who had gone missing from the Algonac area when he was a road patrol officer there. He said the guy’s name was Shawn Raymond.

Since this was my first real tip, I didn’t have any particular feeling or hope that this was going to go anywhere. I went to the Clay Township Police Department and asked if I could see the Shawn Raymond case. The officers were all too familiar with the case. Shawn’s file revealed that his mother had reported him missing after he was not seen for two days. Shawn was nineteen at the time and a recent graduate of Algonac High School. There were several photos of Shawn in the file, including one of his high school yearbook photos. I noticed he was an incredibly good looking guy, with feather-brown hair and a glowing white smile—just like I had imagined.

I didn’t immediately see a resemblance between the clay sculpture and Shawn, though I did notice Shawn’s dental charts. There was crucial information on these charts. The skull and Shawn had the same two bicuspids removed for orthodontic purposes. This was a clue I could not ignore. I immediately took the case back to my post and began calling to locate Shawn’s dentist to get x-rays for comparison.

The first dentist led me to a dead end, literally. His wife sorrowfully informed me that her husband’s practice had closed after his death and she had destroyed all the remaining records, including the x-rays. My stomach lurched. I thought, Is this the end of my investigation?

I feverishly pressed the keys on my telephone to call Shawn’s orthodontist. Amazingly, he was still practicing in the area. And, yes, he still had Shawn’s file, which included panoramic x-rays of Shawn’s teeth. I picked them up a day later.

I was ready to put my anthropology degree to the test and compare the dental films. As I drove the x-rays back to the post, I phoned my dad, who has thirty years experience as a trooper, detective, and forensic artist. I chatted with him nervously, telling him, “It’s got to be him. There are so many coincidences!”

My dad urged me to be calm. “Now, settle down. This is only your first tip,” he said.

Back at the post, I scotch-taped the bite-wing x-rays I had taken at MSU to my office window and then, with hands shaking, taped the panoramic film from Shawn’s orthodontist file underneath it. Undeniably, even to my little-trained eyes . . . it was a match! Now all I needed was the final okay from an ontologist—a forensic dentist. I sought one out in the area and made an appointment to meet with him at his office the following day.

Morning seemed like it would never come. I had several conversations with my dad, who continued to tell me, “Don’t get your hopes up too high.” But I was beyond help. In my mind, I knew it had to be Shawn. There was nothing that was going to convince me otherwise (except, maybe, this expert I was about to meet).

As I drove to his office, I tried to calm myself down. I had thoughts like, What if it isn’t him? What if I have to start all over again? My stomach was in complete knots. A soft rain was falling as I approached the parking lot and turned in. I made one last call to dad and told him, “I’ll phone you with the answer as soon as I’m out!”

When I met the dentist, I sized him up to be on his last year or two before retirement. He was elderly. He had me set the reconstruction on a stool and took his own panoramic films of the skull through the clay. I guess he didn’t like the bite wings I brought with me as proof. When his x-rays were developed, he held up Shawn’s films and the freshly taken films to the fluorescent lighting above him. He nonchalantly said, “Nope, that’s not him.”

I was dumbfounded. My heart sank. I fought off tears and began to tremble. Here I was, in my professionally tailored uniform, holding a human skull encased in twenty-five pounds of clay, and I was fighting to choke back tears. I mumbled to him, softly at first, “No, you’re wrong . . .”

As my vision cleared and I regained my composure, I took a quick glance at the films he still held in his hands. Still fighting tears of disappointment, I stated clearly and louder, without reservation, “No, you’re WRONG!” I snatched the films from his hand. He had been holding one of the films backward! I handed them back to him the correct way. He raised the films toward the lights again and—without hesitation—said, “Yup, that’s him!”

The trip from his room to my car seemed like I was running in slow motion. Once I was in my car, I dialed my phone. “Dad, it’s him!” And, for the next half-hour, I sobbed. At least my tears were of joy and not sorrow. I was so glad that Shawn was found, and I was thankful that his family would find out that he was no longer missing, that his remains had indeed been identified.

Note: Facial reconstruction requires both scientific and intuitive work to successfully identify someone. Features such as the nose, lips, style of hair, etc., are almost strictly intuitive guesses.

More like this and some of Ingrid’s other work can be found at www.spiritofthebadge.com.

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