Bringing the dead to Life: State police post “life-like” faces of the unidentified

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The “photos” have an eerie quality about them and stare at you hauntingly from a New York State Police website.  They look human but they’re not.  They are photo re-creations of human remains.

“Our intent is to get something that reasonably looks like what the person looked like,” explained Major Tim Munro, director of the state police Forensic Investigation Center in Albany.

“We use experts from universities or the Department of Defense,” Munro told PIX 11, when we paid a recent visit to the state campus.  “The anthropologists try to give us their best estimates of age, and that’s done through a combination of bone measurement and other testing.”

There are 23, unidentified remains from around New York State listed on the state police website.  Medical artists have created “faces” for some of them, after measuring the skeletons and skulls.  The faces are the result of clay sculpting or computer-generated images relying on software.

“Without identifying them, we don’t have an awful lot of leads to go on, except who was seen in the area where the body was found,” Munro said.

PIX 11 went to one site in Suffolk County, Long Island, where the remains of a white male were found on March 7, 2000.  They were discovered in a wooded area off the Northern State Parkway in Dix Hills, just east of Wolf Hill Road.  The skeleton had decayed teeth, so when the forensic artist created a face of what the homicide victim might have looked like, the bad teeth were featured in the photo.

We talked to Julie Pizziketti, assistant director of biological science at the New York State Police lab.  She explained the amazing improvements in DNA technology, and how it’s allowed DNA to be extracted from decomposed remains.  That wasn’t something that could be easily done before 1998.

“Back in the 90’s, it was difficult to get a DNA profile, unless you had a blood stain the size of a quarter,” Pizziketti said.  “Back then, with that earlier technology, it was not possible to get DNA profiles from decomposed remains.”

But now, it’s very possible.

When the NYPD got a tip this past summer about the identity of Baby Hope, a little girl found stuffed inside a cooler in 1991, detectives were well on the way to confirming the ID.

They reportedly got a DNA profile of the victim’s mother from a licked envelope.  They had already exhumed the child’s remains in 2006, to get new DNA samples, because of improved technology.

The woman’s DNA matched that of the tiny homicide victim.  Baby Hope was identified as Anjelica Castillo.

Major Munro hopes that personal items posted on the state website, along with a description of the victim, might jar someone’s memory.

“Our hope is these are very personal items that a family member might recognize or a friend that said, ‘Hey, my buddy that I used to see in the bar every Friday night used to wear that shirt and now I don’t see him anymore and he’s missing.  Maybe he’s the guy they’re trying to identify.'”