Students use the skulls and clues like the victims' ages and races to create 3-D clay models

By Chris Harris
February 01, 2016 11:30 AM
Chris Harris

At this very moment, in medical examiners’ offices all across America, the skulls of tens of thousands of anonymous homicide victims sit in evidence boxes, waiting to be identified.

Each of those skulls is tied to a detective – haunted by the enduring mysteries surrounding that unknown person’s death – as well as fractured families who are clinging to shreds of hope thattheir missing loved ones are still alive.

To make a dent in the backlog of unidentified skulls, investigators need to think outside the box. That’s where Joe Mullins, a forensic artist who works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, comes in: Mullins has teamed up with graduate students at the New York Academy of Art, who use the skulls and whatever police clues exist – about the victim’s age and race, for instance – to create 3-D facial models out of clay to help make identifications.

“These people have lost their identities and we want to give it back to them,” Mullins tells PEOPLE. “These skulls are people who are frozen in uncertainty. They are somebody’s son, somebody’s nephew – someone’s relative.

There’s got to be someone out there wondering where this person is, what became of them. Someone has questions and we’re are trying to provide them with answers.”

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Last summer in Boston, artists helped provide answers about “Baby Doe,” an unidentified 2-year-old whose decomposed body was found washed up on an area beach.

Desperate for leads after three months, investigators contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Virginia, where a forensic artist was charged with reconstructing the toddler’s face. The artist’s rendering was released to media outlets and within two weeks, was shared by more than 50 million people on social media.

That facial reconstruction, according to Mullins, helped identify the victim as Bella Bond, leading to the arrests of her mother and the mother’s boyfriend in her death.

“Bella Bond was such an innocent, young victim and that captured everyone’s attention,” Mullins offers. “There are lots of other cases just like hers; thousands, in fact. They all deserve 50 million views, too.”

Student Artist: ‘It’s About Helping People Find Closure’

Mullins’ workshop shows that there are practical uses for the students’ creative skills, says Angharad Coates, the school’s communications director.

“For these projects, the students are purely relying on science and anatomy, and have to avoid artistic freedom,” Coates tells PEOPLE. “They use the classical sculpting techniques taught here to help identify these people, and it’s the one project they can’t keep – because it becomes evidence.”

Adds Coates, “The students never lose sight of the fact that they re working on a real person,” she explains.

Last year, student Marco Palli was able to help bring closure to the family of Daniel Miranda. In 2004, work crews found the young Hispanic man’s remains while cleaning a Brooklyn highway.

Miranda’s body was found wrapped in a blanket, and for years, police tried to identify his skeleton. While DNA evidence ultimately helped police put a name to the skull, Palli’s reconstructive work helped Miranda’s family process his death.

“It becomes personal for you after a little while and you just want to help this person,” Palli comments to PEOPLE. “During this workshop, it’s not about making a great sculpture. It’s about helping people find closure and it’s really enriching – not in the artistic sense but in the social spectrum.”

The busts the students recently created will be displayed online and in what Mullins calls “a portrait gallery with purpose.” Mullins says he is hopeful someone will see the newest images and recognize one of the faces.

Mullins is interested in expanding the program to other art schools across the country, he says.

“When people realize these busts are unidentified homicide victims, these sculptures will have a deeper impact,” Mullins explains. “People realize they’re not looking at works of art, but people – victims.”