Killer Creativity

Miami-Dade's Forensic Art Unit draws a bead on crime

When local homicide cops find themselves stymied by a case and wishing the dead could tell tales, they seek Samantha Steinberg or Jorge Molina to communicate the secrets concealed in the victims' bones.

The talented pair composes the Forensic Art Unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department's Crime Scene Investigations Bureau, one of the few full-time squads of its kind in the nation. Their job entails assisting investigators with solving crimes by creating facial reconstructions of murder victims from skeletal remains or from postmortem photographs of putrescent or battered bodies. By recomposing the decomposed in their drawings, these artists virtually bring the dead back to life, making them easier to identify.

One might say Steinberg and Molina cover the beat located at the intersection of art and crime, a shadowy patch few creative types venture upon. By doing so they find themselves helping to put killers behind bars and delivering some peace to the grieving. As a result, they are comfortable shelving their egos and acknowledging that their artwork will invariably end up in an evidence locker, far from museum or gallery spotlights.

Skulls and pics. Can you tell which is which?
Skulls and pics. Can you tell which is which?

"It's incredible," Steinberg says of contributing to unraveling a mystery or collaring a thug. "It's impossible to put into words helping a family discover what happened to their loved one or knowing you played a role in removing a violent perpetrator from the streets. It's a priceless feeling, and we do this out of passion and not for a tremendous paycheck, which just isn't there."

Steinberg, who studied illustration and art history at the Rhode Island School of Design and is an avid reader of true-crime stories, founded MDPD's Forensic Art Unit in 1998 when she was 25 years old. Thirty-year-old Molina, who studied painting, joined the unit four years ago.

In addition to helping local police departments with facial reconstructions, they make composite sketches of felons from victim or witness descriptions, assist investigators with computerized lineup enhancements, and create digital and hand-drawn age progressions of missing children and fugitives.

Law enforcement agencies from as far away as Ohio, Canada, and the Cayman Islands have contacted the unit to aid in apprehending criminals, Steinberg says.

In February 2003, City of Miami investigators found the unidentified remains of a black male in a medical supply warehouse in Little Haiti. The man had been shot, and his body was badly decomposed. Homicide detectives contacted Steinberg to perform a facial reconstruction, and over the course of two days, she and Molina created frontal and profile views of the slain man, delivering an uncanny likeness of the victim.

Police released the sketch to the media April 17, and after seeing the drawings in the newspaper, the victim's stepfather showed it to his wife, who contacted the City of Miami Police Department, informing investigators she believed the images depicted her son, Tyshon Brown.

Brown, who would have turned 29 the day detectives released his sketch, was positively identified when his fingerprints from a prior arrest were compared to partial prints lifted from the body. City police credited MDPD's Forensic Art Unit with identification of the victim.

Steinberg and Molina favor 2-D facial reconstructions rendered in graphite on vellum rather than 3-D reconstructions using clay. "Many of the skulls we work with are brittle because of the harsh elements here and too fragile to cover with clay," Steinberg explains.

Molina says a skull reconstruction typically takes two to three days. He begins by placing 21 pencil-eraser-size rubber markers on bony ridges and landmarks across the skull. This process plots tissue depths and measurements that, based on a standard chart, are indicative of gender, body type, and race.

"Basically we examine a report by a forensic anthropologist who determines the race, sex, height, age, and approximate body weight of the remains," Molina says. "Then we use the points plotted on the skull to connect the dots and complete the drawings, to put it in simplified terms."

The unit averages about five facial reconstructions and a hundred composite drawings of criminals per year.

During New Times's visit to the Forensic Art Unit's office on the second floor of MDPD's headquarters in the Doral area, Steinberg demonstrated before and after pictures of two digital reconstructions of unidentified victims she created for the Medical Examiner's Office and Miami Beach Homicide.

One image depicted an elderly white homeless man who was bludgeoned to death and later discovered October 26, 2003, at SW First Avenue and 26th Road. The victim wore a blue and white plaid, short-sleeve button-down shirt and denim pants, and lay next to a box containing 80 vials of metaproterenol sulfate, a drug used to treat asthma. The postmortem photo showed the thickly bearded victim with a horribly swollen, discolored face and a huge gash across his forehead. In Steinberg's amazing reconstruction, the man looks serene and harmless, as he might have appeared in life.

In the case of an unidentified black male, whose nude body was found floating in Biscayne Bay near the east end of the MacArthur Causeway in November 2003, there were no obvious signs of trauma and few leads other than the deceased was missing his right testicle and wore chipped gold nail polish on his fingers and toes. Miami Beach Homicide detectives sent a blurry Polaroid of the man's bloated features to Steinberg, who was able to reconstruct his face. The image was then uploaded to the Doe Network's database of missing persons and released to the media in hopes of identification. Both of these cases remain unsolved.

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