Killer Creativity

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

Steinberg, who along with Molina is a civilian and whose unit works by appointment, says that in most unidentified victim cases, investigators come to her as a last resort.

"Typically when human remains are found, crime scene investigators respond to collect evidence and photograph the scene. The medical examiner examines the remains on-site, and after the scene has been processed, the body is transferred for an autopsy," she says. "Investigators try to identify the victim through fingerprints, dental records, or by checking the National Crime Information Center's database. For example, if a body is located next to a car, investigators will see [to whom] it is registered to determine if it belongs to the victim. After they have exhausted their leads, we provide another investigative tool that law enforcement uses to solve crimes."

Perhaps the Forensic Art Unit's greatest success in helping finger perps comes from the composite drawings Steinberg and Molina create — often under intense pressure and in dismal conditions.

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

"We've had cases where a gunshot victim is in an intensive care unit, or a sexual assault victim has been nearly beaten to death and is lying in a hospital bed, and have to work with bad lighting and constant interruptions by nurses," Steinberg says. "I have gone back to work with some victims over several days just to get the drawing right," she says of those cases where an eyewitness account might be the only chance police have to capture a violent criminal.

In July 2004 the chief of the South Miami Police Department contacted Molina to create a composite of a gunman based on a description by the victim, Jorge Azze Jr., the teenage son of an anchorwoman at a local Spanish-language TV station. The boy had been robbed and shot twice while hanging out with six friends outside the Shops at Sunset Place.

Molina went to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center to meet the victim and two friends who had witnessed the shooting. With the help of one of the witnesses, Molina produced a drawing of the subject. Two days later a detective from the South Miami Police Department escorted another of the robbery victims to MDPD's Forensic Art Unit, where Steinberg completed a second composite of the assailant.

A little more than a week later, based on the victims' accurate descriptions of their attacker and a Crime Stoppers tip, police arrested Jename Tony Plez outside his Perrine home. He was charged with seven counts of robbery and attempted murder. The likeness Molina's and Steinberg's drawings bear to Plez's mug shot is remarkable — as are several others that led to a series of arrests.

Molina received a letter of commendation from MDPD's Sexual Crimes Bureau after his composite of Alvin Allen Merrit helped detectives nab the rapist. Merrit had abducted his victim at gunpoint from a bus stop and taken her to his home, where he sexually assaulted her.

In another sexual battery case, Molina drew a composite of a man who entered his victim's home under the pretense of renting a room. Once inside, he assaulted her. Molina's drawing of Anthony Scalisi resulted in his getting pinched for the crime.

Molina attributes the accuracy of his composite drawings to a process he calls a "cognitive interview." He typically spends two hours with a victim or eyewitness while creating a sketch that is the outcome of what he calls a highly collaborative effort.

"I never read the police report before interviewing a victim and try to work with their memory instead. We ask open-ended rather than leading questions during an in-depth interview, where we achieve a more descriptive and broader storytelling from eyewitnesses, and not just the who, what, when, and where," Molina relates. Often during these interviews, victims recall details such as "what cigarette brand the perpetrator smokes, a street name they went by, or even what type of work they do," he adds.

Molina also references a catalogue Steinberg created, listing 1200 mug shots from the MDPD's files, to aid victims in describing their assailants' features. "Details like gold teeth, tattoos, scars, pock marks, razor burns, facial hair, everything they can remember is important."

A striking sketch by Molina currently covers several billboards across the county; one is prominently displayed on State Road 441 near Parkway Regional Medical Center. The suspect tried to abduct twin ten-year-old girls from their school. The black male appears to be in his late twenties or early thirties and has a jutting chin, close-cropped hair, fleshy lips, deep-set eyes, and a scar on his left cheek. The case is open, and anyone who recognizes the man is urged to call Crime Stoppers.

Despite the sometimes morbid nature of Molina and Steinberg's job, their office reveals their sense of humor and reflects their love of the profession. Near the entrance of their well-lighted and airy workspace, a life-size glow-in-the-dark skeleton, sporting a rabbit mask and Mardi Gras beads, reclines in a chair. On a credenza, a hair ribbon holds a plastic skull's brainpan in place. Atop Steinberg's desk a corkboard displays photos of her young niece and nephew wearing prison stripes, along with pictures of dozens of suspects from cases she has worked on, as well as a pair of MDPD mug shots of Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra.

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