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.

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.

"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.

County police brass crow they couldn't be more tickled to have the crack art sleuths under their roof. "They have helped further the investigations and solve some of the cases," Capt. Alex Casas of MDPD's Homicide Bureau says of the department's avant crime fighters. "We are fortunate to have Samantha and Jorge as resources."

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