Piecing Together an Identity

To help solve more crimes, one sheriff's office overhauled its forensics unit and brought a new technology on board


     Appointed back in September, Sheriff Al Lamberti of Broward County, Florida, felt his agency had more requests for technical forensic assistance than his investigators could handle. And, being a county-wide agency that employs 6,300 and serves a population of 1.8 million, he wanted to be able to provide service to other municipalities and federal agencies needing support.

     In an effort to better serve his community and help other agencies shoulder the load, Lamberti decided to make significant changes to his office's forensic operations.

     The Broward Sheriff's Office Forensic Art Unit can now provide computer-enhanced photographs of victims in addition to 2D drawings of postmortem reconstructions. The goal is to the help the medical examiner identify deceased homeless, homicide, crash and accidental death victims. The unit's enhanced capabilities will also aid local, state and federal law enforcement agencies with victim and wanted person identifications.

     "We've increased the staff, and now that we're in the process of marketing it, we're prepared to assist," says Lamberti. Several months ago, he took the plans county-wide to let other agencies know that the agency is committed.

     Every day, phones ring off the hook at Broward County's forensic office. People have always called the department seeking answers. Now, more subjects can be named.

One man's hobby

     Composite artist John McMahon began his career as a road deputy, and later became a detective. McMahon said he's always done composites on his own, as collateral assignments since 1979, but never went full-time. For him, art is a hobby.

     Always very exacting in his sketches, McMahon started toying with the idea of electronically rendered composites in 1998, when he experimented with a program called "Faces." In using the program, the agency successfully identified suspect Nicholas Stoumbelis, a South Florida man who confessed to raping eight women and girls. Police arrested Stoumbelis 15 days later.

     Lamberti appointed McMahon to the Broward County Forensic Art Unit in February 2008. That same month, McMahon did a hand composite for America's Most Wanted host John Walsh regarding a suspect in the unsolved murders of a mother and daughter at the Boca Raton Town Center Mall in neighboring Palm Beach County. It was the perfect example of how a composite can reenergize a major case.

     More recently, McMahon and Lamberti recognized the possibility, and more importantly, the need, to expand the county's forensic unit and began using Photoshop, a graphics editing program by Adobe Systems, to expedite their efforts.

     At this time, the eight-person forensic team of deputy sheriffs, art students and civilians are learning to generate postmortems — a process McMahon used to do by hand — on a computer program that's used by millions of peoples in diverse fields.

Another use for Photoshop

     Using basic Photoshop CS3 "takes hours away from doing [composites] by hand as a forensic artist, because you can't use 80 percent of a photograph, and hand-drawings take too many hours," says McMahon. He reports the electronic method is also accurate.

     Creating composites this way entails rebuilding each facial feature, layer by layer.

     Technicians import faces and parts of faces; such as eyes, hair and skin from other photographs — often booking photos — and meld them together.

     "We may use the hair of somebody who was arrested, a chin from another booking photo and the subject's own skin to recreate flesh tone," says McMahon. "We're experimenting."

     The first subject that came in from the medical examiner's office was already the ultimate test. "Train wreck," as the group dubbed him, was a subject who went head-on with a train. The face was severely damaged.

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