Piecing Together an Identity

     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.

     "Your average anthropologist or forensic artist who does skull reconstructions would reduce the face down to a skull and use the standard method of clay or 2D reconstruction," says McMahon. However, he preferrs to use his "eye" as a forensic artist, in partnership with the new techs training on Photoshop, including interns.

     "Very few [agencies], if any, would attempt to recreate that face," says McMahon. "But we took it on."

     The subject's eyes were derived from a suspect photograph. As McMahon recalls, "The guy's name is David ... he raped three women and is standing trial right now. I was looking at David's booking photo and I said, 'Those are the eyes we've been searching for.'"

     This was the unit's first Photoshop postmortem. The person has not yet been identified; however, Broward County has very recently released the image via the Broward County Crime Stoppers, a tip line that offers cash rewards to anonymous tipsters.

Layer by layer

     Individuals within the department who already have a technical background are comfortable with delivering "drawings" using a computer platform.

     Patrice Muchow, an investigative analyst who works with Broward County detectives and its homicide unit, is accustomed to detecting the identity of an unknown person through fingerprints, tattoos and identifying marks. Now Muchow is refining her skills by training on Photoshop.

     "It's amazing what you can do," Muchow says of the technology. "We're strictly using the newest version [of Photoshop]."

     To arrive at a close match, Muchow and McMahon scour through stacks of booking photos and compare them to physical descriptions such as height, weight and facial features provided by the medical examiner.

     Muchow is very much like an artist, or someone who pieces together a puzzle. Only, she often has a limited number of pieces to work with.

     "I'll take the postmortem picture and use that as our base — the background layer," says Muchow. "Then I'll take the other pictures; the eyes, nose, etc. and put that over it. Finally we blend it and match the skin tones, because we want it to be as close as possible to a photograph, without it looking like a painting."

     Photoshop is more forgiving than the standard method of composite creation, as it's quicker to change something that may not be "quite right."

     "You can throw in a pair of eyes and if it doesn't look right, you can take them out and throw another pair in," says Muchow. "Or you can hide the different layers. This way, John has the opportunity to look at it from different views and perspectives, and either come up with something else, or say 'Oh yeah, you guys got it.' "

Forensic challenges: Age progression and decomposition

     Aside from rebuilding a face based on photographs and witness description, certain cases demand a bit more investigative work. Sometimes forensic personnel must determine an identity while allowing for age progression and other preexisting factors that literally destroy pieces of evidence. Armed with a determined workforce and precise technology, Lamberti looks forward to tackling cases such as these.

     One problem unique to Broward County is the Everglades. The subtropical wetland that occupies approximately 2,000 square miles on the southern tip of Florida has historically been used as a dumping ground for homicide victims.

     When bodies are interned in any warm, watery environment they decompose; making identification difficult, if not impossible. Not only does this hurt a case — but it leaves survivors without closure.

     "Periodically, we still do find bodies that have been dumped in the Everglades," says Lamberti, noting they "found one about three months ago."

     He goes on to say that "with decomposition, you don't really have a facial composite to go off. So, part of [a forensic artist's job] is facial reconstruction, and then the age progression on some of these victims.

     This requires the team to work very closely with medical examiners and survivors. It takes much more time than simply drawing a witness-directed composite of a suspect-at-large.

     "With our enhanced capabilities, we can do the facial reconstructions and try to identify the victims for the family's sake — not just for the investigation — to bring closure to the family," says Lamberti.

Teaming with artists

     Broward County Sheriff's Office cooperates with the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in an effort to combine the latest in graphic design with best of forensics technology. Some might consider this to be an unorthodox pairing, but on all fronts the effort already appears to be paying off.

     "To me, that was the perfect partnership," says Lamberti. "[At the art institute] they train students in art professionally; so the idea was, would they be willing to start a certificate program where the students can come over here, learn the skill, learn from each other and teach some of our people?"

     Sheriff's office workers attend Photoshop, as well as additional art and technology training at the institute. Meanwhile, forensic art is now a part of the Fort Lauderdale Art Institute curriculum. Like any other team member, interns are an integral part of the Broward County Sheriff's Office Forensic Art Unit. And for some students, the experience could lead to a career.

     In addition, to cut costs and utilize internal talent, the sheriff's office has begun to train more people in-house rather than make outside hires.

Spread the word, expand the effort

     In order for either hand-drawn or electronic composites to work, word or rather, description, needs to get out. The Broward County Sheriff's Office displays hand-drawn and Photoshop composites via many outlets — including radio and television broadcasts, the Crime Stoppers tip line and America's Most Wanted. The composite of the suspect in the previously mentioned Boca Raton Town Center Mall case is currently being circulated on the show.

     But it isn't just the homicides that warrant publicity. Thanks to its latest undertaking, the forensics department now has the capability and manpower to address even the smallest crime.

     A rash of robberies in area Chinese restaurants last year and, more currently, pizza restaurants, produced a number of witness descriptions that led to arrests.

     "When I got here, I said we need to make this a full-time effort where we have a dedicated group of people who do this on a regular basis. Not only for our own people, but for the municipalities in the county, surrounding counties and federal jurisdictions," Lamberti says. "There were definitely enough requests."

     Now the agency is able to assist other jurisdictions in robbery and aggravated assault cases, in addition to its own.

     "A lot of times, that's the best evidence you have to go on," Lamberti says. "You don't have fingerprints but you have a description from a witness. Through Crime Stoppers and our media partnerships, we can get all these composites out to everybody."

     Lamberti indicates that because Crime Stoppers implements a rewards system, the more crimes they produce a composite for, the better chance they have of solving them.

Measuring success

     Though the program is relatively new (especially in its use of Photoshop), time will tell how many arrests will be made using this method. But already the team has seen an increase in production, case-load and media visibility. It would seem that the success McMahon found with his spot-on hand drawings is certain to repeat itself with the team's current efforts.

     With its revamped forensics unit, the Broward County Sheriff's Office isn't merely closing cases. It's reducing its operation time, better assisting community concerns, backing up other jurisdictions and providing closure to people who have lost loved ones.

     For Muchow, the most satisfying part of her job is simple.

     "When you get to a point where you can see the resemblance, it's just like giving them a certain dignity back," she says. "And it makes you feel good to be able to do something like that."