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'Skull lady' makes faces for the dead

  • Story Highlights
  • Sharon Long is forensic artist who creates faces from skulls
  • Fort Myers, Florida, police called her after they found eight sets of remains
  • Only two of the eight remains have been identified
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By Patrick Oppmann
CNN
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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- Sharon Long's work has earned her the nickname "Skull Lady."

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Sharon Long is a forensic artist whose job is to help identify the dead, often murder victims.

She is a forensic artist whose job is to give faces -- and sometimes identities -- back to anonymous murder victims who have been robbed of both.

Armed with sculptor's clay, glass eyes, wigs and research, Long creates a face from a human skull.

When Fort Myers, Florida, police found eight sets of human remains in the woods in March, they turned to her -- anything to help identify the people who were so mercilessly left to rot amid the trees and mud.

"[Police] have no other way. They have no fingerprints; they have no flesh. Usually, the last resort is building a face," Long said. See the "skull lady" at work »

She hopes that when the faces of those killed get printed in newspapers or appear on TV or online, a friend or loved one recognizes them and says, "Gee, we haven't seen so-and-so for a while, and that kind of looks like him."

"Then, at least, you have a lead, and then you can get DNA from people. And then [police] have something to go on."

Mystery bones inquiry

• March 23, 2007: Police discover eight sets of human remains.

• June 8, 2007: Investigators release descriptions of each of the eight. The dead were determined to be between the ages of 18 and 49.

• Summer 2007: More than 50 people submit DNA samples to find out whether their missing relatives are among the remains.

• November 20, 2007: Police identify two of the eight sets of human remains as Erik Kohler and John Blevins. Both men disappeared in 1995, police said.

• January 2008: Fort Myers police determine that all the victims were killed.

Long, 67, has made faces for the unknown victims of grisly homicides and solved historical mysteries. During her 20-year career, the forensics specialist from the University of Wyoming helped identify the crew of the H.L Hunley, a Confederate submarine sunk during the Civil War. She also created the first picture of the only explorer to have died on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

When law enforcement asks for Long's assistance, it is almost always on a case that has gone very cold. And that was exactly the case in Fort Myers, where police were desperate for any information on the dead they found: eight men killed, their bodies discovered in a wooded area on March 23, 2007. Video Watch how bones can give clues to investigators »

There were no witnesses, no leads and little evidence of killings other than the victims' bones.

If Long could identify the victims of the crime, it might help to catch a serial killer. But before Long could create any likeness of the victims, she would have to do a lot of work -- hundreds of hours of it.

Long first creates a mold of the skull and uses it to make a plaster replica. She puts eraser tips on points to mark tissue depth. Sculptor's clay fills in for skin and muscle. The faded gumline on the skull's teeth helps Long determine how thick the person's lips were.

The victim's hair and eye color requires guesswork and research, Long says. Often while working on cases, she talks to people who lived in the same area as the victim or victims to find out the most common eye color and what hairstyles are in fashion. See how to decode a face »

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She spent two months on the Fort Myers skulls.

"I start working, and 15 hours can go by, and I don't get up and move, and you don't realize how much time has gone by, and, well, that's how intense I get," she said. "It's like you get carried away in this life of somebody. I start trying to think of them as being an alive person and doing something and not getting killed."

Eventually, publicity about the Fort Myers case would lead people with missing relatives to submit their DNA. Testing revealed that two of the men were Erik Kohler and John Blevins. Both men lived hardscrabble lives and had run-ins with police. Both disappeared in 1995.

At a news conference last month where Fort Myers police unveiled Long's sculptures, investigators said they still need to identify the other six victims if they are to solve the case.

Kohler and Blevins didn't closely mirror Long's sculptures of their faces, but there were some similarities, some facial features that looked liked the two dead men. And that's what police say they want: They hope people with missing relatives will look at every detail of the other six sculptures to see whether they notice any resemblance, no matter how faint.

"Going into this, I knew there would be some level of subjectivity in the art part of it, but I think what it does is generate the interest," Fort Myers Police Detective Barry Lewis said.

"I am just looking for that one little similarity, that one little key that someone could recognize that they could make a call that that is their loved one."

Since the news conference, police say, they have received hundreds of leads.

Long's work on the case might be done, but she still has nightmares about the eight men killed.

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"I hear screaming, and I hear pleading, and I hear all these things which I couldn't imagine," she said. "I can see somebody dragging a body out there, and here he kept taking them to the same area. I think, what in the hell is wrong with this guy?"

Six of those killed remain nameless. And police are still trying to find the killer. Authorities urge anyone with more information on the case to call 877-667-1296. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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