Illustrator's portraits help identify Jane and John Does

illustrator unidentified dead missing persons nccorig_00000000
illustrator unidentified dead missing persons nccorig_00000000

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Story highlights

  • Carl Koppelman creates portraits of unidentified deceased people
  • One family positively identified a relative after seeing one of Koppelman's reconstructions

(CNN)At first glance, Carl Koppelman's portraits might seem innocuous.

But a single somber thread connects the computer-generated faces staring back from his screen: They are all reconstructions of unidentified dead people.
    Since he lost his job as an accountant for Disney in 2009, the 53-year-old amateur painter from Los Angeles has been illustrating deceased Jane and John Does -- and helping family members identify them.
    "I've always had the ability to draw faces," he says. "So when I got involved in this, it was skills I already had -- but put to a different application."

    Jaycee Dugard connection

    Koppelman's unusual second career began after he came across the story of Jaycee Dugard, who was kidnapped in 1991 and went missing for 18 years before being found alive.
    "I had an emotional reaction in the Dugard case. When the mom held the teddy bear in her arms in the press conference and cried, that really touched me," Koppelman remembers.
    Researching the story led him to Websleuths, a site dedicated to missing persons and unresolved cases. He became specifically interested in unidentified homicide victims.
    "I started realizing that a lot of these postmortem photos and police sketches weren't that accurate," he says.
    Such was the case of Joseph Cole, Koppelman's first attempt in reconstruction. Cole was found dead in the basement of an abandoned hotel in Philadelphia, and the police sketch was far from portraying him accurately.
    "I thought 'I'm good with faces, let me try and fix it up and see if I can come up with a better depiction of what this guy would have looked like alive'," says Koppelman, who uses image-editing software to create his likenesses.

    Solving a decade-old mystery

    George Pollard of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was found unresponsive in May 2005 near a homeless shelter in Los Angeles after suffering from head injuries. He died in a local hospital in June and remained unidentified for the following decade.
    Koppelman's drawing of George Pollard.
    In 2010 Koppelman came across a photo of Pollard's remains on the LA County Coroner's website. He says they were "in a very bad condition," which made his job more complicated.
    After seeing Koppelman's drawing online, Nancy Monahan asked to publish it on her website about missing persons of Pennsylvania. In January 2015, Pollard's family members positively identified him after seeing the facial reconstruction on her site, Monahan said.

    'Something useful'

    The process is simple, according to Koppelman. He uses demographic information from coroner reports and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a database of over 11,000 unidentified persons.
    By now Koppelman has become an expert in identifying race, gender and age range just by examining a picture of a skull.
    Besides posting hundreds of images on the site and on social media, he also has been assisting private individuals searching for their lost loved ones or public institutions like the Spokane coroner's office in Washington state.
    "This is just me doing something useful," says Koppelman, who describes the feeling of solving a mystery as "gratifying and exciting."
    "My drawing resulting in someone recognized is the whole purpose of what I do," he says.