Do You Recognize Them?
It's been a disturbing mystery for more than 27 years: Four people — a woman and three young girls — were brutally murdered, wrapped in plastic garbage bags, stuffed in two barrels and dumped in a remote area of New Hampshire. No one knows who they were. No missing person reports have been located.
Law enforcement authorities have never stopped searching for the identities of the victims in Allenstown, N.H. or their killer. New Hampshire State Police recently reached out to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, seeking fresh eyes on the case.
A case review was conducted at NCMEC headquarters in Alexandria, Va. The team consisted of about 20 people, including forensic anthropologists, NCMEC staff members and investigators from the FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
"How can four people just be killed, and it goes unnoticed by family and friends?" said Dr. Angela Williamson, who leads NCMEC's five-person Unknown Victim Identification Team. "They need their names. There must be some kind of justice. Somebody knew these people. Somebody is missing them, even if they weren't reported missing."
The case review team decided to enlist Bode Technology laboratory in Virginia to complete enhanced DNA testing. The purpose of this enhanced testing was to try and determine the exact relationship between the four victims, all Caucasian. Previous testing had shown that two of the children were related to the woman.
The woman and eldest girl were found in the first barrel. The woman appeared to be between 23-33 years old and the eldest girl was believed to be between 6-10 years old. The two younger girls, found in the second barrel, were estimated to be between 2-4 years old and 1-3 years old.
A major hindrance in identifying unknown victims is the lack of facial imagery that could help spark recognition. This is where NCMEC’s Forensic Imaging Unit stepped in to help.
Joe Mullins, a forensic imaging specialists, used a sophisticated new technology to complete 3-D cranial face reconstructions showing what the four victims may have looked like. Mullins recently revised these reconstructions to include important information about the victims' teeth based on insights from forensic odontologist Richard Scanlon.
NCMEC's Forensic Imaging Unit previously completed cranial face reconstructions the traditional way, by placing clay directly on the skull to rebuild the face. So far, eight of those 68 clay reconstructions completed at NCMEC have been recognized, providing answers to families.
About six years ago, NCMEC began using computerized technology exclusively, becoming one of only three places using this technique. While the results are the same using either method, there are advantages to this sophisticated technology, said Steve Loftin, supervisor of the Forensic Imaging Unit.
"It's cutting edge as far as cranial face reconstruction goes," Loftin said. "You don't have to put clay on a fragile piece of evidence. And in the virtual computer, you can move it around at any angle."
Computerized 3-D skull reconstruction was pioneered by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson of Scotland. The technology was developed for use in industrial design, not human identification, but Wilkinson saw the value in its potential.
Mullins, who trained under Wilkinson, said the software enables him to complete a skull reconstruction in three or four days. That’s about half the time it takes to sculpt one in clay.
“As you're putting the face on, you eventually see a face staring at you," said Mullins. "I stop when I see the victim looking back at me."
The process begins with a CT scan of the skull to produce a 3-D photo. This photo is then uploaded to a computer.
By studying the 3-D photo of the skull, Mullins can determine thickness of the lips, width of the nose, shape of the eyes and even whether the earlobes were detached. A skull cannot, however, reveal other features such as type of hair, skin tone or eye color.
That's why, when the skull is the only evidence, it is vital to recreate a generic face in black and white, Mullins said. There is no room for artistic license.
Mullins has reconstructed more than 40 faces using computerized technology. One reconstruction helped identify a 20-year-old California woman who vanished in 1995.
His work also led to the identification of one of the 49 victims of serial killer Gary Ridgway, known as the “Green River Killer” in Washington state.
Carol Schweitzer, a senior forensic case specialist at NCMEC, said hospitals around the country have been very receptive to helping with CT scans.
"These medical examiners are thrilled that they don't have to ship these fragile skulls to us," she said.
One particularly strong partnership exists between NCMEC and INOVA Alexandria Hospital in Virginia. Under this partnership, INOVA performs CT scans on skulls during off hours to help identify children.
Dr. David R. Hunt, a forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution, works closely with NCMEC to help identify skeletal remains.
Schweitzer and Mullins are hoping to get hospitals in every state on board.
Working together to identify
There are an estimated 40,000 sets of unidentified human remains in this country, often described as "the silent scream" or "the nation's silent mass disaster."
Williamson estimates that several thousand of these belong to children. Her identification team, formed in November 2011, is currently working on 650 unidentified cases involving children, including the case of the four victims in New Hampshire found in barrels.
The team has already helped law enforcement make six identifications.
NCMEC’s Project ALERT volunteers also work with the Unknown Victim Identification Team. These volunteers are retired investigators around the country who assist law enforcement with long-term missing children cases.
Project ALERT volunteers meet with law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners to collect biometrics for each case, including DNA, dental records and fingerprints. They document unique identifiers such as scars, tattoos and jewelry on the victims and pull together all reports, documents, evidence charts and photos associated with the case.
"We want to make sure that everything that can be done is being done," said Williamson. "We're here to help medical examiners and law enforcement. They don't necessarily have the time or resources."
If anyone knows the identity of these victims or has information about the case, contact NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).