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Inside Ohio’s BCI: Animation helps identify human remains

Jun 23, 2023Jun 23, 2023

by: Jamie Ostroff

Posted: Aug 30, 2023 / 07:29 PM EDT

Updated: Aug 30, 2023 / 10:53 PM EDT

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Thanks to an unlikely partnership between investigators and animators, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is making breakthroughs in cases that have gone unsolved for years.

Figuring out what someone looked like when they were alive is a tricky process, especially when all detectives have to go by is a skull that might even be missing pieces.

“Whenever we have unidentified human remains found and we still can’t ID them through DNA or dental records, scars, marks, tattoos, they can come to me as long as we have a skull,” said Sam Molnar, an intelligence analyst and forensic artist for BCI.

Molnar’s job is to figure out what someone looked like when they were alive. She uses specialized training she received from the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Florida to sculpt the heads and faces of people who have not been identified.

“I liked to do art as a kid and I watched way too many crime shows as a kid. And I always wanted to do this,” Molnar said.

Molnar sculpts muscles, hair, and facial features on top of 3D-printed copies of the skulls that are recovered.

Getting that copy used to take a week or more. The process involved taking the skull to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, getting a CT scan of the skull and physically delivering the data-dense file to OSU’s Digital Union to create the 3D-printed skull.

“I would take that CT scan file, which has a lot of information you don’t necessarily need for 3D printing— when you think about what’s on the inside of a skull, the inside of a mouth — things like that, that aren’t necessary for (Molnar) to have the outer skull to sculpt on,” said Amy Spears, Manager of the Digital Union. “It would usually take some time between three days to a little over a week to print a skull because it is a slow process to do that level of detail.”

Elsewhere on OSU’s campus, a former video game designer and a 3D animator came up with a way to speed up the process for Molnar and Spears.

Graphics researcher Jeremy Patterson (the game designer) and immersive designer Dean Hensley (the animator) created a computer program that uses a series of iPhone photos taken from multiple angles to construct a scaled 3D rendering of just about any object.

The process is called photogrammetry, which used to be a lot more complex before the software was developed.

“Traditionally, this took specialized equipment, equipment that was expensive. You had to specifically stage an object to go through this, and the object itself mattered,” Patterson said.

“Anybody that’s got a cell phone that has high-quality images, they can make a 3D object in minutes,” Hensley said.

Thanks to the software, Molnar no longer needs to leave the BCI lab in London to scan a skull. She takes photos of the specimens on her phone and sends them to Patterson and Hensley, who can quickly create the 3D image.

The file they create contains significantly less data than a CT scan, and therefore takes significantly less time to print.

“Once we get it done, we get a bulletin together. We usually work with the local agency to put together some sort of press release, blast it out to the public, and hope that somebody recognizes this person and calls in a tip that allows us to identify them,” Molnar said.

The team at OSU never expected to be involved in forensics, but they are embracing their modern partnership with BCI.

“It’s being able to take your skills and your abilities and use the time that you have to be able to do something that can really help people,” Patterson said.

“I know some of the ones that we’ve printed that have been identified have been people who have been unidentified for decades,” Spears said.

Molnar showcased reconstructions for three cases that remain open, asking for the public’s help to identify the faces:

John Doe #3312’s skeletal remains were found near an oil well site in rural Canton. The man, believed to be 30-50 years old at the time of his death, was wearing a striped navy blue, yellow and white t-shirt; black shorts; and athletic shoes. Investigators believe he had been dead for two years before his remains were found, and likely had no teeth. If you can help identify this person, call the Stark County Sheriff’s Office at (330) 430-3823.

John Doe #2027’s skeletal remains were found on January 8, 2016, inside an abandoned two-story house in Akron. Investigators say the house caught fire in 2012. He was found with two size XXL coats, three layers of pants and black shoes. He is believed to have been between 30 and 55 years old at the time of his death. If you can identify this person, call the Akron Police Department at (330) 375-2490.

Jane Doe #3067’s remains were found buried next to a playground on Glenwood Ave. in Cincinnati on May 31, 2018. She was wearing a gray tank top and gray pajama pants. She had brown and gray, medium-length hair that was fine and wavy. Investigators believe she had been resting by the playground for “a few weeks” before she was found, and that she was between 35 and 60 years old when she died. Anyone with information is asked to call the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office at (513) 946-8700.

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