NAPLES — It’s easy to overlook the details of something we see everyday, something such as a face.
But for Tricia Blair, faces fascinate.
“I’ve always kind of been drawn to the human face,” Blair said.
In her role as a forensic artist for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, Blair is equal parts scientist, sketch artist and sculptor. She’s also a blessing, explained sheriff’s office Detective David Hurm.
“We’re very lucky to have these assets here,” he said.
Blair began working with the Sheriff’s Office in March. Prior to that, when the Sheriff’s Office required a facial reconstruction, the process was performed elsewhere. That was time-consuming and expensive, Hurm explained. By contrast, Blair is able to recreate a face in just a few days, swiftly giving detectives a way to reach out to the public and recruit their help in identifying an unknown person.
“Typically, when we need Tricia’s help, we have so little to work with, due to the condition of the body or the age of the case,” he said.
Hurm likened it to having another thread to pull on in the course of unraveling a case.
“This is a tool that hopefully will make people think,” he said of Blair’s work.
It was Blair’s fascination for faces that led her to explore forensic art. While working as a dispatcher for California’s San Bernadino County Sheriff’s Office, the petite blonde wondered if there was a way she could use her background as a graphic, portrait and caricature artist to assist the agency.
In 2002, she began investigating forensic art, and later learned several areas of the discipline, including facial reconstruction, age progression and compositing.
She studied with two prominent members of the field, Betty Pat. Gatliff and Lois Gibson. Of the 3,000 reconstructions Gibson has performed, it is estimated that one-third have led to an identification, Blair said. Gatliff is regarded as a pioneer in the field of forensic art and is a co-developer of the American Method, the most commonly used process of facial reconstruction.
“She (Gatliff) is such a legend, like a national treasure,” Blair said.
Blair recalled one of her training sessions, during which 12 students were charged with a reconstruction of the same face. She and the others used the American Method to apply a variety of tissue depth markers, based on factors such as the subject’s ancestry and ethnicity. At the end of the session, 12 pairs of hands revealed a sculpted face that was strikingly similar, Blair said.
“At some point, the artistic discipline kicks in,” Blair said of her work, “but we still hold to this as a blueprint because we don’t want to get too creative. It’s not art for art’s sake. It’s art for a purpose.”
Blair has completed four facial reconstructions — three sculpted, one sketched — for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. In California, she created two. In one of the California reconstructions, she was ultimately able to see the true face of the person upon whom she based her sculpture. Blair said she was pleased by how closely she captured the person.
“It’s not an exact science,” Blair said. “It’s a way of triggering memories and getting people to think.”
She begins her reconstruction process by taking official custody of the evidence, which is the skull. Then, she will photograph the evidence and inventory it, noting any anomalies or damage. Using the information prepared by the Collier County Medical Examiner’s Office regarding the subject’s age, sex, ancestry and ethnicity, Blair then begins to apply tissue depth markers. She photographs the evidence again and uses the markers to create a two-dimensional drawing, offering a first glimpse at the subject’s face.
She adds prosthetic eyes to the evidence. Then, with the markers as a guide, Blair begins to overlay the evidence with clay, a process that does not damage the skull, she said.
For fleshy features, such as the nose and lips, Blair uses a series of equations. For example, to create a realistic nose for the subject, it’s necessary to consider the nasal aperture and nasal spine, she said. Some variables, including eye color and ear shape, can’t be known, and Blair must use her judgment.
Through it all, Blair treats the remains with respect, remembering that at the heart of her efforts is “the hope that something I can do will put someone’s nightmares to rest,” she said.
Hurn shares that hope. The detective is investigating a case involving a set of partially decomposed male remains that were found near the Goodland Bridge in May. The man was officially determined to be 40 to 70 years old, between 6 feet to 6 feet 5 inches and black-haired. Blair’s facial reconstruction of the man was released earlier this month.
So far, the case is off to a slow start, Hurn said.
“Unfortunately, I haven’t had the response from the public that I hoped for, which may reflect that this is not a local situation,” he said.