VCU researcher uses 3D technology to help re-create image of victim in New Jersey cold case murder

This image of the unidentified murder victim was created by a forensic artist and a VCU forensic science researcher. (Image courtesy of New Jersey State Police)
This image of the unidentified murder victim was created by a forensic artist and a VCU forensic science researcher. (Image courtesy of New Jersey State Police)

On Nov. 21, 1979, the skeletal remains of a young man were discovered in a wooded area in Downe Township, New Jersey. The man’s death, which was ruled a homicide, has been unsolved for nearly 40 years and his identity is a mystery.

New Jersey State Police are now circulating a newly created image of what the victim’s face may have looked like. The image was developed by forensic artist Catyana Falsetti in collaboration with Terrie Simmons-Ehrhardt, a researcher in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Somebody out there must have been missing him in the ’70s and they might still be wondering what happened to him,” Simmons-Ehrhardt said. “Unfortunately, there are too many cases like this in the U.S. where they spend decades remaining unidentified.”

Simmons-Ehrhardt — who studies forensic anthropology, specifically forensic craniofacial identification and 3D osteology — traveled to the Southern Regional Medical Examiner’s Office in Woodbine, New Jersey, to scan the victim’s skull with a NextEngine 3D scanner. She then provided 3D digital images of the skull to Falsetti.

“[Using 3D images is] advantageous in the sense that I can rotate it,” said Falsetti, who has performed roughly 200 facial reconstructions since she started in 1997. “And since I wasn’t able to go up and actually see the skull myself, using the 3D scans allows me to see all perspectives that you can’t see with just photographs.”

Simmons-Ehrhardt and Falsetti have collaborated several times, both on similar cases and on research, particularly investigating how CT scan data collected from living people could be used to improve craniofacial identification.

They applied that research in this case, using the data to inform the re-creation of what the person’s face would have looked like.

“Terrie has been really instrumental for my work since I started working with her,” Falsetti said. “[Particularly in getting] feedback like: ‘This is the skull that I have. How does this skull match up to our database? And how do you think this feature would look on this individual?’ She’s really helped refine the work.”

Simmons-Ehrhardt and Falsetti go back and forth, tweaking minute details and comparing the reconstruction to the database.

“Because she might see things and I see might see different things, we just go back and forth,” Simmons-Ehrhardt said. “And since she’s sketching rather than using clay, it’s a much faster process and it’s much easier for us to go back and forth.”

Using 3D images also allows them to take precise measurements that can influence how the victim’s face might have looked.

According to a March 12 report on NJ.com, the remains in this case are believed to have gone undiscovered for several years. Police initially believe the skeletal remains, which were spread over a 20-foot radius, belonged to a woman. No witnesses came forward and the case went cold.

In 2009, the victim’s skull was sent to a forensic lab at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification, where DNA was obtained and entered into a database, though no matches have yet been found, according to the report.

“If there aren’t any [DNA match] hits, it’s possible that a family member just hasn’t come forward yet to submit their DNA,” Simmons-Ehrhardt said. “If there hasn’t been any news on the case in decades, then there’s nothing for them to see. This could revive that.”

Now, as New Jersey State Police are publicizing the new rendering, investigators say the victim is believed to have been a male, possibly biracial or of Mediterranean descent, between 17 and 25 years old.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Detective John Weber of the New Jersey State Police Homicide South Unit at (609) 561-1800, ext. 3355, or the Southern Regional Medical Examiner’s Office at (609) 861-3355. Anonymous tips are welcome.