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Skilled postmortem craftsmanship brings identity to the missing

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The work of a forensic artist can link a missing person to an unidentified body, often times using just a few remains from the skull.

Suzanne Lowe Birdwell is a forensic artist with the Texas Rangers. She can bring human bones to life, at least on paper.

It’s an assignment that starts with the actual skull of the deceased person along with the medical examination results.

"We as forensic artists need as much of the cranium and the mandible and the lower jaw," she said. "This picture was developed onto of a life-sized picture of a skull, and it is superimposed beneath the drawing. So you can see how the facial features match the skull."

More than 900 bodies have been found in Texas which still have not been identified, but sometimes the work of a sketch artist can connect a life to a missing person.

"We're always trying to pair missing persons cases with these unidentified bodies that we have," Lowe Birdwell said.

For 37 years, the body of a woman found in the Brazos River lay in an unmarked grave. Her identity was written on the tombstone, "Known but to God." Her remains were exhumed in 2009, and Birdwell was able to sketch the likeness of the missing woman.

Thanks to her sketch, the woman was eventually identified by family members in Tennessee as 22-year-old Gloria Stringer, a woman missing since 1975.

The identification ultimately reopened a murder investigation.

"It was really surreal, very rewarding and they were just really gracious and grateful after 37 years to have answers," Lowe Birdwell said. "Not only do you have the great reward of being able to tell the family members we have found your lost loved ones, but also provide answers to what happened maybe how they died and then maybe pursue it to criminal charges."

For the work of Lowe Blackwell and her team, forensic artistry is a blending of science and art that can bring life to remains, and bring answers to victims, even if it is decades later.

The Missing Persons Clearinghouse was established in 1985. Its personnel work with law enforcement and the public to help track down missing people.

Click here to view its database.

Gallery images by Develon Douglas/YNN

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