Cold-case investigation warms up with help from forensic artist

3D printing plus forensic reconstruction techniques offer potential clues to homicide victim's identity

ADRI research associate Jenny Kenyon speaks at a press conference held in December 2018 by the West Manchester Township Police Department to introduce the forensic facial reconstruction she created.  Credit: Ty Lohr, The York Daily RecordAll Rights Reserved.

WEST MANCHESTER TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Forensic artist Jenny Kenyon, Penn State Arts and Design Research Incubator research associate, was the center of attention at a press conference held in December by the West Manchester Township Police Department in York County. Her vibrant yellow sweater lit by flashbulbs was starkly contrasted by the subdued officers on her left and the clay model bust on her right of a murder victim that she reconstructed using a 3D print of his skull.

A road crew discovered the remains in 2013 and after a five-year homicide investigation that has produced more questions than answers, police decided to turn to forensic art in the hopes that the victim will be identified.

“Without knowing who the victim is, it is nearly impossible to find a suspect,” said Lance Krout, lead investigator in the case. “I’ve spent several years working on this and it’s kept me up some nights because we’re not able to move into the next phase of the investigation if we don’t identify this victim.”

After exhausting traditional investigatory tactics, which led to the discovery that the victim was male, between 35 and 45-years-old at the time of his death, likely between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 8 inches tall and of Spanish or Caucasian descent, Krout began to explore the forensic art options.

Forensic facial reconstruction using 3D printing

Knowing that Penn State is a leader in 3D-printing technology, he contacted Jamie Heilman, Stuckman School digital fabrication and specialized technologies coordinator, and in September 2018 a 3D-print of the skull was created to preserve the DNA of the remains and to provide a forensic facial reconstruction artist with a working model of the skull. The only thing missing from Krout’s plan was the artist.

“When I met with Jamie at Penn State, I didn’t have a person in mind because I’ve never worked with a facial reconstruction artist and to my knowledge the West Manchester Police Department has never done anything like this,” Krout said. “It worked out perfectly that Jenny was also at Penn State and we moved quickly to bring her expertise to the investigation.”

When the body was found in 2013, Kenyon was an ocean away studying forensic art and facial recognition at the University of Dundee in Scotland. At the time, it was the only program of its kind that taught students technical and conceptual art skills alongside comprehensive medical and anatomical analysis.

She left Scotland after one year of intense course work and put her unique skill to use for mainly archeological purposes. Perhaps Kenyon’s most notable pieces are the facial reconstructions she created of Neolithic and Paleolithic Vikings whose remains were discovered in the 1980s. The models are on display in the Trelleborg Viking Museum in Trelleborg, Sweden.

Although Kenyon’s archaeological work has received international exposure, the call from Krout presented her with her first opportunity to work on a cold case and she wasn’t going to pass it up.

Reconstructing layer by layer

“I was immediately excited about the possibilities and after speaking with Officer Krout, I knew that I could deliver what they wanted,” Kenyon said. “Knowing that someone might turn on their television or see a photo in the paper and recognize the face of this man is really what this work is all about and I was thrilled to have the opportunity.”

Employing the “Manchester model,” which recreates soft tissue thickness and facial muscles using detailed anatomical analysis, the reconstruction took Kenyon about 40 hours to complete in her home studio. The method requires the skull, or 3D-printed skull in this case, to be mounted to a stand. The artist methodically drills holes and inserts facial tissue pegs, or markers, at various anatomical points. The tissue depth is determined by the age and gender of the individual, the nose profile and shape are determined by the nasal aperture, and the thickness of the lips is determined by the upper and lower teeth.

A time-lapse video of Jenny Kenyon's forensic facial reconstruction of a murder victim.  Credit: Jenny Kenyon

In this case, Kenyon said the individual had a very prominent, strong jaw that dictated much of the facial muscle recreation. Isotope testing of the remains, which revealed the man was most likely Hispanic-American, also helped to steer the reconstruction.

“We fully understand that this is a mixture of art and science, which means the model is most likely not 100 percent accurate,” Krout said. “But Jenny’s work is excellent, and we believe that we have a model that can hopefully lead to someone out there recognizing this face and help us to identify the victim.”

In addition to the facial reconstruction, Krout said the department is working with the University of Arizona on carbon dating the remains to determine the birth year of the victim and he is confident that there is enough DNA from the remains that can be used. The reconstruction, as well as sketches of the victim, will be entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Systems to aid the investigation.

“In all forensic reconstruction we are dealing with averages, whether it be tissue-depth averages or the size and shape of the ears and nose,” Kenyon said. “But what we are trying to do is to get close enough to spark that recall and recognition of that person. That is what success looks like, but the hardest part is knowing that I can be right and nobody is watching the television at the key moment.”

Anyone with information on this case is encouraged to contact the West Manchester Township Police at 717-792-9514.

Last Updated January 17, 2019