With Skulls And Clay, Forensic Sculptor Hopes To Crack 1935 Middlebury Murder Case

May 19, 2015

One of Vermont's oldest unsolved murder cases is getting a facelift.

It was May 15, 1935 when the skeletal remains of three murder victims were found in East Middlebury. It’s thought they were a woman and two boys – perhaps a mother and her sons – all three, shot in the head. Eighty years later, the case remains unsolved.

Middlebury police re-opened the case last year, and recently enlisted the help of a forensic imaging specialist Joe Mullins, from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

His job: to create clay sculptures of two of the victims’ faces, in hopes of identifying them.

On unearthing the case

"I got introduced to this case with a class I put together with the New York Academy of Art, and it was the first of its kind, where every student was working on an active case ... We ended up with just the younger child and the mother. The gunshot wound to the top of the head, and it was the skull of a 10-year-old little boy. And one of the other students ended up doing the reconstruction of the mother, all with, you know, bullet wounds to the head."

On the emotional toll of forensics

"It's another tragic aspect of doing this work. You know, as you're holding the skull of a 10-year-old little boy that was shot in the head. I love my job, but sometimes it's, got to hold back the tears sometimes. It's hard not to get emotionally attached."

Students in a class at the New York Academy of Art used clay to create the facial features suggested by the victims' skulls.
Credit Forensic Anthropology Department at the New York Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

On going from skull to face

"What you end up with is this very life-like clay sculpture of what this person's face could have looked like. Everybody's skull is just unique as your face. If you have 10 skulls of 10 individuals lined up on the table, an anthropologist can tell you: attached or detached earlobes, the projection of your nose, the thickness of your lips, your hairline, where your eyelids attach, where your eyebrows are. All the information about you that makes you the individual that you are is etched into your skull.

"All the information about you that makes you the individual that you are is etched into your skull." - Joe Mullins, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

"So, given those parameters to work within, you go through and build up the face slowly, you apply tissue depth markers that are averages for the age and ancestry of each victim. You set eyes in the orbits, you lay on muscles, then you slowly start to build out the face, feature by feature ... And eventually you get to a point where you see that person staring back at you."

"I can tell you, probably in detail, every skull that I've worked on. Hundreds. I still see all their faces ... I've got thousands of faces staring back at me," says Joe Mullins, from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Credit Forensic Anthropology Department at the New York Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

On faces staring back

"From start to finish, from bare skull to finished sculpture, doing it that way with traditional methods with clay, it takes about a week, easy. That's all day, 9 to 5. You can't help but get attached to the work. I'll always remember this case, but ... I can tell you, probably in detail, every skull that I've worked on. Hundreds. I still see all their faces ... I've got thousands of faces staring back at me."

"Some say, 'That's such an old case, why do it?' I say, 'Why not?' They still deserve their names back."

On the hope of cracking the Middlebury case

"I'm the most hopeful person in the world with this. I mean, there's ... cases where you never would have guessed that it would have been solved, but there's still the right person could see it, they could spark some memory. If they follow up the investigation and they find maybe a living relative, and they do a DNA comparative, there you go. Case solved. Some say, 'That's such an old case, why do it?' I say, 'Why not?' They still deserve their names back."