CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - It was Jan. 7th 2019, just more than a year ago, when a fisherman noticed a body in the Cooper River.
The Charleston County Coroner released pictures of the man’s clothing: Banana Republic Pants and Doc Maarten Boots.
He was a younger black male adult, 6 feet tall, and about 165 pounds. He had no tattoos. No scars. No identifying dental work.
Officers still don't know who he is. And they obviously can't release pictures of a deceased person to the public.
It’s cases like these where they can call the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s forensic artists to help bring the person back to life...at least on paper.
"We're here to provide specialized manpower throughout the state to the local departments that might not have a forensic artist or composite sketch artist on hand, and most don't," said SLED Senior Special Agent Deborah Goff.
That manpower she described is technically womanpower. Goff and Special Agent Lara Gorick make up the whole Forensic Art team.
SLED offers forensic art services at no cost to statewide law enforcement agencies. Sometimes they even help neighboring states.
Sheriff Duane Lewis recently said it’s especially helpful to local departments with tight budgets. Having a full time artist on his staff at the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office wouldn’t make sense, but being able to utilize SLED’s experts when he really needs them is invaluable.
Goff and Gorick consult with anthropologists to determine age, sex and race. They can use CAT scans from the hospital and skeletal remains, particularly a skull, to recreate the face of an unidentified body. That's exactly what they did with the man from the Cooper River.
The Forensic Art Department is also called in to create suspect sketches. Because of how quickly they have to act, the women are on-call constantly, ready to travel anywhere in the state if investigators are working a particularly violent or high-profile crime and require a sketch.
"A typical composite sketch interview takes about two hours," Goff said, showing how she uses a tablet and electronic pen to draw. "We're still hand drawing everything but it's digitally. We can choose a pencil - or we can use charcoal. We're able to immediately send a Jpeg image to the investigator."
The agents say interviewing victims properly and professionally is just as important as what they draw.
They are acutely aware that memory is unreliable and quickly fading, but a victim is likely reliving the hardest moments of their life by describing an attacker or robber, for example.
“It’s not going to be an exact portrait, but we’re hoping it’s a good enough resemblance to the person to help lead to an identification,” Goff said.
Once a suspect is caught they can't help but compare the sketch to the mugshot. "Sometimes it's amazing to me how close we get," Goff admitted. "Other times we realize- oh, that's what they were trying to say."
It's not guesswork, but it's also not a perfect science. They might have to make educated guesses about eye color, hair color and weight. Scientific formulas help them determine skin thickness while they are molding clay on a skull replica.
Gorick said they're also using cutting edge technology. "In the past we always did they clay reconstruction or the 2-D with sketches," she said. "Now we're trying to go into this new realm. It's very, very new. We're still learning it. We take a skull that's unidentified. and we have it scanned in through CT. The information is uploaded to our computers. This is an actual skull from a case," she pointed to her computer screen.
Gorick said she dabbled in this particular computer program back in college, and that it's usually used for creating video games and characters.
"I thought, you know, man, this would be a really good application for this.
The software costs less than a thousand bucks. But she believes having digital reconstructions will pay off case after case.
"With this, if a few months or years down the road they say, 'You know what, we have more information and think this person might have had blonde hair.' We can go in and change it to blonde."
They still don't know who the man in the Cooper River was but have hope.
They're inspired by solved cases like one involving a hiker who died in South Carolina. He had no identity until a woman in Utah saw SLED's drawing online and recognized him as her brother, Daniel Swindler.
“It’s good that he was able to be returned to his family and now they know. They have closure,” Goff said.