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Tampa woman hopes USF forensic event has turned up her missing sister


Shelia Williams walked up to the clay bust clutching a photo of her missing sister.

Earlier in the week, Williams had seen a news report about a workshop that brings together forensic experts to explore cold cases involving unidentified victims, in part by creating models of their heads. Williams thought of her sister, Brenda, who disappeared in 1978.

One of the busts is of a black woman in her 20s found by a fisherman in December 1985. Her nude, decomposing body was lying near 50th and Washington streets. Investigators concluded she was a homicide victim but couldn't collect usable fingerprints and have never been able to identify her.

On Friday, the bust sat on a pedestal in a conference room at the Tampa Bay History Center, one of 14 models from cold cases in Florida and four other states.

The goal of the second annual "Art of Forensics" workshop is to re-create how each person might have looked in life. The hope is that someone will recognize the faces and give investigators a name.

"We know the process works," Erin Kimmerle, executive director of the Florida Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Science at USF, told the audience. "We also know time is against us in that if we fail to act now, we will lose our opportunity to find the families and loved ones of so many of these victims."

After Kimmerle made her remarks, Shelia Williams held up her sister's photo next to the bust of the Tampa Jane Doe and began to sob.

The cases included in this year's installment, 20 in all, date back to 1970. There were eight from the Tampa Bay area, five others from Florida and the rest from Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee. Digital images were created in the six cases in which a bust was not made.

USF forensic anthropologists worked with law enforcement officials to select the cases. The remains of nine people were exhumed.

Investigators conducted chemical isotope testing and skeletal analysis to give investigators an idea where the people might have lived. They scanned images of each skull into a computer system with 3-D imaging software, then used a 3-D printer to reproduce exact copies of each skull in white plastic. The artists used those models as their starting point.

The cases included an infant found in a Gainesville pond in 2003, a white man 60 or older found in a wooded area just north of Bearss Avenue in Tampa, and a 25- to 30-year-old black woman found in an abandoned, burned shed in downtown Tampa.

Detective Greg Thomas is hoping the clay model created from a skull found in a Thonotosassa orange grove in September 1975 will help break one of the cases. Investigators with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office suspect the woman, who was 25 to 35, may be a homicide victim but don't know where the rest of her remains are.

"It's unbelievable how realistic they look, and that gives us that better advantage, another tool to utilize to try to identify people," Thomas said.

Forensic artist Paloma Galzi joined the workshop last year and traveled from London to Tampa again to lend her skills. Galzi was assigned the Tampa Jane Doe found near 50th Street. She was given a general description — 5 feet 2 to 5 feet 9, weighing roughly 100 pounds — and used the bone structure of the skull as a road map of sorts for how to shape the facial features.

"When you start, you don't really know what you're going to end up with, which is the difficult part and the exciting part," Galzi said. "You just keep building and come to this final face and say, 'Okay, now I can see what she looks like.' "

• • •

Sharon Scott and Shelia Williams saw a news report about the workshop earlier this week and decided they should go.

The Tampa women's sister, Brenda Williams, was 23 when she disappeared in 1978. She lived in the College Hill public housing project and had "kind of a wild side," Scott recalled. One day that year, she dropped off her two young children at her mother's home in Tampa and said she had to get away for a while.

"It was a week, then a month, and now it's 38 years later," Scott said.

Scott and Williams brought a photo of Brenda to the history center. To Williams, the eyes, nose and forehead of the model looked like her sister's.

Tampa police Detective Scott Bullard said it will take several weeks to get a DNA test to determine whether the woman is Brenda Williams. Bullard said he was surprised to find there wasn't a report of Williams' disappearance in the database. Now there is, so something positive will come of the sisters' initiative whatever else happens, Bullard said.

Scott said she and her brother, who also attended Friday's event, didn't get the same gut feeling as their sister. But they're grateful.

"I'm thankful forensics has come so far and for the hard work of so many people," Scott said. "Even if it doesn't bring us closure, maybe some other family will have closure so they can move forward."

Contact Tony Marrero at (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.