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Forensic artist uses cracked skull as a canvas to solve unknown boy's 2009 cold case

TAMPA — No one is sure how long ago the boy had been killed.

Nor is anyone sure how old he was when he died. The lowest estimate is 11. Most likely, he died in his early teens.

His bones were found amid dead leaves and thick brush in a patch of woods in Wimauma by a man collecting discarded bottles just north of the Manatee County line.

The boy's skull was cracked. He died from a blow to the head. He carried no ID.

He was found March 14, 2009. In an online database, he is known only as Case No. 09-01777.

Since the day he was found, a gray, lifeless, computer-generated composite drawing has been the best guess of what the boy might have looked like.

Until Friday.

The boy's death was one of nine Florida cold cases that forensic artists tried to solve last week using science and art.

Forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, spearheaded the project dubbed the Art of Forensics. She brought in 11 forensic artists to create clay facial models of nine unidentified victims from Florida's cold case files.

She modeled the effort after a similar one in New York earlier this year organized by Joe Mullins, a forensic imaging specialist with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Mullins has spent 16 years helping police give names to the unidentified. Kimmerle has consulted on more than 200 unsolved cases. She's also helping find bodies buried at a notorious Florida reform school in Marianna.

She recently reached out to several local agencies, looking for cold cases.

"What we want is for every case to have the highest likelihood of being solved," Kimmerle said.

Case No. 09-01777 is one of more than 800 unidentified cold cases in Florida. In the Tampa Bay area, there are 80. Each person has someone who knew them, someone likely wondering where they are, what became of them.

That assumption is what keeps detectives working to identify them.

Of the nine people the forensic artists worked on last week, No. 09-01777 was the youngest.

A plastic model of the boy's skull sat atop a squat metal post on a classroom table Monday.

For four days, Paloma Galzi gazed at it, running her fingers over its cracks and curves.

With a metal blade, she sliced thin strips of tan clay from a block, then carefully pasted them where the facial muscles would go — over the temples and around the eyes, down the jaw and through the cheeks.

"You have to follow the bone structure," she said. "You cannot guess."

Galzi, 28, is an intern with the national center. She is also a professional artist and illustrator from France who now lives in the United Kingdom. She is pursuing a master's degree at the University of Dundee in Scotland.

Trained in forensic imaging, she has done busts for anthropological projects. But this, her first cold case, presents a new challenge. This time, accuracy is more important.

"Hopefully," she said, "I can help someone identify their loved one."

All investigators know about the boy is what they can glean from his bones and the few items he had with him when he was killed.

He was about 5-feet tall. He wore size 30 Ice Pole brand jeans. He carried a Chopper brand wallet with a chain. He rolled his own cigarettes and lit them with a red lighter.

Bone density patterns suggested he did a lot of bending and heavy lifting. The woods where he was found are adjacent to a tomato field. He likely did agricultural work, the kind common among Wimauma's migrant labor community.

He carried La Tarjeta Gorda — a "Fat Card" — with $5 prepaid for phone calls to Latin America. Chemical isotope testing of his bones suggests he may have come from Guatemala, or the Oaxaca region of Mexico.

Whoever killed him broke two of his ribs. They cracked his skull in three places.

"We don't believe whatever happened to him, happened there," said Hillsborough sheriff's Sgt. Mike Hurley. "It's where he was put."

Hurley, one of the case's original investigators, saw it run its course.

He looked for reports of missing boys who could be No. 09-01777. There were none.

He tried to trace the calls made from the phone card. It was a dead end.

He interviewed people who lived near where the bones were found. No one knew him.

Investigators believe the boy may have been an undocumented worker. Whether he was here alone or with family is uncertain.

Another uncertainty: whether anyone who knew the boy is even still in the area.

"When you have no indication of who he is or where he was from," Hurley said, "it's hard to know where to go."

The case has been passed to Hillsborough sheriff's Detective Greg Thomas, a cold case investigator. He's pulled at a few threads. Recently he looked at a possible match: a young male who had run away years ago from a juvenile detention facility near Sarasota.

Another dead end.

"It just doesn't appear to be him," Thomas said. "We really don't have a lot to go on."

• • •

The cranium took an hour to scan into a computer. Advanced 3-D imaging software and a 3-D printer gave Kimmerle's research team an exact plastic model of the boy's skull.

"You have the ability to capture the information, record it, and share it," Kimmerle said. "It takes a lot of time, but I think you get a better result."

With her fingers, Galzi guided tan clay over his cranium. She attached thin strips to the bones in the places where his muscles would go. She used precisely cut pieces of plastic straw to depict the depth between skin and bone.

Little of it is guess work. His physical features are dictated by the shape of his bones. Only things like hairstyle and the shape of the lips are left to the artist's interpretation.

How does she know when she's done?

"When I see a person's face staring back at me," she said.

On Friday, the boy stared back at a crowd of more than 130 law enforcement officers, forensic experts, students, artists and journalists who came to see the fruits of the artists' work.

His features appeared lifelike, almost animated. His chin was tilted up, his lips slightly parted as though he was about to speak.

Investigators plan to distribute the boy's image locally. They may do the same throughout Central America, via the FBI.

Will someone finally give No. 09-01777 a real name?

"I'm willing to try anything," Thomas said. "I think it's worth it."

Contact Dan Sullivan at or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.