Betty Pat Gatliff Sculpts Faces from Victims' Skulls—An Eerie Art That's Changing Criminal Science

updated 07/21/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/21/1980 01:00AM

In March John Wayne Gacy was convicted of killing 33 young males—the most heinous mass murder in U.S. history. But while Gacy's death sentence was being appealed, the agony of uncertainty hung over the families of possible victims. Of the 33 bodies found hidden beneath Gacy's Norwood Park, Ill. home or recovered from the nearby Des Plaines River, only 24 were positively identified. The other nine might have been any of thousands of runaway or missing youths who had been in the Greater Chicago area when the assailant was on the prowl. For parents uncertain what happened to their sons, absolute identification would confirm their worst fears, but it would mercifully end 18 months of torment that began when the remains were first uncovered in December 1978. This week final resolution could be closer when the Cook County Medical Examiner's office plans to release photographs (two of them above) of the "victims." All are based on reconstructions by forensic sculptor Betty Pat Gatliff, 49, whose art has revolutionized the science of crime solution.

With calipers, spatula and modeling clay, Gatliff has taken the skulls of the Gacy victims and created eerie, three-dimensional likenesses to be photographed for national distribution. Based on Gatliff's past record, the prospects are encouraging. Of the 47 cases she's taken on since 1967, about 70 percent have led to positive identifications. Unlike other explorations in the field, this is not psychic intuition, says Gatliff. "It's all science"—specifically, anthropology and anatomy aided by computer calculations of probability by her forensic team partner, Clyde Snow. A physical anthropologist, Snow starts by comparing a skull with established data to determine race, gender and approximate age. In the Gacy case, it was rapidly determined that all were Caucasian and male. Eight were in their late teens to early 20s, the last in his mid-20s. Snow also checks for individual anatomical peculiarities and signs of disease or injury that could have influenced the facial features of the person during life.

Then artist Gatliff takes over, concentrating on 18 selected indentations of the skull that she terms "landmarks." She glues precisely measured bits of eraser to the landmarks before completing the head contours in nonhardening clay. "The cranial architecture forms the face, and I simply do what the skull tells me to," she says. But in those features where the bone structure gives little or no clue to the overlying tissues—eyelids, the lower parts of the nose, the lips and ears, for example—Gatliff relies on informed guesswork based on anatomical knowledge and artistic experience. When possible, a wig matched to hair from the remains completes the work.

"As an artist," Gatliff admits, "you have to force yourself not to make somebody more handsome than he is." For the Gacy assignment she feels most pleased with her re-creation of a victim still known only as Case No. 1265, Body No. 5. His face was done with a smile to reveal crooked teeth that could be the key to his identification. Yet, with all the possible variations, she concedes that the likeness could range from "rather poor to startlingly faithful." A major Gatliff success came on a recent assignment with the skeletal remains of a gunshot victim found in backwoods Wisconsin. Several residents of Saginaw, Mich. recognized the likeness as that of Mary Bartels, 29, who disappeared with a male companion last September. He was later found dead, a suicide.

Gatliff's interest in her specialized field began when she combined an art major with a science minor at the Oklahoma College for Women at Chickasha. She went on to develop her skills during 19 years as a medical illustrator at the Federal Aviation Administration's Oklahoma City laboratory. There she first teamed with Snow, the FAA facility's now retired chief of physical anthropology. Currently a free-lancer herself, Gatliff has not wanted for assignments. In 1978 she sculpted a bust of John F. Kennedy for ballistics tests conducted by the House Select Committee on Assassination. She also supplied the expertise—and her skilled hands in an on-camera sequence—for an episode of TV's Quincy. This year at Colonial Williamsburg, Va. she re-created a face from the skull of a colonist bludgeoned during a 1622 Indian massacre.

Frequently on the road as lecturer and consultant, Gatliff, who is unmarried, is glad to get back to Norman, Okla., where she shares a two-bedroom house with her widowed mother and pet poodle Midget. Other sculptors might be depressed by Gatliff's grisly muse. She views it as a "beautiful art form. I'm more amazed by the human skull every time I work with one," she says. "What the Creator has given us just can't be improved on."

Share this story:

Your reaction:

advertisement

From Our Partners

From Our Partners