COLUMBIA -- The pale face stares straight ahead, peering at something just beyond the horizon perhaps. His lips curve ever so slightly downward, almost betraying a hint of sadness.
The sculpted head could be an exhibit in a gallery, but this is no image crafted from an artist's imagination. The sculpture is literally a face from the grave, an art form with a CSI twist.
The head was created by Special Agent Deborah Goff, a forensic artist with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, one of a handful of specialists nationwide with the art and science background to create a likeness from remains left behind by a killer.
In this case, it is the image of an unidentified man whose damaged skull and scattered bones were found in Horry County almost a year ago. Officials hope that Goff's artistry and a new process of reconstruction will lead them to a name for the victim, answers for his family and an arrest in his slaying.
And although the details might sound more like the plot of a TV crime show, such investigations don't lend themselves to 60-minute solutions in real life.
Investigators don't know where this victim's story began, or where it will end. But they hope the collaborative and creative work by Goff, an anthropologist, Lexington Medical Center and a medical researcher in Florida will lead them to evidence that will fill in the blanks.
They picked up the thread of his life story on the evening of Sept. 29, 2009, when a hunter found bones in a wooded area about 100 yards behind the Horry County Parks and Recreation Building on Oak Street extension outside Conway.
Horry County's crime scene investigators began combing the site early the next morning. They searched methodically, fanning out from the spot where the first bones were found.
"We put little flags, sort of like you see on TV, to mark every place we located some," said Lt. Jamie DeBari, deputy commander of the Horry County Police Criminal Investigation Division.
The circle widened, eventually reaching about 50 feet in diameter as the team collected, photographed and logged bones they found on the ground and under bushes and leaves, said DeBari, adding that animals were responsible for scattering the remains.
"Once we collected as much as we thought we could, we had most of the major bones," he said.
They brought them to the department and Susan Able, an anthropologist at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, arrived to examine them, DeBari said. She confirmed that the remains were from a human who likely had been there for one to five years.
"At that point, we started to go back through missing person files looking for any unsolved cases to see if any fit the criteria," DeBari said. "We also contacted other departments."
Able took the bones back to MUSC for additional tests, DeBari said. By Oct. 28, police could report that the victim was a white male between 30 and 50 years old who was between 5 feet 6 inches and 6 feet 3 inches. They also knew he had been shot twice in the head.
As investigators in Horry County studied missing persons reports trying to match descriptions, Goff began her work.
The road to Goff's finished sculpture began with the MUSC anthropologist, who had to glue pieces to the skull to replace spots where the bone was missing.
"It was badly damaged," Goff said, pointing to several spots on the victim's skull where the reddish-toned filler can be seen.
Goff knew of a researcher at the University of South Florida's Center for Human Morpho-Informatics Research who was working to create skull replicas from CT scans, and the researcher agreed to take on the project.
First, however, they needed a CT scan. So once pieced together, the skull's next stop was Lexington Medical Center.
"SLED contacted our hospital to see if we could use some of our technology to re-create this skull to give them a better idea of what this man looked like," said Jennifer Wilson, public relations manager for Lexington Medical Center. "We gladly did it. They brought the skull in on a Saturday, and the staff came in ... just to do this CT scan."
Lexington radiologists and technicians used a 16-slice CT scanner to produce precise measurements of the man's face and generate a 3D image, Wilson said.
Those scans and images then went to the Florida research center, where scientists use medical imaging technology to create anatomically accurate 3D models of the human body for education, medical treatment and research, said Summer Decker, the graduate research associate who had been in contact with Goff.
Once the replica arrived in Goff's studio office, she began her work by consulting a database that uses measurements based on research from male and female cadavers to determine the way skin would form around the skull.
Goff points to the skull. "You can see he had a strong brow ridge and a strong jaw line."
She took the database information and detailed measurements to determine such things as the angle of the nose and width of the nostrils, and applied her artist's touch to put a face to the crime.
She inserted tiny numbered push-pins, not unlike those used to mark places to visit on a map, into the skull replica to provide what are called "tissue depth markers." They do exactly what it sounds like, mark the spot to show how deep the modeling clay should be to approximate the victim's flesh.
Then she began to apply the modeling clay, using her knowledge of muscle anatomy to fill in around his eyes, cheeks and lips.
The sculpting process took about a week.
Back in Horry County, investigators released photos of the dead man's likeness on July 7, hoping someone would come forward to identify him.
"Since we put it out there, we've gotten a few calls," DeBari said. "Detectives are following up on those."