Anthropology professor Linda Spurlock helps bring names to victims in her down time

Amber Selfridge

Linda Spurlock is a professor in the department of Anthropology on the weekdays, but in her down time, she does work that takes her mind out of textbooks and into the medical examiner’s office.

Spurlock is a consultant for the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s office as a biological anthropologist and facial reconstruction artist. She helps reconstruct skeletons and draw sketches of what the people would have looked like before death.

She has been more vigorously involved within the past two years by working on and off for the medical examiner’s office since the early 2000s. Specifically, in the last six months when her sketches have helped to identify two bodies.

“I was the kind of person when I was younger that loved art class in grade school and high school. I never took formal training, I was always good at copying things. But workshops really improved me. They made you do about eight faces a day,” Spurlock said.

Coming from more of a science background, Spurlock decided to take art workshops to help improve on her skills and techniques. She gives much credit to her teachers, Karen T. Taylor, forensic and portrait artist, and Betty Pat Gatliff, a pioneer in forensic art and facial reconstruction.

Spurlock always had an interest in bones, but it was not until she was in Puerto Rico, holding remains in a prehistoric cemetery that she realized she could figure out what the person probably looked like.

“I was standing there holding the skulls and thought ‘I would love to put a face on these skulls.’ But I didn’t know how. So I got out some journal articles and tried to teach myself and made an attempt,” she said.

One of the hardest things that she encountered early on in her job was putting the emotions behind her and keeping her work specific to the science.

“You have to get rid of the deep, troubling emotions so that you can do a better job. You want to be wearing your scientific hat. You want to have a scientific approach so that you can a do better job for this person. If you let too much emotion creep into it the pictures don’t come out like they should,” Spurlock said.

When Spurlock receives a new case there have already been many steps and procedures done by the medical examiner to try and identify the body.

“When we start to get into more specialized questions about bone abnormalities or bone interpretations of skeletal remains recovered, that’s when I would need to reach out to somebody like Dr. Spurlock,” said Dr. Thomas Gilson, Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner and Executive Director of Cuyahoga County Regional Forensic Science Laboratory.

He went on to explain how Spurlock’s work has helped lead to successful identifications.

“We have tried in the past to do sketches of people, but Dr. Spurlock is two for two in my office. A lot of times when you are to that point when you have exhausted all of your leads, in terms of fingerprints or DNA profiles, you turn to the public to identify the person in the sketch,” Dr. Gilson said.

Before doing the sketches, Spurlock does extensive research to gain in-depth knowledge of the person she is going to be helping find the identity of. Each case she works on takes her an estimated fifteen to twenty hours in total.

From measuring the bones and doing a biological profile, to researching certain hairstyles and age appropriate facial features, the end result is a full face and profile sketch.

“What I do only opens up new investigative leads. I do a likeness and then the cops get a call and even then I have not identified them. They then have a to do a DNA match between the victim and the family. I’m part of a chain of events that leads towards the identity,” she said.

In the past six months, Spurlock’s sketches have helped identify two people, a four-year-old boy and a forty-year-old woman. Both sketches were released to the public and within hours, people were calling with names of the victims.

The most recent case she has helped with was of a 4-year-old boy whose remains were found in a plastic bag in the backyard of a home that was unoccupied. She was able to tell the age of the child by the development of the existing and incoming teeth. The image was sketched a few weeks after the medical examiner’s office had released information about the body to see if anyone had reported a missing person.

Fox 8 — Cleveland did a story on Spurlock and her work with the boy’s case and the same night the story aired, the boy’s mother called the police and identified the victim.

“It’s all about the results at the end of the day and Dr. Spurlock has had great results. The art piece of her skills is a very unique thing. To get two identifications from forensic sketches in a year, that’s exceptional,” Dr. Gilson said.

The success that Spurlock has had from her work has not only been recognized by professionals within her field, students have been made aware of her work and are amazed and proud of what she has done.

“Reading and hearing about what a Kent State professor has done in a world so different from teaching shows how diverse and skilled Dr. Spurlock is. The work that she has done to help identify the victims is eye-opening and remarkable,” said Hannah Morrow, sophomore zoology major.

Most of the time Spurlock does not learn if the victims she has drawn have been identified and many are left as cold cases. When a body is identified from the sketches it makes Spurlock proud of the work she has done to help the investigation.

Amber Selfridge is the social sciences reporter. Contact her at [email protected].