FACES: Anthropologists help crack Rapides Parish cold case

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BATON ROUGE, La. (KALB) - The LSU FACES Laboratory on the college's campus in Baton Rouge is one of the most invaluable resources for law enforcement in the state.

A clay model used to teach students of how a facial approximation is created at the LSU FACES Laboratory on the Baton Rouge campus. | Photo Source: KALB

When skeletal remains are discovered, a group of five anthropologists from the lab help crack the case to identify who that person was and how they died.

Just a few weeks ago, they helped solve a cold case in Rapides Parish from 1980, the murder of 17-year-old Donna Gayle Brazzell. Using her skull, they made a clay facial approximation that was used to identify her nearly 40 years later. They let News Channel 5 inside of their lab to show us how it's done.

The skeletal remains were discovered on November 5, 1980, in Gardner in a wooded area off of Nichols Cemetery Road. There was no immediate match to any missing person report. The little information that was known, was that the victim was possibly a white female between 16-21 years of age and had possibly been exposed to the elements for two months.

A team of forensic anthropologists from what became the LSU FACES Laboratory was able to create a DNA profile. Later, from that profile, a facial approximation was created. It's a glimpse of what the victim may have looked like and it was crafted from clay.

Dr. Ginesse Listi, Ph.D., D-ABFA is the current director of the lab.

"Our expertise is typically with cases that are either skeletonized or decomposing or burned," she told us. "They can't be recognized by just looking at them. We are typically dealing with people who have been deceased for a little bit of time."

FACES stands for Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services. It's a team of five anthropologists who travel the state when remains are discovered and one imaging specialist. Together, they work roughly 70 cases a year, most of which end up being human remains.

Their job starts when law enforcement makes the call from a crime scene.

"If it is human, typically what we'll do is we start when it gets to us, not in the field, but when it gets to us," she said. "We always start with initial x-rays and photographs. We document the condition that it's in when it arrives here."

The x-rays look for signs of trauma, things like bullet fragments and lead wipe. The remains are cleaned and analysis starts, including a complete bone inventory.

"When remains have been sitting out in a wooded area, anyone who has hunted knows there is a possibility that animals might have gotten to it," said Dr. Listi. "We can document, is there any damage that maybe animals got to the remains or any damage from sun bleaching. If they have been out for years and years and years, the sun can damage it."

The search for who that person could be begins with the Louisiana Repository for Unidentified and Missing Persons, which is a free online database and an interactive map containing cases uploaded by law enforcement around the state.

If there isn't a hit, sometimes the DNA sample that's extracted matches someone in the CODIS system, which tracks offenders. But, in the case of the 1980 murder in Gardner, law enforcement was coming up cold, that's until the FACES Laboratory tried something different.

"We couldn't do our job without them," said Lt. Steve Phillips with the Rapides Parish Sheriff's Office, who helped crack the case nearly 40 years later. "There have been many times we have called up literally on a Friday at Cotile Lake, for one example, they found some bones there next to a dock. All we did was took some measurements and photographs and sent them to Ginesse and found out pretty quick they were just animal bones."

Using the victim's skull and a series of medical techniques to determine things like the width of a nasal opening or where the eyes sit, a clay model was crafted of what the victim may have looked like.

"We can look at the skull and say, well we know this is going to be a male, it's going to be masculine," said Dr. Listi. "But, those features that are more robust in a man are also going to translate to a more robust appearance. Everything that you do when you are building the face, you are using the variation and idiosyncrasies of the individual skull to help project what that person looks like."

Now, they use casts of a skull instead of the real thing.

"You can kind of base on scientific research where the features are going to be, but then where it becomes individualized is in the proportions," she said.

The important thing to remember is that it's not a photographic image of who that person was and it shouldn't be studied that way by the public.

"If somebody sees that, they can say gosh, that really resembles this person that went missing," she explained. "Not exactly, but there's something about the way the eyes are in relation to the nose. That jawline is such a strong jawline. I remember seeing that."

In 2014, RPSO received information and were able to identify Leo Laird, 64, and Gary Haymon, 54, both of Oakdale, as suspects. But, who the victim was has remained a mystery. That's until a relative living in Pineville spotted the image created by the FACES Laboratory of who is now identified as Donna Gayle Brazzell back in July. And, just like that, a match.

Laird and Haymon were arrested for first-degree murder, first-degree rape, and aggravated kidnapping.

"It was a combination of the family members recognizing it, as well as FACES actually helping to expedite the process as far as doing DNA testing to compare it," said Lt. Phillips. "We already had Donna Gayle's profile on file, we just knew her as Jane Doe."

"When they say its a match, it's always very exciting," said Dr. Listi. "It reinforces why it's important to have this database and why it's important to keep these people in public memory. It's very important that these unidentified people stay present in the public's memory."

RPSO is putting the finishing touches on the case and expects to hand it off to the district attorney's office soon. Meanwhile, Dr. Listi tells us that since the Louisiana Repository for Unidentified and Missing Persons was created, there have been 25 cold case identifications.

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