Top forensic sketch artist shows behind-the-scenes of creating face for ‘Jane Doe’ victim

Renowned sketch artist in Arizona goes over how he puts a face on unidentified remains.
Published: Sep. 21, 2023 at 8:30 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — When we’re talking about a true crime case, often when unidentified remains are found, police will have a sketch made to see if anybody may recognize who the victim could be. They’re known as “Jane and John Does,” and now one of the top forensic artists not just in Arizona but the country is taking us behind the scenes of how he interprets remains to create a sketch.

Patient and precise. It’s the art of bringing someone to life after death. “I know that the lower lid will touch or just slightly overlap the iris,” Steve Missal said as he began sketching the face of a Jane Doe.

Missal, a renowned forensic reconstruction artist, has worked on hundreds of “Jane and John Doe” cases, sketching what the victim may look like.

He said he turns on classical music and talks to them as if they’re alive to show them respect. His work is done from cadavers or often just skeletal remains. “It’s not like on television shows where everything is pristine and perfect. You have skulls that have odors and tissue and all sorts of crazy stuff,” said Missal.

Missal works not only for the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner but also works on cases all over Arizona, the United States, and now the world. He begins by using markers to indicate tissue depth in a skull, then grabs his graphite and begins, knowing now from experience how certain features often look. “How did you figure out the lips when there’s none there?” asked True Crime reporter Briana Whitney. “The line dividing the upper lower lips typically will run across these teeth,” Missal showed us.

Missal said the skull has more information in it than people realize. “She had very deep, wide sockets, and I assumed that we would be seeing pretty strong upper lid,” said Missal as he sketched her eye.

While he began forensic sketch work at age 60, he’s now become one of the best of the best, quickly creating the face of someone still waiting for their name. “Now, by and large, I can do one in a day,” said Missal.

He said he chose his light source in his art to come from the upper right and focuses on shading and contrast because the human eye is drawn to light and dark, with hope that leads to recognizing someone sooner.

He said one in five of his sketches will get solved, even more so now with genetic genealogy at play.

Most never get a chance to know the mystery artist behind sketches on the news, and while Missal isn’t one to seek out the spotlight, he is full of pride in sharing his work, work that’s helped solve mysteries for countless families. “Just deeply satisfying,” Missal said. “I’m really glad that they know, even if it’s hard to know.”

He still mostly works on cases in Arizona, but he is sought out by many agencies all over, including cases from Norway and India. And every single sketch he does by hand, never on a computer.

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