Betty Pat Gatliff, whose forensic art solved crimes, dies at 89

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Betty Pat Gatliff, whose forensic art solved crimes, dies at 89
In an undated photo from the Florida Gulf Coast University Library, Betty Pat Gatliff with her facial reconstruction of Tutankhamen, which she created in 1983 at the request of an orthopedic surgeon curious about the pharaoh. Gatliff, a forensic sculptor who helped law enforcement identify scores of people who went missing or had been murdered by deftly reconstructing their faces, died on Jan. 5 in a hospital in Oklahoma City. She was 89. Florida Gulf Coast University Library via The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Betty Pat Gatliff, a forensic sculptor who helped law enforcement identify scores of people who went missing or had been murdered by deftly reconstructing their faces, died Jan. 5 in a hospital in Oklahoma City. She was 89.

Her nephew James Gatliff said the cause was complications of a stroke.

Gatliff’s artistic skills and intimate understanding of facial architecture led many police departments, coroners and medical examiners to send her the skulls of people whose faces — their visual identities — had decomposed or been rendered unrecognizable by acts of violence.

Gatliff advanced the niche field of facial reconstructions well before the advent of modern forensics and television shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Over more than 40 years, first as a government employee and then as a freelancer, she sculpted about 300 faces and produced an estimated 70% rate of identification, according to her records.

“Betty Pat’s influence was broad and far-reaching,” Steve Johnson, a past president of the International Association for Identification, a forensic sciences organization, said by email. “I’m not sure I could say she was the best, but she was at the top of the discipline as far as knowledge and experience are concerned.”

Most of her facial reconstruction took place at her home studio in Norman, Oklahoma, which she called the SKULLpture Laboratory.

“I’m more amazed by the human skull every time I work with one,” she told People magazine in 1980, dismissing the notion that her work was grisly. “What the Creator has given us just can’t be improved on.”

She brought that fascination to each victim’s skull, starting with her first reconstruction, of a Native American man who had been killed in 1967 while hitchhiking. Her work led to a positive identification, and to confidence in her technique.

She also sculpted facial recreations of nine of the 33 known victims of the 1970s serial killer John Wayne Gacy, although none have led to identifications. Two of the victims were identified in recent years through DNA.

“She often said they were her most frustrating challenge,” Karen T. Taylor, a forensic artist and protégé of Gatliff’s, said by phone.

Each facial reconstruction began with information, gleaned by forensic anthropologists or provided by detectives, about the gender, race, age, body type and other characteristics of the remains.

Gatliff created a type of infrastructure by gluing small plastic markers of varying sizes to the skull to match the depths of tissue at critical points around the face. Using the road map created by the markers, she covered the face in clay, smoothing it at first and then sandpapering it to mimic skin texture.

In 1987, when she demonstrated her technique to police officers and artists at a workshop, The Wall Street Journal reported that she told the group, “I guarantee after these four days you won’t look at a person’s face the same way again.”

If hair was found with the skeletal remains, she had more certainty about choosing a wig. She sometimes made informed anatomical guesses about a nose’s shape. She used prosthetic eyeballs and tried to produce a realistic gaze.

But, she admitted, she knew she could not be perfect.

“They never look exactly like the person,” she told The Oklahoman in 2002. “A skull will just tell you so much.”

Her sculptures were only temporary pieces of forensic art. After photographing each reconstruction from various angles, she removed the clay from the skull, cleaned it and returned it to the police. The pictures she took, which were used in the media to get the public’s help in identifying the lost or murdered person, would serve as the only evidence of her work.

“She’d say that artistic ego shouldn’t enter this work,” Taylor said.

Betty Patricia Gatliff was born Aug. 31, 1930, in El Reno, Oklahoma, and grew up there and in Norman, where she would live for most of her life. Her father, Richard, was a builder and architect; her mother, Ella (Henry) Gatliff, was a homemaker who had a quilting business.

As a youngster, Betty Pat, as she was known, painted and sculpted. In 1951, she graduated from the Oklahoma College for Women (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) in Chickasha, where she studied art and science.

For nearly 30 years, she was a medical illustrator for the Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration, where she worked with Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist who recognized that research by German scientists in the late 19th century into various facial tissue thicknesses could be used to help identify victims who had been burned beyond recognition in events like air crashes.

As Snow’s forensic reputation grew beyond aviation, he and Gatliff were approached by police investigators to help identify crime victims around the United States. Their collaboration led to her facial reconstruction of the Native American man.

After she retired from the FAA in 1979, Gatliff opened her facial reconstruction business. She soon started teaching her technique at workshops at the FBI Academy, the Scottsdale Artists’ School in Arizona, the Cleveland Institute of Art and the University of Oklahoma.

She also applied her skills to high-profile facial reconstructions that did not use a skull. She created a model of President John F. Kennedy’s head, which the House Select Committee on Assassinations used in 1978 to test the trajectory of the bullets that struck him. And in 1983 she reconstructed the face of Tutankhamen on a plaster casting of a skull made from radiographs of his mummy, at the request of an orthopedic surgeon curious about the pharaoh.

Her boy king had high cheekbones, a delicate nose and thick lidded eyes.

“If he winks,” she told The Atlanta Journal and Constitution after she finished the bust, “I’m getting out of here.”

A few years later, she reconstructed the face of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro based on a cast of his skull; that earned her a first-place award in three-dimensional media from the Association of Medical Illustrators. She also won the John R. Hunt Award from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 1991 for her work’s continued excellence.

Gatliff was the technical consultant for a 1978 episode of the television series “Quincy, M.E.” in which Dr. Quincy, a medical examiner played by Jack Klugman, hires a forensic artist, played by Zohra Lampert, to determine if a skull belongs to a missing labor leader.

Gatliff retired five years ago.

In addition to her nephew James, she is survived by another nephew, John Gatliff.

In 2001, Gatliff was drawn into a campaign by the mystery writer Sue Grafton to identify a woman who had been murdered and dumped in a quarry in Lompoc, California, in 1969, a crime that remained unsolved. Grafton hired Gatliff to reconstruct the woman’s face from her skull.

The case inspired Grafton’s novel “Q Is for Quarry” (2002), which included photos of Gatliff’s work. The woman has still not been identified.

Gatliff said such mysteries can take time to solve. She recalled how one victim was identified 15 years after pictures of her reconstruction were published.

“We only put a face on them as a last-ditch effort, when nothing else has panned out,” she told The Oklahoman. “In solving a homicide, you first have to know who the victim is before you can know who the perpetrator is. So it can be a key to solving the crime.

“That’s the reason I do it, is to help solve a crime.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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