Chapter OneAngel Doe
I braced myself early one morning when a rookie homicide detective, Darcus Shorten, came to my office and asked if I could do a reconstruction of a little girl who had been found half-submerged in a watery ditch, her body wrapped in a blue fleece blanket decorated with happy little polar bears and reindeer.
Darcus, a young, vibrant African-American woman, had been teamed up on this case with Clarence Douglas, a seasoned veteran homicide investigator. Sergeant Douglas was the best partner a young detective could have. Kind and caring, with an intelligent, calm manner, he hadn't let the cynicism of the job creep in over the years the way some police officers do. I knew he would never quit until this child could find her name and be laid to peaceful rest.
Still, I ached for Darcus, whose initiation into working on crime cases would be so gruesome. Some investigators go their entire careers without ever having to gaze upon the horrors she and Sgt. Douglas came upon in the ditch that day. It was a trial by fire, but I knew she was strong. She could and would handle it.
"Some kids found her," Darcus told me. "And the patrol officers who responded to the scene figured she was about four years old, because she was so small. She only weighs forty-seven pounds and is less than four feet tall."
"But?" I prompted, though I knew what Darcus was going to say.
"Clarence thinks she may be older than that, but that she was starved."
"To death?" I asked.
"No." She shook her head and I could see the weariness this job can give reflected in her young eyes. "Medical Examiner says she was hit in the head with something that probably caused her death," she continued and after a short pause, added, "but you can tell from the bruises and cigarette burns and other old injuries all over her body that she suffered for a long time before she died." Darcus struggled hard to blink back the tears.
"I'm sorry you have to face such a tough case so early in your career," I said soberly. She nodded and left without saying another word.
I didn't tear right into the envelope containing the hellish photographs. For a while, I busied myself with other tasks. They needed to be done, but mostly, I was working up my courage.
Ask any cop or emergency worker and they will all tell you that when it comes to child victims, it's tough. Most of us have children of our own and it's impossible to gaze at a murdered child without thinking of your own precious ones at home.
But we steel ourselves to do what has to be done.
After a few moments to collect myself, I reached for the envelope, pulled out the photos and looked at them.
I gasped. I'd never seen anything more horrible.
The child had lain, partially submerged in fetid water, her little face upturned to the elements, in the Houston heat and humidity, for more than two days. Animals and the ravages of exposure had peeled away the skin from her face. Her eyeballs were missing, as well as eyebrows. Most of her nose had been eaten off. Her lips were pulled back in a grotesque death-grin. Several of her front teeth were missing and her tongue protruded, swollen, from what remained of her lips.
From the black, curly hair on her head, the parts of her neck and head that had not been submerged in the water and what remained of the skin on her body, I could see that she was African American. From additional photographs taken at the autopsy, I could also see the starvation, the bruising, the burns ... the torture.
It was so overwhelming that for a long moment, I feared that I would not be able to go on.
But I had to. She needed me. She was depending on me.
Numbly, I pinned the ghastly photos onto the right-hand side of my drawing board, which rests on my aluminum Stanrite 500 easel.
The human brain, I have learned, has a powerful ability to block out things it's not prepared to handle. In some cases, this can be a blessed coping ability, but I knew I didn't have that luxury. I have to be able not just to see the grisly scene set before me, but to look past it, so that I can create something beautiful out of something horrific.
I have to do it. They're counting on me, those lost little souls.
And so are the detectives.
Through the years, I've developed certain techniques to enable me to handle the stresses and strains of my job. If I have to do a postmortem drawing of an unidentified victim, especially one found exposed to the elements and particularly a child victim, then I turn on a television set and place the screen to my left as I face the paper with the gruesome photographs arranged to the right of it.
I try to find a compelling news program of some kind-not a tacky soap opera-esque talk show or one of those screaming cockfights between extreme points of view-but a reasoned, thought-provoking and informative debate on some issue or other that can hold my attention for at least a few minutes.
This serves as a distraction, a protection from the jarring emotional jolts that come with staring for a long time at faces brutalized beyond recognition.
I keep a small television set in my office. Normally in the mornings, even at home, I don't watch television. I prefer to eat my simple breakfast of fruit and juice in peaceful silence while I gear myself up for the day's stresses. (Just driving in Houston is stressful enough.) On that particular morning, I hadn't even listened to the radio in the car. I'd plugged in a Diana Krall CD and listened to her sweet, mellow tones instead.
Now that I had pinned the photographs to my drawing board, I reached for the TV set as if I were treading water in heavy seas and it was a lifeline tossed to me from a boat. Positioning it to the left of my drawing board, I glanced at my desk calendar and watch to remind myself the day of the week and thereby remember what program might be on television at this time.
The date was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
Everyone remembers where they were on 9-11 when they first heard the news, when they first saw the awful, terrible images over and over, the planes crashing into the Twin Towers in screaming fireballs, people running, bodies falling from the sky.
I was transfixed in horror, not believing what I was seeing. I wished I could look at the images without seeing them or otherwise somehow will them to go away, to stop, to turn back the clock, to make it not happen.
People were dying in front of my very eyes and there was nothing, nothing, nothing I could do about it. Like many other Americans and people the world over, I prayed. At least, as best I could, not even knowing how to pray about the things I was seeing or what to say, how to form words out of the unspeakable.
I stared at the massive horror unfolding on the TV screen until I couldn't bear it any more. Then I forced myself to turn and face the smaller horror staring back at me from my drawing board.
This time, I wept.
As time passed, I sobbed awhile, prayed awhile, watched TV awhile, tried to concentrate on how I would do the sketch, watched some more TV, cried some more ...
Then from a place so deep within me that it had no name, a still, small voice seemed to say, You can't help them. You can pray for them, but you can't help them. But you CAN help her. You can bring her back home. You can give her a name. You can help her restless little soul find peace.
It was a strange sort of comfort-for lack of a better word-that I just can't explain. The unbearable images coming at me from the television screen somehow enabled me to bear the ghastly image pinned to my drawing board.
On that terrible day in September, I realized that I had to take the negative energy that was unleashed in me as I watched the violent attack on our citizens and use it as a force of good. I could take all the power and majesty of my own grief, fear, rage and horror and USE it. I could funnel it into the task before me.
And so I did.
Cried awhile, prayed awhile, tried to draw awhile.
While black plumes of smoke from the north and south towers of the World Trade Center billowed skyward and news anchors scrambled to their desks, I tore myself away from the sight and studied the photos of the little girl whose tiny life had been so violently snuffed out.
What I had to do was basically a skull reconstruction, because most of the flesh on her face had already rotted off due to water damage.
Steeling myself, I began.
I started, as always, from the top. This keeps me from smearing the pastel chalks with my hand as I lean on the paper. Usually, I do my sketches in warm black and white, but I knew that for purposes of identification, it would be better to use full color on my rendering of the little girl. With a black-and-white sketch, I can usually complete the job in an hour or so, but since this was a full-color reconstruction, with little to go on, it would most likely take me half a day.
That is, under normal circumstances. But 9-11 was anything but "normal."
The top of the child's head was relatively intact and I could see from the photographs that she had short, black hair, so I drew that. I knew I could go back later if I wanted and give it more of a style. The forehead was visible, so I was able to match the color of her skin as I worked my way down to her eyebrows.
Before I got very far, the phone rang. It was Dr. Baker, the medical examiner who had done the autopsy on the child.
In a kind, gentle voice, he said, "I know you don't have much to work with there with those photos."
"That's true," I agreed.
"Would you like me to get you something, er, better?" he asked. In a sad but determined voice he went on, "I could give you a prepared specimen."
A prepared specimen is a nice way of saying that, in order to make my job easier, the good doctor was prepared to remove the child's head and put it through a process known as maceration. This involves immersing the skull into a solution of 60% hydrogen peroxide. (What is used for household purposes is a 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide.)
This high content solution dissolves the soft tissue away, leaving the skull clean and intact. For an artist, this is an ideal way to depict the contours of that particular person's face.
"It's so kind of you to offer," I said. "And you're right; it would make my job easier. But I think I'd rather do this as quickly as possible, for one thing and for another, well, she's such a tiny little girl. I'd really rather not this time."
It was a form of respect for the body that he understood. I thanked him though, because I knew his offer was made with the sincerest form of kindness. He was trying to spare me having to go through what I was going through now: staring at what used to be a face, trying to draw it as it was in life.
I turned back to my task and glanced up at the television just in time to hear the horrifying news that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon. For a while, I watched the TV compulsively, hoping for some fragment of news that would somehow make sense of everything. The president released a statement that we were under attack by terrorists.
What could I do? I cried, I watched a while longer ... and then, glancing back and forth from the horror on television to the horror on my drawing board, blotting my eyes with a tissue, I picked up my chalk and went back to work.
Eyebrows lie on top of the bones of the skull in a specific way and since I could see her superciliary arch (the brow ridge), I was able to place the little girl's eyebrows just right. They would be fine, pre-pubescent hair and probably not very noticeable. Not much drawing, just some wispy child eyebrows.
The eyebrow follows the shape of the brow ridge. If people have a high, distinct arch to their eyebrows, it means that the bone is rather thick and takes a sharp curve as it travels downward. As I looked closely I saw this child had a small bone with a shallow curve.
Just as I was about to start drawing the eyes, Two World Trade Center, the North Tower, suddenly collapsed. It was ... horrible? Terrifying? Mesmerizing? I searched in vain for words to describe what I was viewing.
There just weren't words to explain what I saw as I stared, transfixed, helpless, and watched people die. The grief, which I realized all who watched felt, was speechless, unspeakable. Heedless of the chalk I was holding, I clapped my hand over my mouth, cried, "No, no, no," and sobbed.
For a long time, I could not work. My eyes were too blurred with tears; I couldn't even see what I was doing.
I was still sitting, the chalk in my limp hand, when the South Tower collapsed.
Bawling, blowing my nose, praying, trying to compose myself, a few minutes later I heard the report about yet another plane that had crashed in rural Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh.
"The world has gone mad," I whispered.
For a long time, I was hypnotized by the images on television, but eventually, when reporters began repeating themselves and it was clear that nobody really knew anything new, I took a deep shuddering breath and turned my attention back to the little lost child whose image I was trying to capture.
The eyes of a person have specific places that attach to the inner corners of the eye socket. Since the flesh had decomposed and disappeared and the eyeballs were gone, I could clearly see the "landmarks" that told me how wide-spaced her eyes would be. The fold above the lid would be smooth and dark, since there would be almost no fat in the pad behind and the eyelids would be visible. (Lack of body fat lets that nictitating membrane curve over the eyeball.) So I drew tiny eyelids.
Meanwhile, it seemed as if our whole country was under attack and nobody knew where these evil monsters would strike next. I even glanced out my office window, picking out taller buildings, trying to assess if my own was at risk.
Then I scoffed at my own nervousness and went back to work, back to crying, back to praying, back to watching the TV, spellbound, like everyone else.
In police work, there is a peculiar phenomenon that occurs whenever there is a child murder, especially one so gruesome and emotionally wrenching as this one. When the detectives who "catch" the case "make the scene," meaning, they go to the crime scene before the body is removed and begin their investigation, other police personnel slowly begin to show up at the scene.
They may be office workers, supervisors and so on. What they are doing is offering mute moral support, quiet, steadfast presence. In many ways, it's like a silent memorial to honor this most innocent of victims.
But I wasn't at a crime scene. I was alone in my office, coping with the horrors both without and within.
The phone rang again. This time I recognized the voice of homicide Lieutenant Steve Arrington and I knew instinctively that he wasn't trying to intrude or check up on me or bother me.
He was hurting as badly as I was at what we were seeing happen to our country and to the tiny girl.
"Are you all right?" he asked. "Can you still work despite the horror of what's going on in our country?"
I assured him that despite my own shock I was working.
"Lois, can you make her smile, like when she was alive?" he asked, a bit embarrassed at making such a request at this moment.
He knew and I knew that I could. The phone call wasn't really about that and we both knew it, but I was so grateful for his support. "Sure I can," I said softly.
"Make her pretty," he said quietly, "like I know she was in life."
"I will," I said.
"I know you will," he said. "I know you can. Help us find her, help us nail whoever did this to her and pray for our country."
I promised that I would and we hung up. I felt as if I had been hugged. It gave me strength.
Once again, I went back to work.