Artist with passion for solving crimes helps investigators by creating facial reconstructions

Forensic artist Samantha Molnar leaned down to examine her latest project.

A 3D printer was painstakingly laying tiny bits of plastic to create a milk-white skull.

The teeth — at least those that were found with the human remains — were in place, but only the bottom half of the skull was complete, creating a creepy visual.

The printer, using medical images taken of the real skull, had been buzzing along for several days inside the Digital Union on the Ohio State University’s main campus in Columbus. In several more days, the cranium would be finished.

Molnar, an intelligence analyst and the only facial reconstruction artist with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, was eager to get started developing a face for the skull, which belonged to an unidentified woman whose remains were found in a cistern more than three decades ago in southern Ohio.

Over the next few months — between her other crime-solving duties — she would sculpt a clay bust of the victim known only as the “Belle in the Well,” with the hope that someone, whether it’s family or friends, recognizes her and puts a name to the face.

Molnar wants to bring peace for the victim, and closure for family and friends whose loved one disappeared. Her passion for helping people led her into law enforcement, where her artistic abilities allow her to not only sculpt, but also do sketches and age progression photos.

Over the last two years, she has created clay busts for seven criminal investigations in Ohio. While one victim has been identified, six others remain a mystery.

Molnar, who admits there is a certain sadness that comes along with her job, is aware of nearly 110 unidentified remains scattered throughout Ohio.

“It’s definitely my goal to put as many faces on as many skulls in Ohio as we can,” she said.

Following her passion

Molnar, 26, knew her career path early on.

She was always artistic and enjoyed painting. But she also was intrigued, even as a kid growing up in Marblehead in Northwest Ohio, with forensic science.

In sixth grade, her parents bought her a CSI: Forensic Facial Reconstruction Kit as a present. She also loved the television show "Bones," especially the character Angela Montenegro, who served as the facial reconstruction artist on the program.

Molnar studied forensic science and law enforcement at Tiffin University before joining BCI in 2014 — her first job after college.

“I always liked art but I wanted to do something to help people,” Molnar said about her decision to go into law enforcement. “And I never thought that me painting pictures would help people. But this helps people who can’t speak for themselves.”

Her bosses at BCI recognized her artistic skills and saw facial reconstruction as a service they could offer law enforcement agencies around the state. BCI had dabbled in clay models before, but not to this extent.

“She has this extra gift,” BCI Superintendent Tom Stickrath said. “We are really fortunate to have her as part of our team.”

Molnar is working toward becoming certified through the International Association for Identification in Hollywood, Fla. — an elite distinction in the forensic artist field. There are only about 30 people in the United States who are certified, the organization said.

Artistic process

The sculpting process — a last-ditch effort after others such as DNA and dental tests have come up empty — is always the same.

Molnar obtains a skull from a local agency and learns as much about the case as possible, including the often-gruesome details surrounding the victim’s death. She immerses herself in the cases.

She can rattle off the background about the skull found on the sidewalk outside a burned-out home in Akron in January 2016. Or the details surrounding the skull discovered sticking out of a snowbank in Twinsburg in February 1982.  

She reads a detailed report prepared by an anthropologist that tells her whether the victim was male or female, along with the race, height, weight and other distinguishing characteristics that will help her put a face to the unidentified individual.

Each skull is taken to the Ohio Valley Medical Center in Springfield where it undergoes a CT scan. Medical imaging software is used to turn the image into a plastic skull at Ohio State.

Molnar then brings the plastic skull to her small, neatly kept office inside the BCI headquarters in London to begin working on it.

Inside her office, there’s a life-size skeleton in one corner. Four of her clay busts sit on a shelf against one wall. Tan clay bricks sit on her desk, and there are bits of fallen clay on the floor.

Belle in the Well

Her most recent case involves the “Belle in the Well.”

Some kids discovered the remains of a woman in the bottom of a covered cistern on April 22, 1981, in the village of Chesapeake along the Ohio River where Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky meet.

Bill Nenni, the retired chief investigator for the Lawrence County Coroner’s Office, estimated that she had been in the water for a year, maybe two.

An autopsy determined that she had been strangled.

But by whom and why?

There weren’t many clues because of how long she had been in the water. Authorities couldn’t even pin down a specific age range, saying that she could be anywhere from 30 to 60 years old. She stood 5-foot-3, maybe weighed 140 pounds.

She was wearing a red cable-knit sweater and red socks. There were rubber bands on her wrists.

Her hair wasn’t found. Her eyes had decomposed.

Educated guesses

It wasn’t much for Molnar to go on.

She determined that the woman had an overbite. But the victim also was missing her two front teeth. Molnar wanted to show the victim with her mouth open to accentuate the overbite. Without the front teeth, though, she couldn’t.

Facial reconstruction artists make plenty of educated guesses. The nose and ears are mostly cartilage. How big was the nose? Did the ears stick out?

Hairstyles are difficult when no hair is recovered.

The artists know they can’t take chances.

That’s why every reconstruction that Molnar makes has brown eyes. Blue and green eyes are distracting. (The eyeballs are just white marbles bought on eBay with the irises painted on.)

She doesn’t want people ruling out a potential identification based on her work.

“People expect forensic art to be an exact science and it’s definitely not,” Molnar said. “I want it to be perfect and I want it to be exactly what that person looked like and I get frustrated. ... You don’t always have the information that you need.”

Creating the right face

Molnar inserts markers on the skull that show the depth of skin for the average person.

Then she builds up the muscles and tissue, based upon what she knows about the victim, with tan oil-based clay — it’s always oil-based so the clay doesn’t dry and crack.

As she works, Molnar often listens to music — mainly acoustic, soothing melodies.

“It’s not tedious,” she said. “I could sit here for hours and not stop.”

If she focused solely on sculpting, she estimated that she could complete a project in about a week. But typically it takes three to four weeks because of the CT scan, 3D printing and her other duties at BCI.

She admits that she gets attached to the cases.

“You’re trying to look at it like a job or like a project or like a blueprint and you’re trying to just create whatever the blueprint is telling you,” Molnar said. “But then at the same time, once you get to that certain point, it’s a real person that’s looking back at you. It’s a real person that something happened to.

“And a real person that’s been missing from their families for 20, 30 years. It’s really emotional just to be working on that person’s case. That person could be relying on me to create the right face so either family or friends see them and we can get them identified.”

Clay cracks the case

The first facial reconstruction that Molnar did at BCI in December 2016 was a hit.

Authorities got a tip the same day that her clay model was unveiled and they identified the victim as Tiffany Dawn Chambers, a missing woman from Jacksonville, Fla. Her remains had been found in a wooded area of Spring Valley Township in Greene County in May 2016.

Not only did her clay model lead to identifying the victim, but the homicide also was solved when Prentiss Rashan Hare pleaded guilty earlier this year in Clark County Common Pleas Court to her murder.

“I was hoping they would all be like that,” she said about her first experience.

Despite the success, Molnar doesn’t count the Chambers case as one of her best. In that case, only the top portion of the skull was recovered. There was no hair and no mandible.

When her remains were found, Chambers was wearing medium-sized clothing. But she had lost a lot of weight before she was killed.

Molnar, not knowing that, had sculpted her heavier. Chambers also had curly hair and Molnar had her with straight hair.

“The more I do, the more that I learn and the better I get at it,” Molnar said.

The other facial reconstructions — including one for the Akron case — have led to tips, but so far no positive identifications.

Twinsburg police detective Sgt. Craig Bremner was struck by the process and the quality of the facial reconstruction.

“It’s phenomenal that they are even able to do that,” he said. “I was very, very impressed.”

Twinsburg police received a couple of tips based on the facial reconstruction, but they haven’t panned out. Akron also has received several tips based on the facial reconstruction it received, but the case remains unsolved.

BCI and the Lawrence County Coroner’s Office also received a couple of tips about the Belle in the Well that went nowhere, but investigators are still working on a third tip, Nenni said.

Creating hope

Molnar’s job — and that of all facial reconstruction artists — involves hope.

She hopes that she sculpts the perfect face. She hopes someone recognizes it. And she hopes the case is solved.

“That’s what makes it tough,” Molnar said. “Some of these people are homeless or they live very high-risk lifestyles or they don’t have contact with their families for extended periods of time. They may not even be reported missing. ... You’re always hopeful.”

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.