A scientific study finds that renderings like the new image of Precious Doe are a waste of time.

Going Bust 

A scientific study finds that renderings like the new image of Precious Doe are a waste of time.

On September 20, Kansas City Star readers were greeted with an unsettling sight on the newspaper's front page: yet another rendition of "Precious Doe," the unidentified victim of a homicide more than two years old. This time, the decapitated child was rendered in a sickly, gray-colored, clay bust.

The police investigation into the gruesome crime continues to go nowhere. But Precious Doe herself keeps coming back -- this time, the child's skull was exhumed so that a "facial reconstruction" could be built from its surface.

The fourth in a series of likenesses, the latest image has yielded a handful of phone calls -- but nothing like the thousands of tips that swamped police investigators when details of the girl's discovery first gripped Kansas City. Precious Doe's headless body was found on April 28, 2001, in a wooded area north of Swope Park. Her head was found three days later in a trash sack. Despite the public's huge interest in the case, the leads went nowhere.

The latest incarnation of Precious Doe was hailed by investigators and those who continue to follow the case closely. But one study shows that such reconstructions are almost useless.

In May 2001, the Journal of Forensic Sciences published an article calling facial reconstruction "highly inaccurate and unreliable." In the study, anthropologists presented 37 people with a series of busts. Participants were given a stack of ten photos and told to match each to a bust. Sixty-eight percent of the time, they chose the wrong photo. The authors concluded that successful identification often has more to do with pure chance than with the quality of the bust.

The track record at Louisiana State University's Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Lab, where the latest bust was built, isn't much more encouraging. FACES Director Mary Manheim says her lab nets one identification in every five cases; she's not sure whether that 20 percent success rate improves in the case of children, because the FACES lab has produced so few reconstructions of them.

"It's not that often that you have unidentified children out there," she explains.

That's because missing children tend to be identified more quickly than adults (who may not have parents or guardians searching for them). That Precious Doe hasn't been identified in more than two years leads many observers to believe that her guardians may have been involved in her death or that they're dead, too.

"Statistically, it is the caregiver, more often than not, who was involved in the murder," says KCPD Sgt. David Bernard.

But a cold trail hasn't kept new images from coming.

Early in the investigation, police released computer-generated sketches showing what the little girl might have looked like alive. A year later, they unveiled a three-dimensional bust created by Philadelphia artist Frank Bender. When no credible leads had surfaced after two years, police commissioned new hand-drawn sketches. And now the new bust has appeared to accolades from the same community leaders who greeted each previous incarnation with elevated hopes and expectations.

Which raises the question: Are continuing efforts to bring Precious Doe to life aimed more at pleasing the case's obsessed followers or at teasing out tangible investigative progress?

"When they unveiled it, I just mumbled to myself, CEPrecious Doe, if you could just tell us who you are,' because she looked lifelike enough to be able to speak to you," says 6th District City Councilman Alvin Brooks. Some credit the 71-year-old former cop with galvanizing the Precious Doe fervor.

Brooks says the new bust is the most impressive rendering so far, even if its "neutral-colored" clay led one person to ask him if Precious Doe was an albino. (LSU's Manheim says the neutral skin tone is used to help emphasize facial features. "Her face doesn't have to be dark for you to know that she's a black girl," she says.)

"The Frank Bender [bust], when I first saw that, it looked more like a figurine that someone makes," Brooks says. "My wife makes life-looking figurines. It's a hobby for her. And it looked more like that, except it was actual hair and that kind of thing." The LSU bust is simply more lifelike, he says.

"I think the police have done everything humanly possible, along with the FBI, to deal with all the physical and circumstantial evidence," Brooks says. He insists that he's frustrated not by the lack of leads in the case but by the lack of media attention it gets today.

What's garnered even less attention is Brooks' own theory about the case.

"It's my opinion that Precious Doe is probably Jamaican," Brooks says.

In the late 1980s, while still with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department, Brooks investigated inner-city drug dealers. He learned that Jamaican gangs were bringing crack to Kansas City and distributing the drug through numerous crack houses. During one raid, police discovered a house devoid of any utilities, crawling with cockroaches and covered in feces. Inside stood a woman and five children. Two of the kids were hers. The other three were unknown.

"These people had been brought here by these drug dealers, marketing the Midwest, Kansas City in particular, to sell drugs," Brooks says. "I believe there's a good possibility that Precious Doe is of African ancestry but not African-American. She was probably not born in this country. There's a good chance she was brought here illegally with others."

Brooks gained confidence in his theory after photographs of a Jamaican girl were brought to him by a tipster who thought they matched the murdered girl. They didn't. But Brooks still cites the episode to support his hunch.

However tenuous, Brooks' theory that Precious Doe was an immigrant smuggled in by drug dealers would seem to question the value of additional renderings -- if Brooks is right, Precious Doe's killers know perfectly well who she was. Still, he supports continued images of the dead girl put before the public, if for no other reason than to weigh heavily on the consciences of the people responsible for her well-being. Eventually, he says, those guilty parties will come forward.

"I'm optimistic," he says. "You have to be. This is going to be solved in my lifetime. I'm 71 years old. I expect to live at least to age 100, but I hope we get it done yet this year."


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