CSI: Cedar Hill

Two Dallas suburbanites put art and science to work unraveling the mysteries of the dead

CEDAR HILL--On ordinary days as the arrival of autumn begins its faint whisper through south Dallas County, they go about their lives like most in this slow-moving suburban community of 30,000. Dr. Paula Brumit welcomes patients who arrive at her small strip-mall dental clinic with a smile and first-name greeting, while artist-teacher Suzanne Baldon sits in her home studio, cleaning her brushes before turning thoughts to the next lecture she'll deliver to her anthropology and sociology students.

Their children are gone now, some married and pursuing careers of their own, others off to college. Their husbands have busy schedules. Paul Baldon serves as a park ranger at Cedar Hill State Park. Sammy Brumit is in the real estate business. Though strongly supportive, both admit they don't quite understand the dark avocation their wives have chosen to pursue.

When not tending a painful cavity or fitting braces, Paula Brumit, 46, serves as a forensic odontologist, consulting with the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office and Child Protective Services on bite-mark evidence and making dental record identifications. When she isn't working in oils or watercolors or teaching at UT-Arlington and Tarrant County College, Suzanne Baldon, 53, volunteers her expertise to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office as a forensic artist, drawing sketches and reconstructing in clay faces lost to the elements or foraging animals.

Dr. Paula Brumit is a dentist who in addition to her regular practice assists law enforcement as a forensic odontologist.
Mark Graham
Dr. Paula Brumit is a dentist who in addition to her regular practice assists law enforcement as a forensic odontologist.
Suzanne Baldon uses her skills as an artist and anthropologist to re-create images of the dead.
Mark Graham
Suzanne Baldon uses her skills as an artist and anthropologist to re-create images of the dead.

In short, they help identify the dead, the John and Jane Does too often lost to violent homicides or mass disasters. They deal in skeletal remains and bodies so damaged or decomposed that only artwork or dental records can answer the questions of law enforcement and grieving families. During the past decade, their expertise and behind-the-scenes work have provided the momentum necessary to solve numerous cases.

It was Dr. Brumit who the FBI summoned to the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office to help match dental records to the body of long-missing atheist Madelyn Murray O'Hair after it was located in a shallow grave on a South Texas ranch. Closer to home, discovery of a faint bite mark on the forearm of an East Texas man who insisted a child he was watching for his girlfriend had drowned in the bathtub triggered a confession and, ultimately, a life sentence. "That one was tough to deal with," the mother of two admits. "In order to make a comparison of the marks on the suspect's arm I had to go down to the morgue and take impressions of the dead child's teeth, then examine the man who, we later learned, had sodomized the boy after watching porno movies and put a plastic bag over his head to suffocate him. During the sexual attack the child had obviously fought back and bitten the man."

"What Dr. Brumit brings to her work," says fellow odontologist Dr. David Senn, head of San Antonio's University of Texas Health Science Center's Education and Research in Forensics program, "is a great blend of talent and intensity. She's a very committed lady."

Suzanne Baldon is one of the few who can understand the intensity and satisfaction that drives her neighbor (whom she knows by reputation but has yet to meet) to weekly put in three 12-hour workdays at her private practice so that she might have time for her forensic work. "What we do," Baldon says, "is simply use the knowledge we've acquired to provide a service to the community."

Both women have spent years in continuing education to fine-tune their skills. Brumit spent three years traveling to San Antonio to study odontology from Senn and Dallas County odontologist Dr. Robert Williams while Baldon has taken University of Oklahoma courses taught by famed medical illustrator-forensic artist Betty Pat Gatliff. Today, both are called on regularly to give seminars to law enforcement on their specialties.

"Like any other field," Baldon says, "you have to keep up with the latest techniques if you expect to do your job well."

For the Tyler native, that means doing facial sketches of the unidentified dead in an effort to put a name to the deceased. The media, she explains, will not run a photograph of a dead person, thus she is often called on to draw a likeness that can be published. When there is nothing but skeletal remains, it is Baldon's task to follow a lengthy and technical list of scientific guidelines and build a face onto the skulls delivered to her studio by the medical examiner.

"I'm not a detective," she says, "so I've always taken a pragmatic approach to what I'm asked to do. It isn't necessary for me to know all the gruesome details that the investigators have come up with. I just need to know as much about the person I'm asked to do a likeness of as possible."

It is not all cops-and-Saturday-night homicides. Last April, Brumit traveled to New York to spend four 18-hour days helping identify victims of the World Trade Center attack. "That," she admits, "brought out some emotions I'd never thought I'd feel. I stayed angry the entire time I was there...and for some time after returning."

She and other volunteer odontologists from throughout the country were greeted by 20 refrigerated trucks filled with 20,000 body bags, some full-sized, others no larger than kitchen baggies. Using dental records, Brumit was able to make positive identifications of a New York fireman, a Port Authority police officer and a businessman who had worked on the 105th floor of one of the crumbled towers. One identification, she says, was made from a single tooth that had been recovered; another came after comparing pieces of jawbone brought to her in three separate bags.

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