CSI: Cedar Hill

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

"I'm able to compartmentalize things pretty well," says the daughter of a former Dallas mortician for whom she worked as a teen-ager. "But that scene in New York got to everyone. Nobody could work more than three or four days straight before needing to get away from it."

For every traumatic event, however, there are moments of great reward. There was, she recalls, the distraught family of an Air Force fighter pilot who had been reported shot down during the Vietnam conflict. Despite official reports and eyewitness accounts from other pilots involved in the mission, the parents remained unconvinced their son was dead until Brumit and Dr. Senn were able to provide them proof.

"After 30 years, the government finally sent a crew over there to clear away the side of the hill where the crash had occurred. Doing a grid search that lasted five months, they came away with a 5-inch piece of bone, a quarter, the back of a wristwatch and five teeth." Two of the teeth had fillings that had been done just three months before the crash.

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.

"I was able to get the pilot's 1967 dental records from the Air Force Academy," she says, "and, with the help of some excellent computer hardware, matched them to the teeth that had been recovered."

Her voice breaks as she recalls the pilot's father watching silently as he was shown the method she'd used to make the match. "We wanted to assure him we hadn't done anything with smoke and mirrors," she says. Finally satisfied that his son was, in fact, dead, the man asked if he might briefly hold the recovered teeth. "He sat there with them in his hand, crying softly for several minutes," the dentist remembers.

Baldon, too, is able to push aside the gruesome reminders of violence she encounters. "It has never made me squeamish," she says. "As an archeologist, I was accustomed to seeing skeletons long before I became involved with the Tarrant County M.E.'s office."

That encounter happened by chance back in 1996 when she was working as a marketing analyst at Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum. A security guard there also worked at the Tarrant County office and informed her that a new forensic anthropologist would soon be arriving. "I told him to give her my card," Baldon remembers.

Soon, she received a call from Dr. Dana Austin, asking Baldon if she would do sketches of a homicide victim that had been struck in the face with a baseball bat by a fellow gang member then buried near a Fort Worth golf course. The drawing that Baldon did from crime scene and autopsy photographs was shown to an eyewitness and published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Still, it took two years for the case to be solved.

"There isn't a high success rate in my field," she admits. "I'm something of a last hope. Because of that, I don't get really frustrated when no one immediately comes forward to make an identification. They (law enforcement and the coroner's office) come to me when they've run out of all other leads."

Still, since she's been doing volunteer work, her clay reconstruction of faces from skulls have enabled authorities to identify a woman who was a homicide victim, a young man who committed suicide by hanging himself in a rural wooded area and a young woman who committed suicide near a truck stop near Weatherford.

"She has been a wonderful asset to this office," Austin says. "The reconstructions she does are tremendous. So are her drawings. She's one of those people who seems to get a great deal out of putting her talent to use for the benefit of others."

And there have been some unusual requests along the way. The distraught parents of a toddler who had died approached her, asking that she use her forensic expertise to provide them with a series of drawings of what their child might look like at various stages of her life had she lived. "Only after I was fully convinced that they were really determined to have this done," she says, "I spent almost a year working on a series of progression pictures that took the child up to the age of 14. It was when we reached that point that they had another child and made the decision that it was time to focus their attention on the living."

She also illustrated a children's book written by the grandmother of one of the victims she had been asked to do a drawing of.

"I've learned," she says, "that people deal with pain in a lot of different ways."

And, both women agree, there is always the unexpected.

"Last Memorial Day weekend," Brumit says, "I had to do something I'd not prepared myself for. I was called on to make an identification of a young woman who had been a friend and patient of mine since she was a teen-ager." So badly burned was the 28-year-old victim of a fiery automobile crash, she could be identified only with the dental records that Brumit retrieved from her office.

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