CSI: Cedar Hill
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.
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.
"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.
"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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.