May 20, 2019 6:58:03 am
WHEN A staffer of Mumbai’s VG Vaze College stepped out for lunch on January 28 this year, he spotted something unusual in the mangroves located just behind the college, outside Christian cemetery in Mulund East. What he saw on reaching closer only made him recoil in horror — a decomposed body of a man wearing blue T-shirt, black track pants and blue rubber slippers. The face was completely burnt.
The staffer had rushed to the local Navghar police, who took away the body, but could not identify the body as there were no documents, mobile phone or other markers on the person. The charred face offered no clues and the CCTV footage from the area, too, revealed nothing, police said.
The post-mortem, however, indicated that the man had been murdered. The police checked for missing person complaints to match the height and clothes description, but found nothing.
According to the Mumbai Police website, a total of 1,724 unidentified bodies were found between January 2012 and December 2018, not all of which, however, were victims of crime.
Usually, the Mumbai police’s go to tools for identifying such bodies is to look for markers on the person — from tailor’s tags on a shirt collar to tattoos. But over the years, those who commit murders have kept one step ahead, ensuring the police get no clues from the body. Another thing, police say they have to deal with increasingly, are disfigured bodies.
Forensic tools, like DNA tests, have been around for years, but for that, the police first need to find someone to match the samples with. Acting director of Maharashtra Forensic Science Laboratory, Krishna Kulkarni said that DNA tests are done to confirm identification, once the identity of a body is established. “However, in cases where there is no clue about the body, we just take a DNA sample and store it with us. If are any leads in the case in future, the police get back to us and we can match the DNA sample stored with us to ascertain the identity of the body,” he said.
The Nehru Nagar rape and murder case that was solved in 2018, eight years after several girls had been raped an accused, alien DNA samples found on the victims’ body were stored for over five years before there was a match, Kulkarni said.
Cases, where kinship has to be established matching DNA samples with five or six persons, are expensive. In such a case, forensics experts use superimposition photography. They impose mugshots of the likely family members over the dead person’s to look for bone structure matches. The DNA test follows for confirmation. This was the procedure followed in the Sheena Bora murder case too.
For the body found behind the VG Vaze College, police used a method that they have begun to adopt only recently – forensic facial reconstruction.
Forensic facial reconstruction
On April 10 last year, Ambernath police found another body with no identification markings and a disfigured face. There was nothing in his pockets and no tailor’s tag on his clothes.
For Assistant Commissioner of Police (Ambernath division) Sunil Patil, it was going to be one more on the list of unsolved crimes. Patil decided to meet Dr Harish Pathak, head of forensics at KEM Hospital, who he had heard speaking at a conference in 2015 about identifying people through dental marks. Pathak introduced Patil to Dr Hemlata Pandey, a dentist who has studied forensic odontology —the application of dental science to legal investigations. She had used the method to identify the accused in a gang rape case at Mulund in 2014 to match the bite marks on the woman’s body with that of the accused.
In this case, however, she had also used another technique from her arsenal: forensic facial reconstruction — the process of recreating the face of an unknown individual from his/her skeletal remains.
“There are three main markers while recreating a face — gender, race and age. From the skull one can identify the sex. For example, the angle of the lower jaw is sharper in men than in women and can be observed externally as a sharp jawline. Also, in men, the forehead is slightly curved, while in women it is straighter. Age and race, too, can be determined on the basis of the skull. Once you have established the gender and the race, you can then use the teeth to find out the age of the person. Depending upon the age, you add wrinkles to the face,” Dr Pathak said.
Forensic facial reconstruction began as an art form in Europe, until its use in science was understood.“Over the past few years, it has been of much help in crime cases where there were no clues to track a person, or if a face has been damaged or the body decomposed,” Dr Pathak said.
A face model is created using Plaster of Paris (POP). Forensic data analysis provides the thickness of the tissue slapped on to the POP. “For eyes, nose, ear, earlobes and hair, one has to rely on the imagination of the artist, in addition to the local culture. The thickness of the lips depends on the teeth structure. Once these factors are decided, soft tissues like the skin are added onto the POP. Depending on the age, wrinkles are added on the skin and several hairstyles are generated on the computer. This image is then sent to the police. The entire process can take around three to four weeks,” Dr Pandey said.
The breakthrough was swift, quicker than that ACP Patil could have imagined.
When images of the model created by Dr Pandey were circulated in the Ambernath area, locals identified the body as Brindesh Prajapati, a driver who worked in Ambernath and lived in Sion.
Soon enough, the police traced his wife, who had not filed a missing persons complaint. Within days, the woman, police said, confessed to have murdered her husband with the help of her paramour and his friend.
“Ever since the Ambernath case, I have received four more cases from across the state. Most of these are cold cases where investigations had to be stopped as the bodies remained unidentified. Sometimes the face is deliberately disfigured, and in others the body is in a highly-decomposed state and the face cannot be recognised,” Pandey said. Apart from Maharashtra, Pandey has also received “unofficial” enquiries from West Bengal and Gujarat police.
Old shoe-leather techniques remain key
While investigators incorporate advanced forensics in investigations, they are also quite certain that without old shoe-leather techniques, science by itself cannot win the day when it comes to crime detection.
“Whenever we find a body, it all starts from the basics,” an officer said. Circulating the persons photograph in the area, looking for missing persons complaints across the state that match the description of the body. Then comes making sketches of the person, tracking down where the clothes were bought or tailored, the officer said.
For example, a woman found dead in Kurla a few years ago, was wearing orange sindoor, a shade commonly used in north Indian states. “Her photographs were sent to all states in North India. You have to keep these things in mind and that comes with years of investigation,” the crime branch officer said.
A senior inspector from the eastern suburbs of the city said that when a boy’s mutilated body was found in a suitcase at Tilak Nagar in Chembur, it was tracing the bag back to the shop from where it was purchased and poring through the shop’s CCTV footage of several days that had led to a breakthrough.
Advancements in science ‘help to cast the net wide’
After unsuccessfully trying to identify the body found in Mulund, the Navghar police, who had heard about the success of the Ambernath case, approached Dr Pathak to get a forensic facial reconstruction of the charred face. In the second week of March, the police received a photograph of the reconstructed face.
Investigating Officer Dipali Kulkarni from Navghar police said, “After we received the image, we have put up 5,000 posters across the area.”
Officers at the police station say that instead of relegating the murder to the list of unsolved crimes like in the past, thanks to these carefully constructed images, they have cast the net wide and are hopeful that a clue about the man’s identity will come up soon.
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