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SUNSHINE CRIMES: Who you know could help solve Southwest Florida's coldest cases

Take a look at the new facial renderings of some of Southwest Florida's coldest cases
Posted at 8:53 PM, Apr 15, 2024

SARASOTA, Fla. — Behind every face and every action, there's a name. The search for those names is where the journey begins.

Fox 4's Senior Reporter Kaitlin Knapp is on a mission to get to know the names we know, and perhaps find the ones we don't, along with the detectives working in the same communities you call home.

In Fox 4's new series called "Sunshine Crimes," we are going across southwest Florida to tell the stories of people waiting for justice.

Not every case we tell are necessarily crimes. Some are people that have been found, but have no name. The students at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota are trying to put a name to the face.

When you're born, you have a name. But some become lost.

"These are victims, these are the nameless, the forgotten," said Joe Mullins. "The coldest of the cold cases."

He's on a mission to find those names again. Mullins is a Forensic Imaging Specialist at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"I don't want any skulls sitting on shelves," is what Mullins said his goal is.

Those shelves are at Medical Examiner's offices around the country. But a 3D image of the ones you're seeing for the first time are all from southwest Florida. 12 cases coming from the District 21 Fort Myers Medical Examiner's Office.

Getting to this point was no easy task. Mullins made a cold call to the office, asking them for access to the skulls.

"We had to get the skulls and once we had the skulls, we had to take photographs of the skulls and then have the forensic anthropologist look at the skulls," Mullins explained.

Then, they printed a 3D image of the skulls at Ringling College. It's there where those skulls have a chance of getting their name back.

"The mission for this class is to clear the shelves of ME's offices across the U.S.," Mullins told the workshop.

Mullins is also an adjunct professor at New York Academy of Art. He's bringing his 25 years of experience to Ringling's classroom, giving students an opportunity to bring a family closure.

"We stick markers on the skull and then we sculpt our tissue, our muscle and our flesh out to those markers," Shadowens explained. "You are slowly building a person that is going to stare back at you."

It's a person, waiting to get their name back.

"It's not a skull anymore, now it's a person, and they are emotionally invested," Mullins said.

After five days, these are the faces of the six active cases with the only background we know about them.

1978 cold case skull
1980 Cold case
York Island Jane Doe skull
This is someone you might recognize from Sunshine Crimes. Our first story featured the York Island Jane Doe — this woman.

"This is the first face I have ever sculpted," said junior Noah Shadowens.

Each person in the workshop got a case. Six are active investigations and five are cold cases.

"My person was found in 2016 in Lee County," Shadowens said.

The artists work off the information from their assigned case, which sometimes can be little to none.

"The only thing I have to work with is that he was an Asian male, age range 18 to 45, so that is a very large age gap," Shadowens explained.

Over five days, they are turning the skulls into a facial approximation — in other words a person.

"Every skull that they have is now in this room, getting the dignity of a face back," Mullins said.

The faces are being molded using talent and science.

2010 Cold case skull
According to a police report, this man's remains were found near Bonita Beach Road and east of Vincent Road.
2011 cold case
2016 cold case skull
According to a police report, a person tried to sell this man's skull on Craigslist in 2016.

"The more eyes that see these facial approximations, the better," Mullins said. "But now we have pictures of what these people look like in life."

Now in this story, you only saw six cases. Well that's because there are another five in a different category.

On Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Fox 4, Mullins will talk about the cases considered "frozen" and what it means for the people who still don't have a name. You will be able to see those faces on Tuesday and later on our website.

If you recognize any of the faces, you're asked to call that specific law enforcement agency.