Forensic Artist Betty Pat Gatliff, Whose Facial Reconstructions Helped Solve Crimes, Dies at 89

With her detailed reconstructions of missing persons and murder victims, Gatliff helped give identities to the nameless dead

Betty Pat Gatliff
Betty Pat Gatliff poses next to a facial reconstruction of boy pharaoh Tutankhamen. Courtesy of Florida Gulf Coast University Library Archives and Special Collections, Florida Gulf Coast University

In 1967, a young Native American man was murdered while hitchhiking. Authorities were unable to identify his remains—until Betty Pat Gatliff stepped in, producing a facial reconstruction so accurate that the victim was finally positively identified.

The case marked Gatliff’s first foray into forensic sculpture. She would go on to pioneer a new technique for facial reconstruction, helping law enforcement identify “scores” of people who had been killed or gone missing, according to Richard Sandomir of the New York Times.

“In solving a homicide, you first have to know who the victim is before you can know who the perpetrator is,” Gatliff told the Oklahoman’s Brandy McDonnell in 2002. “So it can be a key to solving the crime."

Gatliff, aged 89, died of complications from a stroke on January 5.

“She was kind of the grand doyenne of forensic facial reconstruction,” Karen T. Taylor, a forensic artist who studied under and collaborated with Gatliff, tells the Washington Post’s Harrison Smith.

Born in 1930 in El Reno, Oklahoma, Gatliff began painting and sculpting at a young age. She completed an art major with a science minor at the Oklahoma College for Women (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma)—a combination that eventually led her to a career as a medical illustrator for both the U.S. Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Oklahoma City laboratory.

During her time at the F.A.A., Gatliff began collaborating with famed forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, who also consulted with the state medical examiner’s office. Snow suggested she read a recent book by Wilton M. Krogman, a leading physical anthropologist who had an idea about “putting a face on a skull,” says Taylor.

Gatliff wasn’t particularly enthused—“I hadn’t done it before, and I didn’t want to do it,” she told McDonnell of the Oklahoman–but found that she enjoyed the process, particularly since it led to a positive identification in her first case.

“It was kind of fun,” she said, “like putting a puzzle together without a picture.”

According to Smith, the pair went on to develop the “Gatliff/Snow American tissue depth method,” which involves gluing pieces of soft plastic, their size corresponding with the average depth of tissue at certain points on the face, directly onto the skull. Using the plastic pieces as guides, forensic artists then spread clay across the skull.

For information about a victim’s race, age, gender and body type, Gatliff relied on data from forensic anthropologists or detectives. She outfitted her sculptures with wigs—a process made easier when hair was found on the remains—and prosthetic eyeballs; she smoothed and sandpapered the clay so it resembled human skin. A detailed knowledge of facial anatomy helped her make informed guesses about features like the nose, which can be challenging to reconstruct based on the skull alone.

“It’s all science,” Gatliff said of her process in a 1980 interview with People magazine—though she freely admitted that the science was not a perfect one.

“They never look exactly like the person,” she told the Oklahoman. “A skull will just tell you so much.”

After photographing her completed sculptures, Gatliff would clean off the clay and return the remains to the police. She primarily worked out of her home studio, which she called SKULLpture Laboratory, and as her reputation grew, she received a slew of high-profile assignments. In 1978, for instance, Gatliff created a model of John F. Kennedy’s head, which was then used by the House Select Committee to test the trajectory of the bullets that killed the president. At the behest of an orthopedic surgeon, she even consulted radiographs of Tutankhamen’s remains to reconstruct the boy pharaoh’s skull.

In 1980, Gatliff was asked to reconstruct likenesses of nine of the 33 known victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. None resulted in identifications; investigators were only recently able to identify two of the victims using DNA.

“She often said they were her most frustrating challenge,” Taylor tells the Times.

Photos of her reconstruction of a young woman discovered murdered in 1969 were included in Q is for Quarry, a 2002 novel by mystery writer Sue Grafton based on the unsolved case. Gatliff’s work also brought her within the realm of Hollywood. She consulted on the NBC mystery medical drama Quincy, M.E. and the 1983 mystery thriller movie Gorky Park.

But even as her reputation soared, Gatliff remained driven by her determination to give a name to the nameless dead, the John and Jane Does who lingered in open case files.

“I think everybody deserves to be identified,” she told the Oklahoman. “Family and friends need to have that closure and know what happened. Everybody’s somebody’s daughter or mother or cousin. Everybody’s got somebody.”

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