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forensic flair

Constable Rachel Zuidervliet, a forensic artist and reconstruction analyst with the O.P.P., stands near a light table in her office at the Ontario Provincial Police general headquarters in Orillia, Ontario.Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

In Constable Rachel Zuidervliet's windowless office, casts of body parts lie on a cabinet above the desk, as does a rubber model of a face. There are anatomy charts on the walls, while a computer printout of Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors decorates the door.

The 10-year veteran of the Ontario Provincial Police, who works out of the force's headquarters on the outskirts of Orillia, is one of only a half-dozen full-time forensic artists in the country. Among her duties is to help identify mysterious human remains by creating sketches and models that approximate how a dead person may have looked in life.

"When I joined the OPP, I didn't intend to do this at all," says Constable Zuidervliet, wearing a uniform and bullet-proof vest as she roots around a drawer of sculpting tools. "It's a blend of art and science."

With information provided by the coroner on a dead person's age, height and weight, she can calculate the proportions of their face. She takes a cast of the skull and plants small rubber pegs (called "tissue depth markers") on it, each one showing the estimated thickness of the flesh. Then, she sketches, using the markers to guide her as she fills in facial features. When the drawing is done, she scans and e-mails it to fellow experts, who offer critiques. Constable Zuidervliet makes digital alterations accordingly. The entire process can last months.

On some occasions, she goes a step further and creates a sculpture of the head, using clay to model muscles and tendons, globs of fat and, finally, skin. As she places each successive layer on the skull, facial expressions take shape.

"This was a person, and you do wonder about the circumstances," Constable Zuidervliet says. "But you have to maintain a professional demeanour. You want to be empathetic, but know you have a job to do."

A native of Brant County in southwestern Ontario, Constable Zuidervliet studied art and graphic design, and taught children in Japan before becoming a cop. She spent years as a patrol officer in rural Norfolk County. An interest in crime-scene identification prompted her to take a course in forensic art, which led to studies at the FBI Academy. In January of this year, she moved to headquarters full-time.

The job placed her in the middle of the Resolve Initiative, a partnership between the OPP and coroners to solve the 205 cases of unidentified bodies across the province. One such Jane Doe, found dead near Kenora in June of 2009, illustrates the painstaking process of reconstructing a person's life history by scrutinizing her corpse.

A passerby walking through a wooded area near the Trans-Canada Highway on June 17, 2009, discovered the body in a small blue tent. She had only a few belongings: a hibachi stove, a black duffle bag and a copy of A Long Way Down, a Nick Hornby novel about suicide. Cause of death: carbon monoxide poisoning from the hibachi.

Constable Karen Rustige used shoe-leather detective work – canvassing locals, questioning people along the highway – to rule out foul play. But the woman's identity remained a mystery.

"You follow every lead and tip until they run out, then you have to find something else," she says.

She turned to forensic anthropologist Kathy Gruspier, at the coroner's office in Toronto. Dr. Gruspier and her team analyzed the remains, including the size and shape of her skull, to develop a physical profile of the woman: petite but fit, she was white, stood about 5-feet-4-inches tall, weighed roughly 110 pounds and had shoulder-length brown hair.

They discovered she had undergone extensive surgery to push back her chin and bring forward both her upper and lower jaw. Her bones had been cut and wired together, an outdated technique performed 20 to 30 years ago and, by examining how the jawbone had heeled, calculated she was in her early 20s when she had the operation.

In hopes an orthodontist who treated the woman would recognize her, Constable Zuidervliet was assigned to the case. She placed tissue depth markers in the woman's skull, took photographs and brought them to her Orillia office. She put translucent tracing paper over the pictures and drew the sketch.

As television cameramen circle the blown up, lifelike drawings, sitting on a pair of easels at a press conference, colleagues marvel at their realism.

"I look at this and I think 'someone is going to recognize her,' " says Dr. Gruspier.