12 INVESTIGATES: Using facial reconstruction to identify bodies

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - In 1995, a dog found human bones near an old barn on Angus Road in Richmond. The dog carried the remains back to a farmer, who called police.

Police were able to reconstruct his face from the skull - our best guess at what he looked like in life.

In 2000, along a wooded area on Commerce Road in Richmond, power crews found a skeleton and clothing. Another facial reconstruction was made. Police believe he was a black male between 50 and 65 years old.

"You want to get these people identified, because somewhere out there, someone is missing them," said Lara Frame. She's a staff investigator with the Medical Examiner's Office in Richmond.

"I work on these all the time. I look through their case files. I look through the scene photos," said Frame.

It's her job to pour through the pictures and stories, looking for clues to link these cases to missing person's reports. There are more than 200 unidentified dead in Virginia, cases dating as far back as the 70's.

"Every person has a right to be known. Who they are and what happened to them and have their story told," said Rochelle Altholz, also with the Medical Examiner's Office.

The office has FBI artists and anthropologists reconstruct faces whenever possible. The models are incredibly good. Derrick Parker was missing for years. His family never knew what happened to him until they saw a picture in a Gotcha magazine.

"They have an idea that something bad's happened to this person, but they never know what happened to them and when they finally find out, it's just a big relief and it's really emotional," said Altholz.

There's a database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). Families can add descriptions of their missing loved ones. And now they can also add their own DNA.

Thanks to recent advances in technology, scientists are finally able to pull DNA from bones. Mitochondrial DNA comes from the woman's side, so it's ideal to have a mother provide the DNA, but it's possible any family member can make a match.

All of the unidentified bodies found in Virginia are slowly getting a second look - a second chance at finding home.

"That's just amazing, to be able to give someone the knowledge of what happened to their loved one," said Frame.

To see more facial approximations of unidentified people in Virginia, visit http://www.vdh.state.va.us/medexam/missingperson.htm

If you recognize any of these people, call the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner at (804) 786-3174.

Copyright 2012 WWBT NBC12.  All rights reserved.