Each year, the medical examiner's office probes about 300 deaths of men and woman who aren't immediately identifiable, said medical examiner's Investigator Gretchen Geary.
The office matches names with faces in the vast majority of those cases, said Geary, whose full-time job is trying to identify the people who are otherwise known only as John Doe and Jane Doe.
About a dozen cases per year are considered "long-term unidentified." Many of those involve skeletonized remains. But for the handful with discernible facial features or at least a skull, Geary now turns to Carlsbad artist P.J. Puterbaugh.
"I would say most of the people that I've had so far did not pass naturally," said Puterbaugh, a portrait artist who has volunteered since November as a forensic artist for the medical examiner's office. "You think, 'Poor thing. How can I fix this? How can I present this so that someone will recognize this person?'"
So far, Puterbaugh has completed about a half-dozen drawings and is working on a sculptural reconstruction based on a skull found years ago in the desert.
Puterbaugh's charge is to create an image of her subject as the person looked in life, without any of the wounds or signs of decomposition that may have been present when the medical examiner got the case.