For the second time in a decade, the RCMP asked Shawna McPherson to reconstruct the face of a dead person.
So the corporal in the force's forensic-identification service drew on skills she learned at Oklahoma University 12 years ago to help identify the remains of a dead man found at a University of British Columbia beach in 2006.
On Monday, she unveiled her work at a news conference held in hopes that someone would recognize the man, thought to be between 25 and 45 years old. Police say he was murdered. Other efforts to fix a name to the remains have reached their limit, frustrating efforts to figure out who killed him.
"Until we identify the actual deceased, it makes it very difficult to start an investigation," Inspector Brendan Fitzpatrick of the B.C. Major Crimes Unit, told reporters. "Obviously, that's one of the most important starting points we ever have. In this case, we have been stalled for a number of years."
The 3D-reconstruction effort was an investigative Hail Mary pass, enacted because other tactics to identify the man had failed. Cpl. McPherson worked on the actual remains of the deceased, layering clay and other materials on his skull to build up an image of what he may have looked like.
"This is an extraordinary step – that we would actually bring in the human remains and make it public. It's something we had to think very long and hard whether we could do that. There are so many sensitivities," Insp. Fitzpatrick said.
It was only the second time the corporal – the only B.C. Mountie trained in the tactic – has used her specialized cranio-facial sculpture skills on an actual case. Her last assignment was at the end of 2010. She said she had no information for reporters on the outcome of that case.
Cpl. McPherson said she keeps her skills sharp with practice on the cast of a human skull.
"I feel a great responsibility," she said. "I don't lose touch of the fact I am dealing with a family member of someone."
The focus of her attentions was the severely decomposed remains of a man found in a sleeping bag at the Tower Beach of UBC on Oct. 6, 2006.
An autopsy determined the remains were those of a male, and further forensic efforts confirmed he weighed about 176 pounds. There was a tattoo on his chest, but only a portion was recognizable. There were no matches for the man's DNA and fingerprints in any police database.
But for reasons the Mounties are declining to reveal, they say they knew the man had been murdered in the Lower Mainland shortly before he ended up at the beach.
"The investigation we have been able to conduct would indicate it was a local homicide. I can't go into any detail based on the integrity of any future investigation," Insp. Fitzpatrick said.
Before revealing her work, Cpl. McPherson warned those in the room that anyone disturbed by seeing human remains should leave. When no one did, she removed the cloth, setting off a fusillade of clicks from photographers' cameras.
She said her work took about 30 hours to complete. "It's an estimation, an approximation at best," she said.
RCMP are asking anyone with information about the man to contact police or Crime Stoppers.