Reconstructed face
The reconstructed face of the victim.

The body was found washed ashore in Imperial Beach in 1995, but no one could identify the remains.

Labeled a John Doe, his skull’s 3D images were sent to NCMEC, the National Center for Missing And Exploited Children, to help identify what this person might look like. It remains an active San Diego County Sheriff’s Department case.

Today, authorities now know a lot more about John Doe thanks to innovative ideas developed at the center. The victim was likely a 15- to 30-year-old Hispanic male, 5’3” tall with black hair and a pierced left ear. But still unknown is his name.

“He is a human being that deserves the dignity of his name back,” said Joe Mullins, a forensic imaging specialist with NCMEC who worked on the case. His hope is that the image he was able to create will do just that.

The Imperial Beach death is not the only connection between the national center and San Diego. The idea to create the image from a skull was inspired by an appearance planned for Comic-Con International in 2022.

Mullins, who has been with NCMEC for 25 years, said experts from Adobe were at Comic-Con with him to demonstrate how the software employed by the center is “used to do age progressions and digital imaging.”

Skull reconstruction
Skull reconstruction at Comic-Con.

With the Adobe products, the center is able to take a photo of the face of a young child or teen, and by using the age progression software show what how the child or teen would look today.

It was during a brainstorming session that the idea originated to use this same technology to create a face from a human skull, Mullins said. And they decided to demonstrate it at Comic-Con in San Diego.

They believed “that Comic-Con could help solve the case” of identifying the John Doe, Mullins said. “This is outside the box thinking” that would appeal to those who come to the event, he theorized.

With 150,000 attendees “at Comic-Con, they would get extra attention on a case.”

Over the course of three days at the 2022 convention they created a first-of-its-kind skull facial model.

Later, however, the center’s researchers discovered that some of the original information they worked with was not accurate. in creating the first John Doe. They were told he was 250 pounds, but they learned he was actually 150 pounds. So they were asked to create a second John Doe from the same 3D skull images for the next Comic-Con. But this was the 100 pounds lighter John Doe.

This week Mullins attended the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference at the San Diego Convention Center where the NCMEC is showing how the skull of this John Doe is evolving into what is believed to be an image of the young person who died in Imperial Beach

The center is now using this same method to solve other cases of unidentified young people.

Mullins said there are many other cases across the country that might benefit from what was first conceived at Comic-Con.

“I think there’s about 287 medical and coroner’s offices across the U.S. Each one of them has a collection of skulls that are the coldest of cold cases, just like the case that we worked on from here,” he added.

These remains are the result of the “worst of the worst that you can see in human behavior,” said Mullins. “As a forensic artist I have found the cases that arrive at the national center come with a high emotional impact.”

If you know this John Doe, please call the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department at 858-974-2457 — it remains an active case.