25 years later, reconstructing a face to find a killer

Felled by two bullets to the back of the head, the mysterious man’s body was dumped in a shallow grave amid thick mangroves in North Miami.

It was the early 1980’s, a time of rampant drug-related violence.

Now, more than two decades later, North Miami detectives are trying to solve a cold case by reconstructing the man’s face with clay.

Detectives are determined to learn the true identity of the man, the department’s only unidentified homicide victim, and find his killer.

“It’s one of those cases we put a lot of time and effort into at the time to no avail,” said North Miami police Chief Clint Shannon, who worked in homicide in 1984, when the remains were found. “Any information we could dredge up would be helpful.”

North Miami detectives worked for years to track down the identity of the skeleton, trying to trace sneakers and a watch found with the body and checking with local missing persons reports.

Along with the facial reconstruction, a portion of a femur bone has been sent for DNA analysis. The Miami-Dade County medical examiner’s office will then enter that DNA profile into a national data base that seeks to match unidentified remains with missing persons reports.

Reconstruction of the man’s face started last year, when North Miami detectives working on cold cases contacted Coral Gables police.

Detective Norma Dieppa, who does her department’s composite sketches, volunteered to do the reconstruction. It was her first case.

She examined the skull. The teeth showed the man was a smoker. He had good quality dental work, but it appeared to have been done in another country, possibly in Latin America. Markings on his teeth helped indicate where his lip muscles started and other standard measurements helped reconstruct his facial features.

Certain things, like the color of his hair and eyes, were subjective. She first offered a slick backed, “wise guy’’ look popular in the ’80s. She’ll also remove some of the hair to give the man — whose age may be from the mid-30s to mid-50s — a receding hairline.

The clay model sat on top of mesh-built shoulders, clad in a light-blue shirt picked up at Goodwill.

“I got really involved with him,” said Dieppa, who spread out the work over several months and took FBI classes in facial imagery. “If you have any more skulls I’ll take them,” she told a room of North Miami officers.

Retired North Miami Detective Don Slovonic worked on the case when the remains were found, unearthed by a construction bulldozer working to widen the road.

Slovonic looked into it once again a few years ago when he came back as part of the Cold Case unit.

The skeleton might have been there as long as two years, judging from the condition of the bones.

At the time, police tried everything they could to identify him — tracing his sneakers to Kmart and his Casio watch to the manufacturer. They found a nondescript lighter and a belt buckle, but the other clothing had disintegrated.

They searched Interpol and went to local police agencies, but came back empty.

“We exhausted everything,” Slovonic said. “Now the biggest thing is to get people talking, to say whatever happened to so and so. We want to jog someone’s memory.”