Pioneering forensic artist Betty Pat Gatliff, who worked to ID John Wayne Gacy victims, dead at 89

Using clay and sculpting tools, she rebuilt facial features on human skulls. Thanks to her artistry, unidentified crime victims and the lost and forgotten got their names back.

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Betty Pat Gatliff was hired by Dr. Robert Stein, Cook County’s medical examiner, in 1980 to reconstruct the faces of nine unidentified victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

Betty Pat Gatliff was hired by Dr. Robert Stein, Cook County’s medical examiner, in 1980 to reconstruct the faces of nine unidentified victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy — what she called a “last-ditch effort to identify the boys.”

Kevin Horan / Sun-Times

Betty Pat Gatliff reanimated the dead for a living.

Using clay and sculpting tools, she rebuilt facial features on human skulls.

Her artistry helped identify crime victims and the lost and forgotten.

Ms. Gatliff, who called her company SKULLpture Lab, consulted on the Green River killings and murders linked to serial killer Aileen Wuornos. She reconstructed images of King Tut, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, Russia’s Romanovs, troops from the Battle of Little Big Horn and a Williamsburg, Virginia, colonist, according to friends and relatives.

Of 300 or so cases she worked on, she cited a success rate of about 70 percent, according to one of her many proteges, artist Karen T. Taylor, author of the book “Forensic Art.”

In 1978, she crafted a 3D model of President John F. Kennedy’s head for ballistic studies by the House Select Committee on Assassinations.

Ms. Gatliff died Jan. 5 at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center in Oklahoma City. She was 89.

Betty Pat Gatliff with a bust of King Tut she created.

Betty Pat Gatliff with a bust of King Tut she created.

Florida Gulf Coast University Wilson G. Bradshaw Library Archives, Special Collections, & Digital Initiatives

“This was a huge loss to the forensic community,” said Emily Craig, the critical incident program coordinator for the records database known as NamUs — the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. “She was not just a pioneer ahead of her time in her field. She was ahead of her time as a woman.”

She often worked with the legendary forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, who focused on bones, rather than soft tissue, as she did.

Ms. Gatliff, who was from Norman, Oklahoma, came to Chicago in 1980 to rebuild the likenesses of nine of the unknown victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. It was called the most extensive facial-reconstruction project of its time.

“She considered that one of her greatest challenges,” Taylor said.

Betty Pat Gatliff (left) and author and protege Karen T. Taylor, a sculptor and portrait artist who consults with law enforcement.

Betty Pat Gatliff (left, wearing one of her many bolo neckties) and author and protege Karen T. Taylor, a sculptor and portrait artist who consults with law enforcement on age-progression photos and forensic facial reconstruction.

Provided photo

Working from a gray, metal desk at the Cook County medical examiner’s office, she engaged in a corporeal version of connect-the-dots. She would glue small, plastic cylinders to different bony landmarks on the skull to estimate tissue depths, then apply the appropriate amount of clay — usually around five pounds of it.

The process became known as the Gatliff/Snow method. It combined science, intuition and art. Ms. Gatliff said she always proceeded “based on what the skull is telling me to do.”

During the Gacy victims’ facial reconstructions, Ms. Gatliff used a small rolling pin and ruler to shape clay into a pair of lips.

“I think I’ll have the mouth open on this one,” she said as a Chicago Sun-Times reporter looked on. “He has nice front teeth. Somebody may recognize him by them.”

She completed the likenesses she created with prosthetic eyes and hairpieces.

When she and Dr. Robert Stein, Cook County’s medical examiner at the time, unveiled the skulls, the effect was haunting. The reconstructions were frozen, silent, yet they conveyed the illusion of life for these nine young men who would never grow old.

The images and hotline numbers were circulated widely, but no direct breakthroughs resulted.

“She felt like some of the families didn’t want to come forward,” her nephew James Gatliff said.

Investigators speculated that some relatives didn’t want to be associated with runaways or homeless kids. And others might have wanted to believe their sons and brothers were still alive, out there somewhere, and not among those buried in Gacy’s crawlspace.

Ms. Gatliff reported that two young sisters believed they recognized their brother, but they said their mother wouldn’t even consider or discuss such a possibility, according to “Bodies of Evidence,” a book on forensic science.

Still, because of her sculpting, the case remained in the spotlight. And many parents of missing children did come forward, according to Cook County Sheriff’s Lt. Jason Moran.

Thanks to later developments including DNA identification and continuing investigative efforts, only six of 33 Gacy victims remain unidentified, Moran said.

Despite the solemn nature of Ms. Gatliff’s work, “She probably was the most content, happiest, positive person,” her nephew said. “I never saw her depressed a single day.”

And, he said, “She always had a flashy side.”

She liked her lipstick red and her Corvettes even redder. In her younger years, she drove Corvettes and convertibles. Later in life, “Betty Pat” had a big blue Lincoln Town Car in which she’d chauffeur a group of elderly friends to Norman’s Bethel Baptist Church on Sunday.

She favored cowboy boots and hats. Her collection of Native American turquoise was stunning, especially her concho belts and bolo ties. After just a quick study, she often could identify the indigenous artists who created the pieces.

With her timeless Western style and outgoing nature, “It didn’t seem like she ever aged,” her nephew said.

Taylor said she called her “the grand doyenne.”

Ms. Gatliff was precise. She would write her name as “Betty Pat.” — with a period — because she said that was the correct abbreviation for Patricia.

She never married.“Her exact words — which I heard her say more than once — were she never met a man she’d put up with,” her nephew said.

She attended Oklahoma College for Women, where a chauvinistic instructor prompted her to switch her studies from math to art, according to her nephew, who said: “He didn’t have many nice things to say about women.”

For a time, she did drafting work for Phillips Petroleum. Then, she went to work as a medical and technical illustrator at the Navy base in Norman.

She spent the bulk of her career working for the Federal Aviation Administration, where she did illustrations and accident reconstructions and worked on experiments with crash-test dummies, according to her nephew.

After retiring from the FAA at 49, “She went freelance [in forensic art] for the next 40 years,” he said.

In 1967, she worked on her first skull reconstruction with Snow. It helped lead to the identification of the remains of a soldier.

When “Quincy, M.E.” — a 1976-1983 progenitor of the wave of “CSI” and “NCIS” TV series — featured forensic reconstruction, the NBC-TV show used shots of her hands at work, her nephew said.

Betty Pat Gatliff (second from right) with (from left) Karen T. Taylor, Jorge Molina and LaVonne Stickrod.

Betty Pat Gatliff (second from right) with (from left) Karen T. Taylor, Jorge Molina and LaVonne Stickrod.

Kathryn Gatliff

A gifted instructor, Ms. Gatliff taught at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Institute of Art, Northwestern University, the Scottsdale Artists’ School, the University of Alabama and the University of Oklahoma.

Taylor said Ms. Gatliff’s students ranged from law enforcement officers to dollmakers to anaplastologists — specialists who make facial prosthetics such as artificial noses and ears.

If anybody in her class ever wasted her time or clowned around, “She probably would give them the Oklahoma stinkeye,” Taylor said.

She liked to remind her students that faces are asymmetrical.

“The human face cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula,” said Craig, who was so taken with Ms. Gatliff’s lessons that she left a career in sculpting and medical illustration, went back to school and became a forensic anthropologist.

A skilled bowler, Ms. Gatliff had shelves full of bowling trophies.

She is also survived by another nephew, John, and many great-nieces, great-nephews and cousins. Services were held Jan. 10 at Bethel Baptist Church in Norman.

Ms. Gatliff never lost her sense of respect, even awe for the remains she handled.

“She felt so sorry for the victims,” her nephew James said. “She had an empathy for them.”

In a 1980 interview with People magazine, she said: “I’m more amazed by the human skull every time I work with one. What the Creator has given us just can’t be improved on.”

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