Making Faces

Under the skilled hands of forensic artist Ed Gardner, '87, the identities of unknown individuals are discovered

The man was African American, in his early to mid-20s, about 6 feet tall, slender. He wore a Nike windbreaker and a Nautica sweatshirt, and carried a rap music tape and a plastic bag from the Navy Exchange in his pocket. Since May 1997, when his body had first been discovered in the water at Norfolk Naval Station, his identity, and cause of death, remained a mystery. He was buried a John Doe.

Nearly a decade later, the case was resurrected. A forensic artist was brought in, and under his skillful hands, a face began to take shape in the clay he applied to the exhumed skull. One prominent feature stood out - the man had a Type 3 malocclusion: his lower jaw protruded forward, his lower teeth extended over the upper. Ultimately, that unique feature helped to identify the man whose nickname was "Gator."

An episode of CSI? No, just a day in the life of Special Agent Ed Gardner, '87, of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

A career as a police officer was the furthest thing from Gardner's mind when he enrolled at Niagara University as a legacy student. (His dad, Roy, is a member of the Class of 1960.) A political science major, Gardner expected to go on to law school after graduation. However, fate stepped in when he accompanied a friend to the Monmouth County, N.J., Police Academy to take the chief's exam. On a whim, Gardner took the test himself, and passed.

Realizing that he was interested in a career in law enforcement after all, Gardner completed the academy's training program. He spent 14 years as a police officer, first in New Jersey, then in the Charleston, S.C., police department, receiving numerous commendations for his investigative work.

In 1997, he earned his master's degree in criminal justice from the University of South Carolina, and added teaching to his workload. He developed and taught forensics courses at his alma mater, the Citadel, and Trident Technical College. "It was right on the wave of ‘CSI,'" he says, referring to the television show.

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, Gardner began focusing on a "more global" career. "I was lucky to have a wife who was willing to travel," he notes. At the recommendation of a colleague, he applied to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and completed training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. As a special agent, Gardner has had multiple deployments to Iraq and posts in Southeast Asia. One of his assignments was to interview several of the most-wanted members of Saddam Hussein's regime, as identified by the U.S. military's "Deck of Cards," an experience, he says, that gave him a new perspective on the war and the relentlessness with which these individuals will attempt to achieve their objectives. His service in Iraq was recognized with two Meritorious Civilian Service Awards.

In Iraq, Gardner was also afforded the unique opportunity to offer a more positive perception of America for the Iraqi people when he helped to distribute soccer uniforms and equipment to children in that country. The items were collected by students in the school his children attended, and his nephew. "It's nice to be able to do some service while you're doing your job," he notes.

Over the years, Gardner developed a specialty as a forensic artist, something that had piqued his interest while working in Charleston. Like many forensic artists, Gardner's interest developed out of necessity - he was frustrated by the backlog of his cases. Although his drawing ability was admittedly limited, he took a few courses in forensic art. His first sketch, which helped to positively identify a robbery suspect, convinced him that he had a knack for the job.

"If it works the first time, I'll do it forever," he says.

Now a board-certified forensic artist, Gardner has completed more than 100 composite drawings and facial reconstructions for law enforcement agencies in cases involving homicides, armed robberies and sexual assaults, and has served as a court-certified expert for South Carolina's circuit court.

Forensic art is not an exact science, and Gardner notes that "a picture is only going to be as good and precise as the witness is." He adds that timing is important because memories fade. He draws upon his investigative skills when interviewing eye witnesses, helping them get their "strength of recall back." Sometimes this involves looking through a book of facial features to help witnesses select those that most closely resemble the suspect's. Other times, Gardner will start with seemingly unimportant information to evoke the memories needed to create the sketch. One such case involved a witness to an armed robbery who could remember only the gun used in the holdup. By letting her "free flow" the interview with the details she could remember, Gardner was able to help her recall the suspect's features. She remembered enough to direct Gardner in sketching a composite drawing that helped to identify the suspect, who was also wanted in North Carolina for a bank robbery.

The process takes between two and four hours. Gardner starts by drawing the shape of a head, then developing a rudimentary drawing. Over the course of the interview, he enhances the features, creating a final composite, something that might trigger a memory and an identification. He notes that perfection is not the goal. In fact, he says that if a witness rates his drawing as a "10" on a scale of one to 10, "I've got a problem."
"You're looking for quick, not perfect," he says. "That's where you have to be able to cut your ego off - it's not art."

Gardner also is skilled in two- and three-dimensional facial reconstruction, a process that often takes several days to complete and incorporates the disciplines of forensic science, anthropology, osteology, and anatomy. Based on the skull's genetic makeup, tissue depth markers are applied and a drawing or clay sculpture of the unidentified individual is completed.

Here, again, Gardner notes that the artist must resist the urge to make the victim look better than he or she did in life. "I let the skull dictate to me what the (individual) looked like. You have to do what the skull tells you to do," he says.

Despite the darkness of the field, Gardner notes that there is a bright side to his work: Sometimes, it will result in a positive outcome for a wrongly accused suspect. That, he says, is his favorite part of the job.

Out of the office, Gardner participates in a sport he's enjoyed since his days on Monteagle Ridge: rugby. Although he no longer plays the game due to a leg injury, he was named a National Panel Referee in both the United States and in Japan, and has officiated games in a number of countries, including South Africa, Spain, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, and the Bahamas. His next NCIS assignment will take him to London, where he'll referee a Rugby World Cup tournament.

His love of travel and his demonstrated ability as an investigator have led Gardner to where he is today, but he notes that it was his experience at Niagara that underlies all his accomplishments.

"When I look back, I think the education I was offered here and the ideals I was exposed to help me in my work today," he says. "Niagara instilled in me the desire to make a positive difference."


Ed Gardner flies the Niagara University flag on a patrol boat in Iraq.