Vitali helps with severed head mystery, discusses new Institute

Contributed Photo
Professor Michelle Vitali poses with her sculpture of the severed head found in Dec.
Vitali is involved in EU workshops

By Karlee Dies
News Editor/Spectator

Michelle Vitali, a forensic artist and an Edinboro University professor in the art department, received an email from a friend of hers. But it wasn’t just any email. It involved, well, a severed head.

That friend was Erie County Coroner, Lyell Cook and he had received an email from the Beaver County Police asking for help in finding a forensic artist to help with a recent case. After speaking with the police chief, it became apparent that Vitali the ideal person for the job of reconstructing a severed head that was found alongside a road in the Beaver County town of Economy in December.     

The head was that of a woman’s and appeared to have been embalmed and well-preserved so much that her curly hair was still styled.

In 24 hours after receiving the head, she had created a two-dimensional drawn reconstruction. Police had also asked Vitali to create three-dimensional sculptures as well in hopes of creating recognition.

Over the next two weeks, Vitali worked to construct a three dimensional “conceptual model.”

“I had to get accurate measurements from the head itself. Measuring, palpating and close observation are the most important things I did. I also took photographs and used the crime scene photos and x-rays provided by another source,” said Vitali.

“In this reconstruction, I have a great deal of confidence in her overall facial proportions, hair color and style, nose, chin and surface features (like moles). I have less confidence in her eyes and mouth because of disfiguration that happened as a result of resting in the woods for a while. So viewers should think of this reconstruction as a “family resemblance” rather than an individual’s portrait.”

Dealing with an investigation of this sort, many people might think it would be rather difficult, but for Vitali, it was something she felt she had a duty to do.

“Anything I can do to assist in identifying an unknown and possibly mistreated corpse is worth doing. I understand that I have an unusual skill set that is suited for this kind of work, and so I feel obligated to use it when called. As an artist who is good at science, comfortable with law enforcement and has a strong constitution, I suppose I was meant to do this work,” said Vitali.

“Her commitment to her work and to using her talents to assist detectives and victims’ families is one example of the dedication of Edinboro professors to bring their work into the real world and use their deep knowledge and skills to make a difference. We endeavor to prepare students to make the world a better place and Professor Vitali’s work exemplifies that activity for our students,” said President Julie Wollman.

With this type of real world experience and artistry that Vitali possesses, she and many members of the faculty and administration have joined forces to develop an institute for Forensic Sciences.

The Edinboro Institute for Forensic Sciences will provide workshops for students or industry professionals, research opportunities and a speaker series on topics related to forensics.

Forensic related programs like art, anthropology, chemistry, criminal justice and accounting and other various programs and activities on campus will come together in this new institute giving students the opportunities to pursue a job as a forensic accountant, forensic anthropologist and more.

Vitali stated that in addition to the new institute, a new minor in forensics will be offered in hopes of “bringing a truly multi-disciplinary approach to Edinboro students interested in it.”

The forensics minor is expected to be available in the fall semester of 2015.

Interested students can contact Professor Vitali, Dr. Lenore Barbian, or Dr. Ted Yeshion.

 “We’re excited about the possibility of involving students in workshops and research, and in bringing industry professionals to campus. It’s a win for everyone,” said Vitali.

Karlee Dies is the news editor for the Spectator. She can be reached by