Police in New Hampshire hope that new digital technology will help them crack a grisly cold case that has haunted residents of Allentown for nearly three decades, when the bodies of a woman and child were found in a barrel hidden deep in the woods.
Relying on new facial reconstruction technology, forensic artists have created three-dimensional models of the victims, in the hopes that someone would recognize them and come forward with new information.
In 1985, a hunter stumbled upon a barrel in woods near Allentown that contained the remains of a woman believed to be in her early 20s, and a girl between the ages of 5 and 10.
For more than a decade, police believed they were the only two victims of a brutal beating death, until 15 years later when a state trooper working the case uncovered another 55-gallon metal drum, 100 yards away from the first, that contained the remains of two more young girls.
Those girls, 1 to 3 years old and 2 to 4 years old, are believed to have been killed at the same time as the other girls, sometime between 1977 and 1985, according to police.
There were no reports of missing women or children at the time of the murders, and no one has ever come forward with "actionable" information, police told ABC News.com.
"To this day, no one has reported children matching their description as missing," said New Hampshire State Police Sgt. Joe Ebert.
DNA tests revealed that the woman found in the barrel was the mother of two of the children, and police believe further, more advanced DNA testing will reveal she was related to the third child.
"People are shocked that a family unit could disappear without anybody noticing, but it's possible this was a transient or broken family, and people simply did not know anything had happened."
The case has remained open and has been worked by a series of investigators for the past 27 years. Pencil sketches of what the victims are believed to have looked like were released in 1985.
But in the past five years, new technology has come to the fore that allows forensic artists to build ever more accurate reconstructions.
Using CT scans, artists have created 3-D models that incorporate the exact dimensions of the victims' skulls without damaging specimens by applying clay and glue as was done in the past, said Joe Mullins, the forensic imaging specialist at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who made the new models.
"There's still more technique than technology," Mullins said, explaining that advanced as the technology has become, modeling still relies on trained artists to flesh out a victim's face.
"There's nothing automated about it. It's not "CSI," where you can push a button and get a perfect image," he said.
The age of the young victims makes it particularly difficult for forensic artists to capture their likenesses.
"We don't know about skin tone, eye color or hair color," Mullins said. But fortunately, the victims' teeth were well preserved. Artists depicted the victims smiling, in the hope that a potential witness might recognize a unique snaggletooth or overbite.
The renderings are intentionally distributed in black and white, so that no potential witness believes they recognize a victim because of a detail like eye or hair color, he said.
"If we don't continue to spotlight these cases, no one else will. This is a heart-rending case," Mullins said. "We have to give these children and their mother their names back."