The morning after a toddler’s body was discovered in a trash bag on Deer Island, forensic artist Christi Andrews, 500 miles away in Virginia, booted up her Mac and found a “rush request,” along with some morgue photos. The Massachusetts State Police wanted a portrait of what the little girl — 2-year-old Bella Bond, we now know — might have looked like in life.
The image Andrews quickly produced made people take notice, capturing the attention of the region and the world. It went viral like nothing Andrews had done before. Sixty million people would see the picture on Facebook, and more still on billboards, in newspapers, and on TV.
And then last week, after the girl was identified and photographs surfaced, they took notice again: The artist’s imagined rendering was hauntingly similar to the real girl.
After the request for a forensic artist’s help arrived at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where Andrews works, she was the first of the four staff artists to open it, and she set to work.
Unlike a courtroom sketcher or a pen-and-paper forensic artist, Andrews and her colleagues work exclusively by computer, with each finishing about a dozen portraits a month.
With reconstruction, they typically try to enhance a morgue photo, but that was impossible here. “With Bella, there was too much trauma to put out a public image,” Andrews said.
Though the child’s face had begun to bloat and change — it was unrecognizable and decomposing after so long in the water — Andrews was able to discern her eyes and the curve of her jawline, two keys to realism.
“The first thing that kind of popped out to me was she had very dark eyes, very long eyelashes,” she said. “She had those big doe eyes.”
Working from an assortment of stock images, Andrews chose features and flesh and cobbled them together to rough out a face.
Then she used Adobe Photoshop and a special monitor that allows her to draw with a stylus on the glass to manipulate the image pixel by pixel.
For a few days, Andrews and a case manager at the center, Carol Schweitzer , went back and forth with Massachusetts officials to refine the result — adjusting the hair, for example — before releasing it July 2. When Andrews returned after the holiday weekend, she was astonished to learn how many millions had viewed it. None of the hundreds of images she had created before had come close.
The child’s age and the mix of mystery and disgust around her death figured into that, as did the evidence that “Baby Doe” had been alive so recently, unlike skeletal remains that may be many years old. But there was no escaping the cherubic nature of the girl’s appearance in the way the case resonated around the globe.
“She was a very cute little girl — or, the composite that I made was of this cute little girl,” said Andrews, who hopes the attention will spill over to other cases the center has open. “This little mystery baby.”
Schweitzer remained in daily contact with Massachusetts investigators, helping to process leads and arrange the lab test that confirmed Bella had lived locally, tracing the pollen on her leggings, blanket, and hair to Boston-area flora. But Andrews quickly moved on to rendering new faces.
Last Thursday, she was working in the darkened imaging studio when an e-mail from Schweitzer beamed in from down the hall: “We found her!”
She bolted to Schweitzer’s office and joined a growing crowd. Police would not reveal the news to the world for another day, but the images on Schweitzer’s screen — from the Facebook account of Bella’s mother, Rachelle Bond — unmistakably showed the child Andrews had imagined.
“I was — I guess — gobsmacked,” she said, searching for words. As an artist, she was gratified to know she had gotten it right. But she felt melancholy, too. There was Bella, beaming from beside a finished puzzle, pulling at a pizza, tiptoeing in a tiara on her birthday — never to do any of it again.
The composite image, unsigned by Andrews, looked so real that some mistook it for a photograph of the girl. It was arresting — the soft cheeks, the round nose, the eyes glimmering with light. It made people catch their breath.
“It put a face to an unknown child,” Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley, said in an e-mail. “It made her someone that people literally across the world wanted to help.”
And it led, eventually, to the break in the case: “We will always be grateful to the artist who brought her image to life, and to the man and his sister who saw it and led us, at long last, to Bella,” said David Procopio, spokesman for the State Police.
Andrews, a 34-year-old Savannah College of Art and Design animation major who still draws whimsical cartoons on the side, never imagined that she would find a career doing work so grim and vital.
While some classmates went to Hollywood, she opted at 22 for a job with the national center, making 3-D cartoons to teach children about online and real-world safety. She enjoyed that work and did it for nearly a decade, while continuing to make her own art on the side in a variety of styles.
In 2012, she shifted to an opening on the center’s forensic team.
Spending so much time with images of trauma took some adjustment, but Andrews began setting aside her emotions to pour herself into the challenge of “putting together the best face I can.” She found the blend of art and science — and the work of solving a puzzle against a clock — invigorating.
Last week, when the case of Bella’s identity was solved, and photos from her life were laid out next to the forensic portrait, Andrews lingered for a few minutes, looking at the two images.
Then, before long, she was back at work on the next picture, hoping to turn another number into a name.