SAN ANTONIO – A forensic artist for the past 30 years, Betsy Cooper of San Antonio must often stare into the face of death in hopes of giving hope to the living.
“I don’t get queasy, because what I do has such a profound purpose,” Cooper said.
For instance, she said the first of her drawings to be identified remains an active case.
She said the scattered, skeletal remains of Richard Anthony Garza were discovered by a road crew widening a farm road in Wilson County.
After piecing together what remained of his face in 1987, Cooper said Garza’s family made the identification the following year, finally learning their son’s fate.
“I think the father called in and said, ‘I think that looks like my son,’” Cooper said.
She’s gone on to work on many other cases.
“Not all of them are homicide cases, but I’d say the majority are,” Cooper said.
She said many are composite drawings of wanted criminals.
Cooper said, for instance, one of them led to the notorious so-called “I-10 Predator” in the early 1980s.
“His name is Gary Dale Cox. He was kidnapping young girls,” Cooper said.
She said one of his victims, who he’d freed, was able to give her a detailed description.
As law enforcement closed in, Cooper said, “He committed suicide right in front of everyone.”
She said one of her most difficult cases so far has been the mysterious death of an unidentified young woman whose body was burned beyond recognition last August. Cooper said she was able to closely study the charred remains and take photographs of the woman’s face.
“The cheekbones, the chin, the eyes, the distance between them, that sort of thing,” Cooper said.
She also included the mole above the woman’s lip and her long eyelashes.
Unlike working “from the bone out” by using skulls to recreate facial features, Cooper said this case proved challenging.
What Cooper does now is a far cry from her early days as a young girl who sculpted a bust of her father and later became a fashion illustrator in San Francisco.
Looking toward a change in career, Cooper said she asked herself, “What could I do with sculpting abilities that would be helpful?”
She said her mother suggested maxillofacial prosthetics or facial reconstruction.
Cooper said she was fortunate to be recruited by the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio as a dental student.
But when she saw a forensic artist in action, Cooper said her life took a new direction.
“I had tears coming down my face and I said, ‘You watch. I’m going to do this,’” Cooper said.
She said the UTHSC made it possible by helping her design a curriculum that included investigations, pathology and anthropology.
Cooper said she remembers often asking herself, “What happened to this person and what life they might have had?”
She said now with DNA, more and more cases that used her drawings are being re-opened.
“What I do is just a piece of the puzzle,” she said. “It’s an important piece, a very important piece.”