Thursday, 24 April 2014

Di Cullington – An extraordinary lady: an extraordinary career (Part Two)

The Identification and Reconstruction Department of the National Missing Persons Helpline

Di established the Identification and Reconstruction Department which evolved with the growth of the helpline. An early description of the department’s aims reads:

“An unidentified body, whether alive (unconscious, Alzheimer’s, amnesiac) or dead, is a missing person until the family or next of kin has been informed. It also registers details of non-vulnerable missing persons whose disappearance may not have been reported to the police, and has an extensive database of relatives seeking news of missing persons. This may be particularly valuable in cases where the unidentified person appears to have lost touch with his or her family. Records are kept of people who have been missing for many years and are never removed from the database.”

Di’s department provided a free service to police, coroners, hospitals and nursing homes by running a check of its database for possible matches with the unidentified body, for example, by clothing or physical description. Di was skilled in modifying post mortem photographs on computer to aid identification. When all other avenues had been exhausted, Di could undertake a 3D clay reconstruction on skeletal or decomposed remains.

It was already apparent to the charity that one of the problems attached to the issue of missing people concerned the bodies or parts of bodies which would be found. In the 1990s, police records were not centralized but the NMPH register was a national one. One of the methods used by NMPH was to organize conferences and seminars for the police, to inform them of the work of the charity and the ID department, and to establish a good working relationship between them and the charity. That collaboration was a key element to the growth of the service to the families of missing people.

In a lecture delivered to a large gathering of police officers in 1999, Di said:

“Please contact us with your bodies! Don’t just call the nearest medical person available but phone the helpdesk here and we can refer you to an expert. It is a race between us to identify the person first but who wins is unimportant…it is a race against time and the family needs to know the outcome as soon as possible”.

In time, contacts in the police were made and protocols were established whereby NMPH were consulted when a person went missing or a body was found. In the ID department, following a referral by the police, there would initially be a search of the NMPH database. All the information on the body – false teeth, baldness, scars – would be entered into the system and this would result in a significant number of people being eliminated immediately. The police would be asked to send in a photo of the body as this occasionally meant that identification was possible from the photos of missing people in the NMPH records.

Di’s travels
Di travelled far and wide as she sought to increase her skills in this fascinating area. In 1995 she attended the InternationalAssociation for Craniofacial Identification Conference in Florida. Thereafter, she was elected to the committee of that Association and attended international conferences where she met other forensic artists from around the world and where the exchange of information in the latest developments operated on a global basis.

An exciting opportunity arose for NMPH in 1998 when Di and a colleague travelled to The Hague to talk about the charity’s work at a Europol (European police) meeting.  At this time, there was no equivalent of the NMPH in Europe.

In 1999 Di spoke at the British Council’s third International Seminar on Advancing the Scientific Investigation of Crime.


Perhaps the most memorable trip for Di occurred in March 2001 when she attended an intense 3 week course for forensic artists at the FBI Academy located on the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia. Di describes this experience as perhaps the most challenging of her professional life. Di was accommodated in the FBI agents’ building with mock training exercises taking place at all times of the day and night around her. She was given very clear advice when she arrived: “if someone tells you to stop or they will shoot – stop.” Di would often see helicopters flying overhead with marines hanging out of t
hem waving guns – coming from the leafy, quiet suburb of East Sheen, it was not easy to absorb.

Penned by Helen Ryan
Volunteer Case Study Writer at Missing People

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