FORT MYERS, Fla. – Discarded like trash, eight bodies went unnoticed for years in a thicket of trees and scrub, on the edge of downtown.
When they were discovered in March, nothing remained but bones.
Six months later, authorities still know precious little about the skeletons, other than they were white men between the ages of 18 and 49 and died as far back as 1980. Detectives say their best hope for solving the case now rests with a forensic sculptor who will try to reconstruct their faces.
Authorities hand-delivered the eight skulls to Sharon Long last month in hopes that her work will help determine their identities.
"When I'm working on them, I'm thinking about that person being loved, loving someone, being born, going to school, going through their lives, because they are real people," Long said. "It's a deep emotional thing, especially when the face starts showing up."
A surveyor found the first skeleton. Police soon uncovered seven others nearby. No flesh remained on the bones, which appeared to have been chewed on by animals. There were no clothes or personal items, either.
Investigators have weighed a number of theories, including whether the skeletons could be the work of a serial killer or remains dumped by a crooked mortician.
A forensics lab in Texas is working to extract DNA from the bones, but until detectives identify the remains, there's no trail to follow.
"Identification is critical. Without that, there really is no investigation," Detective Barry Lewis said.
That's why investigators are depending on Long, 67, of Laramie, Wyo., who has degrees in art and anthropology. She has made busts for the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian, helped reconstruct the faces of mummies and recreated faces of some of the first settlers' remains discovered at Jamestown.
She begins by painting the skulls with latex.
"When I peel off the rubber, I have an exact replica of their skull, every little pockmark," Long said.
A plaster bust is then made from the latex mold. Long places eraser tips on 21 points that mark tissue depth and uses clay to form the face.
Lips are designed by measuring the front six teeth.
"If you have really big teeth, then your lips are going to be thicker," Long said.
The nose can be tricky. She uses the bony protrusion at the base of the nasal cavity to determine form.
"If it's pointing slightly down, the guy's going to have kind of a hook nose," she said.
For the ears, Long draws a straight line across the head just above the eyebrows.
"That's the top of the ear, and then you draw a line from the bottom of the nostril straight across, and that's the bottom," she said. "If you have a short, stocky, stubby nose, your ears are going to be shorter. If you have a big nose, you'll have bigger ears."
Each face takes up to 70 hours to complete. Once she finishes all eight, police plan to release the images nationwide hoping that someone recognizes them.
"I think I'm going to be somewhere between 90 and 100 percent accurate," Long said.
Detectives have not ruled out the possibility that the skeletons are victims of Daniel Conahan, who was sentenced to death in 1999 for the strangulation of a drifter.
That man's body was found in some woods in neighboring Charlotte County. Conahan is also suspected in at least five other slayings of young men dubbed the Hog Trail Murders because of the swampy, wooded locations where the nude bodies were found in the mid-1990s. Those cases remain unsolved.
Conahan was also once accused of kidnapping a man in Fort Myers in the early 1990s. The victim accused Conahan of luring him into a wooded area — within miles of where the eight skeletons were found — and trying to strangle him, but he escaped.
However, until the skeletal remains are identified, detectives are not questioning Conahan, who maintains his innocence.
Fort Myers police have been reluctant to release too many details about the case to avoid scaring residents of this southwest Florida community known for its white sugar-sand beaches and as a warm-weather haven for retirees.
Detective Sgt. Jennifer Soto said if the skeletons are the work of a killer, the suspect is likely long gone.
"There's no reason for public alarm," she said.