HAMMOND — The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has released an age-progression photo of Joseph Andrew Spisak, the young boy who disappeared from the streets of Hammond more than 45 years ago.
The organization released the photo, completed by forensic artist Paloma Galzi, this week to coincide with Joseph’s 57th birthday, which was Friday.
For years, the NCMEC organization has used age-progression technology to predict what a person may look like years after they've gone missing.
Colin McNally, supervisor in NCMEC’s forensic imaging unit, said the organization’s four artists always start with the best photo of the child from the time they went missing.
Then, skilled, forensic artists layer composite photos of parents, siblings and other family members in photo editing software to create a digital painting of the individual, paying close attention to share characteristics and unique facial features.
In Joseph's case, he went missing at age 11 on Jan. 27, 1974, not long after he delivered newspapers on his usual paper route and attended Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church just a few blocks from his Hessville home.
There's been no trace of him since.
Predicting what Joseph would look like 45 years later is no easy task, but it can be done.
Family input is key in a complex process
While some of the process is subjective, there is a science behind it, McNally said.
“We consider how faces grow and develop based on ancestry and family photos. It’s mildly subjective. I could do an age progression and another artist here could do the same and there would be some differences. But we think we could come in the same ballpark,” McNally said.
“In Joseph’s case, he was 11 when he went missing and he would be 57 (on Friday), so it’s not important we come up with a 100% accurate portrait, but it’s about creating a tool for law enforcement,” he added.
Detectives are still far from solving Joseph’s case. Detective Adam Clark, with the Hammond Police Department, said he recently began working with NCMEC’s experts to create this age-enhanced photo of what Spisak would look like today.
Clark said he's pleased with the final result, though it took some time to dig up family photos of people at various ages.
McNally said the more photos, the better composite the artist can achieve.
“The thing with a big case like Joseph’s is that it's so helpful to us when the searching family gives us a ton of family reference photos. It helps us better understand what he would look like today,” McNally said. "We rely heavily on the parents because they are the true experts of what their child looks like, even if they only know Joseph's face from when he was 11 years old, they understand every expression, every facial feature, way more than we'll ever understand."
McNally’s forensic imaging unit is staffed with four artists. The team is tasked with completing age-progression photos for every child who goes missing under age 18, each artist completes about 10 per month, he said.
McNally and another artist in his unit have fine arts/graphic design degrees. Another artist majored in animation. And a fourth artist has a master’s degree in forensic art.
"We are fortunate with the amount of people we collaborate with. We're able to work with forensic anthropologists. That's where we get the understanding of how the face grows and develops over time, and the differences in skeletal structure from different ancestries. They help us understand way more about the anatomy of the face, and then we can take the forensic science and apply it in an artistic way," he said.
McNally said the age-progression process can be risky for the families involved — particularly with older cases, before the internet and social media age. He said he and his staff are sensitive to the fact that these families are trusting his team with original copies of loved ones’ photos.
And, sometimes, the photo may be the only copy they have left.
The reveal can be emotionally taxing, too.
“We try to prepare them for what they are about to see, we explain that this isn’t a portrait or a keepsake, but a tool and an artist approximation. We are sensitive to the fact this can be traumatic and upsetting. Some get relief and it brings joy to them,” he said.
Friends reported last seeing the 4-foot-tall, 65-pound boy walking near the Catholic cemetery along Kennedy Avenue near the Norfolk and Western railroad tracks the day he went missing.
Other reports put the boy on the tracks, walking southeast near the Hessville Cemetery at 169th and Arizona.
His mother, Monica, and her late husband, Donald, called police when he never showed up for dinner, leading investigators to search high and low that night, and in the days and weeks to follow, search parties combed the neighborhoods for the young boy.
He was last seen wearing a tan trench coat, brown corduroy hooded shirt and green rubber boots with yellow tops, according to the NCMEC.
In January, Clark also obtained DNA samples from the family to be sent to a lab in Texas. The lab specializes in matching strains using genetics with the country’s database of unidentified remains.
Clark said matching strains of DNA like this is a very time-intensive process and had no updates as of Friday.
The family was not immediately available for comment. They have previously said they are eager for closure — even if it means learning Joseph is no longer alive.