CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Colin McNally has never met Asha Degree. Like many people, he’s only seen photos of her.
The 9-year-old disappeared from her home in Shelby 20 years ago. Asha hasn’t been seen since.
McNally could be what reunites her with her family one day.
“Just knowing that we created a tool that was successful,” he says, “It does make us feel like we have the best job in the world.”
McNally is a forensic artist with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He’s the person who envisions what a missing child would look like today by creating age-progression photos. McNally created the latest image of what Asha would look like now, at age 29.
“I remember five years ago, the last time we worked on Asha's age progression, the artist that I sat next to was working on her case,” he says, “So, this was a memorable case for myself and the forensic imaging unit.”
How can somebody predict what a child would look like as an adult, though? McNally says it requires some artistry, data, and a lot of collaboration.
In Asha’s case, her family was able to provide high quality photos for McNally to work with. But these weren’t just photos of Asha. They were photos of her close relatives.
“We can see the facial features she had in common with both parents. We even had a photo of her brother that we could pull from so there was a lot to use,” McNally says.
Forensic artists use those images of close relatives as clues for how a child’s face will develop.
“We've been trained as forensic anthropologists for how different children of different ancestries grow and develop over time,” he says. “The actual creation of the image is done using Adobe Photoshop: A combination of photo compositing of the elements we receive from families and from law enforcement, and then some digital painting.”
That final rendering can be critical.
“We've had actual examples where somebody saw our age progression, called our center, and that tip is what recovered that child,” he says.
The NCMEC has produced about 7,000 age-progression photos since 1989. About 1,700 children have been found because of them.
“I can safely say that every single time there's a recovery here in NCMEC where there's an age-progression involved, I’m always surprised,” McNally says.
“As forensic artists, we're our own worst critics. Not only does it make us feel like we're doing our job correctly, but we can improve on our techniques. See what we did right, what we did wrong, and then make better age progressions in the future.”
If you have any information about a missing child, call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s 24-hour hotline at 800-THE-LOST.