A new look

Former CIA disguise master uses expertise for handcrafted prosthetics

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Print this page by Richard Foster
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“God gave me a gift, and I am using it right now to help
others,” says Robert Barron. Photo by Mark Rhodes

The boat was going only 10 miles per hour when it hit a sandbar, but it was enough to change Tim Dunaway’s life forever.

On Easter Sunday 1998 Dunaway was driving family members on his boat on the Pearl River Navigation Canal near his home in Louisiana’s St. Tammany Parish when it hit a submerged sandbar, smashing his face into the boat’s aluminum windshield frame. It took a 14-hour surgery and titanium rods to put his face back together.

Dunaway was able to return to his job as a registered nurse and clinical exercise physiologist, but 18 months later infection set in. Doctors had to remove his nose, leaving him permanently disfigured, disabled and despondent. He isolated himself, preferring to spend time roaming a local wildlife refuge with his German shepherd rather than dealing with people staring at him.

“I got to the point where I literally sat in the bathtub with a .357 in my hand three different times, and the only reason I didn’t pull the trigger was I didn’t want my girlfriend to come in and find me,” Dunaway remembers. “I got very depressed. I took the mirrors out of my car, out of my house, so I didn’t have to look at myself.”

Then his sister saw prosthetic specialist Robert Barron on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” A 24-year veteran disguise master for the CIA, Barron, 73, retired in 1993 to start his own business, Ashburn-based Custom Prosthetic Designs Inc., where he makes advanced, handcrafted prosthetics for patients from around the world, helping cancer survivors, accident victims and people with birth defects.

Barron has been featured in publications such as The Washington Post and Reader’s Digest as well as various television programs ranging from the “CBS Evening News” to “The Montel Williams Show.” Some of his high-profile clients include 9/11 Pentagon attack survivor Louise Kurtz, for whom he made a pair of prosthetic silicone ears.

“Just as my disguises worked, my success today depends on realism, perfection and the ability to stand up to close scrutiny. Prosthetic devices dramatically increase the quality of life,” says Barron, a gregarious, loquacious grandfather of two, with kindly eyes, a thick mustache and a head of shaggy gray hair.

“Everything has to be as realistic as you can possibly make it. In the agency those [prosthetics and] masks had to pass the closest scrutiny at six to 12 inches, and, if not, you may not make it back. Their lives were in jeopardy if that mask attracted attention in a negative way,” Barron says.

“There was a lot riding on my shoulders to make that silicone mask as realistic as possible and that’s what I put into my prosthetic devices today. … In the agency, [field operatives] depended on the realism of that disguise to keep them alive and guess what? Prosthetic devices are saving lives as well.”

Barron takes great pride in knowing “that my prosthetic devices give my patients the ability to interact on a daily basis with the public without the stares. There was one man that couldn’t go into a restaurant. They asked him not to go back because he was scaring the customers away. Isn’t that just awful?”

Barron, who doesn’t hold a medical degree, makes a range of facial prosthetics, many of which are covered by medical insurance. “These are medical necessities,” Barron says. Prices vary depending on the complexity of the item being crafted.

The disembodied ears, eyes and mouths sitting around Barron’s workshop are all eerily realistic. Barron molds or sculpts the parts from silicone, making molds from patients’ body parts and working from photos. His prosthetics include multiple translucent and opaque layers, just like real skin. He adds pores with toothpicks and hand-paints each prosthetic to match the patient’s skin tones and natural complexion and blemishes.

Barron takes pleasure in recounting the story of a patient who had to come back for a fix after his barber trimmed the hair in his new prosthetic ear.

Barron also made a prosthetic ear for Kristen Bauer, a 25-year-old nursing student from Gering, Neb., who was born with microtia, a birth deformity in which an ear doesn’t form properly. Bauer had childhood surgeries to reconstruct her right ear, but the result didn’t look like a natural human ear.

With her new ear, “you cannot tell at all,” says Bauer, who was inspired by Barron and hopes to go into a nursing field aiding people who need prosthetics. “I never wore my hair up unless I was playing sports. Now I wear my hair up. I’ll do whatever with it. It’s weird how much confidence you have now that that reconstructive surgery is covered up. People aren’t staring and saying, ‘Oh, what happened to your ear?’ and you have to go through the whole story with them. It’s nice.”

Barron was awarded the CIA’s Career Intelligence Medal in 1993. Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey Jr. said that Barron was “an extraordinary artist and master of the highly specialized craft of personal disguise. Mr. Barron’s competency and artistic skills were unmatched. He was the impetus of the advanced disguise system and the ideal by which all other disguise officers were judged.”

Barron isn’t allowed to discuss much about his work for the CIA, which took him around the world and stretched from the Vietnam War to Operation Desert Storm. He worked very closely with legendary Hollywood makeup artist and CIA contractor John Chambers, famous for his work on the original “Planet of the Apes” films.

A U.S. Marine Corps veteran who later worked at the Pentagon as an art director for naval fleet magazines, Barron was brought to the CIA’s attention after he reproduced a Pentagon parking pass so he could park closer to the building in inclement weather. The CIA recruited him into its Office of Technical Services, Graphics and Identity Transformation Group in 1968. He started out forging documents for the CIA and later moved into disguise, working on everything from crafting new identities to creating doppelgängers.

“If I wanted to make you look like a generic Russian, I could make you look like a Russian — or a Chinese or an African-American. I did all those. Or a woman. That’s what I used to do,” Barron says. “God gave me a gift, and I am using it right now to help others. He’s going through me to help those who need help.”

As for Dunaway, he ended up going on “Oprah” himself after Barron made him a prosthetic nose in 2004. “There’s no doubt in my mind that this guy is a godsend. He brought me back from being as depressed as you can get. … I’m alive now. I’ve got a little, 5-year-old girl. My whole world is turned around, and it’s all because of Bob Barron.”

Dunaway has two prosthetic noses — one each for summer and winter complexions. “It might not be exactly what God gave you, but it’s going to be really hard for anybody to figure out it ain’t yours,” he says. “When Bob does his work, you’re back to being you. All he needs is a picture. From a freckle to a blackhead or a pore in your skin, he puts back what he sees in the picture.”

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