When a crime is committed, sometimes all authorities have to go on are witness testimonies. Witnesses are often frightened, confused, and unsure of what”s even happened and understandably so. But they”re essential in providing descriptions of the suspects, and sometimes even those hazy, frantic memories are enough to catch the perpetrators. That”s where renowned forensic artist Lois Gibson steps in.
Gibson has been in the business of creating composite sketches for over 30 years, and her contributions have cracked countless cases. She”s currently the Guinness World Record holder for most successful forensic artist. We recently had the pleasure of getting to speak with her, gaining some insight into this incredible line of work.
Some of Gibson”s cases seemed impossible from the start, like this one. The suspect was seen in a car traveling about 40 miles per hour and was seen for only a second. This sketch helped locate him.
Gibson has always been interested in art, and by her own account, has been drawing since before she could walk. She ended up taking her degree in Fine Arts at the University of Texas in Austin. Her interest in criminal justice, however, didn”t happen until tragedy struck. When she was 21, Gibson was attacked in her home by a violent serial rapist. He left her with severe physical injuries and even deeper psychological wounds.
After recovering at least in part from the horrific attack, Gibson started working as a portrait artist for tourists in San Antonio. She estimates that during her time there, she did some 3,000 portraits, and gained the practice she would need later for creating detailed, unique sketches on the fly. “I can draw anybody,” she says.
This suspect was also seen for just a second, but it”s amazing what people can remember in a short amount of time.
It wasn”t until she relocated to Houston that she considered using her skills for catching criminals. Knowing first-hand what it was like to want justice, she presented her skills to the local police force and asked for a job. She was turned down.
“It”s pretty hard to convince a room full of cops who don”t want to do something,” she says. It ended up taking her seven years to convince them to hire her full time. She managed to get her foot in the door when she impressed the station with an exact rendering of a suspect from memory. With Gibson providing composite sketches, the Houston police experienced a 30% increase in successful arrests. “They couldn”t argue with the facts,” she says. After that, she was hired.
This sketch was created with the help of a woman whose ten-hour-old baby was kidnapped from a hospital room. The woman was identified within hours.
So how does forensic sketching work? The first and most important thing, Gibson says, is to relax the witness, as they”re usually quite shaken up. Gibson often speaks freely about her own attack with witnesses, which makes them feel less alone. “I say, “I can”t know exactly what you”re going through, but I have a pretty good idea,”” she explains.
Once the witness is relaxed, they use a massive catalogue of individual facial features to create a composite that most closely resembles the perpetrator. The witness picks out individual eyes, noses, mouths, chins, and hair, and Gibson puts them together. All necessary tweaks are made and then the image is released to the public.
Even injured or incapacitated witnesses can help generate a surprisingly accurate image. This suspect was rendered with the help of a witness who”d been shot. Shockingly, the victim doesn”t even remember giving the description.
This suspect was caught after the witness described him, despite the fact that she”d been shot 15 times and lost an eye.
Some cases hit harder than others, like 2007″s “Baby Grace” tragedy.
In the face of all this violence and tragedy, you might think that the joy has been sucked out of art for Gibson. But that”s not the case. Creating portraits for tourists taught Gibson to appreciate human faces, and that still holds true today.
“It makes you fall in love with people,” she says. “Isn”t that weird? I work with the worst people.” But she still finds most people to be beautiful, and has a deeper appreciation for the little features and quirks in their faces. Helping victims of crimes adds an even greater dimension to her work. “It makes you fall in love with the witnesses and their strength, their drive to stay alive and get justice,” she says.
Not all of Gibson”s cases deal with crime and tragedy, though! Gibson, along with several other investigators, helped identify the sailor in this iconic picture as Glenn Edward McDuffle after 60 years of mystery.
Besides continuing to work in the field, Gibson is also sharing her skills with a new generation of artists. There are currently only 26 full-time forensic artists in the country, she says, and she”d like to see that number increase. She also says that with the advent of facial recognition technology, forensic sketching will be even more valuable in identifying suspects, and will open up opportunities for many artists in the future.
If you”re in the Houston area and would like to know more about forensic art, check out her upcoming classes that will be held in the city between October 26 and 30, 2015. You can also check out some of the many books she”s written on Amazon.