He had a gun and ‘Tom Cruise eyes’

These days forensic artists need to be up on pop culture references

Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

WANTED: one sketch artist for the Ontario Provincial Police. The force is hiring a forensic artist this fall, and job candidates need special forensic training and a portfolio of composite sketches. But an unofficial job qualification could go something like this: “should be familiar with actors, cartoons, prime-time television, sports stars, politicians, musicians and Google Images.”

“One witness asked me, ‘Do you know Beavis and Butt-Head? He looked like Beavis.’ I immediately knew to draw thin lips, a pointy nose and a furrowed brow. It was an excellent starting point,” said Det.-Const. Duncan Way, a forensic identification artist with the Barrie, Ont., police department who trained as a composite sketch artist at the prestigious FBI training centre in Quantico, Va. “Politicians are also popular references. I’ve had witnesses say, ‘He had a red face like John Turner’ or ‘buck teeth like Trudeau.’ ”

“I always start an interview by asking if the suspect looked like someone on TV or in the movies. It’s common ground,” says Vancouver police Const. Gerry Wickstead, who also trained at Quantico. “One lady described her attacker as having John Travolta eyes.”

At first, Const. Jill Swann was skeptical about using pop culture as part of the sketch process, but she became a believer. “Victims choose the vocabulary, not us,” said Swann, a composite sketch artist with the RCMP in British Columbia. “If they offer up a tool, we take it. Pop culture has become enormously helpful because it’s a common language, or an extra cerebral catalogue—‘gaunt like Courtney Love,’ ‘hair like Eddie Munster,’ ‘pale like Rob Pattinson,’ and ‘he was wearing a hat like Brad Pitt’s.’ I’ve heard all those and more.”

One character Swann never expected to draw was Fabio Lanzoni, the muscle-bound hero featured on the cover of romance novels. “We got a call about a restaurant robbery,” recalled Swann, who also trained at Quantico. “The only witness, a waitress, described the suspect’s piercing eyes and determined chin. That was our first clue something wasn’t right. We kept drawing and it started to look like Fabio. As it turned out, she read a lot of Harlequin Romances. She had a crush on my partner and made it all up—a false allegation—to get his attention.”

“You never know where a witness will pull a reference from,” offered Luis Santoyo, a police officer and sketch artist with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois. His sketches appear on America’s Most Wanted. “Victims have told me the suspect had lips like 50 Cent or a nose like Al Gore’s. I have to keep up. Who’s Justin Bieber? I need to know.”

Const. Jeremy Birnbaum didn’t think his life would ever collide with Gossip Girl. But then “I had a witness describe a suspect as resembling one of the male actors on the show, which, of course, I’d never seen,” sighed Birnbaum, a sketch artist with a B.A. in fine art from the Emily Carr University of Art and  Design. “This is when the Internet helps.”

Cameron Pye, a retired facial identification specialist with the RCMP, notes that attractive criminals can be easier to catch. “We remember them. There was a robbery at a store on Vancouver Island in the 1990s,” recalled Pye. “The robber wore a balaclava, but two girls working at the store recognized him because of his ‘Tom Cruise eyes.’ He had been in a few days before, pretending to apply for a job, and the girls remembered him. A patrol car pulled him over and found the balaclava.”

Frank Daulby, who spent 14 years as a composite artist with the OPP, is wary of celebrity references. “As soon as the witness refers to Tom Cruise, the suspect becomes Tom Cruise,” said Daulby, who retired in 2002. “You’ll grasp at anything. That destroys memory. Some say it improves memory, but memory is fragile.”
Back in Courtenay, B.C., Const. Jill Swann is willing to use any clues if they emerge organically. “All the pop-culture references in the world won’t help if you contaminate the victim’s memory by leading the witness during the cognitive interview. The witness drives the boat,” explained Swann, who is married to a fellow RCMP officer on the emergency response team, where she also works as a hostage negotiator. “It’s a bit like Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” she quipped.

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