the thin grey line
A picture is worth a thousand words, but for forensic artist Michael Streed, a thousand words amount to a potentially lifechanging picture that will help stop a criminal in their tracks
Forensic artist Michael Streed explains the techniques he uses to create an accurate picture of a wanted criminal
There is one thing many of the world’s best- known criminals have in common, from the furrowed brow of the Zodiac Killer, to the buzz cut hairstyle of Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh, to the shadowy hooded figure of the so- called Unabomber Ted Kaczynski: each of them is recognisable from the shaded sketches drawn by forensic artists like Michael Streed every year. You may have seen their composite sketches on the evening news. You’ve probably studied their mottled features to see if you recognise them. Perhaps something in the details struck you as familiar? But have you ever stopped to consider the process behind an often- fundamental piece of evidence that helps bring serial killers, child abductors and bank robbers to justice time and time again?
Speaking to us from his home in the US, Michael Streed, author of Sketchcop: Drawing A Line Against Crime, talks us through his three- and- a- half decade career sketching high- profile criminals, as well as his 31- year commitment to the police force as an officer in California. He recounts for us his connection to the Baton Rouge Killer case, the way in which technology has improved the lives of forensic artists like himself, as well as what more advanced training could have meant for those tasked with sketching the accused in our cover feature, The Golden State Killer.
Tell us a bit about how you transitioned into your career as a police sketch artist.
Like most kids I doodled a lot and always had a thing for cartoons from an early age. I thought it would be the coolest job on the planet to sit around and draw cartoons all day. My father was a police officer so I was always surrounded by these amazing people who had great stories. As I reached the end of my high school career and had to pick a ‘ real job’ I thought police work was something to try. Back then there was the whole reference to the ‘ starving artist’ and so I went into police work. It wasn’t until I saw a composite sketch on the evening news that I thought, “Now there’s a way to combine art and my love for public safety.” I started contacting people and taking training classes, and it just kind of grew from there.
Tapping into someone’s memory, especially after a traumatic incident, must be tricky. How do you proceed when you’re trying to extract information from a particularly traumatised witness?
There isn’t a one- size- fits- all interview. We use what’s called a cognitive interview, which is actually driven by the eyewitness and/ or victim and not so much the officer. Typical police interviews are driven by the investigator or officer and can be construed as being very leading – we ask direct questions that at times can be seen as suggestive and very limiting, whereas in a cognitive interview we ask more openended questions. I might interview you at the scene of the crime as an officer and ask, “Did he have blue eyes or brown eyes?” As an artist I would say, “Tell me about his eyes and be as descriptive as you can.” We can ask more direct questions from that, but it’s totally driven by the eyewitness – we just kind of keep them within the guidelines and help them stay focused. Sometimes it’s OK to just let the person talk, because while I’m there to provide an investigative resource to my fellow police investigators, I’m also there to be one of the first steps in helping these people heal from their trauma.
Every artist has their own technique, but for me, while they’re talking about the trauma, I may be drawing the
They walk out of there feeling very proud and very happy that they got to positively contribute to the solving of their own case
sketch and slipping in questions that they’ll answer, and I’ll draw and keep them talking, and before you know it, there’s a sketch that’s finished. They walk out of there feeling very proud and very happy that they got to positively contribute to the solving of their own case.
You helped the FBI develop a curriculum for their training on creating composite sketches. What was that experience like?
It was very interesting because back in the early 1980s, when there was a resurgence and an interest in training artists from around the world, the FBI – being the leading law enforcement agency here in the United States – was able to secure the funding. So now all of a sudden they have the money for funding, but the question was ‘ what do we train? How are we going to train?’
So what they did was put out an ad in their industry magazine asking for anyone who’s interested in participating in the committee, and I was lucky enough to be selected. A group of us got together in the FBI academy at Quantico, Virginia, and hammered out the curriculum, and from that the course was born. I was very humbled to be there because the smart thing they did was they took people from all experience levels. So at the time I was one of the least experienced, I was just starting out, so you had my perspective as a newbie and you had other people who were very well- established already and very experienced, and had taken on some very high- profile cases. So it was great to be in that mix of people.
Are there any other sketches you’ve drawn that have turned out to be high- profile criminals, or have you ever come into close contact with any high- profile cases?
Most of the high- profile cases that I’ve been involved in have involved children. I had a particular case where a five- yearold girl [ Samantha Runnion] was abducted off the street by a stranger, who later sexually assaulted and murdered her. The only witness at the time was her five- year- old playmate. She provided a sketch that was pivotal in identifying this person,
because within 48 hours of this sketch being released to the media two different people called and provided a name. After his DNA sample matched he was arrested, tried and given a death sentence.
The other case involved a ten- year- old boy [ Anthony Martinez] who was abducted by a stranger off the street in the presence of his eight and ten- year- old brother and cousin. He was also sexually assaulted and murdered. That particular case was very frustrating, because you would expect a quick identification due to the heightened public interest [ in child abductions], but this case went cold for eight years until someone was identified. This particular suspect [ Joseph Edward Duncan III] murdered another family in another state and then abducted some children and murdered one of them. He was identified by a quick- thinking waitress when he brought the victim into a restaurant. He was arrested and is sitting on death row right now.
There was a serial killer operating in the 1990s in the
Baton Rouge area of Louisiana [ Derrick Todd Lee, the ‘ Baton Rouge Killer’] and he was killing college co- eds in the area. What had happened was he had been involved with attacks in a small town outside of Baton Rouge, and I produced a composite of the suspect and was able to provide a larger task force with a name. Unfortunately there was some interagency rivalries involved in that and the information wasn’t taken as seriously as it could have been. It wasn’t until they caught the person that they realised that the actual sketch was pivotal in the case.
It was actually the first case where I had used some facial composite software that was considered to be the latest and greatest at the time. The TV program America’s Most Wanted flew me from California to Louisiana to try the software out, and so I used the software on the case and it worked for that period of time, but there were some limitations to it that eventually spurred me to develop my own software.
Let’s talk about the Golden State Killer. He was drawn dozens of times over the years by various sketch artists, and some of the images are wildly different to others. What problems can multiple witnesses and sketch artists pose to investigators?
A composite sketch is based upon your perception – how you witnessed it, how you observed it, how you processed it, how you retell it – and our job as sketch artists is to retrieve the eyewitness memory. You have a variety of different scenarios under which the Golden State Killer was observed by a variety of people with different education levels, different verbal skills, and sometimes the crimes took place in total darkness or limited lightings, and so there’s just a whole bunch of different scenarios.
The thing is you’re also looking at a variety of artists who do those sketches under just some horrific conditions. And we talk about the eyewitness and the people who were victims of the crime, but how about the sketch artists? What was their experience level? Had they had proper training? My question is: how could those composite images change or be more accurate if all the sketch artists involved had been offered better training at that point in time?
We do the best we can with what we’ve got, and they all did a very good job based upon the pressure on them by police and the public, as well as working with people who weren’t necessarily being difficult, but were involved in a difficult set of circumstances that none of us could imagine or hope to be involved in. I think if you look through all of the sketches there are common facial features that, while they were drawn in a different style, they look similar enough that at one point I wanted to take them and synthesize all of those
A composite sketch is based upon your perception, how you witnessed it... how you processed it, how you retell it. our job... is to retrieve the eyewitness memory
into one drawing based on the commonality in some of the more predominant facial features.
How has the progression of technology in the last few decades impacted your career?
For me it’s the tools I use now and tools that others use. When I first started, I used a number two pencil and a sheet of copy paper from the Xerox machine – a cheap piece of bond paper and a cheap pencil, and that was it. Those who couldn’t draw were using those flip books with cellophane sheets of acetate that would have noses and eyes on, and put together sketches that way.
Now we’re using digital styluses, iPads and pen displays where we draw right on screens, and sophisticated software programs that emulate the pencil and brushes you would normally use. Composite software programs have algorithms that help to build the faces based on the eyewitness making a selection from the computer.
I use the tools that best fit the case. I think it’s like anything else, they’re just things that help create a more efficient workflow to get to the eventual end. The digital stylus and software programs allow you to create a library so you’re not drawing the same thing over and over again. These are shortcuts and tools that help you get there faster and better, but that doesn’t address the time it takes you to get the information from an eyewitness. The composite sketch software program, it opens up the opportunity for people who can’t draw and paint to create a facial composite of suspects, and that’s really great for police departments because they don’t all have someone who can draw, but they have a 24/ 7 solution and they can create faces at the click of the mouse. Both are limited in terms of their use and success by being able to effectively communicate with an eyewitness and proper training.
Does it ever get frustrating when your image is put to the public and no leads are generated?
It’s definitely frustrating because I’m ‘ in it to win it’ so to speak. I want someone to be caught and want some justice for the victims, the eyewitnesses, these very courageous people who took a lot to come forward. So yes, it can be frustrating, but you just have to keep going forward with the next drawing and the next case and hope for a better result.
hael’s Technology, in the span of Mic career as a f orensic artist hastha t progressed, but Mic hael insists while new softw are f or dr awingthe has helped, it hasn’ t replacedand requirement f or good tr aining people skills
Michael’s field of expertise has resulted in him w orking on v arious cases, inc luding ser ial murder , c hild abduction and missing per sons, drawing a pproximately 400 sk etches in total throughout his career
( right) Mic hael’s skills as a sk etch artist ha ve a t times been examined on the stand, inc luding dur ing the tr ial of convicted rob ber Bill P oyner, who w as connected and la ter con victed of the kidnap and murder of a cop
Charles Taylor ( pictured) and his brother Allan w ent missing in 1978. Reconstructing the f ace from sk eletal remains f ound in 1993, Mic hael’s sk etch of the victim pro ved invaluable in solving their disa ppearance
Retiring from the police f orce after 31 y ears, Mic hael f ocused his a ttention on consultancy for la w enf orcement a gencies throughout the US and opened his o wn f orensic artistr y business
One of the big gest cases of Mic hael’s career came when he sk etched the man who w ould ultima tely be identified as a Louisiana ser ial killer