My composite artist career started at San Rafael PD in the mid 80’s. I have always been a doodler and wise guy with a pencil and pen, but composite art was actually an opportunity to do some good with my pencil, instead of evil.
I was not a bad kid. But I certainly found the edge of good and bad and usually stayed on the right side. When I tipped into the dark side, I usually had my trusty pen with me to document the event. Of course that form of documentation would be expressive and usually found on what I called urban canvass, or bathroom walls. Like any artist – especially a teenage boy artist, who relied on his cartoons to ask girls on dates, I had to blab about my conquests. I got the wrong kind of notoriety and found my self on more than one occasion washing the toilets or scrubbing the walls at school.
I learned my lessons from grade and high school and kept my mouth shut about my drawing abilities. But it was hard to keep the pencil holstered. I was surrounded by temptation. Beautiful temptation. You know those desk pads adorned with quite lovely white paper….well; those were the snake in my garden of evil. I was attracted to the desk pads like a moth to a flame. In a short time, you could find me in the middle of the night at the station drawing on the desk pads - on my lunch break, of course.
One day, a scribble of mine was seen on the desk by then Detective Harold Hutchinson. “Hutch” suggested that I do something with my illicit talent and told me “You should be a police artist.” I was a young officer, just out of the academy and I had no clue about how to find out about being a police artist. I would later discover that the work and contacts would come to me, once the word was out.
About a week later I was called in from the street by Det. Hutchinson. It’s a big deal getting called in by a detective or administrator when you are a rookie. The last time they did this to me, I got to kick in the door of a guy wanted for shooting his neighbor, and so, I was excited. When I pulled into the station, Det. Hutchinson pulled me aside and told me that he volunteered me to draw a sketch for another police department.
I was blown away and nervous at the same time. I had never done this before and had no training. Just bathroom walls and, on occasion, the upper arms of my old high school pals who wanted a fake tattoo.
I responded to Hutch with a resounding “I don’t think I can do it.” What I quickly learned was that it was a done deal. I was going to draw this picture. I remember like it was yesterday, scrounging up paper and some #2 pencils. I asked Hutch what kind of case it was and where was my victim. Hutch said the 4 words that lead to a huge change in my life and would make me nauseated. “It’s a double murder.”
I was a mess. I was completely panicking in my head. If I could have faked a seizure I would have, to get out of this. I came to some resolve that it was just as good to burn up on a big case as it is a little one. I figured that if I was successful, it would be a good thing. If I failed, well, then I would fail in the first couple years in my career and maybe people would forget by the time I retired.
I remember getting a ride to an advocacy facility in the city. I was told by Hutch that many people knew the suspect, but no one had a picture of her. She did not have family and no one had a picture of her. This, in the composite world, is like walking a mine field. There were so many opportunities to fail here, but, again, it was worth the try.
I completed the sketch of the woman in a couple of hours. It was my first. I was in a room full of people who knew her and were arguing about the placement of a mole. Some saw it on her left cheek, others on her right cheek. So, I put one on both cheeks. When all was said and done, I was right.
The sketch was released to the press and shown on local TV news at 11PM. I was called shortly after 11:30PM and congratulated by Hutch. The suspect was caught. She was with her boyfriend, the actual trigger-man. A motel clerk saw the sketch on TV and called SFPD. Both were arrested about 30 minutes after the sketch was put on TV. Both suspects were later found guilty and sent to prison.
The novelty of my first “hit” would wear off soon. Now the phone was ringing off the hook and I would have to try to live up to my last case. With the help of my friends (retired) Detective Frank Reed at Sausalito P.D. and Special Agent Liz Castaneda with the FBI, I was sent to the FBI Composite Art School at the Academy in Quantico Virginia about a year later.
Composite art, for me, was a life-changing skill. I have interviewed close to a thousand people over the years from all walks of life just for composite drawings. I have drawn in strange places. Once I created a sketch in a grocery store break room because the police department I drew for was so small it did not have a conference room. I have drawn in hospital rooms with gravely injured people and sometimes, I have just talked to people and not drawn any pictures.
What happened over the years was I developed a gift of asking the right questions and hearing what people are saying to me. As a result, I met some of the most courageous people I have known. People who have seen and been victims of horrible events.
Their strength has helped me grow, its’ given me some faith and perspective. It also built some life-long relationships, both with victims, witnesses and their families and with other detectives. Composite art also solidified my affair with graphite and paper for life.
More another time. Stay safe. Ralph.
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