CRIME TEAM: Police sketches part art, part science

CRIME TEAM: Police sketches part art, part science

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Putting a face to a crime is not a simple task.

Just ask Phyllis Gasparro, who does composite drawings for the Tucson Police Department.

"It's a tool in an investigation that could possibly lead to a viable suspect," she said. "That's rewarding in itself because I feel I have helped the victim in that respect."

MOBILE USERS: Check out some of Gasparro's work HERE.

One of Gasparro's recent drawings may be familiar. Tucson police released a suspect sketch after a woman was sexually assaulted in the area of Drexel Road and Tucson Boulevard on March 2.

A sketch of a sexual assault suspect and the mugshot of Abraham Garcia, who was arrested in connection with the incident. (Source: TPD)

Evidence found at the scene is what led police to arrest suspect Abraham Garcia. Nonetheless, composite sketches will remain a valuable tool for Tucson Police.

"It's a visual aid to put it out in the community for people to see and make comparisons and hopefully generate leads," Tucson police Officer Dan Lucas said.

For the artist, it is a deeply-involved craft that involves artistic skill, science, and even restraint.

Gasparro, a latent print examiner at the TPD Crime Lab, processes fingerprint evidence from crime scenes and does sketches for criminal investigations as a side duty.

It also helps that she loves to draw.

"One of my favorite things to do, actually, are Christmas cards," Gasparro said.

As an art major at the University of Arizona, Gasparro had her eye on creating composite sketches for law enforcement. Once Gasparro got hired on with the TPD crime scene unit in the 1990s, she pursued the job right away.

"The supervisor of the unit told us the next composite artist better be able to draw the Madonna," Gasparro said.

So Gasparro went home and sketched a religious Madonna as well as Madonna the singer. The move clearly impressed her supervisor.

Gasparro's sketches of Madonna, the singer, and a religious Madonna. (Source: KOLD News 13)

"He said, 'OK, but you need to attend the FBI's facial imaging class,'" Gasparro said.

It was there, during a three-week program in Virginia, where Gasparro learned how to compose a suspect sketch using pencil and paper. She honed not only her artistic talent, but learned the psychology behind the work as well. A large part of her role as the composite sketcher, after all, is working with victims.

"There have been victims that have been very strong. They just work straight through it," Gasparro said. "Then there are others I can tell begin to hesitate and start to become emotional. I tell them, 'That's OK. Take your time. We can take a break.'"

After taking the imaging class, Gasparro began working on composite sketches for criminal investigations. Over the years, she has created hundreds of drawings, some of them leading directly to an arrest.

Gasparro showed KOLD News 13 what the process entails.

KOLD 13 intern Abby Friedemann played the part of a witness and described our Digital Content Director, Michael Cooper, whom she met and spoke to briefly - a similar span of time for someone who encounters a criminal.

The process begins with Gasparro sitting down and taking down notes from the describer before Gasparro takes to her pencil. Once the drawing begins, the describer might refer to a catalog of facial features of real people.

The FBI Facial Identification Catalog. (Source: KOLD News 13)

Even with the help of the catalog, describing a face she had only seen for a few moments soon turned into frustration as Friedemann tried to articulate the features she wanted to convey.

"You think that you know the features of a person. Or you know the shape of just a human being's eyes or nose or mouth, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty details, they're much more difficult to describe than I initially thought," Friedemann said.

The process could take as many as several hours and is a task that requires as much patience as restraint.

"Instead of asking things like, 'Was his hair black?' I would rather say like if they haven't touched on the hair at all, I would ask, 'Tell me about the hair,' even though I might have an image already in my head," Gasparro said.

While it may be difficult to remember the exact features of a criminal, police urge the most important step is to get away from a dangerous situation.

"Once you have gotten out of the situation safely, then do your very best to remember as many details about the individual: their clothing, the environment, their facial features, hair, anything like that, that would assist investigators with identifying possibly a suspect in the future," Lucas said.

Gasparro said the remembering process might even encompass all the senses.

"Each situation, every person is going to be different. Lighting could be a variable. I know that when I work with victims, I even suggest that they try to involve all of their senses, such as try to remember what the exact environment was. Your basic surroundings. Things that might stand out. Sounds. Smells. If you incorporate your senses, sometimes more details will come back."

For Friedemann, the drawing process took more than two hours. But she said she was satisfied with the final piece, rating it a nine out of 10.

"What I recall, this is as close as what I can explain as possible," she said.

Phyllis Gasparro's sketch of our Digital Content Director Michael Cooper next to a photograph of him. (Source: KOLD News 13)

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