- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

SAGINAW, Mich. (AP) - When three women told the Saginaw Police Department they were assaulted by a man in Old Town, on the city’s west side, authorities called in police sketch artists for help.

The two forensic artists developed drawings of the wanted man based on the women’s descriptions. One of the drawings was then released to the public.

Though the sketch didn’t lead directly to the arrest of a man in connection with the cases, police did receive several tips based on the picture, Saginaw Police Department Detective Sgt. Reggie Williams said.

In an age of digital media, they may seem old-fashioned, but sketches can pay off at times and still have their place in fighting crime, according to Wade Dakin, coordinator of the Michigan State Police’s Forensic Artist Unit.

“It gets us another avenue to hopefully catch the individuals who committed the crime,” Dakin said.

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Dakin has coordinated the forensic artist unit for a little more than a year and also oversees the MSP’s missing persons unit and the audio-visual unit that analyzes and enhances video and other multimedia evidence.

All three units are available to assist law enforcement agencies throughout the state, he said. The police sketch unit includes five part-time and one full-time sketch artist, The Saginaw News (http://bit.ly/1CKUNg5 ) reported.

Detective Trooper Sarah Krebs with the Michigan State Police is entering her 12th year as a forensic sketch artist with the department. Krebs outlined the steps to generating an effective representation of a suspect.

Krebs asks questions about the sights, smells and noises associated with the incident to help the victim remember the scene. She then asks basic questions about the suspect’s resemblance to other people, either famous or familiar to them.

Flipping through a massive booklet of faces and features containing examples of everything from hairlines to chin shapes, the artists ask witnesses to point out similar features and expand upon them.

Often, overcoming the trauma related to a crime is one of the most important steps to developing a successful sketch. Noting any distinctive facial features such as scars, facial hair or other details distinguishing the suspect from the average person can help law enforcement narrow down a pool of suspects, Krebs said.

“Beforehand, no one ever thinks they can do it, but we always get something useful during the interviews,” she said.

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With their artistic endeavors put up for public review, sketch artists know they are judged on their efforts when a suspect is caught.

But the pictures are only as good as victims and eyewitnesses are at describing the people being drawn. That can vary widely based on a witness’ proximity, emotional stability or any number of other factors, Krebs said.

Children, for example, use simple words and descriptions simply because they don’t have the vocabulary, she said.

“People have to put themselves in our shoes,” Krebs said. “We’re only able to draw what witnesses say. I don’t fill in the blanks; witnesses do.”

In order to prevent confusion and give the public a definitive image, Krebs said only one sketch of a suspect typically is released. And while several witnesses can come forward and work with a sketch artist, not all interviews lead to a usable sketch.

Whenever a sketch is released, departments typically see a response from the public in a matter of hours, Krebs noted.

In the Saginaw case, three days after the sketch was published in the media, police arrested a suspect.

The man recently appeared for a preliminary examination in Saginaw County District Court on 19 felony charges. Witnesses identified the suspect in court as their assailant based on his fake eye.

He has been ordered to stand trial in circuit court on 16 charges.

Some sketches lead to immediate success in identifying wanted people, police say.

In the case of Flint serial stabber Elias Abuelazam, a boss called in to say a sketch of the suspect bore a striking resemblance to one of his employees.

In a Saginaw County case, a police sketch was released of a man suspected of exposing himself to juveniles. Frankenmuth Police Chief Donald Mawer recalled officers pulled over a vehicle linked to the suspect.

Once officers spoke with the suspect and observed his distinctive teeth, which were also seen on the sketch, police knew they had their suspect, 20-year-old Kevin Burke.

Burke was sentenced to five years of probation after pleading no contest to aggravated indecent exposure.

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Dakin said the forensic artist unit at one time had as many as eight artists, and he hopes to increase its size from the current number in the near future. State police artists have produced 38 sketches of criminal suspects in 2014.

The department doesn’t track how often a sketch leads directly to an arrest, he said. But the drawings are a tool to get the public’s help in an investigation, Dakin said.

Suspect sketches are only a part of the duties of the forensic unit, which also produces post-mortem sketches and clay models that can help detectives identify bodies and skeletons.

As the unit’s coordinator, Dakin makes sure artists get appropriate training including an annual training session that brings artists from outside of the state into Michigan.

“I try to ensure we keep increasing their skills as an artist,” he said, adding he also tries to make sure they have the appropriate tools and technology to do the job.

Artists sometimes use Wacom tablets to draw using computers, he said, though many sketches are done with simple pencil and paper. Sometimes sketches are scanned and can be tweaked using software, and some sketches can be compared to existing photographs to see if parts of the drawing match.

Most of the work is done during business hours, though artists are available to be called 24 hours a day, seven days a week, depending on the needs of an investigation.

Some other Michigan police agencies employ sketch artists of their own, Dakin said, and he believes the majority of them are not full-time artists.

“It’s just another aspect of their job,” he said.

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In selecting new troopers to join the unit, a panel of senior forensic artists reviews a portfolio submitted by an applicant, interviews the person and makes selections. New artists go through a probationary period, getting evaluated by seasoned sketch artists, before they go out on calls themselves.

Besides needing some artistic skill, forensic artists must have strong interviewing skills, like being able to empathize with a victim, and they have to interview children as well as adults, which is part of their training, Dakin said.

“Once a victim or witness starts talking to you, you have to know how to relate,” he said, noting many victims just went through something traumatic and may have been interviewed multiple times before speaking with an artist.

“Hearing a verbal description and being able to translate it to paper is a skill that continually needs to be developed.”

Detective Trooper Jessica Welton spends her time investigating cases with the Saginaw Major Crimes Unit most of the time, but she is available to do sketches for cases anywhere in the state. She started working as a forensic artist nearly six years ago, she said.

In Krebs’ case, her father worked as a forensic sketch artist for MSP for 37 years, getting her involved in the work as well.

While both Krebs and Welton expressed an interest in art early in life, neither had much formal training before becoming forensic sketch artists. Coming from artistic families certainly helped, Welton said, noting both her father and uncle have extensive artistic backgrounds.

After the Biometrics and Identification Division was founded in 1992, Krebs’ father continued his work under a new official banner. During her first few years as a sketch artist, Krebs and her father worked together within the division, developing profiles and giving presentations as a father-daughter team.

For Krebs, the payoff of the job comes in seeing victims of crimes find justice. After a woman in Northville was beaten nearly to death by a burglar, Krebs was called in to do a sketch in the hospital.

Though the victim had one barely functioning eye to see with after the attack, Krebs remembers the witness giving an inordinately helpful description of the suspect, which led to an arrest soon after. Many years later, Krebs ran into the witness and recalled being awestruck.

“I would have never recognized her,” Krebs said. “It’s one of those things that can be really empowering.”

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Information from: The Saginaw News, http://www.mlive.com/saginaw

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