The serendipity of a sketch identification

Over the years I’ve been asked, “so do you ever catch anyone with your sketches?” Their tone is skeptical, and they talk about the sketches they’ve seen on the news and marvel at how the police can find someone with that sketch in their hand. I smile and I say that, it all depends on the eyewitness. If I get an eyewitness that can recognize the suspect if they saw them again, then I’m pretty confident I can create a sketch of the subject. I won’t know for sure until I interview them. When I think of the complex nature of creating the sketch from the eyewitness’ memory and the obstacles in finding the suspect, I’m often amazed when an identification is made, and the comparison to the sketch is remarkable.

I’m going to share with you some video clips from an interview I conducted with two patrol officers and a veteran detective as they talk about their experience and fortune in apprehending a serial robber. I’d like for you to come away with some perspective on how serendipitous the process can be. Making sure that the sketch has been created from reliable information will give the identification process a high probability of success. I had the pleasure of being a part of hundreds of these types of identifications over the years, and interestingly, each one of them involved a highly inquisitive patrol officer and a tenacious detective. Being a part of that team of dedicated officers will always be the highlight of my career.

The Artus Bandit Robber 2007

Sgt. Overstreet was the lead detective and he was working his second stint in the robbery unit. I had worked with him as a robbery detective, and this time around he was a supervisor. He got the case of the serial robber who had robbed a few convenience stores and wore a helmet as he rode off on his motorcycle. There were no real leads, and I believe the robber had hit at least 10 stores. This case was around before he came into the unit, and he decided to go out and re-canvas the areas where the robberies had occurred and try and locate new leads. He met a women who had walked to the convenience store to make a small purchase the night of one of these robberies. She happened to be walking to the store when she saw this man run by her with a helmet in his arms. Sgt. Overstreet had her contact me for a sketch interview, and I met with her a few days later.

I met with the witness and I asked her, “if you saw him again would you recognize him (the suspect)?” She offered, “yes”. She said she remembered the jacket he was wearing, but she wasn’t too sure about his face. Unfortunately, this lack of confidence in remembering the details about the face is par for the course for most forensic artists. We often have to work with very little information or with a reluctant eyewitness. The key for me is, do they have a mental picture of this person in their mind that they can access when I interview them? If they can refer to this image in their mind, then I’m pretty confident we can create a sketch of the suspect. I met with this eyewitness; she was an older women who lived nearby and walked to this store on a regular basis. I believe it was evening, so the lighting wasn’t the greatest. She had no idea their had been a robbery at the store that night. She remembered the subject running from the store and thought it odd, but made no calls to the police. She remembered the jacket pretty well, so we spent a few minutes refining the distinctive markings on the front. She was happy with the sketch, and said that it reminded her of him. I thanked her for her time and I walked her out to the lobby after our interview.

Here's a copy of the sketch from that interview, March, 2007.

Here's a copy of the sketch from that interview, March, 2007.

I posted the sketch to my website and sent an email to Sgt. Overstreet. During those first few weeks Sgt. Overstreet made the rounds with every patrol unit in the City and urged the officers to take notice about this case. He met with the officers at every briefing (early morning, mid afternoon and midnight). He felt that making the pitch to the officers in person might motivate them to look at his information and keep the sketch to their memory as they go about their shifts. Sgt. Overstreet knew that this type of presentation might generate the leads he needed to make an arrest.

Officers Ashe and Grogan, were patrol officers in their first year of their training, and they both attended the briefing by Sgt. Overstreet. Play the series of videos below to hear how they came upon this innocuous call that turned out to resolve an important serial robbery case.

Come back next time and we’ll hear how these officers continue to use the sketches, and more importantly, how the identification of a suspect brought them new insight into their role in making the apprehension.


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