There’s a lot of art involved in catching some unknown criminals

This is the famous sketch that caught a serial rapist.

The victim trembled with fear as she recalled the face of the man who raped her. And as the police sketch artist gave form to the face of the criminal, beginning with his hair, then his eyes, then his mouth and chin, the victim began to cry as she found herself again staring with terror at the face of her assailant.

When Omar Valenzuela graduated from University of Costa Rica with a degree in fine arts he never thought he would be part of this scene he described. He said he prefers to draw cartoons. But after taking a job as a sketch artist with the Judicial Investigating Organization 14 years ago he finds himself talking with crime victims on a daily basis and prompting them to recall with intricate detail the perpetrator, usually the very person the victim would prefer to forget.

Omar Valenzuela showing old sketch artist tools.

With his skills as an artist, he said he was qualified to draw detailed portraits. But his newfound profession is as much about psychology as it is about re-creating a face. He said learning to work with witnesses is as important as his abilities as an artist. A typical police sketch takes about 90 minutes to two hours using the computer animated software the Poder Judicial purchases from the United States. But a sketch with a traumatized person can last the better half of the day and requires a substantial amount of coaxing, he said.

He said he has also learned to identify when someone is lying or is creating an image with their imagination rather than with memory. He said from time to time a witness who is lying or doesn’t have a clear recollection of the criminal will begin describing his or herself and the finished product will be a self-portrait.

A.M. Costa Rica photos/Andrew Rulseh Kasper Marvin Calderón Badilla shows a hand sketch in progress

Valenzuela said in other cases witnesses will simply describe what they see in the room and the sketch will be of Valenzuela or the other artist who works next to him at the Judicial Investigating Organization’s headquarters in San José. He said in these cases sometimes he can’t help but laugh at the finished product because he knows the sketch is more a glimpse into the witnesses mind than a useful description.

Valenzuela said sketches are used in public broadcasts for wanted suspects but also by investigators to give to informants. He said his goal as an artist is to create a guide for the people working on the case rather than an exact depiction of the suspect.

Across the office from Valenzuela sits Marvin Calderón Badilla. He and Valenzuela comprise, in totality, the extent of the investigative organization’s sketch department. They each do about four sketches a day and alternate two-week stints traveling around the country doing work for the regional offices spread about the seven Costa Rican provinces.

Needless to say, Valenzuela believes he and Calderón are understaffed and could use some help.

Calderón is regarded as the grandfather of the organization’s criminal portrait department after he proposed an internal sketch position more than 25 years ago. Calderón was also trained in the fine arts and specializes in oil painting and personal sketches. He started the work at a time when there was no computer assistance and everything was done by hand. Only about eight years ago did the department go digital, he said

Although Calderón has nostalgia for the old way and believes the digital sketches are boring, he said the new computer-assisted program has its advantages for police work. For example an artist doesn’t have to erase an entire sketch if the witness decides after it is completed that the eyes are too close together. Facial characteristics and details such as hats, hair and different skin color are easily interchangeable and manipulated on a digital picture.

Apart from criminal sketches the pair work on age projections for missing persons or cases that have been opened for a long time and change easily altered features of suspects, such as hair, to create a series of portraits that can be used to identify criminals. They also digitally touch up morgue photos for
publication in cases where a body needs to be identified, and they create digital portraits from low-resolutions security cameras.

But with a quarter century in the business, Calderón has plenty of stories based on the old methods of sketching. The shelves and storage cupboards in the two-man office are filled with old sketches of old criminals, probably long since sentenced, or forgotten.

Calderón said one of his most famous sketches, which led to the capture of a serial rapist, was done by hand.

He took the accounts of various women who had been abducted from bus stops along the highway between Heredia and Alajuela. The women were taken to a secluded location and raped. He said he made a portrait and that it was posted at all the stops where the rapist was targeting victims. Eventually a witness recognized the man by one of the drawings and informed police who apprehended the rapist in La Uruca. The sketch when compared to a photograph of the apprehended criminal was strikingly similar.

Calderón acknowledged cases do not always result in a capture but said a detailed identification always helps a case. He urged, as a piece of advice, that people who find themselves victims of crime should try their best to remain calm and observe the best they can. He said remaining calm is one of the key factors in preventing a robbery from becoming a homicide and creating later a detailed description of the assailant.

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