Updated: Jun 22
Warning: Strong and sensitive themes
She is a crime fighter that doesn’t hold a badge or wear a costume, but instead sits in a chair wearing a specialised glove on her right hand, supporting a red velvet bag of a hundred pastels and charcoals on her lap, and sits analysing an 11x14 inch, felt grey paper sheet clasped to her easel in front of her. Unlike an artist who knows what they are going to create before they begin painting or sketching a masterpiece, she has no idea what the final image will look like.
“It goes through my ear and out my hand”, said Lois Gibson, a 71-year-old Houston Police department Forensic sketch artist; the world’s most successful, at that. Instead of interrogating suspects, Lois specialises in the art of pulling images out of someone’s subconscious memory, an image of a person she has never seen before, so that her sketches can be used as evidence to help arrest and solve, often atrocious, crimes.
Sitting in front of her, frequently, is a young woman that has been assaulted, attacked, or abused mentally, physically and emotionally by a man. But instead of putting out a bolo for a 5 foot 10 inch male with brown hair and eyes, “like most men”, Lois is able to pinpoint specific features from the minds of the people she speaks with. These young women are not just victims of heinous crimes, but to Lois, they should be referred to as ‘survivors’. And survivors they are, just like the twenty-one-year-old version of herself who is the inspiration behind this mentally challenging and emotionally tolling line of work.
With a soft and breathy voice, Lois asks her first question, utilising the recipe she has developed which includes a mixture of compassion, empathy and sympathy, with knowing exactly what the witness needs to hear. The last place the person sitting in front of her wants to be in is a chilly, white, prison-like room, sitting on cold steel chairs with a flat-pack table above their knees and a two-way mirror hanging on the wall. Unlike that image, which is often portrayed in film, Lois has customised her captain’s office to feel like home. With four floor-to-ceiling windows providing soft light to illuminate the room, accompanied by warm tungsten lights to mimic a ‘fireplace’. Paintings hang on every wall to calm the witness, which include sketches of previous successful cases, but not all since there are over 1,250. Sitting comfortably three metres in front of the easel at which Lois sits behind, is a large, padded high-back, navy blue-fabric recliner, the seat allocated for the survivor. Lois' eyes hide behind the canvas, rarely making contact with the witness, only her voice transcending. “Each interview is customised”, states Lois, “If they need to scream and cry to remember, that’s what I will do”.
Recalling the worst possible case that an officer can receive, Lois said that it isn’t a murder or a rape, even though both of those are terrible. Instead, it is when an “infant is kidnapped by a stranger”. Not a parent trying to take custody but a random person stealing a child or a baby. Lois once sat, watching a husband try and be that firm foundation his wife needed in such a horrific moment. As each second passed, their hearts were being crushed with the knowledge their 10-hour old baby had been taken from the maternity ward by an unknown woman.
Lois asked, “Can you recall what the lady looked like?” But due to their lack of English, the hour-old-parents tried to explain to her in Spanish that they couldn’t remember how the lady appeared. A warmth waved over Lois, which soothed her heart. She felt that “They would NEED to cry and scream to open up and unlock their subconscious”, the wall they had built would need to be broken.
Clenched in the mother’s hand was a polaroid of the baby, which looked “crummy and out of focus”, said Lois, thinking that it was not the ideal image for a final photograph. “Noooooooo! Noooooooooooo!”, Lois began to scream, hoping that her reaction would assist the parents’ emotions to bubbling up and erupting, or at least start to demolish the wall in their minds. Lois now took on a new role, not as therapist or forensic composite artist, but demolitioner equipt with wrecking 'bawl'. As the mother began to cry angrily, the father joined, until they were all drenched and exhausted in their own tears. With her delicate and sympathetic voice, Lois said, “We are going to do a drawing”. As they picked features from her specialised book of facial features, the parents gasped, “We’re just guessing about every feature”. Lois turned the canvas for the first time in the hour, tears soaked. The parents saw the composite and their tears became the translator, 'that's her'. Hours later, a lady was found with the same hair, lips, chin, and eyes as the drawing, which resulted in an arrest, and the reuniting of a mother, a father and their newborn child. Happy tears.
Sometimes, the person sitting in the chair is of an age you can count on one hand. A four-year-old. A five-year-old. A scared child who has witnessed something that will change their lives and be burned into their memory for the foreseeable future. A heartbreaking memory, heart-tearing memory.
One would assume that the minds and memories of such a young person isn’t as strong as a fully equipped adult, but Lois was pleasantly surprised after her first case. She confidently stated, “They are the best! They can spot a little thing on someone’s cheek that is only a millimetre wide.” Some may not know that the hair above someone’s top lip is formally known as a moustache, but Lois has a book containing a selection of facial features for each person, sitting comfortably on that navy-blue chair, to select from.
Noses, eyes, ears, the shape of their foreheads, lips, facial hair patterns, eyebrows, each with an allocated number and letter. All males. However, if on the rare occasion the attacker is a female, “We just femininize the features”, says Lois.
Choosing the language and the level of compassion is of the utmost importance when speaking with a victim. She said, “You need to get the child to understand who they are describing. Not the guy at the grocery store, but the guy that killed…. well, you don’t say killed parents. You say the man that hurt your mummy.” If the child, upon seeing the final sketch, says, “Why did you draw that man?” or, like a case with a four-year-old, began yelling and getting really mad, jolting back in his seat, then her job is done, and there is a hope of capturing, arresting and prosecuting the attacker. “It’s the emotional goody that helps me survive the stress”.
Lying in her bed in Houston, Lois rolled over to her telephone ringing on the bedside table. Reaching over, she caught sight of the time on her alarm as 3.30am. In a tired, disrupted voice, she asked, “Hello?”. A kind soft voice, unwavering on the other end, replied, “Hi Lois, Please come down to the station. A nine-year-old girl has just witnessed her mum being hog-tied, raped and strangled to death. We need a sketch”. The voice belonged to Lieutenant Charles Mclelland, who knew Lois from the Sex Crimes division when he was a Sergeant. They knew that they could count on Lois, so she got ready and drove to Houston Police Department, her pastels, easel and canvas already in the boot of her car. “Driving over, I felt a warmth in my chest”, Lois said, “My faith protects me from suffering from PTSD. I need that warmth.”
The sketch took less than an hour, but the resulting drawing was uncanny. After walking over to the next apartment complex in the area where the abysmal incident happened, the sketch was shown to a person who was residing by the complex. With the lift of an arm, and the point of a finger, they said, “Go to that apartment. He isn’t on the lease, but he has been coming in and out.” Behind that apartment’s door and standing in the lounge room, a man heard three knocks. After approaching the entrance, he opened the door to see an officer gazing back, smartly dressed in black with a gold police badge on his chest and a stern look on his face. The officer looked down and examined the sketch he was holding in his hand, before lifting his eyes to analyse the figure staring back. “Hello sir”, he said whilst confirming that it was an accurate representation of the man standing in the door frame. “Where were you last night?”, asked the officer. “I’ve been here all night, I haven’t don’t anything”, said the man, defensively as though trying to disguise something. Behind him were stacks of VCRs, televisions, and items that had been stolen from crime scene.
“We had our man”, said Lois.
It was fifty years ago in the doorframe of her flat in Los Angeles, at an apartment complex that housed Doctors of Medicine and professors, a “very, very secure building”, said Lois, in which her life took an opposing turn; for the worst. Her life revolved around three main areas, the first was her continual passion for art, the same passion that intrigued her into sketching people from the age of five and pushed her to go to Art School. The second was spending time with her boyfriend John ‘Beaster’ Kelly, a blonde, pale Irish gymnast with a square, clean-shaven chin and “nice pectorals”. And, finally, Lois spent her time working as a part-time model for posing for movie posters and shooting “tasteful images” for Playboy magazine.
On one particular day, a man walked up and leaned next to the doorframe to her apartment, and said, flirtatiously, “Hey, I see you come and go…I’m Jim Hutchinson, I thought we should get to know each other.” Lois had never seen him before, turning her back she decided to open the door anyway to get back into her apartment. Within seconds, Jim pounced and started crushing her neck, choking her for 25 minutes and sexually abusing her. She was going to die. “All I thought was, ‘Oh, I’m going to die’.” Once she lost consciousness, the serial killer fled, leaving her unresponsive on the carpet. Upon waking she recalled, “I couldn’t tell anyone; impossible! They would blame me for being sexy. I couldn’t talk to a man about what happened, let alone myself for six years."
So, when she joined the Houston Police department a decade later, she became a version of the person she required when she went through that traumatic experience; the person SHE would have been comfortable opening up to; the person the police force needed and still needs. The empathetic, sympathetic, understanding, female voice.
It was two months after the incident that changed the trajectory of her life, when Lois was driving home in her 1970 brown Ford Pinto, windows hand-cranked down. The car veered to the left, turning down a corner by Holly's Harp boutique, where award-winning singer Linda Ronstadt was known to frequent. One could describe it as divine intervention, like Carrie Underwood’s song ‘Jesus, take the wheel’, because if Lois had turned one second earlier or one second later, she would have missed the opportunity for closure.
“You know that if you are on Sunset boulevard, you never go up the hills. Sometimes you can’t turn around for miles”, says Lois. As Lois made her way down a street approaching one of the hills, that she would usually avoid, she noticed a gravel patch on the side of the road. Slowing down, she made her way to where she thought she could do a U-turn, but as she hit the gravel, she looked up to see the man that tried to kill her leaving a house.
Upon parking her car, Lois watched as the man was walking out of this house, with a man in front of him and another behind. Watching from behind her steering wheel, she tried to keep out of view, but in her heart, she stayed, she was entranced, staring, gazing, a piercing look on her face. “I wanted to yell, ‘Don’t be his friend, he’s a monster’”, said Lois, but her voice was soundless; her mouth remained shut and her heart beat double time. The men that walked with him were Los Angeles police officers, for he wasn’t casually walking with friends but was under arrest, his wrists secured by handcuffs behind his back. As they approached a set of wooden stairs that declined towards the street below, he began to flail his shoulders, head and legs.
The officers picked him up by his elbows, one on either side. But he kept moving, the only solution was to “beat the crap out of him to stop him from hurting others or them”, said Lois, who was still sitting in Ford Pinto, frozen like a statue. The officers threw his face on the hood of their squadron car, cracking his nose. Lois felt justice. “I needed to see that. It was like a Volkswagen was lifted off my back. A new world. That’s why I put up with the tension and stress, I want to give that justice to other people”, says Lois. If it were not for love, her journey would never have ended up in Houston with the police force. If it were not for love, she would never have earned and gained the experience necessary to capture the likenesses of people through her portraits. If it were not for love, she wouldn't have learned about anatomy. After Lois’ near-death experience, she decided to pack away her life in Los Angeles, and move to San Antonio with Beaster, that “Scorpio caveman bodybuilder” she called a boyfriend. Beaster was going to dental tech school, and Lois wanted to spend as much time with him as possible, so she enrolled in a dentistry course as well. “What I learnt in that course helped spectacularly when it came to reconstruct faces in the force”, Lois recalls, today.
Whilst she enjoyed sketching black and white portraits on the boardwalk, surrounded by cafes which were joined to the hip by a river that reflected like glass, Lois felt that this wasn’t her purpose. There was something more out there. Beaster began to neglect her, his heart focusing on other things. “I am seeing new people every day, you may as well give me a ring”, suggested Lois to Beaster. Beaster did not. Enter, Harley Leroy Carlson, a strawberry blonde, blue-eyed outgoing man, who sat down for a portrait on The River Walk. A man that would sweep her away and take her to Kansas. He ended up being “a serial cheater”, yet what originally appeared to be ‘love’ was the reason she moved to Houston. “I only moved for love”. Houston was where she needed to be.
Sitting on a couch on 43rd and Hewitt, in Houston, Lois was watching the news with her friend Dian, who's two year old daughter Amy was running around the house. The television screen lit up with a terrible story. “I couldn’t stand hearing the ‘R’ word”, recalled Lois. So, when the news stated that a local dance instructor was raped by a man, who held a gun on the students during the act, Lois thought, “I could draw a picture of that guy, but I need to practice”. She remembered a comic strip she used to read as a child, ‘Dick Tracy’, which had a character named Junior Tracy who was a forensic artist that would draw sketches of criminals, “That’s what I’ll do.”
She turned to Dian and said, “Go to the gas station and come back with a description of the guy that fills the tank”. As Dian shut the front door, Lois was filled with such emotion that she cried, thinking, ‘What if I can’t do it? I am used to seeing and drawing, not hearing and drawing."
Dian arrived back and saw Lois broken down, “Don’t quit now, do the work”, she said. Then Dian began describing the unusual facial features of the ‘gas pump guy’. Dian said, “Ooo, you are not going to be able to do this, his upper and lower teeth were clenched as he spoke.” Without hesitation, Lois said, “I went to dental school; I can do it.”. With the same pastels of greys and blacks that she had used on the river boardwalk for years, the same tools that allowed her to sketch over 3,000 different portraits, Lois finally finished the drawing. She turned it around, Dian confidently said, “Yep, that’s him”. Lois began to cry, “Don’t tell me it looks like him if it doesn’t.”
Together, they hopped in Dian’s car and drove over to the gas station. Holding the newly sketched drawing, Lois watched the 'gas guy' walk out of the service station and approach the car. Simultaneously, Lois dropped the sketch from shock, which floated before landing on the pavement. She steadied herself by holding on to the gas pump, where she began to bawl, tears running down her cheeks.
The man picked up the sketch and turned to Dian who he had recognised from earlier, “Oh my god, that’s perfect, that looks just like me. You’re a great artist.” Dian responded, “I didn’t do it, she did.” Confused, the man said, “But you weren’t even here”, turning to Lois. The tears that fell upon Lois’ cheeks now filled with laughter, “Oh the power in my hands”, thought Lois. "I can do it."
Not all the sketches are one hundred percent accurate, and Lois is aware of this. Sometimes the perpetrator has slightly different features. “I can’t do a perfect person if I am looking at the person, and if I am doing it from someone’s memory, it is a likeness, not a sameness.”. “It could be a case where I have stuffed up the eyebrows”, says Lois, “but I won’t adjust it, I will learn and do better next time.” With this newly found talent, Lois approached Houston Police department to show them that this skill would be beneficial to their team. “They wanted me to leave the station. I was physically attacked by cops”, says Lois. Once they accepted that she wasn’t going to budge; her persistence and passion unwavering, they hired her.
On occasions, the police department thought she was with the ‘media’ because she has a line on her easel. Only when homicide would call out, “She is one of us”, would she be given permission to enter the building. “I knew who they were looking for, they didn’t even know", states Lois. Only after six years did they provide her with a plastic I.D. tag and a lanyard, even though she had sketched over 2,040 individual faces over that period.
Laughing, Lois said that her “favourite grooming choice for criminals is facial tattoos”. She states that she loves it when they decide on having a tattoo on their face, zip code under the eyes, italic writing above the eyebrow. Whilst the exact word couldn’t be remembered by one witness, they said that the murderer had cursive writing above his eye. He may has well have had the word ‘guilty’ stamped in red on his forehead. So, when the man they had arrested stood in front of a jury with the exact same tattoo and facial likeness as the sketch Lois has created, he was “dead meat. I mean c’mon, he was gone”, said Lois, “he should have just plead guilty”.
Sitting on a chair in Ulysses, Kansas, a young, four-year-old boy, who should have been celebrating his birthday, was instead holding a toy that had captured his attention. He is being held by his aunt. Yesterday, his parents were at home with him as he gained another year, but today his aunt is his only immediate family. Lois arrives and makes her way into the room, sits down behind her easel, bulldog clipping the 11x14 inch felt grey paper to a wooden board. Her bag of pastels rest on her thighs, as she sits, speaking to the young boy, “This is going to be so easy for you. Take a deep breath and relax.”
Carefully and eloquently, she asks him to describe the “bad man that hurt his mummy and daddy”, allowing him time to look through the special book of features in front of him. He looks gazing at each thumbnail printed black and white on the pages in the folder. He's only a young four year old, having celebrated his birthday yesterday, however his mind is still tuned to notice and recognise faces. Pointing, he selects a hair style, it is stubbly but more than five o'clock shadow, bowing at the front like a widow's peak as it reaches the forehead. He slowly makes his way down the face. He points to the eyebrows, they are thicker in the middle and gradient outwards becoming less hair-filled. The ears, rounded, with its lobe unattached. The eyes, wide set. The nose, button like, and then the lips, the cheeks and the chin. Then, the boy points to an image of some facial hair, a thin moustache that continues around his lips and connects on his chin. In a matter of hours, Lois’ forensic sketch will result in a mobil house being knocked at, the answering of a front door, a sketch that captures 'likeness', an interview, a murderer’s confession, and then the examining of his home where they find ‘the knife’.
Lois says, “If I hadn’t seen justice at 21, I wouldn’t be able to do this. But I was made for this work.”
Through her steadfast commitment, Lois Gibson has established The Institute of Forensic Art which is focused on helping the next generation of Forensic Sketch artists develop and harness the skills necessary to put a face to a perpetrator, without having to go through a near death experience like her. She believes that it is just a matter of “getting a witness and drawing a picture, which will help to solve a crime”. All you have to do is listen and draw, “you have the power”.
If the themes in this yarn have been overwhelming, please know that help is available. In Australia, the crisis support and suicide prevention service is Lifeline on 13 11 14. In the UK, Samaritans can be reached on 116 123. In the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international helplines can be found through www.befrienders.org