15 Secrets of Forensic Artists

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Despite recent advancements in DNA evidence-gathering and high-tech investigative tools, a simple pencil-on-paper sketch can still have a significant impact on criminal cases. Forensic artists who create such sketches use eyewitness accounts, crime scene evidence, skeletal remains, and more to help illustrate and personify criminals and victims—all of it in the pursuit of bringing perpetrators to justice.

To better understand the details of the job, Mental Floss asked three veteran forensic artists about tricks of the trade, why they’re not actually trying to create an exact likeness, and how a bird’s nest can be one of their best tools. Here’s what we’ve learned.

1. SOME SKETCHES ARE INSPIRED BY SMELLS.


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When witnesses sit down with law enforcement to relay their description of a criminal’s appearance, they might believe the only relevant information is what their eyes have seen. But according to Melissa Cooper, a freelance forensic artist based in California, all of their senses matter. “It often helps to ask questions that will trigger memory recall,” she says. “During one case interview, I asked [a witness] what stood out the most. She said, ‘His cologne.’ You’d think, ‘Oh, great, I can’t draw that,’ but scent is a huge enabler for memory. Now I know she can smell him and she’s right back in the scene. It’s a perfect state to be in.”

2. THEY NEED TO SUPPRESS THEIR CREATIVITY.

It's easy to imagine that forensic artists might remain hunched over a sketch for hours, trying to insert every last dimple and laugh line they could tease out of a witness. Wrong. According to Cooper, trying to create an exact likeness might make a sketch less likely to resonate with the public. “With a highly realistic portrait, someone might see it who knows the person, but if there’s one thing wrong, one detail, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s not my buddy,’” Cooper says. “When it’s more sketchy, more scribbled, you’re leaving more open to interpretation.”

Lisa Bailey, author of Ask a Forensic Artist and a consultant for several law enforcement agencies, agrees. “[Artists] are by necessity keeping their own self-expression and artistry out of it, and not adding information that would create a 'prettier’ image that could lead someone away from recognition.”

3. A SKULL CAN TELL ALL.


Courtesy of Lisa Bailey

Forensic artists have responsibilities that go far beyond sketching criminal suspects. Sometimes, they’re called upon to recreate the facial features of a deceased person by “building” out a face using a 3-D replica of a retrieved skull. Teaming with a forensic anthropologist who can usually determine the age, sex, ancestry, and height of the deceased, the artist uses clay to sculpt their missing features. “The skull says so much,” Cooper says. “It can tell you where the eyes angled, where the nostrils went [see image above], where the eyebrows were. Given the choice of a photo of a corpse that’s decomposing or a skull, I’d take the skull.”

4. THERE ARE NOT A LOT OF THEM WORKING FULL-TIME.

By some estimates, there are less than 100 full-time forensic artists in the country. That’s because most of the artists working cases are either freelancers hired by departments or active-duty officers or other agency employees who are called in when needed. “For the average-sized or smaller agency, it doesn't always make sense to have a full-time artist,” Bailey says. “Lots of cases don't require one—there's a video of the suspect, or investigators have already developed leads to the identity of the suspect. Even if an agency estimated the need for 20 or so sketches year, that's still not enough work to justify keeping a full-time artist on the payroll.”

5. DETECTIVES AREN’T ALWAYS HAPPY ABOUT USING SKETCHES.


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Charles Jackson, one of the "dual duty" artists who retired from law enforcement as a detective in 2013 but continues to provide forensic sketches, says that his fellow investigators were often reluctant to circulate the art he produced. “The most surprising thing about the job is that it’s hard to get detectives to use the tool,” he says. “Generating evidence based on memory, I think they can sometimes be afraid to [have victims] testify to it.” Despite the potential for defense attorneys to call sketches into question, Jackson says that almost all detectives who wind up using them are glad they did. "It's always been a positive."

6. WITNESSES SIGN SKETCHES.

Once a sketch has been completed and passed on to the investigating officers, it’s considered official police evidence that needs to adhere to a chain of command. To make sure the illustration came from the memory of a specific person, the witness is usually asked to endorse it with a signature. “For a pencil composite, the witness will usually sign the back of the sketch, behind the area of the face so that it won't unintentionally be made public when it's scanned, or can't be accidentally cut off if the sketch is trimmed down to fit in a case file,” Bailey says. The original is then kept on file in an evidence room.

7. BIRD NESTS CAN BE A BIG HELP.


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For cases where artists are called to help reconstruct the likeness of a decomposed or otherwise de-featured body, Cooper says that a good reference source for bodies found in the woods can often be found in a very unlikely place. “When dealing with a decomposed body, we’d like to get the color of the hair, and a good place to find that is in a bird’s nest nearby,” she says. “Birds love hair.”

8. SOMETIMES THEIR WORK IS GIVEN AS A GIFT.

Because many forensic artists can be skilled in age progression—trying to realize how a missing child might look years after their disappearance—families with missing loved ones will sometimes inquire about having a sketch done as part of their grieving process. “Sometimes it’s the actual parents, and sometimes it’s just one spouse who wants to give it to the other one,” Cooper says. “I sometimes get scared, not knowing how they’ll react, but they’re usually very grateful.”

9. THEY MIGHT BE DRAWING SOMEONE POLICE ALREADY KNOW ABOUT.


Courtesy of Melissa Cooper

According to Jackson, not all sketches are done in the proverbial dark. In some instances, authorities have a suspect in mind and are curious if a witness can match that image with their own description. “Detectives frequently call us to corroborate a suspect they have in mind, so it’s basically a composite sketch for a lead,” Jackson says.

10. SOME RECONSTRUCTIONS MIGHT GET A SMILE.

When Bailey is tasked with sculpting the features of a cold case victim, she pays attention to anything unusual or unique about their teeth. If a tooth is crooked or their smile is distinctive, she may decide to add a little smirk. “If there's anything unusual about the teeth, like gaps or crookedness, then we'll sculpt it with parted lips, or with a small smile, because someone might recognize the person just because of the teeth.”

11. SOFTWARE HELPS SOFTEN IMAGES.


IQBiometrix

Some departments without the resources to hire forensic artists rely on software that can digitally render faces. While their efficacy compared to hand-drawn images is open to debate, many forensic artists often rely on software when it’s time to prepare a victim's photographed image for public consumption. “There's a lot of work to do to make an image suitable for public release,” Bailey says. “The artist will have to digitally open the eyes, close the mouth and adjust the jaw, remove swathing and cloth that has been placed around the head, and realign the head so the shoulders aren't hunched up around the ears when they are lying on the morgue table.” Bruises, blood, wounds, and other marks are also retouched.

12. THEY CAN WORK FROM SURVEILLANCE FOOTAGE.

Not all renderings of suspected criminals come from memory. Sometimes, an artist will be called on to fill in the blanks left by incomplete or obscured surveillance footage. “If they have only a three-quarters shot of someone’s head from above, I can look at that,” Cooper says. “Knowing the anatomy of the head, I can show them what the rest of the person would look like.”

13. EARS CAN GIVE THEM A LITTLE TROUBLE.


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Jackson says that many witnesses tend to retain visual information relating to the center of the face: the eyes, nose, mouth, and chin. “People generally have a hard time picking out ears,” he says, mainly because they just didn’t notice them. To assist witnesses with feature identification, some artists use an FBI manual that catalogs many common features and asks interviewees to point out which ones look familiar. Jackson uses one; Cooper doesn’t. “Pictures can be suggestible,” she says. “I like [details] to come from them.”

14. THEY WILL NOT DRAW YOU A CHUPACABRA.

Forensic artists occasionally tackle work outside of law enforcement duties: Cooper has worked with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles with taxidermy efforts for exhibits. But requests to do anything too far off the beaten path are usually met with refusal. “My primary clients are law enforcement, but I once had someone from the Ellen Show wanting me to do a composite of a chupacabra, which Ellen’s wife apparently saw outside their house,” she says. “Someone else wanted to help interpret a dream for them. There’s an element of integrity to the job. I declined. You get a lot of weird requests.”

15. LUCK PLAYS A BIG PART.


Courtesy of Melissa Cooper

Artists working with law enforcement do everything they can to try and take a person’s memories and make them into a tangible image on a page. But no matter how striking the image, nothing will happen unless it ends up in the right place. “We're dealing with luck and timing,” Bailey says. “The right person needs to be looking at the right time. The best, most accurate facial approximation in the world can't do its job if a family member or friend isn't looking.”

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers

Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, roughly 3000 dogs from around the country flock to Madison Square Garden to strut their stuff at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In all, some 190 breeds can enter the ring, each competing to look and act exactly as required for their breed’s ideal standard. But it takes a lot of hard work from dedicated handlers to produce a dog that can compete with the best of them. “What you see at Westminster, that’s the very final touch,” says Karen Mammano, who handles dogs with her husband Sam. “That’s the final product of everything we do.” We talked to a few handlers who have been at Westminster about what goes into training a dog with a shot at Best In Show.

1. The dogs have treadmills.

Among the qualities the judges take into consideration is the dog’s trotting pace. Many handlers put their pups on doggy treadmills set at a certain speed to get them used to keeping a particular trot. “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have,” Mammano says.

Some doggy treadmills cost more than $1000. But, according to dog handler Sharon Rives, that’s just part of these athletes’ training routine. “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete,” she says, “any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”

2. Soup cans might be a dog handler’s best friend.

Judges also look closely at a dog’s stance—how it holds itself while standing still. “It’s kind of their supermodel stance,” says Rives. Every breed has an ideal stance, but teaching a dog to maintain that position while a judge pokes and prods often takes some creative training techniques. According to Rives, when her parents trained dogs in the 1980s, they used to have the dogs stand on four soup cans placed the correct distance apart.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it,” she says. “Now I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable. I start when they’re puppies with that and they stand on it for a couple minutes and as they get older they spend more time on it, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.”

3. The dogs have ridiculously long names.

'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Professional pups have very fancy monikers that reflect their pedigree. For example, Rives’s Australian Shepherd answers to “Wiggle” but her full name is “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.” “Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from,” she explains. “Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word veritas in their name.” As for the rest of Wiggle’s full name, Rives says the litter theme was Top 40 Songs, so every puppy had a different song title in its name.

4. Handler cars must be inspected.

According to Mammano, the American Kennel Club inspects handlers’ vehicles before they can be listed as a "registered handler." What are they looking for? A car that could keep a dog alive in the most dire of conditions. “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank,” she says. “We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.”

5. Dog shows aren’t natural.

Handlers are the first to admit that dogs weren’t made to trot around a ring. “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring,” Mammano says. “They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds. So I try and make it as fun for them as possible.”

6. There’s one quick way to get disqualified.

“If a dog bites a judge or a handler or another dog, that’s pretty much it for the rest of its career,” Rives says. “Aggression is not ever acceptable.”

7. You’re not a real handler until …

... you trip and fall in the ring. “I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen,” Rives says. “That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”

She also shares a hilarious story of one of her earliest shows, when she was just 16 years old. “Normally I use hot dogs or string cheese as bait, something I could put in my mouth, and I happened to only have liver that day, which I’m not gonna put in my mouth. I was wearing a suit that didn’t have pockets, but I had panty hose on so I thought I’ll just real slyly stick this in the waistband of my pantyhose under the flap of my jacket and when I need some bait I’ll just break off a little piece. Well, the liver made its way down the waistband of panty hose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.”

8. Handlers’ wardrobe choices are strategic.

When deciding what to wear for the big day, handlers have to make sure they’re not overshadowing the dog with fancy flair. “You want to dress to compliment the dog’s colors,” Rives says. “If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”

The more prestigious the show, the better the handlers dress. “We always joke that last week was fashion week for us because we were all trying to get suits for Westminster,” says Mammano.

And for the bigger shows, they invest in nice footwear, not only because they’re on their feet all day, but because their feet and ankles are going to be on TV. Rives is wearing the shoes she wore to her wedding. “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes,” she says.

9. It’s hard on the body.

Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced,” says David Fitzpatrick, a professional handler who works with the Pekingese breed. “You get tired just from being at the show.” And because dogs are always making left-hand turns in the ring, the handler’s left leg tends to take a beating.

10. They have lucky leashes, toys, and rubber bands.

Dog show people are quite superstitious. Fitzpatrick, for example, has a lucky leash. “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it.”

Mammano won’t re-use a leash once it’s been used on a winning dog, opting instead to retire it. And she always wears three rubber bands around her arm to hold her number.

Also, Fitzpatrick says some owners carry around special toys for dogs, similar to the “busy bee” in Best In Show. “Most of these dogs do have a favorite thing and when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”

11. The dogs eat whatever they want.

Well, in the ring at least. “I had one dog way back in the early 2000s and all he wanted was filet mignon,” says Fitzpatrick. “He wouldn’t take chicken or liver, but the filet he would eat. So they get whatever they like. Or I had a Pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”

12. Chalk and dryer sheets keep the dogs looking sharp.

Show dogs are some of the most pampered, well-groomed dogs in the world, but it takes a lot of work. “Every breed is going to have their own quirky thing they do to make the coat look a certain way,” Rives says. “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”

Chalk is often used to make a dog’s coat look whiter, Fitzpatrick says. “Whatever it is to make the dog look better for the show, there’s probably a product out there for it.”

But according to Rives, grooming is a taboo topic among handlers because “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed.” Indeed, too much grooming is considered cheating, so owners keep their tips and tricks to themselves. And if a handler sees another handler crossing the line, they’ll snitch. “It’s a self-regulating sport,” Rives says. “If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”

13. Best in show doesn’t come with a cash prize.

“You don’t win any money,” says Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2012 with his Pekingese Malachy. “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”

This list first ran in 2016.

8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

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As the United States enters into the second month of a government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, federal employee shortages are becoming an increasing problem. On the morning of January 25, 2019, the FAA announced that due to air traffic control staffing shortages along the east coast, they were halting flights into New York City's LaGuardia Airport. It's a potent reminder that while pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, air traffic controllers—though less-visible—are just as essential in getting you from Point A to Point B.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs more than 14,000 of them to choreograph the flow of airplanes on the ground and in the sky, whether that means using radar and other tools to direct aircraft at take off, communicating with pilots about flight paths and weather, or helping pilots land their planes safely. Take a look at these secrets of air traffic controllers to learn about their unique lingo, high degree of job stress, and occasional UFO sighting.

1. Many of them don't work at airports.

When you imagine an air traffic controller, you probably envision someone working in a tall glass tower at an airport. However, many controllers toil at either a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility or at a route center, which may be located far away from an airport.

According to air traffic controller Chris Solomon, who controls planes for the military, controllers in each of the three types of facilities have different responsibilities. “The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers [TRACON],” he told the website Art of Manliness.

These TRACON controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When aircraft reach an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.

2. Age is a major factor.

Some air traffic controllers begin their careers in the military, while others apply to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Academy. But no matter how they enter the profession, they must have good vision, a sharp mind, and the ability to think quickly and clearly under pressure. The FAA requires that applicants be 30 years old or younger when they apply to the job, and controllers must retire at age 56, before most of them experience any age-related mental decline.

3. They have their own lingo.

Inside an air traffic control room

Pilots and air traffic controllers around the world must speak English to communicate (it's required by the International Civil Aviation Organization), but they also have their own flight-related language. This phonetic alphabetic and numerical system, which replaces letters (A to Z) and numbers (zero to nine) with code words, minimizes confusion and misunderstandings between air traffic controllers and pilots.

For example, controllers say “bravo” instead of the letter “B,” “Charlie” instead of the letter “C,” and “niner” instead of the number “nine.” (Theories explaining the origin of the code word “niner” differ, but aircraft enthusiasts speculate that the extra syllable differentiates it from the German word for “no” or distinguishes it from the pronunciation of the number “five.”) Air traffic controllers also have their own slang and, for instance, use the phrase “souls on board” to refer to the number of people on a plane.

The phonetic system is spelled out in detail in the FAA Order 7110.65 manual [PDF], along with other key code words, phrases, and procedures. Controllers call the manual their "bible," study it during training, and review it regularly to keep apprised of any updates and additions.

4. Pilots with heavy accents can frustrate them.

Although English is the official language of aviation, not all pilots speak it well. Air traffic controller Brandon Miller, who works for Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in northern Virginia, tells Mental Floss that it can be difficult to communicate with foreign pilots. “However, we are in the business of communication,” he says, explaining that learning to solve potential communication issues is part of their training. When talking to a pilot who has a heavy accent, controllers may speak more slowly, enunciate words more dramatically, and try to avoid changing routes as much as possible.

Stephen, an air traffic controller with the FAA, echoes Miller’s point. “We mainly just bitch amongst ourselves, say things very slowly, and do the best we can” when dealing with pilots who have heavy accents, he wrote on Reddit.

5. They alternate between stress and boredom.

An airplane and an air control tower

Because they’re responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job-related stress. “We often miss birthdays, we work on holidays and weekends, and often operate on alternative sleep cycles,” Miller explains. Staying focused is essential, especially during times of busy traffic and bad weather, so most air traffic controllers take a break every hour or two, depending on the rules at their facility.

According to Miller, the diversity of tasks in his work day keeps his job challenging. At any given time, he may be directing Air Force One or other VIPs (from our country or a foreign one), sequencing commercial passenger jets into a variety of airports in the Washington, D.C. area, assisting police or paramedic helicopters, expediting military fighters and military transport planes, or looking for suspicious aircraft in the Washington, D.C. Special Flight Rules Area.

On the other hand, graveyard shifts and periods with less traffic can be tedious and dull. “Hours and hours of boredom combined with moments of sheer terror, as we like to say,” Stephen told Reddit. “But if you like the challenge and want to be where the action is, it's a great job!”

6. They're probably overworked.

In a 2011 article for The Daily Beast, Bob Richards, who worked as an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare International Airport for more than two decades, described his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards noted that four of his coworkers died of sudden cardiac death, two died of pancreatic cancer, and many others suffered from stress-related gastrointestinal illnesses. In his early 40s, Richards himself suffered from atrial fibrillation, which eventually progressed into congestive heart failure.

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011 found that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules. To combat fatigue and address controllers who were allegedly asleep on the job, the FAA issued a series of new rules that increase the mandatory time between controllers’ shifts.

7. UFO sightings definitely happen.

A screen showing radar

During the course of their careers, most air traffic controllers have personally spotted (or have a coworker who has spotted) some sort of unidentified flying object. UFO sightings are more common at night, when air traffic controllers may see an unexplained blinking light that doesn’t appear to be coming from an aircraft. But strange sightings aren't necessarily alien life forms—radar is so sensitive that it may pick up items such as clouds, a flock of birds, or even a large truck on the ground.

8. RObots won't be replacing them.

Commercial aircraft landing

Although air traffic controllers rely on radar and other technology to do their jobs, they’re not in danger of technology replacing them any time soon. With so many lives at stake, air traffic control will likely always require humans to ensure that automated systems function properly and technology doesn’t malfunction. And controllers enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with using their knowledge and skills to help passengers get from point A to point B safely. “There is a great amount of pride that my coworkers and I take knowing that safety of air traffic control is the last thing on passengers' minds when they get buckled in the airplane,” Miller says.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2017.

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