Catching criminals with forensic artistry goes high tech
June 25, 2013
By Sarah Gerdes
Local sketch artist draws uncanny resemblances
“I’ve seen a lot of scary things,” forensic artist Greg Bean admitted. “But, that first life drawing class still scared the crap out of me.”
The police detective was picked from obscurity 13 years ago by his commanding officer to attend an art class. The veteran investigator knew how to pursue serious crimes, confront aggressive criminals and interrogate suspects, but he was still nervous.
“I was an art imbecile, completely out of my element,” he said.
Almost 14 years later, Bean has a portfolio of awards and high-profile art magazine features. Yet, this unassuming Issaquah resident cares little for the praise. He practices his craft to catch criminals.
“Every time I get a call, that could be another opportunity to put away a bad guy,” he said.
‘The accuracy of a sketch’
Real detective work is far less glamorous than what is depicted in slickly produced television shows with instant computer-generated graphics, but it is no less effective.
For Bean, the forensic art process begins by interviewing a witness, no easy task in itself.
“The witness has seen something terrible occur first hand, such as a shooting, a murder, or has been a victim of rape or assault,” he said.
Step by step, Bean asks about facial structure and features, gradually becoming more granular in his questioning about the shape of an eyebrow and slope of a mouth without the witness even realizing. Bean is clear, concise and rapid.
“We don’t have days,” he said, referring to the time pressures of the job. “The drawing needs to be completed and in the hands of the detective in a couple of hours.”
Success for a forensic artist is measured in “hits,” or the ability for a suspect to be apprehended based upon the sketch provided by the artist. Most artists average a 30 percent to 40 percent hit rate. Bean’s second sketch provided his first “hit,” an armed robber. His sixth hit was “a really aggressive exposer,” he recalled. Not long after that, Bean’s ninth sketch resulted in the apprehension and conviction of a jewelry courier robber.
“So much contributes to the accuracy of a sketch,” Bean said.
Factors include the length of time between the crime and the forensic artist interview, and the state of the witness. Even with a sketch, an arrest is far from guaranteed.
“The lead detective may decide to hold onto the sketch for a few hours, or not to distribute it at all,” Bean said.
Many sketches he has created have resulted in arrests, many within 48 hours of their completion. Two high-profile cases in the area involved Seattle attorney Danford Grant, who was arrested for allegedly raping massage therapists in Seattle and on the Eastside, and the other was Dinh Bowman, the suspect arrested for allegedly shooting a 43-year-old man while he was waiting at a stoplight in a case of road rage.
But use the phrase “high-profile” and Bean shakes his head.
“Lots of serious crimes receive little or no media attention,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’re less important — especially to the victims. We still do everything we can to solve those crimes, and if the best evidence is an eyewitness, that usually means doing a sketch.”
An unusual occupation
Once Bean began drawing forensic sketches, surrounding police departments called on him for high-profile crimes.
“In 1997, a guy burned down a house to destroy evidence after killing a family of four,” Bean recalled. “My boss called me and said, ‘Whatever you are doing, stop. Kirkland P.D. called. They have a quadruple homicide. Help them in any way you can.”
Bean’s sketches of the suspect helped lead to an arrest and conviction. When the case went to trial, Bean was put on the stand, where he endured hours of questioning. When it was time for cross-examination, the defense attorneys quietly conferred with each other for a few moments, and then passed on the opportunity to quiz Bean, he said.
“It was a seminal moment in my career,” he said. “Had my drawings been disallowed, it could have damaged the case.”
Bean moved to Issaquah when he was 15. He and his four siblings graduated from Issaquah High School, and he attended Brigham Young University and the University of Washington after serving a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He studied Russian, not art, at college, and joined the police force to put himself through school. When the FBI came calling, Bean toyed with the idea, but ultimately passed.
“Working for the FBI would have meant moving around the country, and my family was mostly here in Washington,” he said.
He eventually landed in the Bellevue Police Department as a detective. His commanding officer’s order to take an art class changed his life and his focus as a detective.
Bean’s career continued to rise after he gained local fame when he achieved the highest score (149 out of 150) ever on an accreditation exam given to police forensic artists. Profiles in national art magazines followed. All the while, Bean continued his forensic sketches, and local departments reached out for his expertise.
“Neighbor cities often have crime sprees that overlap both jurisdictions,” Pete Erickson, the lead detective at the Mercer Island Police Department, said.
When Bean started sketching, Erickson called on him.
“He’s now my go-to guy for sketches of crime suspects,” Erickson said, noting that Bean has no hesitation about working on his off-hours.
Erickson is the incident commander for a task force for that assists 15 smaller King County agencies in investigations of major incidents, like homicide, organized crime, robberies and disappearances.
“He doesn’t need to be on duty to help out,” Erickson said. “He is readily available to help solve the crime, and his sketches are spot on.”
The two have worked on many cases over the years that have resulted in convictions.
The next frontier
Two years ago, Bean was asked to speak to a large assembly of detectives from across the country. His host was LeadsOnline, the foremost database of crime information, which lists such things as items sold at second-hand stores, pawnshops and gold-buying outlets. To Bean’s dismay, he realized how few detectives in the audience had access to a forensic artist, or the budget to afford to hire one.
For weeks, he said, he couldn’t sleep. Finally, one night at 2 a.m., the light bulb went on.
“I knew if I could hook up a camera to my computer, and find the right software to help me make an accurate sketch, I could help detectives anywhere in the country,” he said.
Bean pitched the idea to Dave Finley, CEO of LeadsOnline, who embraced the notion of tying a forensic sketch element to his already successful service.
Finley spoke with clients — some of the 4,000 law enforcement agencies in the country that use LeadsOnline. For two and a half years, Bean invested every spare moment to creating a method of using existing software to remotely provide professional forensic art services to police departments anywhere. According to Finley, the software that existed before Bean came on the scene was poor.
“Everyone turns out looking like an alien,” he said.
Bean’s persistence paid off. Since LeadsOnline Sketch debuted, Bean and another forensic artist, Natalie Murray, a former police officer herself, have created sketches for departments across the country. Still, it’s a passion, not a moneymaker.
“It’s a money-loser for us,” Finley admitted. “What we want to do is to add as much value as possible to the law enforcement criminal investigations. We’re going to continue to do anything we can do to help them.”
Bean and Finley said they gain satisfaction from being a part of their clients’ successes.
“It’s remarkable,” Finley said. “Departments can have a world-class forensic artist, also expert in interviewing, on the phone with the witness within the hour, and the sketch on the news by that night. The quicker we can get it out to the public, the better.”
Finley said he plans to continue his collaboration with Bean, who has now found time to re-incorporate commission work, something he began when friends and relatives saw his life-like portraits.
“It’s mainly family portraits or students graduating,” he said, but the pieces become valuable and cherished family heirlooms.
Long gone is the “artistic imbecile.” Instead, Bean falls into the category of “truly amazing,” said Finley, who intends to work with Bean until he stops sketching.
“Which will be never,” Finley added with a smile.
Sarah Gerdes is a freelance writer. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.