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ID of body may depend on artist

Sketch by Art Richardson
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

How about the eyes – set close together or far apart? And the nose – narrow or flared? Facial hair? Birthmarks or scars?

Art Richardson needs the answers. Before pencil touches paper, he tries to be a mind reader. He tries to see robbers, rapists, kidnappers, flashers and unidentified dead people.

His exchanges with witnesses and victims sometimes border on mental telepathy. Sometimes witnesses are too distraught to remember key physical traits.



“I’ll show them a picture and just keep erasing,” Richardson said.

Short of a photograph or grainy surveillance tape, however, forensic sketches are often the best police can do. And law enforcement has been going to Richardson – Nevada County’s resident forensic composite artist – for several years.




The Sheriff’s Office most recently sought Richardson in hopes of identifying a body discovered floating in Rollins Lake in October.

Richardson, 73, worked from two Polaroid shots. They showed a bloated figure with a puffy face and eyes swollen shut. The result is a Hispanic-looking man who could pass for anything between a college undergrad and a 30-something suburbanite.

“I worked with it and thought, ‘Maybe this is what the guy looked like,’ ” he said.

While the Sheriff’s Office paid him $50, he didn’t have much to work with. The combined opinions of a dentist and pathologist put the man’s age between 25 and 70, and the Sheriff’s Office said the race could be Hispanic, Asian or Native American.

But Lt. Ron Smith remains hopeful Richardson’s drawing will erase the man’s John Doe status.

“It’s just his perspective, but I bet it’s pretty close,” he said.

_________

The drawing board is Richardson’s life, and art was his favorite school subject as a kid growing up in Oakland, he said, perched in the studio of his Morgan Ranch house.

He first worked for Alameda County as a draftsman and drew subdivision maps.

Richardson later worked for a civil engineering firm.

He spoke most favorably of his next job with the Bay Area Rapid Transit, where he was a graphic artist and sketched crime suspects for the rail authority’s police department. BART also sent him to a forensic drawing class in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“That was great,” he said. “I got paid for drawing. I never got paid for drawing before.”

One of his stranger assignments was helping to identify a body decapitated on a rail.

“I’ve dealt with heads only,” he said, showing photos of the disconnected visage.

Lean with wire-rimmed glasses and gray hair and goatee, Richardson flipped through binders filled with dozens of drawings – both forensic sketches for the Oakland and Alameda police and editorial cartoons for the Alameda Times-Star.

He made Nevada County law enforcement aware of his availability seven years ago, after retiring and moving here with his wife, Maureen. The couple has six children and 15 grandchildren.

•••

Drawing a suspect’s face is a gradual process.

Richardson usually starts with an oval for the face and lets the witness describe how to fill it. While computer software competes with his craft, he’s not ready to change with the times.

“I have to operate with a pencil or brush,” he said. “I can’t operate with a mouse.”

Some of the witnesses Richardson questions are also victims, and fear often keeps them from remembering details. A handgun, for example, will leave a bigger impression than a wart or mole.

“They’re kind of petrified anyway, right?” he said.

Richardson hit such a roadblock working with the Sierra College-Nevada County campus security. A woman tried to describe a man who briefly peeked under her bathroom stall. The result wasn’t convincing – a crazy-eyed, light-haired fellow with a thin beard.

“Obviously when he looked under the stall, she screamed,” Richardson said. “I don’t think he stuck around long enough to get his picture taken.”

Grass Valley Police Capt. Greg Hart called Richardson talented and said his drawings have been helpful.

“If we get a number of names (of suspects), many times we can exclude them based on the drawings that he’s done,” he said.

Many of Richardson’s police drawings are close matches to photographs of the subjects he draws.

“They never look exactly alike,” Richardson said. “If they did, you’d be awfully lucky.”


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