For five weeks in late summer, newspapers and television stations were saturated with a drawing of a round-eyed, curly haired man suspected of a mounting number of random killings: the Night Stalker.
Then, on Aug. 26, two Central Los Angeles patrol officers stopped Richard Ramirez--the man who would later be charged with 15 murders--for a minor traffic violation. They let him go with a citation.
Ramirez was captured a few days later by residents in East Los Angeles, but the non-recognition incident became a minor embarrassment to the Police Department. Chief Daryl F. Gates refused to blame the officers and acknowledged that the composite, drawn by the department's highly respected artist, Fernando Ponce, was not particularly accurate.
It was the kind of frustration that composite artists, who practice their craft in an maddeningly imprecise world of high expectations, must learn to live with.
Sensitive Need Not Apply
"This is not a thing to get into if you have a fragile ego," said Marilyn Droz, the artist for the Huntington Beach Police Department.
"For somebody sensitive to ulcers, forget it," Ponce said. "Law enforcement and the public should face the reality. . . . They expect too much out of a composite without realizing what the input is."
Composites, based on the recollection of victims or witnesses, are a widely used method of focusing law enforcement officers' attention on the physical traits that may mark a suspect. Upwards of 800 may be circulated in Southern California each year, and the few that are published in newspapers routinely generate hundreds of citizen tips.
But the artist's golden moment--when his sketch leads directly to a criminal's capture--rarely occurs. There are simply too many psychological and physical obstacles for any artist to consistently overcome--and not enough luck to go around.
More Than Artistic Skills
To develop a sketch that will even indirectly aid investigators, the composite artist needs the skills of a psychologist to help a victim recall accurate facial details after a brief or traumatic encounter with a criminal. Then he needs to be able to translate that to paper.
However, most of the 100 or so people who draw composites for the nation's local law enforcement agencies have no little or no formal training in melding art and interviewing. The vast majority are assigned to other law enforcement duties and work as artists only part time.
Even if the artist does his part well, he still needs the uncommon fortune of having his sketch seen by someone who knows the suspect and is willing to help.
But that hope is frustrated by the fact that a large number of the police officers and citizens will read the composite the wrong way--literally, rather than impressionistically. They will keep an eye out for that face, rather than one with a somewhat similar mixture of features, artists and psychologists say.
Usually, artists say, the best they can hope for is that a detective or patrol officer whose eye wanders over a squad room bulletin board of composites will connect a drawing with a face he remembers from another case.
More commonly, the drawing will simply help police eliminate large classes of people who share none of the characteristics of the suspect. "There're umpteen million people in the county. At least this narrows it to a million or so," said Mahlon Coleman, one of two Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department artists.
Or, when it is published, an accurate composite may intimidate a serial robber or rapist into pulling back and fading away.
Still, every once in a while, what artists call a "hit" occurs.
Take the case of the 4-day-old Compton baby, kidnaped from his mother's arms at a hospital last December by a woman dressed as a hospital worker.
The next day, two security guards at another hospital saw a sheriff's composite of the suspect on television. The guards thought the drawing resembled a woman whom they had ejected from their own hospital's maternity ward the day before the kidnaping. Because the guards had taken down the woman's address, police were able to arrest her and recover the baby.
A classic hit occurred in 1979 after San Jose Police Department's artist Tom Macris encountered 15-year-old Mary Vincent in a hospital bed.
Two days before, a man had picked up Vincent while she was hitchhiking in Northern California, raped her, hacked off her forearms with an ax and left her for dead.
Now she lay dazed from sedatives. Her eyes were half shut, her limbs freshly bandaged. And Macris was asking her to describe the shape of her attacker's nose, chin, hairline, jaws.
'The Most Adverse Interview'
"It was probably the most adverse interview I'd ever done," Macris recalled. "We struggled through 45 minutes. I like to spend more time than that, but we got an image."
Newspapers published Macris' drawing, and police got a call from a woman who said the drawing looked much like a neighbor. A few days later, Lawrence Singleton, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Macris' hurried sketch, was arrested and later convicted.
"When you saw the guy's mug shot and you saw the drawing, it was like he had sat for a portrait," said Dennis Joyce, an FBI agent in Sacramento who was not involved in the case but who, like many law enforcement officials, is familiar with it.
A huge bulletin board in a corner of Macris' studio in San Jose police headquarters is filled with hits--detailed pencil drawings of suspects, each accompanied by a quite similar-looking police mug shot of a captured man.
Yet of the 400-plus cases in which Macris makes drawings for his department and 15 to 20 other Bay Area agencies each year, an arrest will be made only 5% to 10% of the time, he said.
"A lot of composites have one or two strong similarities but then strong dissimilarities," one prosecutor said. "It's a matter of witnesses noticing one thing and not the other."
And that's the problem.
Artists and human behavior researchers note that a person's ability to store and retrieve a detailed memory deteriorates under environmental factors that characterize many crimes: bad lighting, brief glimpses of the suspect, rapid action.
Memory also erodes under stress, and a crime victim sitting across a table from a police artist is often under strong and conflicting forces. On one hand, he may feel pressure to remember details, believing that the capture of a criminal is riding on the precision of his description. And at the same time, he may be unconsciously trying to repress the traumatic memory of the attack.
"Sometimes they will replace the image of a suspect with one they're more comfortable with," said Jean Boyland, the Portland Police Bureau's artist who said she took college courses in psychology, sociology and counseling to improve her skills.
"Rape victims will describe their attackers being much better-looking than they are," she said. "There's a process called subconscious transference, when they begin to confabulate features that aren't part of that person."
The composite also tends to be less accurate when the victim and criminal are of different races. Studies have found that whites, in particular, have trouble remembering details about black faces.
In predominantly white Huntington Beach, Droz recalled, police were sure the same black man had committed a number of armed robberies at shopping centers. But in interviewing witnesses to prepare a composite, "I got some pretty wide variations," Droz said.
"Let's face it," Ponce said. "The eyewitness is the most incomplete and unreliable evidence there is."
But the biggest reason that composites have flaws, according to a psychology professor who specializes in human perception, is that the way an artist tries to develop a composite is at odds with the way people think.
"They work with what could be described as a bottom-up procedure," psychologist said Gary Wells of the University of Alberta in Canada. "What the person is required to do is isolate the features, the nose, eyes, brow, chin. It's pretty clear that people aren't able to do that.
"Normally, when an eyewitness encodes a face into memory, he's not putting it in at the feature level."
Rather, it is an overall impression not easily verbalized. "You can have a person try to reconstruct their mother or father and even then they can't pick out the right nose," Wells said.
To overcome these obstacles, Macris said, he brings to each sketch "the philosophy that the human mind has in it a hundred times more than we usually get out of it" and the "assumption that the entire image is there" in the mind of even the most traumatized witness.
"I do the interview until I exhaust the process," he said.
By contrast, Ponce, who has developed a deep interest in psychology during his 13 years as an Los Angeles police artist, prides himself on limiting most of his sessions to an hour, something of a necessity for a man who estimates that he draws at least 700 composites a year. ("More than an hour, you're impairing the witness.") He contends that even the best eyewitness can accurately recall no more than 13% of the variables that make up a face. "A competent artist can depict 98% to 100% of that 13%, and sometimes that's enough to help a detective recognize a face," he said.
After a basic face and some features are established, the give-and-take process of refining it begins. Because some people lack sufficient vocabulary ("they don't know what 'sideburns' are," Macris said) or want so badly to help the artist that they become too impressionable, non-verbal cues and the artist's discretion become important.
"Sometimes, rather than keep asking for details I'll almost start with a cartoon attitude," sheriff's artist Coleman said. "Make a great big fat face, great big nose. Just to get 'em thinking. In today's world, the majority of witnesses are geared to visual things. It gives 'em something to work with."
Law enforcement administrators have done little to develop forensic artists, and many more or less fell into their jobs. Macris was a former college art major who got "burned out" working as a street cop, transferred to his department's training office and rekindled his interest in drawing.
Ponce was a free-lance artist who happened to see a notice for a city drawing job when he went to pay a traffic ticket. Boyland was an art student who signed on with the Portland Police Bureau as a civilian investigator to pay her way through college. Coleman was a patrolman who happened to obtain an art degree without knowing his department had an artist's unit. Droz was a police dispatcher who volunteered her commercial art skills in some of the sex crime cases on which her husband, a detective, was working.
No Professional Standards
Unlike other law enforcement specialties, such as fingerprint investigation, ballistics or polygraph operation, forensic art has no professional standards or certification programs.
According to a survey taken recently by New York Police Department artist Frank Domingo, who is leading a drive to standardize his profession, there are only about 15 full-time police artists in the country.
In an effort to avoid having to send its own people all over the country, the FBI last year began a two-week school to upgrade the drawing and interviewing techniques of local forensic artists, but only a handful of artists have participated so far.
Many police administrators do not recognize that inaccurate composites are being produced by personnel who lack interviewing skills and a sophisticated knowledge of how memory works, Portland's Boyland said.
Officials "don't know what this job involves. They see an artist disappear into a room for two or three hours," she said. "They think it's artistic ability when in fact artistic ability involves only 8% to 10% of it. These interviewing situations are unlike any other interviewing situation you can imagine."
Domingo said he hopes to convince all artists to agree on national training and performance standards, including an examination, "so that no matter where an artist goes though a session with a witness, the finished result will have a polished, finished look, rather than some we have which look like a child drew it."
Many smaller departments avoid artists by training detectives and others to use a mechanical tool that makes composite drawings.
The Identi-Kit, a collection of 503 plastic overlays, each containing photographed pieces of eyes, noses, foreheads and other features, can be leased for $408 a year from its Massachusetts manufacturer. A detective or crime scene investigator can be trained in two days how to manipulate the collection of facial features into a composite and can usually work far more quickly than an artist.
The Identi-Kit Co., which leases about 3,500 of the kits and reports business increasing by 10% a year, attempts to convince police agencies that its device can take the place of a free-hand artist.
But a number of law enforcement personnel who have used Identi-Kit say it produces considerably less detailed composites because the user cannot match a witness' description beyond the refinements of the kit.
Ironically, Identi-Kit composites tend to look far more human than most artists' drawings because they are a product of real facial components, and artists, who generally disdain the kit, say that misleads the public.
Nevertheless, because of its flexibility the kit is enjoying increased popularity in Los Angeles. The Sheriff's Department two years ago gave half of its 30 crime-scene fingerprint examiners Identi-Kits. Later this month, the Los Angeles Police Department, which now leases only a few Identi-Kits, will hold a training seminar for about 40 detectives in an effort to expand the department's use of the kit.
The Police Department's need for help appears particularly critical. It has only one artist--Ponce--who may make two or three drawings a day and cannot meet all the requests he receives from the department's 19 divisions.
Ponce and Coleman declined to discuss their roles in the several composites that were drawn during the Night Stalker investigation. A judge has issued a gag order prohibiting public discussion of the case against Ramirez, who is charged with 14 murders and 54 other felonies in Los Angeles County and a murder and attempted murder in San Francisco.
The first composite of Ramirez was drawn in April by the Sheriff's Department in the wake of the murder of Dayle Okazaki in her Rosemead condominium, the first killing linked to the Night Stalker. The description is believed to have come from her roommate, Maria Hernandez, who was wounded in the March 17 attack. The sketch showed a man with neatly groomed, thick, wavy hair, a mustache and narrow eyes.
A second composite, done in early July for the Monterey Park Police Department after seven more murders believed committed by the Night Stalker, was radically different. The face had the same kind of eyes but no mustache, and the hair was tousled sloppily over the forehead.
Ponce's composite was drawn two weeks later, the day after two killings believed committed by the Night Stalker occurred in Sun Valley and Glendale.
Employing his distinctive style, which uses color and attempts to neutralize all emotion in a face, Ponce made the Night Stalker's eyes wider than previously distributed composites, which made the face look less like Ramirez's. But he also developed far more facial detail than the earlier composites, and his treatment of cheekbone structure and chin captured for the first time a facial narrowness that is similar to Ramirez's face.
But did Ponce's composite look like Ramirez?
Despite its detail, the composite lacked specific ethnic traits; surviving victims and witnesses had never reached a consensus on whether the suspect was Latino or Anglo.
Artists tell their witnesses that they are trying to come "close" to the suspect's face, but as Ponce's composite proved, sometimes close is not close enough.
Suspect Sees Composite
One day last summer, Ponce's composite was being shown on a San Francisco television station. Donna Louise Myers was watching in her home in suburban San Pablo when Ramirez, who had once roomed with Myers' son-in-law, stopped by to visit.
Ramirez looked at the screen. The subject could not be ignored, and so he asked the woman if she thought he could be the Night Stalker, Myers said.
"I said no, I didn't think he had the guts," Myers said. "He just laughed."
Myers said the composite was accurate enough for her to recognize the possibility that Ramirez was the suspect, but just not close enough--in her mind--to justify a call to police.
Both artists and human behavior experts say such comments illustrate why it is important to look at a composite with a sense of imagination. Because no composite looks exactly like the suspect, a detective or citizen who reads a drawing too literally--expecting to see precisely that face on the street--will often undermine the sketch's intent.
Psychologist Wells said he is co-authoring a handbook for police and attorneys that recommends that when a composite is distributed to the news media, papers and TV stations be asked to add a statement "that this is just an artist's rendering and may not be a close resemblance."
"Otherwise, you may be giving all these potential errors to other witnesses who are still out there and may read it too literally," Wells said.