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Drawing Attention : Forensic artist Jeanne Boylan has spent 14 years perfecting the art of sketching suspects. Some of her interviewing techniques may be unorthodox, but police say her work makes the phones ring with new leads.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jeanne Boylan, free-lance forensic artist, never travels in a straight line. Like a child’s connect-the-dots puzzle, her life zigs and zags--from trauma to trauma, crime to crime:

* New Year’s Eve in a roach-filled motel on Sepulveda Boulevard in Manhattan Beach, called in after the slaying of Police Officer Martin Ganz.

* Dec. 28 in the San Fernando Valley, on case of the serial child molester, still at large.

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* Dec. 23 in Antioch, Calif., on the abduction of Ruth Mayer, a jeweler’s wife “stolen” along with the family cars and gems.

* Mid-December in St. Louis, Mo., on the kidnapings of Angie Housman and Cassidy Senter, ages 9 and 10.

Twice in November to Petaluma, Calif., working on the kidnaping case of Polly Klaas.

Her schedule shows that police agencies nationwide are discovering what those in the Pacific Northwest have known for years: When the trail grows cold on a horrible crime, call Jeanne Boylan.

After 14 years and 7,000 cases, she has become the most visible practitioner in the time-honored--she’d call it time- worn --field of forensic art. Her job: to extract a picture of the criminal’s face from the traumatized memory of the person who saw the crime.

Her sketch of the suspect in the Polly Klaas kidnaping, based on the memory of two 12-year-old witnesses, was so accurate that one police officer calls it “eerie--almost like a photo of the guy they finally caught.”

Her drawing of a suspect, based on the memory of a witness to the slaying of Ganz, brought in new leads, says Sgt. Bob Stoneman of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which is investigating the case.

“We called Boylan in because the first composite, done by our own staff artist, brought almost no response.”

On Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Department named two possible suspects, still at large, in the Ganz killing. “We received tips about the suspects, and in doing follow-up we found wanted posters on them. Their pictures have a very strong similarity to the composite done by Boylan,” Stoneman says.

Boylan’s methods are unorthodox. To this day, she says, most in her profession do their job by showing the witness catalogues of eyes, noses and mouths, and asking them to pick the features that most resemble those of the perpetrator. She shows the victim nothing.

“Memory is too fragile,” she says. “Each piece of new visual information pollutes and buries the memory further. By asking a victim to select from hundreds of features that might approximate those of the criminal, you add layers of contaminants over the original image, which is intact somewhere in the recesses of the victim’s mind.”

Boylan spends hours gently interviewing witnesses, rather than interrogating them. The results, say those who have worked with her, are detailed sketches that make the detectives’ phones ring.

“She’s great,” says Portland Police Detective Gary Sandell, who recalls a violent armed robbery at a Baskin-Robbins store in which the only witnesses were two battered and traumatized kids. “We sat them down with Jeannie, who drew the suspect based on their memories. We made an arrest the next week and realized Jeannie’s sketch and the suspect’s mug shot were almost identical.”

Yet her efforts to promote her techniques are largely ignored by others in her field, most of whom are police officers. (“At meetings I’m ostracized; if I sit down with them at lunch, they move to another table.”)

Boylan, 39, says she’d happily start a school, free of charge, to share her insights with others--but she thinks no one would attend.

*

Boylan, whose home is a cabin in Bend, Ore., respects the law enforcement community immensely, she says. “They do such excellent work that I don’t even like to talk about any of this, because it might sound as if I’m criticizing them. I’m not--I just think this area of forensic art is a weak link.”

So weak, so low a priority, that she was ready to chuck her career and look for something else when the Polly Klaas case turned her around.

“Until Polly, I came in to cases after the crime was over, the victim was dead or the damage was done. In this instance, there was a chance she was still alive and we could help save her.”

Boylan was called to Petaluma about 10 days after the kidnaping, because a sketch done by a local police artist had not produced good leads.

In fact, the original composite looked so unlike the man ultimately arrested that sheriff’s deputies who stopped Richard Allen Davis and questioned him for 38 minutes on the night of the kidnaping never made the connection.

What Boylan found shocked her, she says, even after all these years.

The two 12-year-old girls who were in the bedroom with Polly had been interviewed by press, police, FBI and “just about everyone on earth.”

The police artist had questioned them together (an absolute no-no, in Boylan’s view), using a catalogue of faces and supplemental photos (another Boylan no-no, but one the FBI recommends).

“So the girls picked everything--nose, ears, eyes. A headband, which he apparently never really wore. They said he was very tall, and the artist perhaps didn’t realize that the girls’ fear made him seem taller than he is.” (Her sketch listed the suspect as 5 feet, 7 inches rather than 6 feet, 3 inches.) The girls were terribly confused by the time she arrived, Boylan says--in fact, they were “traumatized, alienated, frustrated and exhausted.”

Boylan got her composite by interviewing the girls separately, in the relaxed atmosphere of their homes, with no relatives around. The resulting sketch was what local news reporters called “a bull’s-eye,” although Boylan says other evidence led to the capture of the man.

Officer Mike Kerns of the Petaluma Police Department defends the original sketch, made by an officer from a neighboring department. “The first one wasn’t inaccurate.

“People must remember that composite sketches are only likenesses; they are not to be considered a portrait of an actual person. When viewing a composite, you have to look at individual characteristics and not look at the whole (drawing).”

*

Boylan’s victim and witness interviews take about three hours, with the best information surfacing in the last hour, she says. In that time, she never refers to the crime or the person who committed it.

“The victim knows why we’re there,” Boylan says. The goal is to remove any pressure to remember, and to separate the emotion of the memory from the memory itself. Emotion distorts the image of what the witness saw, she says.

Boylan relaxes clients by discussing “anything currently positive in his or her life--whether it’s hobbies, sports, travel, fashion, movies, family. About every five minutes, she breaks into the conversation, asking the witness about a facial feature: “Should we raise the bridge of his nose a little bit, or push it in further?” This method allows the original image to bubble up to the surface, piece by piece, she says.

Interview technique is far more important than the artistic ability of the person who does the sketch, she says.

“Art has little to do with this job. It is not about drawing at all.” On that issue too she stands alone.

“Quick, five-day matchbook-cover type drawing courses are the only training most police artists get; they get no psychology or academics at all,” Boylan says.

*

The irony to all this is that Boylan doesn’t consider herself an expert. She had no special training for her work, stumbling into it only because she needed money. Any knowledge she has gained has been from on-the-job experience and her own research. When she hears of an expert in memory, or in interview techniques, she calls or writes and tries to gain access to their knowledge.

One of six children, she grew up Montrose, Colo. (pop. 5,000), where her father was a plumber and her mother a homemaker. She left home after high school, driving her first car (“actually it was a cattle truck”), stopping in small towns where she did odd jobs--from telephone operator and waitress to road construction. She had no idea where life would take her.

She eventually settled in Portland, Ore., where she decided to try college on a work-study program. The part-time work available was at the local sheriff’s station.

Eventually, she was asked to start interviewing crime victims, in an attempt to free up more officers for street patrol.

As part of those interviews, she started to draw the faces her victims described. (“I had always doodled faces, ever since I was a little kid,” she says, “but I never had any training.”) Soon she (and others) noticed that her drawings of suspects were more accurate than those of the artist. No matter. She was told to stop drawing or she’d be fired because that wasn’t part of her job description. But she couldn’t stop. “I just did the drawings after working hours,” she recalls.

Her name became known around the state, and then around neighboring states. Whenever a tough crime had to be solved, the law would call in “that lady from Portland.” She was a contract worker for the Portland police detective bureau, from 1980 to 1993. She has also lectured in Russia, China, Japan and El Salvador.

*

Elizabeth Loftus, an author and expert in the area of memory and memory distortion, and a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, says some of Boylan’s dictums are impractical, given the current staffing and financial limitations of law enforcement.

But, she admits, “Boylan has a real talent. She’s done incredible things. She can create images amazingly close to those of the real perpetrator. She did it in the Polly Klaas case, even though the witnesses’ memories were contaminated (before she arrived on the scene).

“That she was able to pierce that and get back to the witnesses’ original images is remarkable. You ought to either bottle her and sell her, or else analyze her to death in hopes that (her skills) can be taught to others.”


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