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Archive for Sunday, March 25, 2001

Artist draws out criminal witnesses

Her gift is a blend of compassion and psychology and art’

March 25, 2001

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Alone in the basement, Jeanne Boylan sketched into the night. She didn't even stop to eat, afraid if she did, she might never continue.

For more than 20 years two faces had haunted her. In nightmares, she could still hear them taunting her, two strangers who, on a lonely country road, stole long and unforgettable hours of her life.

Even today, Boylan talks about the attack haltingly.

"I just wanted to forget," she says. "To get on with my life, not to feel they had taken anything more than that one night."

In fact, Boylan acknowledges now, that night determined every decision about her life since. It began her journey of exploration into the workings of the human mind. And it began her transformation into who she is today, a woman with a remarkable gift, one that helps capture murderers and madmen.

An image takes shape

The living room was dark and cluttered as dark and cluttered as the 12-year-old's mind. Defiantly she sat across the table and glared at the woman with the sketchpad. All week long they had grilled her, police, FBI, the lie-detector technician.

Now another stranger was trying to dredge her mind, to bring her back to the moment a week earlier when an intruder burst into the bedroom and dragged her friend Polly into the night.

Boylan had seen it so many times before the anguish of eyewitnesses as they struggle to remember details their minds want to forget, the pressure from police to get those details as quickly as possible.

"At that point, no one knew if Polly Klaas was alive or dead," Boylan said of the 12-year-old snatched from a slumber party in Petaluma, Calif., in 1993. "And locked in her memory, this child held the key to finding her."

Boylan's job was to unlock the image, to coax the kidnapper's portrait from the child's head.

She placed a lump of Play-Doh on the table. "If you were to think of a shape, what shape would it be?"

The child scowled. Hours passed. Gradually they began to talk about piano and soccer and boys and school. About siblings. They never mentioned features eyes or nose or hair or facial expressions. Just shapes and forms and textures.

Eventually, the girl reached for the Play-Doh. As she talked, Boylan sketched, her mind locked with the girl's, her hand translating the shapes and forms and textures into a face the face of a man with coarse, wavy hair, heavy eyes and a deeply furrowed brow.

Richard Allen Davis was arrested six weeks later and charged with the murder of Polly Klaas.

"His face was a mirror image of the one Jeanne had sketched," said Mark Mershon, the FBI agent in charge, who said the portrait contributed to the arrest. "It gave me goosebumps."

A gift or skill?

Boylan's known as a facial identification specialist but there's really no label for what she does. She crawls into the deepest corners of wounded minds. She peels away layers of confusion and pain. She guides people back to the moment when they saw something so horrific their minds never want to go there again. And yet they do, because she makes it safe.

"I listen," Boylan says. "I just listen and I sketch what I hear."

But those who know her work and have witnessed its results say she does so much more.

Boylan has sketched countless criminal profiles, helped investigators with thousands of cases: Polly Klaas, the Oklahoma City bombing, New York's East Side rapist. And her most famous sketch of all the haunting, hooded portrait of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

Boylan's picture was so accurate Kaczynski broke his nose so he would no longer look the same.

"Jeanne has a gift," says Marc Klaas, Polly's father and one of Boylan's closest friends. "And her gift is a blend of compassion and psychology and art. It is a phenomenon that you cannot teach."

Boylan insists, passionately, that her skill is not a gift but a method that can be taught. Drawing the face of a killer has little to do with art, she says. And it has little to do with the traditional methods of police composite artists. It has to do with understanding the human mind.

No one knows quite what to expect when Boylan sweeps onto a crime scene, tall and statuesque with her mane of golden hair and her slim black bag of tools.

Hollywood, thought Klaas, when he first encountered her. Another meddling civilian, thought FBI agent Mershon. He sent her home. Now he calls on her for the most complicated cases.

"Jeanne makes believers of us all," Mershon says.

But it took a long time. It took a long time for Boylan herself to understand the profession she sometimes says "chose" her.

Protecting her sources

It began in the late 1970s in Portland, Oregon. In her 20s and still dreaming of being a journalist, Boylan started working as a civilian aide in the police department, conducting follow up interviews with eyewitnesses.

At the time, she knew nothing about memory, how easily it can be led in wrong directions, even with the best of intentions.

But what she saw troubled her: eyewitnesses being asked to choose noses and eyes to piece together what they thought they had seen, using images from a standard police book of 960 faces. The results were flat, two-dimensional composites of suspects who only vaguely resembled human beings.

Boylan started sketching during interviews, asking witnesses about shapes rather than specifics.

She learned a lot along the way. She learned when people witness something under trauma, their minds often remember details vividly, like a flashbulb going off. She learned that those details are retrievable if they are protected, and if they are allowed to surface gently without additional stress.

Too often, she argues, investigators bombard witnesses with questions: Did he have a mustache, a beard, glasses? Because memory is so vulnerable to suggestion, minds get cluttered. Memories get buried. And those hastily sketched composites turn into the image they only thought they saw.

"What people see," Boylan says, "is evidence as fragile and valuable as a fingerprint. And it should be protected with as much care."

Winning over the skeptics

Some in law enforcement are wary of her methods, which can sound more psychic than sleuth. Often Boylan is called in as a last resort long after memories have been distorted.

In the case of the Unabomber it was seven years later.

He was America's most wanted killer, a phantom bomber targeting computer companies, university professors and airlines. By 1994, after a 15-year spree, the Unabomber had killed three people and wounded 29.

Just once he slipped up when a secretary at a computer company in Salt Lake City caught a glimpse of a hooded man in sunglasses placing a package under a car. A short time later, it exploded, seriously injuring her boss.

The woman, whose identity was protected by the FBI, was troubled by the police composite. Again and again she told them it was not quite right.

And so, seven years later, the call went out: Let's see what Jeanne Boylan can do.

Her portrait didn't crack the case, but it made Boylan famous. And for a time, she pursued the fame and the glamour, welcoming the chance to be heard and to get paid. The Unabomber sketch appeared on the cover of Newsweek. Talk shows flew her in for interviews. She wrote a book. She even co-hosted "America's Most Wanted" for a time.

It seemed like everyone wanted a piece of the "psychic artist." And everyone wanted to know her secret.

"What I do is no great mystery," Boylan says, a trace of frustration in her voice. "It has to do with allowing someone the freedom and the time to remember." Mostly, she adds, "It has to do with the human heart."

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