CRIME

Joyce Conlon, criminal sketch artist share, secrets of her trade

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(WJLA) - A young woman sits across from the police sketch artist, extremely nervous as she tries to describe the man with the knife who tried to sexually assault her.

"What do you remember about his lips?" asks Joyce Conlon. She has been drawing composite sketches for the Prince George's County Police Department since 2007. "Did he have any acne marks or stubble of any kind?"

"No, but his face was wider in this area," the woman replies quietly, pointing at her cheekbones.

As Conlon gently pulls one tiny detail after another from the victim, she uses her pencil to put a face to the crime. But in order to complete the task, Conlon must first take the woman back to that terrifying moment on a wooded path in Upper Marlboro’s Watkins Regional Park.

"We're going to do a thing where you close your eyes," says Conlon, who was trained at the FBI Academy in Quantico. "Think about that first time you saw him."

In a soft-spoken voice with her eyes shut, the woman describes seeing a man pass by her and then spin around on his heels. She heard his footsteps picking up speed.

"He circled around me," she says. "And he pulled a knife out and told me to pull my pants down. I was thinking, ‘How can I protect myself without getting stabbed?’"

The man, hunched over in an attack stance waiting to pounce, kept the knife pointed at the woman as he repeated his demand.

The woman screamed like she had never screamed before – and her would-be attacker finally ran away.

Conlon listens intently. "It helps put my mind in that spot," she says, as she continued to sketch the suspect's chin.

It is a painstaking process that usually takes about four hours -- drawing, erasing, and re-drawing.

An FBI catalog of mug shots helps pinpoint different facial features, but there is one feature more important than the nose, the mouth, or even the eyes.

"The head shape is critical," insists Conlon, who has sketched more than 150 faces. "If you don't get the head shape right, even their own mother won't recognize it.”

"This was a sexual assault of a four-year-old girl," says Conlon, pointing at the face of a man she sketched several years ago. "And he dropped her off about a mile, mile-and-a-half away at a parking lot, late at night, in the rain."

Flipping through her portfolio, Conlon stops on a sketch she crafted of another rape suspect.

"This was a sexual assault in College Park. The girl was a student at the University of Maryland," says Conlon. "I remember she took a break, and as she came back into the room she took one look at the composite and she stopped right in the doorway and she started crying. She didn't even want to come back into the room any further."

She flips to yet another sketch.

"This was a case of a 14-year-old girl found face down in a river bed," says Conlon. "She was deceased for a while and I had to make her more recognizable."

In order to help police figure out the identity of the girl, Conlon had to recreate her likeness from a couple of pictures from the morgue.

Conlon doesn't always find out if her sketch helped to identify a suspect or an unidentified deceased person. But, every once in a while, a detective will see her and say, "You know, your sketch helped close my case."

More than four hours after she first sat down with the young woman in the attempted sexual assault case in the park, the face of her would-be attacker emerges from a blank sheet of paper.

"Oh, I hope this will lead to someone having information about a suspect that they are able to put behind bars," Conlon says.

She is now studying facial reconstruction, and says she loves her job because it is so rewarding.

"It's pretty cool to be able to help," she says, smiling.

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