A victim's best friend

Brutally raped and nearly murdered, this superwoman becomes a crime-fighting sketch artist

With sketch pad, forensic artist brings justice for victims

forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson at easel
Lois Gibson at easel Photo by Tiffany Gibson
forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson, father, sketch
Gibson's sketch of the father Photo courtesy of Lois Gibson
forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson, Chloe mother sketch
Sketch of Chloe's mother Photo courtesy of Lois Gibson
forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson, baby Grace photo, sketch
Gibson's sketch of Baby Grace next to the child's photo Photo courtesy of Lois Gibson
forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson Sailor past and present
Side-by-side photos comparing the Times Square kissing sailor with the same sailor now in his 80s Courtesy photo
forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson and Kissing Sailor on Good Morning America
Gibson and the "Kissing Sailor"on Good Morning America with Diane Sawyer Video still by Lois Gibson
forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson at easel
forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson, father, sketch
forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson, Chloe mother sketch
forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson, baby Grace photo, sketch
forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson Sailor past and present
forensic artist, Lois Gibson, March 2013, Lois Gibson and Kissing Sailor on Good Morning America

Viciously, the rapist strangled the young woman until she blacked out. The whites of her eyes began to turn an angry scarlet as they filled with blood from the pressure. Soon, all the white would be displaced.

Pausing, he loosened his grip on her neck just enough to allow her back to consciousness — then he repeated his evil scenario.  

All the while, his brutal sexual assault continued.

When Lois Gibson was able to gasp for breath, she dared to look her attacker in the face. He was smiling. It was as if this was some kind of sick game — and he was winning.

In a flash of lucidity, her survival instincts kicked in. She realized that for the synchronized choking and raping to stop, the madman would have to reach climax. Driven by a desperate will for this hell to end, Gibson began to move her hips with his rhythm.

 “We’ll have to date again,” he said, as if they had just gone to dinner and a movie. 

She was right. Within a few blessed seconds, his game was over.

What happened next to the 21 year-old Gibson is unfathomable.

Her monster stood, adjusted his pants and strode to the front door. Turning towards his victim, as she lay battered and wheezing, he thanked her.

“We’ll have to date again,” he said, as if they had just gone to dinner and a movie.

With that, he presented her a gift, a small jeweled pill box, and left her apartment.

A psycho.

A woman’s worst nightmare.

A catalyst to Gibson’s now world-famous success as a forensic sketch artist.

HOUSTON, 2013

Inexplicable life interventions have led Houston Police Department artist Lois Gibson on an astonishing journey since that attack 42 years ago. She’s a survivor, wife, mother, teacher, lecturer and fine artist.

Her unrelenting passion, however, is to help bring justice for victims — with a sketch pad. At this, she has no equal. Guinness World Records certifies that more criminals have been positively identified by Gibson's composites than any other artist’s. It’s not likely anyone will be able to catch up with her record.

At this writing, she’s worked on approximately 4,500 cases and has helped solve 1,289 of them!

 In one case, a belligerent bus driver threw her sketch into the waste basket before it was finished. Later, the sketch was retrieved by a detective, and the rejected image helped catch a rapist. 

It’s a shocking truth, but fewer than 40 people worldwide are employed as full-time forensic sketch artists. Viewers of TV crime shows — which many of us are — assume all big cities have a sketch artist within their police departments. Not so. Not even Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, San Diego or Dallas have full-time artists.

Because of this scarcity, Gibson gets “loaned out”, as she calls it, to other states from time to time.

Thirty-one years ago, however, Houston’s police department wasn’t so forward thinking. It’s safe to call it the Dark Ages.  

It took Gibson seven years to convince HPD bosses they needed to hire her. Prior to that, after relentless persistence (and this woman is the Queen of Never Giving Up), they tested her sketching through freelance assignments. Since there was no budget whatsoever for an artist, she was paid from police department coffee money.

Back in the late '70s and early '80s, sketch artists were almost unheard of. Police departments often relied on a visual aid called the “Identi-Kit” to help create an image from a witness' description. Beleaguered detectives were challenged to get that image, using the kit’s flat, unrealistic samples of facial features, such as chins, eyes and hair, and put them together like a puzzle to construct a whole face.

If you watch Gibson at work, however, it’s clear there’s more to reconstructing the face of a murderess than just matching a hook nose and thin lips with pearly whites and Bette Davis eyes.

There’s something kind of mystical about the relationship between artist and victim or witness and the process of discovery during the sketching. It takes more than artistic talent to be a successful forensic sketch artist — what that “extra something” is is indefinable.

For certain, Gibson is hyper intuitive. Almost supernaturally so. Some people think she’s psychic. Whatever her extra gift may be labeled, she uses it to extract details from a victim’s subconscious. There are details they don’t remember until she pulls them out and puts them on paper.

Uncooperative, angry witnesses can’t argue away her ability. If they insist that they “didn’t see anything” and blow off sketching as a giant waste of their time, Gibson passionately perseveres. In one case, a belligerent bus driver threw her sketch into the waste basket before it was finished. Later, the sketch was retrieved by a detective, and the rejected image helped catch a rapist.

In this case, the woman who was raped was blind and seven months pregnant. Her attacker laughed when he left her and boasted he’d never be caught because she couldn’t identify him. She could, however, identify his voice in a lineup, and combined with Gibson’s unfinished sketch and DNA from the scene, the rapist landed in jail.

Gibson and the pregnant victim had the last laugh.

A Sketch Artist's Toughest Challenge

Child victims are the hardest for Gibson. A mother of two herself, Gibson is ever vigilant at sketching with children. She worked with a 9-year-old girl who had witnessed her mother being raped, tortured with burning cigarettes and finally killed. Then the child was also raped.

Gibson worked to gain the trust and cooperation of the traumatized little girl. She got the child to talk about this most awful moment in her life. And the beast was caught. A security guard near the girl’s apartment complex recognized him from the sketch. He’s off the streets.

The youngest witness she has interviewed was a boy in Ulysses, Kansas. He had seen his father and mother brutally slashed to death. Gibson was flown in to sketch with the little fellow, who had turned 4 the day of the murder.

With the help of the boy, encouraging him and guiding him, Gibson turned out a sketch of a man that was nearly photographic in its accuracy. He was the child’s next door neighbor.

Not long ago, I watched a session with Gibson and a teenage girl who had escaped being kidnapped while walking to school. Though timid and fearful, the girl bravely answered Gibson’s gentle questions about her attacker’s eyebrows, his ears, his shirt.

Gibson had positioned her easel with its back to the girl so she couldn’t watch her sketch. Beginning at the top with the hair, as she prefers to do, Gibson expertly worked down to the chin. All the time she talked softly to the girl, asking about her hobbies and what she’d like to be when she finished school.

Gibson told her how courageous she was because she was helping the police catch this bad man. She stroked the girl with her words as she extracted memories.

When Gibson revealed the completed face, there was a gasp and then tears.

“That’s him,” the girl whispered to her mom.

Baby Grace

Gibson also works miracles with the dead. She reconstructs faces from the remains of unidentified bodies. She has shown a startling ability to recreate a likeness from a decomposed head or skull. “Not knowing” what happened to someone you love is the worst kind of torture. Gibson’s ability has helped bring closure to many.

 As she drove from Houston to meet Galveston’s coroner, Gibson smoked a cigar to deaden her sense of smell. She knew all too well what awaited her. 

One of her most famous cases is probably that of “Baby Grace.” Gibson was called to Galveston to view what was left of an unidentified toddler in a storage container. Apparently, the child’s body had been stuffed inside the air-tight box and hidden in un-air-conditioned storage throughout the blazing hot Houston summer.

As she drove from Houston to meet Galveston’s coroner, Gibson smoked a cigar to deaden her sense of smell. She knew all too well what awaited her.

To Gibson’s immense relief, however, she smelled only vinegar. To avoid what would become a telltale stench of the baby’s body, the murderers had poured several gallons of vinegar over the child, in effect pickling it.

Nothing could be done to deaden the horror of the box contents though. Gibson recalls it looked like “a wrinkled rubber doll” with the hair and a pink ribbon still on.

Astonishingly however, Gibson reconstructed the face of a once beaming, bright-eyed darling. The sketch was broadcast on national TV news and the child’s grandmother in Ohio recognized her granddaughter, Riley Ann Sawyer, and frantically phoned police. Riley’s mother and stepfather were convicted and are serving life in prison. 

Thankfully, not all of her cases are horrific. It was Gibson who identified the “kissing sailor” ” in the iconic Times Square photo at the end of World War II.

More than 23 men over the years have claimed to be that famous sailor, but Gibson, through a process of meticulous age progression, was able to prove Navy veteran Glenn McDuffie was the real Romeo. The reunited kiss couple celebrated on Good Morning America with Diane Sawyer.

 

Quite often Gibson is asked if there isn’t a computer software program that can do her job. She has a ready answer: a company is definitely trying to create such a program, but no luck yet. She serves on its board.

Recently, Gibson was moved by a photo of the newborn baby, now called Chloe, who was found abandoned in a trash bag in Cypress. She thought maybe her age progression skills could help in identifying the parents. She produced two sketches, a male and female version of what the baby might look like as an adult and hopes any family resemblance will be recognized and reported to authorities.

A dream that Gibson fosters is that more people will train as sketch artists and more police departments will hire them full-time. She does all she can to make that happen, including writing the text book of all text books that shares all she knows. Forensic Art Essentials is 422 pages of first-hand education.

She’ll be teaching a course in Houston this spring and also teaches once a year at Northwestern University. She is a frequent and unexpectedly entertaining keynote speaker.

Despite the dark world of crime and ugliness which revolves around her work, Gibson is an upbeat, positive person whose sense of humor rivals Comedy Central's. Frankly, she’s hilarious. She really believes she has “the best job in the world” because she helps bring justice to victims and helps put more bad guys in the slammer.

Lois Gibson is a modern day crusader whose sword is made of charcoal and pastels. She’ll tell anyone who asks that she never plans to retire and will work as long as she can put hand to paper. Perhaps by then they'll have figured out how to clone her.