Police trace conviction to their FBI-trained artist

January 27, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

Karen Gentry has been a Baltimore County police officer for xTC 12 years and a detective for eight of those years in the sex crimes unit. Most of her life, she has also been an artist, drawing largely for fun.

Now the 35-year-old police officer is combining her work with her art as the county's first FBI-trained and certified forensic artist.

By most accounts, she's pretty good.

Her sketch of Nigel Antonio Carter, the Baltimore youth convicted of robbing and killing Christina Marie Brown on a footpath near Owings Mills Mall, was so accurate that Carter told police, "It looks just like me."

Prosecutor Steve Bailey said that without the sketch, police might never have found Carter because the key witness who led police to him called after seeing the sketch on television.

"If Karen had not done the sketch that she did, I don't think [Carter's cousin and a trial witness] would have ever come forward," Mr. Bailey said. "It was so accurate, when I saw it, I would have thought she sat right next to him and sketched his face."

The amazing thing about the Carter sketch was that the woman who provided the description on which the sketch was based got only a glimpse of Carter as she rode by him on an MTA bus on her way to work at the mall.

The witness, a cosmetology student, met with Detective Gentry for two hours on Saturday Sept. 26, less than 24 hours after she saw a man walking toward the mall from the Metro station.

"She thought it was strange that [only] one person was coming from the Metro," said Detective Gentry. "When she got to work, a co-worker called in to say she would be late, because a body had been discovered between the Metro and the mall parking lot."

The body turned out to be that of Ms. Brown, 28, an employee of a cleaning company under contract with Saks Fifth Avenue. Ms. Brown had been shot once in the back of the head. And her purse had been stolen.

Creating a sketch like the one that helped catch and convict Nigel Carter is the forensic artist's equivalent of hitting a grand slam.

"She was an exceptional witness," Detective Gentry said of the woman who provided the description. "She talked about how she studies cosmetology and she makes a point of studying people's facial features."

It was a good sketch by another officer that persuaded Baltimore County police to send Detective Gentry to the FBI's school for forensic artists.

In July 1991, the manager of an Overlea bank and her two daughters were attacked in their home and held captive for eight hours by two men who raped one of the daughters.

After their ordeal, the daughter who was raped met with Sgt. Carl Layman, a forensic artist on loan from the Howard County police.

"She had a great recall," said Sergeant Layman, who has been plying his trade for six years. "That sketch went on the 6 o'clock news that day and by 6:30 they had the names."

Scott Shellenberger, the assistant state's attorney who won convictions against David Hall and Richard Bailey in that case, recalled Hall's testimony.

"He said he was watching television with his family that night," Mr. Shellenberger said. "After watching the news, he said: 'My wife knew it was me; my mother knew it was me. Even I knew it was me.' There's no question that that sketch made the case."

The two police artists said sketches of almost photographic detail are the exception rather than the rule because the forensic artist depends solely on the memory of the witness.

Most often, they said, their sketches are helpful in narrowing a large list of possible suspects.

But the FBI method that Detective Gentry learned does help an artist to produce photo-like sketches when the witness has gotten a good look at someone and can remember the details.

"It's very difficult [for a witness] to re-create a face," Detective Gentry said. "Many people can't. It's very easy to identify a face if you see it again, but to re-create it is very difficult."

The first step, Detective Gentry said, is to get the witness to a quiet place, free from distractions. The forensic artist never wants other people around during the sketching process, because if the witness sees another face while the artist is working, he or she might become confused.

After giving a brief description of the suspect, the witness looks through an FBI manual that contains hundreds of mug shots, including a photograph of Al Capone, the Chicago gangster.

The book is divided into sections showing face shapes, eyes, noses, jaw shapes and hairlines. The witness chooses the features that most closely resemble the suspect.

Then Detective Gentry sketches the features together into one drawing, working with the witness, who can suggest whatever alterations seem needed. When it's finished, the sketch is treated so it can't be altered.

"It's their sketch," Detective Gentry said. "When we're finished, I never change the drawing."

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