Unabomber News History

Copyright 2000 The Buffalo News The Buffalo News

July 2, 2000, Sunday, FINAL EDITION


LENGTH: 948 words


BYLINE: GENE WARNER; News Book Reviewer



The Woman Who Profiles the Faces of America's Deadliest Criminals By Jeanne Boylan

Pocket Books

328 pages, $ 24.95

Twelve-year-old Polly Klaas was missing from her Petaluma, Calif. home, feared dead, and the investigation into her apparent abduction was in shambles.

The two eyewitnesses to the kidnapping, her 12-year-old slumber-party pals, didn't like the police sketch, the one depicting a 6-foot-3-inch man wearing a bright yellow headband. The FBI suspected that Polly might have run off with an older boyfriend. And investigators were checking possible family involvement in the "kidnapping."

Into that mess stepped Jeanne Boylan, armed with a sketch pad, her trusty pencils, two ears and a lot of patience. Boylan is a forensic artist, an unorthodox one who eschews -- and even ridicules -- conventional composite-sketch procedures used by most police artists.

"In standard police practice, witnesses are bombarded with mug shots and catalogs of facial photos, so that they can point out a multitude of features that look something like what they've seen -- like picking out your lost luggage by pointing to an airline baggage chart full of handles, fabrics, latches and locks," Boylan writes. "If only the human psyche were so wonderfully simple -- but it's not."

Painstakingly, Boylan met separately with the two girls, winning their trust and tossing aside the police cynicism toward their version of events. The goal was to put them at ease, to invade their subconscious mind, where the buried image of the kidnapper would lie.

Slowly, after hours of interviews, the subtleties of the kidnapper's face emerged: the extra width in the bridge of the nose, the coarseness of the hair, the eyebrows wrapped around the eye sockets and the furrows in the forehead (replacing the yellow headband).

A new sketch was born, a dead-on likeness that helped implicate Richard Allen Davis in Polly Klaas' murder, after he was arrested on an unrelated charge.

This is a fascinating book, for one main reason. Boylan takes a very narrow world that most people never have thought about and makes it come alive for the reader. She shows how police practices haven't come close to catching up with academics' understanding of how the mind captures and retains the image of a traumatic event.

And she grabs a bullhorn to shout out her message:

Visual images of criminals' faces, like fingerprints or hair fibers, are valuable evidence that should be carefully protected.

Simply put, when a person witnesses a traumatic event, the mind represses the visual image as a survival measure, to protect the person from re-experiencing the event.

"If we can coach the conscious mind to move aside, sometimes we can still access the original untainted image . . . ," she says about one old case. "The higher the degree of personal trauma, the harder the mind works to discard or bury the image -- but also, the more likely it will have been encoded into memory in the first place, even if it's housed at a much deeper level of recall."

So when well-meaning police artists ask vulnerable and traumatized witnesses to choose look-alike images from books of facial photos, they're allowing the witness to discard, distort or further entomb the image that created the trauma.

Tricky stuff, this human brain. That's why sketch artists have to work with the skill of a surgeon to bring the visual image back to life.

And why shouldn't a witness be shown catalogs of facial features (20 different noses, 20 different chins, etc.)? Because the mind sees a face as a single entity, not in fragments.

"It doesn't compartmentalize the vision of a face in composites -- eyes in the eye bank, lips in the lip bank, nose in the nose bank," Boylan writes.

The book gets a bit self-promotional, as most autobiographies tend to do, but Boylan boasts two undeniable credentials:

No police investigator in any agency can match Boylan's resume of high-profile cases: Polly Klaas, the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, the drowning of Susan Smith's children, Ennis Cosby, etc. There's a reason she was called into those cases -- she has a knack for helping witnesses find that buried image.

Her sketches, in some cases, are haunting. In the cases of Richard Allen Davis and others, the sketches are so accurate, it's almost as if she drew their likenesses from court appearances or their mug shots.

Some of Boylan's points seem so obvious.

Showing a witness any visual aid implies that the item exists, she shows. In the Polly Klaas case, the "headband" turned out to be the deep creases in Davis' forehead.

"Once the girls were shown a headband, it then existed in their eyes, overriding any chance of the actual detail being allowed to surface," she writes.

This is a fast-moving read, an elementary course in composite sketching, spiced with the inner workings of some of the nation's most celebrated criminal investigations.

At the end of the book, Boylan admits what's driven her to work so hard to unlock sketches from victims' subconscious memories.

It happened years ago, on a rural Missouri road, when Boylan herself was abducted by two attackers, two men whose likenesses now peer out at the reader from pages 312 and 313.

That's powerful human stuff.

But alas, there's one annoying flaw, the narrative dragged down by a soap-opera subplot about the author's crumbling marriage to a former cop. Her marriage couldn't survive the increasing demands of her career, we learn repeatedly. (Perhaps this subplot creates a second meaning for the title, "Portraits of Guilt.")

Please, Jeanne, spare us the details. GRAPHIC: The suspect drawing, left, created after reinterviews with witnesses is a remarkable likeness of kidnapper and murderer Richard Allen Davis.