Unabomber News History

Copyright 2000 The San Diego Union-Tribune The San Diego Union-Tribune

October 8, 2000, Sunday


LENGTH: 1664 words

HEADLINE: Drawing from experience; Artist uses psychology, intuition to produce precise sketches of suspects



Terror invades a girls' slumber party in the form of a knife-wielding stranger. He kidnaps 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her Petaluma bedroom as two girlfriends watch in horror.

The home invasion rocks the nation. Polly's girlfriends provide a description to a sketch artist, and the detailed image of a round-faced kidnapper wearing a headband is copied onto a million fliers.

But a few days later, the young witnesses say the drawing really doesn't look like the man who took Polly. The massive manhunt, they insist, is being misled.

This sequence of events in the notorious 1993 kidnapping and subsequent murder is all too familiar to Jeanne Boylan.

Called to Petaluma by the FBI, Boylan spent many hours with the young witnesses and came up with a drawing dramatically different from the original sketch. But it proved to be an eerily accurate likeness of Richard Allen Davis, now on death row for the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas.

Again and again, the soft-spoken Boylan has been summoned to high-profile cases and produced "dead-ringer" sketches of murder suspects after other artists had tried and failed and veteran detectives were stymied.

How does she do it?

"By listening," said Boylan.

Over the past two decades, Boylan has become the most celebrated criminal sketch artist in America by developing an unorthodox approach to extracting faces from the memories of witnesses.

"A lot of people construe this work to be about art," Boylan said. "It's not; it's about psychology."

Boylan has no formal art training. And though her experience with investigations of murders, rapes and robberies is extensive, Boylan never graduated from a police academy and is not a trained detective.

She developed her unique style after realizing that conventional police questioning often muddies memories instead of mining them.

"These sketches can lead an investigation, but they can also mislead one. The Ennis Cosby slaying in Los Angeles is a good example," said Boylan. "The initial drawing was widely distributed, and his killer was provided almost blanket immunity for seven weeks because that sketch looks nothing like him."

In her newly published memoir, "Portraits of Guilt: The Woman Who Profiles the Faces of America's Deadliest Criminals" (Pocket Books; $24.95), the 47-year-old free-lance investigator chronicles her work on the Klaas and Cosby killings, the Unabomber investigation, the Oklahoma City bombing and many other notorious cases.

Boylan, who has appeared regularly on TV's "America's Most Wanted," said the memory of a victim or witness "is a fragile piece of evidence and should be treated that way."

"If there were a gun or a knife lying on the ground at a crime scene, no detective would pick it up with his bare hands and pass it around," she said. "But showing witnesses hundreds of mug shots of potential suspects, or asking them to pick a nose or mouth or eyes from an art book is the equivalent of passing a murder weapon around the room, then trying to get fingerprints from it.

"Memory is highly malleable."

Listen and learn

Boylan got interested in her specialized line of work the hard way. While in college, she was attacked by a pair of men. Though deliberately vague about the incident in her book, Boylan said "trying to report the crime was like talking to people with no ears."

"The investigator's questions made me feel that I had to prove this incident even occurred," she said. "But in case after case over the years, I've seen this incredible catharsis take place when victims are listened to as they need to be listened to."

While in college, Boylan got a job with the Grant, Ore., police doing routine follow-up interviews with crime victims and processing evidence.

"I'd hear what victims were saying, then see the police sketches, and I knew they weren't right," said Boylan, whose youth, blond hair and movie-star looks proved a hindrance in the male-dominated detective bureaus of the 1970s and '80s.

"The police said I was taking far too long with these victims, they wanted me in and out in 30 minutes; they threatened to fire me. I said these people needed to talk -- not just report that an 18-year-old Caucasian male came in with a gun and took money from the till. They wanted to talk about how it felt, how it affected their lives, and I wanted to listen."

Boylan began taking courses in psychology and interviewing techniques. She studied what was known about how memory works, especially the work of renowned University of Washington memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus.

She began taking a sketch pad along when talking with crime victims. "We'd talk for hours about all sorts of things and I'd doodle. In the end, I'd have a pretty good sketch of the suspect."

Boylan, whose 1995 sketch of the Unabomber suspect landed on the cover of Newsweek and became an icon in the case, developed her own theories about how memory works in connection with a traumatic event.

The last thing trauma victims want to do is revisit the trauma-causing image, she said.

"The subconscious mind is trying to push the image away while the police are providing all sorts of overlaying images to the conscious mind. It's a recipe for distortion."

Typically, sketch artists show witnesses books of eyes, noses, mouths, eyebrows, hairlines, etc.

"They take characteristics -- which are likely to be incompatible -- out of context. Then you have an artist fuse them together into a single image of a face," she said. "That becomes what the witness saw, whether it's accurate or not."

Boylan's approach is different.

She doesn't want to know the suspect's age or ethnic background. "I might have a preconception of what that should look like and add it to the drawing."

She doesn't ask about the crime or talk about the suspect.

Instead, Boylan speaks in a soft tone about unrelated topics -- family, job, vacations, the movies -- in order to relax the witness.

"The witness knows the purpose of the meeting. If I can put you on a comfortable plane, maybe I can relax you enough for you to risk remembering.

"Then I ask about shapes: Would you create a shape that's longer than wide or the same length as width? I ask about tones and textures, being very careful to monitor my voice. Police detectives unaware of the nuances of voice tone or eye contact can lead a victim or witness without even realizing it, contaminating their recall."

With the witness relaxed and talking, Boylan slips in specific questions about the face that is forming on the sketch pad in her lap.

Finally, she reveals the drawing to the witness.

"If I've spent five or six hours listening and working on it, any alterations that are necessary can usually be done in 10 minutes," she said. "My drawing is almost always quite different from the one done originally."

The Polly Klaas case, where the victim's friends were interviewed together, is a good example, she said.

The original description listed the suspect as 6-foot-3 and wearing a headband. In interviewing the girls separately, Boylan realized their perspective from their seats on the floor was skewed and the abductor's height was overstated by nearly half a foot and some of the facial details were missing.

"It was all there in the memory of a giddy, goofy 12-year-old girl. The trick was getting it out. We did it by talking about shapes and textures, thinness and thickness -- by describing an inanimate object."

Boylan said despite her success, she does not enjoy her work and would like to pursue something else, perhaps lecturing on her techniques. Police politics and resentful detectives and sketch artists have taken a toll.

"Flying a person around the country to come late into these cases is ridiculous," said Boylan, who blames her career demands for the breakup of her marriage.

"Every big-city police department should have artists trained in the psychology of interviewing who could do what I do. But there is great resistance to change.

"Most sketch artists have art training and the agencies look at their drawings and see they're good; they believe it's a good likeness of the man they're after.

"But I've learned that's not necessarily the case."

Jeanne Boylan's toughest cases


The lone eyewitness said the FBI sketch was poor. Boylan was brought in more than seven years after the eyewitness sighting and asked to mine an accurate image from the witness' memory.

"The inaccurate sketch had spawned thousands of leads costing the government hundreds of thousand of dollars in wasted man-hours."


She had to re-establish the trust between two child witnesses and the police and FBI.

"Their accounts of the night of the kidnapping had been disbelieved because their stories of the events did not match and their descriptions of the suspect differed." Unlike the FBI, Boylan found that "completely normal."


She arrived the next day on a reported South Carolina car-jacking case to correct an already released image of a sleepy black man whom Smith reported had pushed her out of the car and sped away with her two children inside.

"A drawing released hours after Smith's report was created by the standard practice of showing the victim pictures of faces from which to choose parts. The police effectively aided Smith in creating her alibi and missed the early opportunity to detect her fabrication."


She helped determine why the leads for "John Doe II" based on an FBI sketch were yielding no results. In re-interviewing the primary eyewitness, Boylan realized the "suspect" had never been seen from a frontal view as depicted, did not resemble the FBI drawing and had never been seen without a hat, although the sketch illustrated a thick head of hair.

"John Doe II was in fact a Ryder customer who only walked in and out of the rental office the day before convicted bomber Tim McVeigh. He had no connection to the bombing."

GRAPHIC: 11 PICS � 1 CHART; 1. John Nelson / Union-Tribune 4,5,6,7. Jeanne Boylan collection; 1. Jeanne Boylan plumbs witness memories to produce eerily accurate drawings of criminal suspects. 2. Jeanne Boylan's sketch of Unabomber suspect made the cover of Newsweek. 4,5,6,7. Morphing sequence of art imitating reality -- Boylan's sketch of Unabmomber (left) becomes photo of Theodore Kaczynski. (E-3) 8. Jeanne Boylan's toughest cases (E-3) 9,10,11,12. Police released two sketches in the hunt for the killer of Cora Jean Jones. They never released Boylan's sketch (bottom left), fearing public confusion. Bottom right is killer, David Spanbauer. (E-3)