Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Robin Burcell, an FBI-trained forensic artist, has worked as a police officer, detective and hostage negotiator. THE BONE CHAMBER is her latest international thriller about an FBI forensic artist. Her first thriller, FACE OF A KILLER, received a starred review from Library Journal. She is the author of four previous novels. View the video trailer at her website at: www.robinburcell.com/ Or on Facebook and Twitter.

It's Tuesday here on Criminal Minds, and Becky writes:

"I once tried to identify someone in a hit and run. A lady stormed past me one night after ramming into a parked car, swore, kicked the other car, got into her car and drove away (how rude!). I called the cops and knocked on the homeowner's door. When the cop came by with DMV pictures, later, I could not pick her out and the case was dropped. I felt like such a failure, but I did not want to accuse the wrong person. I imagine I would have been useless if I'd been asked to help produce a sketch too. But I bet others try harder than me and you end up with something completely wrong. So, what's the weirdest case of mistaken identity you ever dealt with?"

It might help you to know that memory is a very fragile and sensitive thing. It’s one of the reasons that sketch artists need to be trained in how to interview someone to be able to pick up those salient details without contaminating them with your own suggestions. (This can happen in interviewing witnesses to a crime. One must be careful not to use suggestive interviewing techniques. Bad: Did the man have a gun? Good: Were there any weapons? Bad: Was the nose wide? Good: What shape was the nose?)

And if this helps make you feel better about trying to identify someone from a photo lineup, I was once the victim of a used car swindle, which wasn’t discovered until after we sold the car to another unsuspecting couple. A DMV criminal investigator came knocking on my door! It was only a matter of moments before the investigator realized that we were victims, too. And since I bought the car from the real suspect, who had turned back the odometer by a mere 100k miles, (the last time I ever bought a used car from a private party) I had to view the photo lineup. Weird being on that side of the law, but there you have it. I failed. Or rather, I was unable to pick the guy’s picture out. So I know what you mean.

The weirdest case from which I did a drawing? Easily it was a robbery of a local restaurant. The sketch resembled me! I was safe from being arrested, though, because one, the suspect was male, and two, the suspect was the victim’s brother. He knew this at the time, but had to come up with a description of someone. The two brothers had planned the whole robbery. They hadn’t counted on the “victim” being asked to do a sketch of the bad guy.

And this from Josh:

"Truth is stranger than fiction. What is one true encounter or event from your previous career in law enforcement that would just seem to be too far-fetched to include in a novel?"

Perhaps because it happens so often, single events that are stranger than fiction don’t stand out to most cops. They start to blend together, especially after we’ve been working a number of years, and I have 27 years of stories. Police work is filled with serendipitous moments. Like those phone calls that come at 4:55 PM on a Friday, when you know that if you answer your phone, your plans for the weekend are going to come to a screeching halt. I’m sure I’ll think of something momentous after I post this. But all is not lost. Perhaps because I’ve been blogging about sketches, I can think of a couple anecdotes that have to do with forensic art…

On one, I had finished up a sketch of a rapist, and put it on the detective’s desk. He and his partner had just come in from interviewing people on the street, looking for leads. One guy they talked to gave them some very promising information, describing a guy and even knowing his street moniker, or nickname, and the general vicinity of where he might live. The detectives came back in, excited about the lead, saw my sketch, and realized that the guy they had been talking to was actually the rapist. A dead on likeness. I testified in court on that case. He was convicted.

On another case, this one a serial rapist, I had just completed a sketch of the suspect, and the captain walked in, saw it and said, “That looks like the guy they just brought into the jail for burglary. You might want to go check.” I walked back into the jail, saw he was indeed a dead ringer for the sketch. I took his booking prints and I compared them to the lone print that had been lifted from a windowsill at the point of entry on one of the rapes. The print matched to one of his pinky fingers.

Now here’s where that bit of serendipity comes in. We’d sent that print in to the FBI national database, and no match was ever made. Why? Because they didn’t enter pinkies back then, because there were too many friggin’ prints to enter, and who the hell commits a crime with their pinky? (You’ll be pleased to know that this is no longer the case. Because of computers and automation, all prints, including the pinkies, are entered into the national database. Had this occurred today, he would have been identified immediately.) We might never have made the connection, had the captain not walked back into the jail, seen him, and then my sketch shortly thereafter.


Sophie Littlefield said...

I had to get fingerprinted for a stint as a substitute teacher a while back, and it was the strangest feeling. Perhaps a little thrilling, cause I'm me and all, and I loved knowing I was at the same machine as *real* criminals. (the book you stamp when you refinance is not nearly as satisfying.)

Thanks Robin...you're quite fascinating!

BPL Ref said...

Interesting as always! Thank you for your insights. Coincidence and synchronicity pay a big part in life for good or for ill, but people remain critical of it in fiction. In some ways, readers want their fiction to be "realer than real."

I enjoy your blog. Keep it up!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, Robin! I do feel somewhat better. In the movies, people can just identify suspects out of a lineup with no problem, so I was rather disappointed in myself. And I didn't even have any strong emotion to color my perceptions.

I love the guy who had you draw a picture of yourself as the suspect. That's quick thinking...not. But at least he didn't think of someone else who might actually have been arrested for it.

Thanks for answering my question!

CJ Lyons said...

Loved these stories, Robin! Keep them coming--sparking all sorts of ideas in my holiday-fizzled brain, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Sophie, it is strange getting fingerprinted--being on that side of the table, so to speak.

Jeanne, I agree. Readers want their fiction to be "realer than real." Good way to put it!

Rebecca, I was a cop when I had to view that line up, and it really gave me some good perspective as to what it's like for the folks who have to go through it.

Thanks, everyone!

Kelli Stanley said...

27 years? Robin, you started in kindergarten. :)

Absolutely riveting stories!! Thank you so much for sharing these with us!!


Jen Forbus said...

Kel! I thought the same thing. How in the world could ROBIN have worked in law enforcement that long?

And I think I would make a bad witness, too. People will sometimes just ask me about a person in general...when I'm trying to figure out who he/she is..."did he have glasses?" "did he have a moustache?" And I don't remember!! I think I also second guess myself a lot.

I love these stories. It's so fascinating to put the real life situations into perspective since I so love my crime fiction!!