Home News Stories 2005 June The "Art" of Solving Crimes
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The "Art" of Solving Crimes

The “Art” of Solving Crime
There’s More to the FBI Lab Than Science


Sketch and photo of Timothy McVeigh

Ten years ago in April, just hours after the Oklahoma City bombing, an FBI Lab forensic artist made a sketch of a suspect based on eyewitnesses accounts at a Junction City, Kansas truck rental shop. At the time, we didn’t have a name—just a face. We began showing the drawing (see left) around town. Employees at a local motel recognized him immediately—and identified him as Timothy McVeigh. It was a major break in the case, and later, it kept police from releasing McVeigh from an Oklahoma jail, where he was being held on unrelated charges.

A picture is truly worth a thousand words. That’s why for years our lab has staffed a team of visual information specialists with backgrounds ranging from fine arts to mechanical engineering—professionals who not only create composite sketches but also crime scene reconstructions, animated and interactive 2D and 3D digital models, diagrams, maps, charts, and other visual aids to help solve cases and win convictions.

The team makes up our Investigative and Prosecutive Graphic Unit, or IPGU, and here are just a few of the talents they bring to protecting the nation:

  • Facial Age Progression and Photo Retouching: taking dated pictures of suspects and victims and “aging” them to show what the people might look like today—adding beards, mustaches, different hair styles, etc., to match possible lifestyle changes. Consider the fugitive wanted for murder, captured just hours after IPGU’s age-enhanced image was broadcast on national TV.
  • Postmortem Facial Reconstruction: using skeletal remains and other information to piece together the living face. For example, IPGU helped identify a young suicide victim—and bring much needed closure to the family—by recreating an almost exact likeness of his face from his badly decomposed remains.
  • Demonstrative Evidence: developing 3-D animated digital diagrams, charts that show links between suspects, evidence, and crime scenes, etc., for courtroom presentation. It was IPGU that digitally surveyed the 16 D.C.-area sniper crime scenes and created the timeline—dates, weapon descriptions, victim photos—for the trial of John Allen Muhammad.
  • High-Tech Imaging and Modeling: creating 3-D models, virtual fly-thrus (like walking through a scene via a computer), and computer animations that map out debris fields, measure bomb craters, and show bullet trajectories.
How busy is IPGU? Incredibly. Team members get hundreds of calls a year and travel all over the world—even conducting interviews in remote areas using state-of-the-art video teleconferencing.

Says Unit Chief Richard Berry, “It’s fascinating work. We’re always learning and using new techniques and technologies; as a result, we’re always involved in major investigative efforts. The satisfaction is when our work is instrumental in helping to solve a case and bring a criminal to justice or bring closure to a victim’s family.”

Links: Investigative and Prosecutive Graphics Unit website | FBI Lab