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Clinton artist sketches the face of crime

Surrounded by drawings she has done of both real and composite criminals, Kathy Parks-Chambers sketches in her Sandy Hook home. Parks-Chambers is a sketch artist for the Island County Sheriff
Surrounded by drawings she has done of both real and composite criminals, Kathy Parks-Chambers sketches in her Sandy Hook home. Parks-Chambers is a sketch artist for the Island County Sheriff's Office and is on call to draw the faces of criminals witnesses have often seen for only a moment.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Anyone who doesn't know what the face of crime looks like really should meet Kathy Parks-Chambers.

A sketch artist for the Island County Sheriff's Office, Parks-Chambers is one member of a small cadre of artists who can help law enforcement find the guilty but anonymous.

An oil painter by training, Parks-Chambers, a Sandy Hook resident, has been drawing for the sheriff's office for over a year. She, like two other artists who work for the agency, is trained to listen to a verbal description from a crime victim and turn it into a drawing of a face.

More important, she has a strong desire to discover the faces of criminals who need to be found to account for their crimes. Two of her daughters have been crime victims so, she said, it is easy to understand why the victims she works with want to find the people who wronged them.

"I've always wanted to do this," said Park-Chambers, whose long-standing interest in solving crimes started several years ago while working with husband Roland Chambers as Citizens on Patrol with the sheriff's office.

Though many law enforcement agencies, including the Oak Harbor Police Department, are starting to use computer drawing programs to come up with suspect sketches, pencil sketches done by trained artists like Parks-Chambers still provide solid leads for investigators. Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said this week the drawings done by Parks-Chambers and Kaye Rider, a records clerk with the agency, have their uses. With a reliable witness and an intuitive artist, he said his office can come up with drawings good enough to publish in newspapers and begin a manhunt.

"Sometimes they can be very effective," he said.

Parks-Chambers' most recent drawing, that of a young Asian man who allegedly raped a woman in Everett and dumped her off on North Whidbey, already has the makings of a success story. Parks-Chambers said that though the victim was traumatized by the crime, she was able to describe her assailant well enough for the artist to create a near-perfect likeness. In fact, the drawing was so good, according to Parks-Chambers, the witness said it "made her skin crawl."

Unlike other forms of art, crime sketching is not judged on the artistic merits of the portraits artists produce. Only when a sketch helps solve a crime is the exercise a success.

"It's not a work of art," Parks-Chambers said. "I'm not drawing a pretty picture."

A sketch artist is the first to admit his or her art is highly derivative. Parks-Chambers uses an FBI facial profiling book, which contains thousands of different facial features, to help guide her work.

At the same time, the work is far from glamorous. It doesn't pay much -- about $30 a sketch -- and it requires her to dwell on the worst parts of life. One of the early crime sketches she did while in training in Idaho two years ago was of a disfigured and unidentified dead man found by an Idaho police department. Investigators in the case needed a drawing of the man as he might have looked while alive to find someone who might have known him.

Even so, Parks-Chambers is dedicated to her work. She must be as much a counsellor as an artist when working with crime victims. During drawing sessions, which usually take no longer than an hour, Parks-Chambers must keep a victim's attention and keep a victim calm. She accomplishes this, in part, by giving Beanie Babies to every crime victim with whom she works.

When the drawing is finished and a crime victim gives it his or her OK, that's when Parks-Chambers gets her reward.

"It's exciting," she said.

Though interested in crime sketching software for the computer, Parks-Chambers said she continues to prefer working with pencil and paper when making her sketches. Ultimately, she said, no matter how good the software gets, artists will always be needed to solve faceless crime.

"It's not a science. It's an art," she said.

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