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Drawing Conclusions: A day in the life of a forensic artist

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Columbia, S.C. (WACH) -- Sketches of missing persons and wanted criminals dominate the airways and headlines on numerous hot-button cases. Yet, it's the artistry behind the portraits that is sometimes essential to catching the most wanted.

Forensic Artists have the important job of putting themselves in the shoes of witnesses and victims, and translating that to what can be seen.

Special Agent Lara Gorick says the work is in the small details of some of the biggest moments of people's lives.

"Everybody's memory just kind of works differently," said Gorick. "So, a lot of people focus on eyes, but some people might focus on noses. They might remember the face shape first."

It's the art of catching the bad guys.

They start off with a blank slate on the iPad; after working with witnesses for hours, they end up with a composite sketch that goes to authorities, and sometimes to the public.

"When you're in that situation, you're in fight or flight mode so your body's not focusing on what did she look like, what was he wearing, what's his haircut," said Gorick. "You're trying to survive at this point."

They're working with split second memories of victims who have gone through traumatic experiences. It is why forensic artists have a background not only in artistry, but psychology, memory, anatomy, interviewing and investigation.

Forensic artists are employed through the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and outsourced to law enforcement agencies all across the state of South Carolina.

But Senior Special Agent Deborah Goff says they are working with tenuous memories during difficult and -- at times-- frightening circumstances, so the portraits should be considered strong jumping-off points only.

"Sometimes, when our sketches are in the news, people are expecting it to be an exact portrait of the person," said Goff. "The person viewed the suspect under difficult circumstances so it's really just a way to generate leads. We're working with people's memories but we're doing everything we can to catch this person."

To account for this, they ask witnesses to rate the sketch from a 1-10 after every interview. This is what they relay to authorities to help assess how accurately the portraits are.

During the cognitive interviews, witnesses and victims lead the interview and start with what they know. The artists follow their lead.

"We lead them back through the whole entire event," said Gorick. "Telling us everything is really important. It may sound silly to you, telling me what his earlobes look like, what his shirt looks like -- because, obviously, he's going to change his shirt or whatever -- but stuff like that could really make or break a case. Haircut, anything. Every detail counts."

The agents are also on call 24/7 because they strive to interview victims as close to when the incident happens as possible. That's when the memories are most fresh.

"There are times when we're talking to victims and witnesses in hospitals," said Gorick. "Sometimes, we have to talk to them where crime occurred."

The agents not only compose pictures of wanted criminals in real-time, but also age-progression photos, missing persons...they even work with anthropologists on skeletal remains to attempt to reconstruct what the person may have looked like when alive.

As for Special Agent Gorick, she says she draws fulfillment from the sense of victory the victims and witnesses reclaim by working out the details.

"They went through this entire ordeal and they were a victim, they were out of control," said Gorick. "And for the first time in maybe days, they're in control of the what happened. It just feels good to give them a little of that empowerment and to help out in whatever way we can."

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