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Linda Thomas
sketch2.jpg
Bellevue Police Detective Greg Bean, with two of his many sketch books tucked under his arm, stands in front of drawings he's produced in his spare time. Not bad for a guy who had no interest and "no innate art ability." (Linda Thomas photo)

Police sketcher turns witnesses' memories into evidence

There's a lesson in Detective Greg Bean's career for all of us.

"You need to be willing to try new stuff because you just don't know what's inside," says Bean, a detective with the Bellevue Police Department who is one of about 35 forensic artists in the country.

Bean draws on victims' memories to create computer sketches of suspects.

His most recent, high-profile composite drawing was of a suspect wanted for several alleged rapes involving victims in Bellevue, Shoreline and Seattle between June and September of this year.

The computer drawing led police to Danford Grant, a Seattle attorney who has been charged with seven felonies in connection to the attacks, including four counts of first-degree rape.

No one is more surprised by his abilities than the detective who could draw barely more than stick figures most of his life.

"I was not an artistic person, didn't take art classes in high school," says Bean. "The last art class I took was in middle school and I swore I would never take another one because I was so humiliated."

He wasn't even curious about art.

"My wife is actually a very talented watercolorist and she would try to drag me into galleries and museums. Oh no," he groans with a heavy sigh. "I just was not interested."

Bean started as a patrol officer with the Bellevue PD in 1993. He was soon promoted to detective work. About six years later, the police chief handed him a computer program that was designed to help agencies create composite drawings of suspects.

Bean described it as a "super sophisticated Mr. Potato Head" program, but no one really knew how to use it.

"I'll never forget standing around in a circle with about six or seven other detectives and lieutenants. Between the group of us we probably had 100 years of investigative experience, but nobody had ever taken the time to sit in with an artist to see how they extract visual information," says Bean. "We had no idea how to do that."

Someone in the department needed to learn how to use the program. Detective Bean seemed like a natural because he was the most interested in computers at the time. A Bellevue lieutenant told Bean he was going to spend a week at a forensic art school.

"I looked at him and said, 'You are crazy.' I had no interest, as far as I knew no innate art ability," says Bean.

He also had no choice.

Bean intended to learn as much about interviewing witnesses as he could and suffer through the drawing lessons.

His first sketch was a one-dimensional, nondescript drawing of a man's face. His curly, dark hair was piled on top like spaghetti. It looked like the kind of kid's drawing we've all proudly displayed on our refrigerators.

The forensic art instructor told officers she wasn't going to teach them how to draw, but rather how to see.

Bean's attitude flipped like a light switch from annoyed to astounded. He got it. He understood that art begins in the mind, not in the hand.

He finished the class with realistic likeness of the crude sketch he started the week with.

Weeks later, he began to notice the shadows, quirks and details on faces all around him, and he always carried a sketch book.

Now the go-to guy for police departments in this region, Bean has become an expert on facial features.

Bean looks at me during our interview and asks, "Do you sleep on your right side most of the time?"

"Yes," I respond, "Why?"

"You learn stuff as a forensic artist," he says with a satisfied smirk as he points to a small line on my face I've never noticed. "You learn that a lot of people who sleep on their right side get this little wrinkle that's there all the time."

While this is a skill he's mastered, Bean says we are all facial recognition experts. We just don't know it.

"Mentally we can make allowances for all sorts of things. You see somebody you knew in high school, 20 years later they're heavier, they're older, their face may be wrinkled and saggy, their hair is different, but you still recognize them. You've made all of the mental allowances, you've done this incredible math in your head and you still know who that person is," says Bean.

Every witness or victim he's worked with knew far more about the face they were describing than they initially thought.

"They saw that suspect and they don't realize it but that image is burned into their head. You have to understand I don't create a piece of evidence when I make that drawing. The evidence is the victim or witnesses' memory," he says.

"All I'm trying to do is create the most accurate representation of that image - that memory - that I can so that the public and police can use that to hopefully catch, arrest and prosecute the bad guy."

Bean shows me dozens of sketches he's drawn for the department using a Corel Painter program, the same one used by animators and concept artists. He's nailed the last eight suspect sketches, including Danford Grant.

As he turns the pages of his ever-present black sketch books he points to other drawings he's done with a pencil. The detail is photographic.

Flipping through more pages, he reveals photographs of stunning life-sized oil paintings of his wife, family members and police department co-workers.

"I paint portraits on the side," Bean says. "If you have told me 15 years ago that I'd paint portraits I would have laughed you to scorn. If you would have told me that I would pay good hard-earned money to fly to London to visit museums, I would have thought you were insane. But it is such an amazingly fulfilling part of my life. It's huge."

"Who knew? You just don't know what's inside."

View a photo gallery of Bean's sketches and oil paintings

By LINDA THOMAS

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About Linda
Linda is the morning news anchor and features reporter for KIRO Radio. This is her local news blog, with an emphasis on social media, technology, Northwest companies, education, parenting, and anything else that grabs her attention.

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