In a world of aerial drones, stun guns and surveillance cameras, an electric eraser doesn’t seem like much of a crime-fighting tool.
For Leona Allen, a spokeswoman for Lake Valley Fire Protection District and certified composite sketch artist, the handheld device is a cherished part of a crime-fighting kit that includes pencils, a blending stump and a sketch pad.
Allen has provided law enforcement agencies with more than a dozen drawings generated from witness recollections of criminal suspects since becoming a sketch artist in 2004. Her most recent drawing came from a witness’ description of a suspect who allegedly robbed El Dorado Savings Bank earlier this month.
Producing an accurate sketch from someone’s memory is as much about getting a witness comfortable recounting an often traumatic experience as it is about having pencil skills, Allen said during a Thursday interview. The experience is typically an emotional one.
“You have to be able to connect with that witness or victim because, if not, forget it,” Allen said. The South Shore resident is affable and inviting. She also knows what it’s like to be the victim of a crime.
Her desire to become a sketch artist arose from a 1984 attack on her and her husband, Rob Mendenhall, during a backpacking trip in Trinity County. A mentally ill man shot both Allen and Mendenhall as the pair took a water break on trail. Mendenhall died. Allen was struck in the side. Thirty-eight staples were used to close Allen’s bullet wound.
The attack was devastating and traumatic. Picking her husband’s killer out of a police lineup was a key part of Allen’s recovery, she said.
“Every nerve ending in my body was screaming,” Allen said about pointing Glenn Walter Spuller out to police. The experience was like nothing else she had ever felt. It was also cathartic. The feeling was something she wanted to help give others.
“Life started again after I was able to say ‘that’s him,’” Allen said.
“Right after that, this is something I realized I really wanted to get into,” she added.
Allen provides her sketches to law enforcement for free. Each one starts with an interview with a victim or witness. Based on the person’s descriptions, the sketch starts with the eyes, before moving to the nose, mouth, the shape of the face, hair and accessories like baseball caps or sunglasses, Allen said.
When all of the features are on the page, she has the witness close their eyes and run through an incident in their mind one more time. When the person opens their eyes, the sketch is in front of them. Sometimes it hits the mark, other times it’s back to the sketch pad, Allen said.
“I’ve had sketches take an hour and I’ve had sketches take seven hours,” Allen said. “It all depends on the ability of the witness.”
Witness testimony is fallible, as are composite sketches. But the renderings can also provide leads in cases where there is little else to go on, South Lake Tahoe police detective Jeff Roberson said.
“We use them in cases where we don’t have a place to start with a suspect,” Roberson said Thursday.
Although computer programs exist to create composites, Roberson has been unimpressed with the results. The ability of an interviewer to get a witness to recall the crime is key to getting an accurate sketch, Roberson said.
The actual drawing isn’t that tough, Allen said.
“There’s no secret to it, it’s really basic stuff,” she said.
But she said the practice has changed the way she looks at the world. She’ll doodle sets of eyes while on car rides or on the paper table cloth at a Macaroni Grill. In her head, she’ll often turns the faces of passers-by into a series of lines.
“I catch myself staring at people, like how would I sketch that?” Allen said.
Although she’s spent hundreds of hours studying people’s faces and making sketches, Allen said she’s never drawn a portrait of someone close to her. She hopes one day, it won’t be a suspect appearing from her pencil, it will be her beloved grandsons.
“I just don’t want them to look like criminals,” Allen said with a laugh.