Innisfail RCMP Const. Chris Lavery does double duty as one of the RCMP's four sketch artists in Alberta. Lavery is called in to police detachments in southern Alberta when there are no suspects in a case.

Innisfail RCMP Const. Chris Lavery does double duty as one of the RCMP's four sketch artists in Alberta. Lavery is called in to police detachments in southern Alberta when there are no suspects in a case.

Drawing power: RCMP sketch artist helps cops catch criminals

He has helped put away armed robbers, kidnappers and rapists with the stroke of his pencil. Innisfail Const. Chris Lavery is one of four Alberta RCMP composite sketch artists who is called in to help when there are no suspects or no leads in an investigation.

He has helped put away armed robbers, kidnappers and rapists with the stroke of his pencil.

Innisfail Const. Chris Lavery is one of four Alberta RCMP composite sketch artists who is called in to help when there are no suspects or no leads in an investigation.

Often it is for the high-risk cases or serious person crimes such as sexual assault, homicide or abductions.

“The idea behind the sketch is to generate suspects,” said Lavery, who has worked as a certified police sketch artist for five years alongside his general constable duties.

“It’s not to prove who did it because you can’t prove who did it based on a sketch.”

A sketch artist can be called right away and sometimes by the time he is finished with a sketch, the person has been located.

Lavery, 37, shares sketching duties in the southern half the province with a Cochrane-based RCMP officer. But he has also been called to Fort McMurray and Yellowknife. There are only two full-time RCMP sketch artists in the country, in Lower Mainland British Columbia and in Nova Scotia.

Just last week, Lavery was in Red Deer to help with an attempted robbery and assault investigation in Deer Park.

“We don’t get 90 to 95 per cent hits on these things,” said Lavery. “It happens and it can be very helpful but if I am called in, that means we do not have anything at all. We don’t have a lead to go on at that point.”

But Lavery was quick to point out the sketch is just one of many investigative tools that police officers use in their investigations.

RCMP Cpl. Leanne Molzahn said they do not call sketch artists in on every police file, but definitely for serious person crimes where there is potentially a witness or a victim who may be able to provide an accurate description of the suspect.

“It is certainly benefit to any investigation where we can put a face out there,” she said. “There is generally somebody who is able to identify someone from the sketch or video surveillance footage.”

A sketch can also help eliminate suspects and let the public know that police are working on the case.

Since he started penning sketches in 2009, Lavery has drawn sketches that have identified suspects in a variety of crimes and eventually led to charges. He has probably sketched between 60 and 70 suspects over the years.

“It’s an investigative tool and if it is not used for serious matters, then we are not doing everything we can,” said Lavery. “That’s why it’s one of those things that we use a lot. Red Deer RCMP call me quite a bit.”

Like the other RCMP sketch artists in Alberta, Lavery is trained through the Stuart Parks Forensic Associate organization. It is owned and operated by the Montana-based husband and wife team of Rick Parks and Carrie Stuart Parks. Both have worked in crime labs and with the FBI.

Lavery has also taken two-week courses on forensic facial imaging with the Canadian Police College in Ottawa.

A sketch artist will work with a victim or witness after the investigating officer is finished with the initial questioning.

The artist will conduct a different type of interview to get the victim or witness’s memory going. Once the artist has descriptors to work with, he will have the person flip through a facial feature photo book before he begins drawing.

“It’s their sketch,” said Lavery. “I am done drawing when they tell me I am done drawing. If they are happy with it, it means something about that is right. I could look at it after and say I hate that drawing. But as I tell them, it is not a piece of art. I am not putting it on my wall at home. This is to identify the suspect.”

The process takes about three hours.

The goal is not to draw a perfect portrait of the suspect but to draw the facial features well enough so someone will recognize the criminal, says Lavery.

“Sometimes witnesses will tell you to do things that probably isn’t correct when it comes to facial features,” he said. “But when something about it is maybe exaggerated, something about that reminds them about the person.”

Every forensic artist has a different system to ensure the anatomy and facial structure is right.

“Because what we are doing is combining different facial features from different places,” said Lavery. “And if we put them together and they don’t fit together properly, then people won’t recognize the person. They will think there is something weird about that. That’s all they will remember: the weirdness. They won’t remember what we are trying to do.”

The eight-year police veteran lives in Red Deer and has worked in Innisfail for two years. Lavery answered about five years ago when a division-wide call went out for officers with some artistic skills.

In the United States, many law enforcement agencies are using computer-based systems.

Lavery said there are some good systems available but a computer does not have a police officer’s training or interview skills.

“The problem with that is the results you get with that are not what you call human looking,” he said.

“The anatomy is a little off. If you don’t have the training or the artistic ability to make things look human, you aren’t going to have as good a result with generated suspects.”

Lavery was the kid in class who could draw but he had no formal training until he became a sketch artist.

He remembers his first time in a bank robbery investigation in High River. He wasn’t happy with the drawing but he says it was a good example of “the witness is always right.”

“I wanted to add more detail but the witness was like, no that’s perfect, stop,” said Lavery. “So I stopped.”

Lavery says he is not sure the suspect was nabbed.

“Not that I know,” he laughed. “That would have been too good of a story.”

crhyno@bprda.wpengine.com

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Attendees of the Downtown Red Deer Market, which runs every Wednesday during the summer on Little Gaetz Avenue, have complained about the lack of public washrooms. (Photo contributed by Red Deer Downtown Business Association)
Portable washrooms to be set up in downtown Red Deer this summer

More data is needed before the city invests in a permanent structure

A survey of 3,083 Red Deer residents was done by an online platform on behalf of the City of Red Deer, generating about 11,607 comments.. (File photo)
Red Deerians speak out about COVID-19 concerns in survey

More than 3,000 city residents were surveyed

A Calgary energy company's request for a tax break was turned down by Lacombe County. About $31,000 was owed by a company that went bankrupt and Silverleaf Resources Inc. bought some of their assets.
(Advocate file photo)
Lacombe County turns down oil company’s tax break request

Silverleaf Resources Inc. hoped for break on $31,000 in back taxes

RCMP recovered hundreds of stolen items, including Bibles and historical items stolen from the Bowden Pioneer Museum.
(Photo from RCMP)
Museum artifacts among hundreds of stolen items recovered by RCMP in central Alberta

Second World War and other historical and religious items recovered

Red Deer dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped save a missing pet recently. The two dogs have more than 80,000 followers on Twitter. (Contributed photo)
WATCH: Red Deer science dogs help save lost pet

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped rescue a missing pet… Continue reading

Edmonton Oilers' Kailer Yamamoto (56) and Toronto Maple Leafs' Morgan Rielly (44) reach for the rebound from Leafs goalie Michael Hutchinson (30) during second-period NHL action in Edmonton on Monday, March 1, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Michael Hutchinson earns 31-save shutout, Maple Leafs blank Oilers 3-0

Michael Hutchinson earns 31-save shutout, Maple Leafs blank Oilers 3-0

Washington Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman watches his solo home run during the third inning of a spring training baseball game against the Houston Astros Monday, March 1, 2021, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
In-game video returning to baseball for 2021

In-game video returning to baseball for 2021

Winnipeg Jets' Nathan Beaulieu (88) clears the puck in front of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) as Vancouver Canucks' Elias Pettersson (40) looks for the rebound during second-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Monday March 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Three first-period goals pace Vancouver Canucks to 4-0 victory over Winnipeg Jets

Three first-period goals pace Vancouver Canucks to 4-0 victory over Winnipeg Jets

Rugby training gear is shown during a Torotno Wolfpack during a practice at Lamport Stadium in Toronto. Bradford, Featherstone, Leigh, London,  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Neil Davidson
Plans announced to create a grassroots Canadian rugby league co-op

Plans announced to create a grassroots Canadian rugby league co-op

Ottawa Senators left wing Brady Tkachuk (7) and centre Chris Tierney (71) get sandwiched between Flames defencemen Rasmus Andersson (4) and Juuso Valimaki (6) during second-period NHL action in Ottawa on Monday, March 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Batherson scores twice for Ottawa Senators in 5-1 win over Calgary Flames

Batherson scores twice for Ottawa Senators in 5-1 win over Calgary Flames

Skiers may be safe from COVID-19, but not those working to keep slopes open: experts

Skiers may be safe from COVID-19, but not those working to keep slopes open: experts

Armas likes what he sees in Toronto FC camp but there are still issues to resolve

Armas likes what he sees in Toronto FC camp but there are still issues to resolve

Team Canada's Jocelyne Larocque celebrates her goal past the U.S.A. with goaltender Embrace Maschmeyer during first period of Women's Rivalry Series hockey action in Vancouver on February 5, 2020. The Canadian women's hockey team opened a camp Monday in Halifax, which is co-hosting the upcoming world championship. Hockey Canada invited 35 players to participate in the seven-day camp closed to the public and media at Scotiabank Centre. The women are training under restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a limit of 25 players on the ice at one time. "They will continue to follow strict COVID-19 testing as per team health and safety protocols that have been detailed and approved by Nova Scotia Public Health," Hockey Canada said Monday in a statement. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canadian women’s hockey team preparing for possible May world championship

Canadian women’s hockey team preparing for possible May world championship

Most Read