Vol. 80, No. 4Ask an expert

Man surrounded by clay sculptures of heads.

Drawing out suspects

Artist's sketches solve crimes

As part of his job, Cst. Alexandre L'Heureux creates a mold of a skull to identify human remains. Credit: Courtesy of Alexandre L'Heureux, RCMP

Cst. Alexandre L'Heureux is one of two full-time RCMP forensic sketch artists. The former track star didn't know what to do with his life when injury derailed his Olympic aspirations in 2007. However, a chat with his dad, a former Montreal-area municipal police officer, changed everything. Paul Northcott spoke with L'Heureux about his career, which he describes as the best job in the RCMP.

How did you get involved in forensic sketching?

Through sheer luck. I had no idea this position even existed when I joined the RCMP. I was a designer for an architecture firm following my college days and I've always done fine arts on the side. Drawing people and faces is nothing new to me. It was very early in my RCMP career, I don't think I had two years of service, when I met (retired forensic artist) Michel Fournier. He asked me if I could draw and I said I would like to. So then I worked as an alternate artist for a couple of years. I started in 2012 working under him and he mentored me.

Tell me about becoming full time. Did you just submit drawings to get the job?

You know that's exactly how it was, and I did three drawings. You have to draw faces without looking at anything and you have to be able to draw a face from description. You also have to be a good interviewer and in the Atlantic region you have to be bilingual. Ninety per cent of this process is interviewing the person for the sketches. If you don't relate with the person in front of you, you're not going to get a good result. I had that ability to speak with people and, most importantly, get their trust.

How do you get the information for your sketches?

When a person needs to be identified, and we have a witness, I'm contacted by the lead investigator and we set up a meeting with the witness. It's important that the witness is co-operative and willing to work with me. I'll then go through some mental exercises to jolt the memory and I'll ask them to describe what took place, and to add as much detail as possible. I also ask for a verbal description of the person, and will give the witness a book of visual aids that shows different facial features. Hopefully, the witness will then pick certain features that triggers their memory.

As the witness goes through the visual aids, I'll start to draw. When the witness sees the drawing, they will make a mental comparison from what they see to what they remember. From there, I work with the witness to make the necessary changes until they're satisfied that they can no longer do anything to make the sketch better. What we get is an approximation of the person of interest. In some cases, the results are very accurate.

Why does the RCMP need sketch artists?

We deal with pretty serious crimes, where there's no identified suspect or person of interest. This is the case in many investigations throughout Canada — we have a crime but we don't have a name or suspect. We're the last resort to further any investigation. Every time I get a call, it's because they (investigators) have done everything they can and there's no information coming in — there's no identified suspect. If we don't solve these crimes, it can be very frustrating. And we're also not helping the public if we're not doing everything we can to further our investigation.

You do more than sketches. What is facial reconstruction?

If DNA or dental records can't identify the person, the human remains come to me. Then I work with anthropologists to find out as much detail about the individual as we can: sex, age, anything that can help in the reconstruction. Then I do a mold of the skull, and if it's not clean I clean it — basically I'll boil the head with a solution, then I'll take off all the tissues around the face. Once I have that copy of the skull, I'll apply tissue markers. They describe the depth at which the muscle, the blood vessels . . . everything that's attached from the surface of the skull to skin. Then I'll put in glass eyeballs and sculpt the entire face out of clay to create a very educated approximation of what the person would have looked like. I've only done two of these in my career.

How do you cope with that type of work?

When I joined the RCMP, I was afraid of blood. When I was at Depot (RCMP Training Academy), my teammates would tell me to look away. One day I was brought to see an autopsy. It was the kick in the butt I needed and after that, I was able to deal with human parts and every scenario you can imagine. Now I have dealt with death ever since and I'm not bothered by it anymore. I can handle human heads in my hands, touch dead flesh, and do the things we don't particularly enjoy doing. It's not something I ever imagined myself doing, but we have a lot of human remains in Canada that are just waiting to be identified. Reconstruction is a crucial tool that we have to identify these people so the families can have some closure and pay their respects.

Will your work become obsolete one day?

No. First of all, there are only so many cameras you can put up, even in urban areas. Here in the Atlantic region, we work in a lot of rural areas. Many of the crimes that happen are residential and not everyone has security cameras. And even if they have a camera, it doesn't mean the quality of the images will be any good and adequate enough to identify an individual.

How often does your work lead to arrests?

Even if you have a solid drawing of an individual, it's what we do with that sketch that matters most. Distribute a sketch through the media, and you will get a 100 calls. Out of these, you might just get lucky and have one that will send you in the right direction. In general, our results are 50/50. But it's just like fingerprints: you might have 10 successes in a row and then have 10 that lead nowhere. In the end, it's all about teamwork and doing everything we can to help those we serve and protect.

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