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July 10, 2006
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Detective Mike Baker is a different kind of artist; This type of art helps capture suspects, identify the nameless

Charles D. Perry / The Herald

Mike Baker seems like a stereotypical artist.

He's self-taught, doesn't care about getting paid for his work and he's quick to point out the societal value of art.

But about three years ago, the 45-year-old York County Sheriff's detective decided to step into a different part of the art world. It's an area not concerned with beauty, but with accuracy. This work can help catch child rapists. It can provide a face to an unidentified skull found in the woods. And it can mean the difference between bringing closure to a murder case and misleading an investigation.

Baker works in forensic art - a hybrid craft that blends artistic ability and police skills. These artists interview witnesses and draw sketches of suspects from their information. Some also build three-dimensional reconstructions of unidentified people by shaping modeling clay on actual skulls. Baker recently produced such a reconstruction - his first for the Sheriff's Office - using the skeleton of a Hispanic man that was found in Fort Mill last fall.

Most police departments don't have a forensic artist. Baker is the only one in York County. And including him, there are only seven across the state, said Lt. Roy Paschal, a forensic artist with the State Law Enforcement Division who has worked full-time in the craft for 22 years.

The reason there are so few forensic artists, Paschal said, is that the job demands a certain mix of qualities.

"It's a unique individual that becomes a forensic artist," he said.

Just the requisite artistic ability eliminates a lot of people from the craft. And many departments don't have the need for someone to do the work full time. Paschal estimated that fewer than 20 people across the country are employed solely to produce forensic art. Most forensic artists are like Baker, officers who must balance the work with other duties.

Baker's main job at the Sheriff's Office is examining polygraphs. He also coordinates the Crime Stoppers program. But his boss is more than happy he's taken on a new task.

"That brings a whole new level of expertise to our office," Sheriff Bruce Bryant said of Baker's work. "It's a great asset."

Forensic art is something Baker does mostly on his own time, and his training usually comes out of his own pocket. But for a guy who loves police work and art, the ideal blend is well worth the cost.

"This was my idea," he said. "It was my extra duty that I asked for."

Always an artist

All his life, Mike Baker has created art. He's dabbled in oil painting, watercolors and pen and ink drawings. He's also done carvings and made jewelry.

A theology student in college, he took a few art classes. But mostly he's learned the trade on his own.

Law enforcement came later in his life. When he was 26 years old, a friend told him he'd make a good officer.

And after nearly 18 years with the Sheriff's Office, he says he hasn't regretted his choice. He's worked major narcotics cases. He was on the office's first K-9 unit and the first hostage negotiation team. He's seen some crazy things. He's even had a bullet graze the side of his head.

But throughout his years of wearing a badge, Baker's never stopped working with art. And when he decided to pursue forensic art about three years ago, the idea was that if he had the ability, why not use it.

"Art, in general, serves society," he said. "Always has. But this is a different service to society that art can do."

Baker took a forensic art class in Atlanta and another in Summerville. Someone noticed his work and he received an invitation to the FBI Academy's forensic art class in Quantico, Va., a rigorous three-week course offered only to a select group of people.

Skills of the trade

Baker's classes have helped him hone his skills in the three elements of forensic art: composite sketches, two-dimensional reconstructions and three-dimensional reconstructions.

The composite sketch is the oldest technique, dating back to 1881 when English police in Scotland Yard used one for a wanted poster, said Paschal of SLED.

When it comes to composites, Paschal said forensic artists have to be visual investigators. They must ask the right questions to victims or witnesses and unlock the image they have in their minds. Then the artist must transfer that image to paper. This can be very difficult, as some victims are undergoing the most traumatic experiences of their lives. In some ways, Paschal said, it's also about comforting them.

"You want to leave the witness better than you found them," he said.

Forensic artists can also tell when people are making false allegations. Unlike other investigators, forensic artists ask witnesses questions about what they've seen.

"People don't have experience É lying about what they saw," he said.

While composites are generally used to help catch suspects, the reconstructions are often done to help identify victims. Skulls, skeletons and the remains of unknown humans are the basis for the artist's reconstruction.

Anthropologists had done reconstructions for years before police started implementing the technique in the 1970s, Baker said.

There are two basic types of reconstructions: two-dimensional and three-dimensional. The former is essentially a sketch of what a person may have looked like and the latter involves shaping modeling clay on a skull. Baker spent more than 100 hours working on the recent three-dimensional reconstruction of the skull found in Fort Mill.

Working for the victims

Interest alone can only inspire so much. When asked why he would spend extra hours and his own money to study forensic art, Baker pointed to an experience he had years ago while working as a patrol officer.

He was responding to a 911 call from a 12-year-old girl. She was home alone and a man had broken into her house. When the two saw each other, the girl had grabbed a cordless phone and ran into the closet. Baker was one of the first officers at the scene. When he got there, the 911 dispatcher told the girl the police had arrived, and with a baseball bat in one hand and the phone in the other, the girl ran out of the house and threw her arms around Baker.

"At that moment, you realize the reason that you do this," Baker said. "To me, that epitomized what a police officer is."

Now he talks to the young guys as they take their pre-employment polygraphs. They're excited about carrying a gun, kicking in doors and the fast pace that comes with being a police officer. But what Baker says the spirited rookies don't know is that the victims bring you to work every day. And that's why he says he works in forensic art: To catch those who have hurt others and help give closure to those who have lost loved ones.

"Whoever this Hispanic male is," he said, referring to the recent reconstruction, "he's got at least one person that he was important to."

Copyright 2006 McClatchy Newspapers Inc.
All Rights Reserved The Herald (Rock Hill, S.C.)

Full story: Detective Mike Baker is a different kind of artist; This type of art helps capture suspects, identify the nameless

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