A 15-year-old girl has come to police headquarters in downtown Houston to describe the man who sexually assaulted her the week before. She settles into Lois Gibson's office, while Gibson, a self-taught forensic artist, gets her easel ready.
After some small talk about school, Gibson, 51, confides that she, too, was a rape victim. "For a while, I was scared of everyone," she says. Then she gets to work.
"Is this guy white or black or—"
"Black," says the girl.
"Was he fat, skinny, or average?"
"Do you know how tall he was?"
"Five feet eight inches."
"Was he light, medium, or dark?"
"Darker than me."
"What was his hair like?"
"Cut low, no hair on the side, a bald fade."
After about an hour, she turns the easel so the girl can see the completed sketch. "You're good," the girl says.
Gibson is indeed good. Her drawings have helped put more than 940 criminals behind bars since she started working for the Houston police in 1982. Three out of ten of her sketches result in a positive identification of a rapist, murderer, or robber. In many cases, the sketch is the only lead, but once police find a suspect, they often discover enough additional evidence to arrest him. The FBI, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and U.S. Marshals Service have also used Gibson's drawings.
"The real value of Lois Gibson is not her artistic talent, although that's pretty substantial," says Captain Richard Williams, who headed the Houston police robbery division for nine years. "To be quite honest, artists are a dime a dozen. What Lois brings to the table is her ability to get inside the heads of folks who have been traumatized—who have only seen their perpetrators for a few seconds or a few minutes—and squeeze out of these people's subconscious descriptions that she's able to translate to canvas."
Gibson is passionate about her job because she sees it as payback for her rape 30 years ago. "I've turned my attack into a means of getting justice for all the other victims," she says. "I know I'm getting back at that guy who hurt me. I'm getting back at his kind. It makes me feel powerful. I never thought I'd be powerful. I get this power over murderers and rapists from my drawings. The misery he gave me is a tool I use to commiserate with the witnesses and persuade them to pull out their memories."
"I'm addicted to catching criminals and stopping men who go around hurting people for fun," she says. "Hemingway said, 'There is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it never care for anything thereafter.' I will never retire. If I lose my hand, I'll get a hook."
Gibson also wants to train others. This fall she will teach a class at Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety in Evanston, Illinois. "I hope more people will use their artistic talent to benefit law enforcement," she says, "and that hundreds of criminals will be caught."
What You Can Do
From the June 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!