Anchorage Police say random violent and sexual crimes don’t happen often here -- most victims know their attackers -- but in rare instances, where the public’s safety is at risk and the suspect is unknown, they have a tool in their toolbox they can use to solve the case.

“If you're being assaulted, literally, your brain and your body -- you're just trying to survive the assault,” explained APD Detective Chris Thomas, who formerly investigated crimes against children and now works with APD’s special victims unit.

Thomas says despite the trauma, and how it affects the brain, he’s found some victims are still able to remember physical facial features that stand out, well enough to put together a composite sketch.

“One woman was like, ‘No, I remember his hair,’ and she was really focused on his hair, for whatever reason, because that's the thing that she encoded,” said Thomas.

It’s rare for Thomas to use a composite sketch; even in the three cases he has, the Anchorage community never saw them.

Sketches are first released internally, in case an APD officer can make a positive identification.

In the rare instance, APD decides to release a composite sketch to the public, the decision is usually made by the detective on the case, and carries risk and liability with it, as the sketch could look like many people, not just the suspect.

“Anytime you release something to the public and say, ‘Hey, we're looking for this person, this is a person of interest or a suspect,’ there's some responsibility there,” said Thomas.

The last time APD released a composite sketch of a suspect was in 2016. The suspect was later identified as serial killer James Ritchie, after he initiated a fatal shootout with police.

Whether APD decides to make a composite sketch depends on two facts: Whether the suspect is known to the victim, and how well the victim saw the suspect.

In most cases, Thomas explains, the victim might have only seen the suspect for “an adrenaline-filled 30 or 40 seconds.”

APD’s sketches are created digitally, with a software program called “FACES”. The program was created in 1998, and the department started using it shortly thereafter. Before the software program was available, APD outsourced, sometimes hiring an artist from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“[Crime] doesn't always happen at a time when we can reach out and find a sketch artist,” explained Thomas, adding, “If I had my choice, a human sketch artist available at all hours of the night would be pretty convenient.”

In the absence of that scenario, the department has found using the software is the most efficient way to produce timely composite sketches when necessary.

“This is available to us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” said Thomas.

KTVA put the software to the test, describing an employee to APD from memory, then asking the employee’s acquaintances if they recognized the composite. The rendering of KTVA’s Lauren Maxwell got multiple positive identifications from KTVA employees and even KTVA viewers.

“This doesn't need to be exact. What this needs to do is get us to a suspect. This is an investigative tool. This doesn't have to be a portrait. We just need people to go you know what? I think that's Joe Smith, I think I know who that is,” said Thomas.

A spokesperson for APD said the department doesn’t have data available on how often sketches are created because they’re used so infrequently. 

Copyright 2017 KTVA. All rights reserved.


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