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Drawn and headquartered, Artist helps police catch criminals

December 26, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Kent Roberts is an award-winning painter and cartoonist - but some of his subjects must hate his work.

Sketch artist for the Hagerstown Police Department and Washington County Sheriff's Office, Roberts works with crime victims and witnesses to create the suspect sketches that help police nab wanted criminals.

"He has been a tremendous asset," said Lt. Rick Johnson, who spent about 20 years with the Hagerstown Police Department's criminal investigation unit and now does planning and research for the department. "The life-like drawings that Kent creates are much more helpful than composites. Having that likeness plays a huge role in apprehending suspects. When his drawings are given to the media and people see them, we get an awful lot of tips."

Roberts' sketch of a man wanted for questioning in connection with the 1989 murder of Jeffrey Lynn Fiddler was dead-on, Johnson said. "When you put it next to the guy, you couldn't have gotten any closer," he said. And Roberts' drawing of the man suspected of stabbing a truck driver outside the Sheetz convenience store on South Potomac Street in Hagerstown in June was "very similar" to the appearance of Richard T. Short, who police charged in July with first- and second-degree attempted murder, first- and second-degree assault, reckless endangerment and wearing/carrying a deadly weapon with intent to injure.

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Roberts, 49, of Shippensburg, Pa., began working with Hagerstown police 15 years ago at the suggestion of friend Jeff Kercheval, supervisory forensic scientist at the Western Maryland Regional Crime Lab.

"I've always been intrigued with the face, and I thought it would be an interesting challenge," said Roberts, son of Hagerstown artist Clyde Roberts. "And I'm very pro-law enforcement so I thought it would be a good way to help catch the bad guys, so to speak."

Police call on him for help anytime a crime victim or eyewitness believes he or she can provide a good description of a suspect or other witness wanted for questioning. Roberts said he's drawn up to 50 suspect/witness sketches per year, and is busiest during the warmer weather months.

The eyes have it


Roberts works one-on-one with witnesses and victims to put their memories on paper. Multiple witnesses are separated so they don't influence each other's description, he said. Roberts first asks them to provide a general description of the sought-after subject - including race, gender, approximate age and build. Then Roberts requests that they recall such distinguishing characteristics as tattoos, scars and facial hair - "anything that stood out in their mind as unusual or memorable," he said.

"If they can give a good description, we can usually get together a good drawing," Roberts said. "If they say they can but they can't, I won't do a drawing."

Next, Roberts guides the eyewitness through a book with hundreds of examples of facial features. He asks them to take their time examining the illustrations of mouths, noses, hairstyles and eyes - especially eyes - so they can create the most accurate depiction of the subject.

"The feature that's most important to get right is the eyes" because eyes usually are unique for each individual, and are the most observed facial feature, Roberts said. Eye color, however, often is overlooked.

Roberts begins his sketch with the facial shape - oval, heart, square, round - and lightly draws in other features based upon the witness' description and choices from the book. He makes the witness' suggested revisions before shading in the sketch to give it a three-dimensional feel and to enhance definition, he said.

"Once they say they like it, I call the detective back into the room and say, 'This is the likeness,'" Roberts said.

The entire process usually takes less than an hour, he said.

Roberts said he derives a great deal of satisfaction from the fact that his sketches "have helped bring people to justice."

Mugs and mutts


In addition to providing suspect/witness sketches and caricatures of retiring Hagerstown police officers, Roberts works as a freelance caricature and pet portrait artist. He sometimes also teaches adult watercolor, drawing, acrylic painting and cartooning classes at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown.

Clyde Roberts, 81, fostered in both his children - Kent Roberts and Cindy Downs - a deep appreciation for art.

"My father was my first art teacher. I'd sit down and draw with him from the time I could pick up a pencil," Roberts said. "All my early heroes were the great Mad magazine artists."

He spent 14 years as a commercial art instructor at the Career Studies Center - now the Washington County Technical High School - in Hagerstown after graduating from Columbus (Ohio) College of Art Design, and 11 years designing holiday and party products for the Beistle Co. in Shippensburg.

Roberts is now building his caricature and watercolor pet portrait businesses. He said his animal art has appeared on popular TV shows and in wildlife magazines, and his painting of a wolf won the People's Choice award at the 66th annual Cumberland Valley Artists Exhibition. His "Quik Takes" limited edition, humorous prints of greyhounds are sold on the greyhound art dealer Greytart.com Web site.

For more information about Roberts' work, call 1-717-530-1056 or send e-mail to caricaturist@webtv.net or petportraits@webtv.net.

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