Hansen: For sketch artist in Creighton slayings, the best police tool can be pencil, not gun - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, July 20, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:06 am
Hansen: For sketch artist in Creighton slayings, the best police tool can be pencil, not gun

Is that really what the killer's nose looks like?

Three or four residents of the same Dundee neighborhood stood together in a room inside the Omaha Police Department's headquarters.

They surrounded a man who had walked into the police station wearing his badge and his gun and carrying a tackle box filled with pencils and erasers.

For maybe two hours on March 14, 2008, they consulted his book, one considered the Bible of sketch artistry — an FBI manual with hundreds of pictures of each part of the human face.

And they debated the nose. It's too small, one person said, according to a witness in the room that day.

Capt. Eric Sellers, Omaha's main police sketch artist, erased and redrew.

Now maybe it's too big.

Latest developments

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said Friday he will ask a judge to withhold bail for the physician charged with four counts of first-degree murder.

Dr. Anthony J. Garcia, 40, is scheduled to appear in the Douglas County Jail Court at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The date was incorrect in some Friday editions.

Garcia's Illinois attorneys, Robert and Alison Motta, have hired Omaha defense lawyers Dan Stockmann and Pat Dunn to assist them.

Garcia was extradited from the Jackson County Jail in Murphysboro, Ill. He was arrested early Monday in Illinois. — Maggie O'Brien

Sellers erased and redrew again.

When they agreed, Sellers put the finishing touches on his sketch, signed it and packed up his pencils.

For the next five years, this sketch would stand as the defining image of Omaha's most heinous cold case, a baffling double-murder that then grew to two double murders.

For the next five years — until Monday — that sketch would be shown over and over on Crime Stoppers and “America's Most Wanted” and in this newspaper, asking questions no one seemed to know.

Who killed sweet sixth-grader Thomas Hunter? Who killed house cleaner Shirlee Sherman?

Who did this? Who is this?

“When the sketch came out, I thought, I think this resembles (him),” said one of the witnesses, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Because we all saw glimpses.

“But it's difficult,” she said about describing the side glance she got at the suspected killer. “Difficult when you don't know you have to remember.”

I stared at the sketch this week. Then I stared at the photo of Dr. Anthony J. Garcia, the man arrested and suspected of the four slayings that rattled midtown Omaha and the Creighton University community for years.

Then I stared at the sketch again.

I decided I needed to meet the man who sketched it.

Sellers occupies a roomy office in the Douglas County Law Enforcement Center off of West Maple Road.

He is the captain in charge of the Douglas County Sheriff Office's uniformed services bureau, and he looks the part of commanding officer: build of a Marine, close-cropped hair, a handgun strapped to his side and a bulletproof vest sitting in the corner.

In other words, he doesn't look like any artist I know.

But when Sellers was a boy, he would take photos of family and friends and then sit alone for hours with pencils and watercolors. He would make portraits.

After he became a police officer, he learned of training that allows full-time officers to become part-time sketch artists.

He took the classes, 240 hours in all, and learned the secrets of the composite sketch, things like underlying bone structure and the real distance between eyes.

For missing person sketches, he learned how to draw someone a decade older than they appear in their last known photo.

And, maybe most important, he learned this: Never, ever deviate from what the witness describes.

“That's how it's different from a portrait,” he says. “You aren't trying to make it come to life as you see it. You are trying to make it exactly as the witness sees it.”

Sellers wouldn't talk much about his sketching role in the double homicides, citing the open investigation.

But he generally described a sketching process that is painstaking and littered with potential land mines.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

When he does a sketch for the Sheriff's Office or a nearby police force, which happens once or twice a month, he starts with the big stuff.

Man or woman? Big or small? What ethnicity?

Then, if the person says something general, like “white,” he narrows it down. Tan or pale? Swarthy or Nordic? A witness will often point at photos that Sellers brings to describe the skin tone.

Then, the hard work: The witness will leaf through page after page of nose sizes and shapes in the FBI manual and pick one. Sellers will draw the nose freehand.

The same for the ears and the eyes. Same for the mouth and the cheekbones. On and on, a process sometimes made more difficult when the witness changes his or her mind midstream. Then, Sellers has to erase and keep going.

After he's done, Sellers asks the witness to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much the sketch looks like the person the witness saw.

If it's a 10, the detectives on the case usually choose to release it publicly.

If it's a 4 — as it sometimes is when the suspect doesn't have many defining facial features, or if the witness simply isn't sure — then they generally don't.

“This isn't a perfect tool or anything,” he says. “It's just another tool to get leads.”

Sellers has done hundreds of sketches. Police departments like him because he's one of them and won't, for example, leak a key piece of an investigation like a civilian artist might.

So he says nothing — just smiles a little —when I tell him that I think his sketch looks like a thinner, slightly younger Dr. Anthony Garcia.

Other physical characteristics of the sketch and related description seem to match, too.

Olive skin. Dark hair. A height of 5-foot-9.

That Honda-CRV seen leaving the scene is the same make and model as the one Garcia used to drive.

But the rest of the face is a compilation. The witnesses, all neighbors of the Hunters, saw different views of the same man either driving toward —or walking away from — the pretty brick house where Dr. Bill Hunter later discovered the bodies of his youngest son and the family house cleaner.

The sketch stands as a construction of their memories, a visual depiction of several fleeting glances that soon became oh-so-important to catching a killer.

“Our neighborhood was shocked,” says the witness. “Tommy (Hunter) was dead ... and we never realized what we saw we would have to remember.”

Sellers says he's used to seeing his sketch work show up on TV and in the newspaper. But he clearly takes pride in a job well done, appreciates those moments when a detective calls him and says, “We caught him, and the sketch looked just like him,” about a robber or a rapist.

For the witness, seeing the sketch off-and-on for five years has taken on a different meaning. It's a glance turned into a constant reminder about what the Hunter and Sherman families lost — and the justice the witness always has hoped would be found.

“It was unnerving,” seeing the sketch, the witness says. “But I was just always hoping they were going somewhere with it.”

I ask the witness if she thinks the sketch looks like Dr. Anthony Garcia. She exhales.

“Yes,” she says quietly. “I do.”

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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