In a Scottsdale classroom, lost and wanted souls come to life under the guidance of one of the world’s leading forensic artists.
Two skulls sit on the shelf above the desk, their faces angled toward each other as if they’re whispering secrets. Aside from these grinning companions, however, Kirt Messick’s office isn’t especially macabre. His bulletin board is covered with photos of his wife and two young sons. A water feature gurgles and trickles, and Josh Groban sings softly from a speaker somewhere. It might almost be the office of, say, a family therapist.
“I had to give up my man card for this color,” admits Messick, gesturing at the mauve-lavender shade of the walls. “But it’s a calming color.”
His man card could surely be redeemed, however, by the work he does: helping to catch violent criminals. Although his calmingly-painted office is housed in the Phoenix Police Department, his crime-fighting tools are not a gun and a badge and handcuffs, but rather pencil and paper and computer software, and a comforting manner. He’s the department’s forensic artist.
As such, he’s one of less than a hundred professionals around the country who can claim the title as their full-time job. The “composite drawings” we see on TV news or in the papers are often done by police officers or civilian employees with a knack for drawing, or occasionally by freelancers brought in on a major case. The pictures they’re asked to draw are usually of suspects, but they may also do “age progressions” of people who have been missing (or in hiding) for a long time, or postmortem reconstructions from human remains.
On top of a filing cabinet sits a recent specimen of Messick’s work – a portrait, rendered with both technical skill and expressive flair, of a man with curly hair and a tiny soul patch under his lower lip. The pleasant expression on the guy’s face is evidently deceptive – this composite drawing was made a few days earlier, based on the descriptions of the subject’s victim.
“I’ve learned never to discount the witness,” Messick says. To demonstrate, he tells the story of a hate crime he once worked: A black man and a white woman were walking together across a store parking lot. A white man passing in a car hurled a racial epithet at them, then circled the parking lot and fatally shot the woman.
“The witness was, maybe, involved in some