As a detective for the DeKalb Police Department, Angel Reyes spends most of his time investigating crimes. But he also focuses on preventing crime, particularly the ever-changing crime of fraud.
“We hope that through education people will not become victimized,” Reyes said. “These scams have been going on for many, many years and they always have some sort of variation to make it new and let it work for a little while, and then when that’s run out the scammers will find a new way of doing it.”
Reyes, a lifelong doodler, is also the only police sketch artist in DeKalb County. He honed his skills with training from the FBI, and he is often loaned to other jurisdictions that do not have an officer with sketching skills. Police cannot arrest a subject solely because of a sketch, but sketches are often vital tools for identifying and questioning suspects.
“It’s under-used, and it’s something that should be used by more departments,” he said.
Reyes sat down with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg last week to discuss fraud and sketch artistry.
MidWeek: How long have you been with the DeKalb Police Department?
Angel Reyes: I have been a police officer for 22 years and I have been with the City of DeKalb for 15 years.
MW: Earlier this week, the DeKalb Police Department posted on its Facebook page about a scam that targets elderly people, trying to make them think their grandchildren are in peril. Is this kind of scam common?
AR: Yes. I couldn’t tell you when it started, but I think we started seeing it a few years ago. We had several residents of DeKalb get phone calls from someone saying they were a grandchild, because they are trying to pick on the older adults. They would say they were out of the country and that they are in some kind of trouble, and they need a lot of money because their car got towed or they were arrested by a foreign government. They plead not to tell mom and dad, “because they’ll be really upset at me,” and (the grandparents) will wire the money to them.
A majority of our scams request to wire money because when you wire by Western Union, you don’t have to be where you say you’re at. You could say you’re in California, but you could be in Nigeria, you could be in Europe, you could be in Canada.
MW: How much authority do you have to pursue the scammers?
AR: We do deal with a lot of people after the fact. We’ll do any kind of report that has to do with our citizens being scammed and we’ll take it is far as we can. If it goes to another jurisdiction, we’ll send it to another jurisdiction and handle it that way because a lot of our scams are re-shipper scams and a lot of times the re-shipper is not aware that what they’re doing is criminal, and hopefully we can get items back and get cash back.
MW: Are most of the scams in DeKalb attempted in person, on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet?
AR: Your mail scams aren’t as big as they used to be because of the Internet and phishing scams. A lot of people don’t realize that if they get an email that looks official from their bank or credit card company, they should never click on any link in an email. Your bank, first off, is not going to contact you by email to say your account has been suspended because of some fraudulent activity. …If they do get a suspicious email like that, they should call us. There have been times that banks in our community, while it was not known to them, someone was sending suspicious emails (pretending to be that bank).
MW: Are the scammers usually small-time crooks, or are they part of larger crime organizations?
AR: You cannot say 100 percent that every one is part of a larger group or part of a smaller group, but we do know there are people out there who are working for a larger group doing these scams, and there may very well be people out there who are doing it on their own.
MW: What methods do you use to warn area residents?
AR: We talk to groups whenever we can. We talk at senior centers, because a lot of the victims are older adults. When we have something that involves banks, we are really good with communicating with them to let them know what we have and we’ll ask them if they have seen anything. We have methods of contacting law enforcement agencies in other jurisdictions, and now we have our Facebook page. …If we get a notice from another law enforcement agency that says, “Hey, this is what’s going on over here,” we can try to be proactive in that way.
MW: How long have you been on Facebook?
AR: We just got on Facebook this past year.
MW: If someone thinks they might have been scammed, or they suspect a scammer is targeting them, do you want them to call you right away?
AR: Yes, definitely. You’re going to find that with the older population, a lot of time they don’t want to report being victimized, whether it’s a home improvement scam or some other scam. They don’t want their children to know they have been scammed, and they don’t want (their children) to think that they’re not able to be on their own.
MW: Which came first: Your artistic talent, or your desire to be a police officer?
AR: I think you’ll find that when you talk to any kind of forensic artist, they started out doodling and drawing cartoons. I have always been kind of notorious for taking advantage of funny moments within the department and I’ll draw a cartoon of somebody doing something goofy or something funny happening. From there, it led to the opportunity to attend some training for forensic artists.
MW: What is the process to develop a sketch when you are interviewing a victim?
AR: We give them a book with details of eyes, noses, mouths and we’ll have them pick out the ones that were closest to the ones on the person they saw. Then we put all those features together and do a rough drawing, and we’ll ask them if there’s anything they want to change. Are the proportions right?
MW: Do you start with the eyes?
AR: That’s an officer preference, I think. I like to start with the eyes, nose and mouth and we’ll do a circle for the head for a rough sketch, and then we go from there.
MW: Does the witness or victim watch you sketch as you go along?
AR: I guess that depends on the artist, but I don’t. I never really liked anyone looking over my shoulder when I’m drawing, even when I’m goofing around.
MW: How do you decipher vague, shifting or even contradicting descriptions given to you by witnesses?
AR: If you can’t do a composite, then you don’t do a composite and that has happened before. …There are some people who say, “Well, I really don’t remember a lot," but we will sit down and say, “Let’s talk this out and see if we can figure out it,” and with the cognitive interviewing you can get them to remember enough details to do it. When a person tells our guys, “Hey, I don’t think I can do one,” that doesn't stop us. We still want to talk to them.
MW: Even if they can’t remember facial details, can you get them to remember other important details like a tattoo or a piece of jewelry?
AR: Composite drawing is not just for the face. If someone had some stolen jewelry or if they remember a tattoo on that person, that doesn’t stop us from asking for details about the tattoo. We can send detail about the tattoo to law enforcement just as well.
MW: Many police departments are using computer software for their forensic sketches. Is computer software a part of your sketching process?
AR: Computers are a little bit more limited. They are coming out with systems that give you more options for changing your composite, but I think when it comes down to it, when you want to do a thorough drawing of someone and you want to be as accurate as you can, a pencil and a pad of paper is probably the best because you can make fine line changes to the composite.
MW: Are your interviewing skills as important as your drawing skills?
AR: Oh definitely. It’s called cognitive interviewing. When you talk to a person you get details out of them by bringing them back to that moment, and they start recalling more features and more stuff about the subject matter, whatever you are drawing. It’s sweet – if you do a proper interview, you’re going to get a composite that’s the best that they can remember, and that’s a fairly close likeness to the person you are looking for.
MW: How long do you have to keep the person calm and focused to finish a drawing?
AR: It typically takes me two to two and a half hours to finish a drawing. Most times, by the time they get to me, they have calmed down. It may be a day later, and we can sit down in a more controlled environment to do the composite.
MW: Do you take pride in doing things the old-fashioned way?
AR: (Laughs) Are we just talking about sketching? Because when it comes to report writing, I’m all for using computers. I don’t want to do that on a typewriter or hand-write a report. But when it comes to sketching, I’m more comfortable with a pen and paper in my hand. We did have a software program a long time ago but it was never used.
MW: I read that there only two FBI-trained sketch artists left in the Chicago area. Does that make you feel like part of a dying breed?
AR: You’re right, there aren't that many full-time forensic artists and that’s the key. Chicago has a full-time forensic artist. Houston has a full-time forensic artist. The last I heard there were maybe 10 to 12 full-time artists in the United States, but there are a lot of us who are part-time forensic artists. I think that’s around 300 to 400 of us.
MW: I read about one sketch artist in Cook County who said that for every 10 sketches he produces, three lead to apprehension of a suspect. Is that about the success rate you have?
AR: I do track my results, and nationally our average is about 33 percent of the drawings contribute to the apprehension of someone. We haven’t done a lot of sketches lately, but the first few years I was right about at 33 percent. We had some pretty interesting cases.
MW: Can you discuss any of those cases?
AR: Sure. We had a robbery of a person who was a student at (Northern Illinois University). The person said that the suspect had a hat on backwards, and the hair was in an Afro. So I started the drawing and I was being kind of conservative, and the person said “No, it was really sticking out, it was like this." I don’t know if you remember Bozo the Clown, but the hair was sticking out like that. When I got done with the drawing, I thought it looked like a cartoon. Who would wear their hair like that? But the following day we were staking out the area by an apartment complex, and we saw a guy with hair sticking out but kind of tied at the sides and that ended up being the guy. …It seems like more of my student ones end up being right on. …There was one where we did a drawing for a student who had a backpack stolen while she was waiting for a bus. We ended up arresting a person and the composite was sitting on the table, and when (the suspect’s) mother came by she happened to walk by the table and she said, “What are you doing with a drawing of my daughter?” That adds credibility to composite drawings. They are an effective tool.
MW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AR: I have a web page that you can check out if you want more information. It has some of the drawings that we have done here, as well as some of the ones we have used to arrest people with a synopsis of the case. It’s www.policeforensicartist.com.