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When a likeness is criminally good

One group of artists never expects thanks from its subjects – not when the resulting sketch can land the subjects in jail. They are forensic artists, who sketch the faces of criminal suspects based on witnesses' descriptions.

Last week, a sketch helped lead police to Alejandro Avila, who has been charged with abducting and murdering 5-year-old Samantha Runnion. Mr. Avila's thin mustache and combed back hair closely matched the sketch by Michael Streed, an Orange, Calif., officer.

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What made the sketch most notable: the witness who supplied those details was Samantha's 5-year-old friend. She also remembered features about the kidnapper's car down to its chrome wheels, police say.

Obtaining information from child witnesses is never easy. Their attention quickly fades or they may be too eager to please adults.

And yet, says Stephen Fusco, a forensic artist and detective with Florida's Orange County sheriff's office, children are often the best witnesses. "They don't have anything clouding their brains," says Detective Fusco, such as stress and fears.

Fusco uses the same interviewing techniques with adults and children, except for the coloring books and crayons he pulls out of his desk for younger witnesses.

Witnesses work their way through the FBI catalog of facial features, picking the right face, eyes, chin, and nose. It contains 16 different noses alone, divided by race and then broken down into categories such as hooked or flared.

Fusco draws what they pick, erasing and fixing based on the witness' input. The whole process takes about an hour. When they're done, it's often the last picture a criminal will ever want to see.