11/24/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Sunshine filters through the windows of Lois Gibson's tastefully decorated Houston living room, lighting up portraits she has set out for a visitor. This is no ordinary gallery: "This guy raped a 7-year-old quadriplegic girl," Gibson says, pointing to the face in one portrait, then turning to another. "This guy shot a policeman in the head and dragged his body 65 feet with his truck."
Kidnappers. Murderers. Rapists. Gibson, 53, knows their faces better than most. A forensic artist for the Houston police for the past 21 years, she estimates her drawings—gleaned from the sketchy memories of often-traumatized witnesses—have helped nab more than 700 criminals. Last summer, at her urging, Guinness World Records created a new category for the forensic artist who has helped catch the most criminals, which Gibson topped with 135—a number that only tallied her most easily documented cases. Says Houston Mayor Lee Brown: "You cannot overstate how important that talent is to catching the criminal."
For Gibson, it's a personal crusade. Brutally raped when she was 21 by a stranger who forced his way into her apartment, she draws on that experience to help other crime victims seek justice. "Helping to catch these guys is my therapy," says Gibson, who often recounts her own story to encourage others to open up. "It's good for that victim to know I've been through this, and it's good for me because I look at them and I realize that's how I felt, and I know how much better I am now, and I know they can get there too."
Her ability to home in on the bad guys humbles the most hardened detectives. In one case, a witness described a murderer he had seen for a second as his car sped by. Gibson's illustration parked him in jail. One kidnapper was so unnerved when he saw Gibson's depiction of his face on the news, he surrendered to the police. "I've seen her go into her office and come back with more details than we were ever able to get," marvels robbery investigator Lori Roberts.
Gibson's talent showed early on, while she was growing up in Kansas City, Mo. Her first canvases were paper bags because her parents, Don Herbert, a carpenter, and Eva, a homemaker (both deceased), didn't have money for the second of their five kids to spend on the real thing. At school she painted constantly, got straight A's and went on to study psychology at the University of Kansas. Before graduating, though, she headed to Los Angeles to work, making a good living as a photographic model.
She was alone in her Westwood apartment one May night in 1972 when she cracked open the door to a nice-looking young man who said he wanted to introduce himself. When she opened the door wider, she says, he grabbed her by the throat, dragged her to the sofa and raped her repeatedly as, choking, she faded in and out of consciousness. Then he left. Like two-thirds of rape victims, Gibson did not seek treatment or report the rape. For years she didn't even tell her closest friend, her sister Laura Schneider, 51. "I was upset and ashamed," she says. "And I thought [the police] would think it was my fault."
In 1973 she left L.A. to study art at the University of Texas at Arlington. There she met and fell in love with a fellow student, John Lawson. Their marriage lasted two years. After graduating in 1976, she moved to Houston in 1979 and made a living painting portraits. One smitten sitter was Sid Gibson, now 48. They married in October 1980. A year later, Gibson was pregnant with their son Brent (now 21; sister Tiffany is 18) when she saw a report on a rapist and realized she could have drawn the guy's picture from just a description. She tested her theory by having a friend describe a gas station attendant to her—and was stunned at the likeness she produced. A career was born. After freelancing for seven years, Gibson joined the Houston Police in 1989 and today is one of only 18 full-time forensic artists in the country.
And while she keeps a rogues' gallery in her office, the area where she interviews witnesses is decorated with more pleasant images: forests, flowers and, on her desk, the snapshot of a pretty 6-year-old girl. Two years ago Gibson helped identify her from a decomposed body found in a lake. In the photo, though, the girl is smiling, her hair set in braids—a reminder to Gibson of why she does this work. "With this job, I could weep at any moment," she says. "But I choose to hook up that energy source—and get the guy."
DANIEL S. LEVY
Gabrielle Cosgriff and Carol Rust in Houston