While the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children employs a team of computer artists producing age-progression images of long-lost children, missing children also have an ally in the Houston Police Department: a 66-year-old forensic artist whose thousands of drawings have included successful efforts to bring long-lost children home and reunite them with their families.
Lois Gibson’s work has been seen by investigators and the viewing public thousands of times. The vast majority of her more than 33-year law enforcement career has involved interpreting the memories of crime victims and witnesses to put a face to a wanted suspect. Often she is also asked to make difficult visits to crime scenes or morgues to reconstruct on canvas the face of the previously unidentified deceased.
“I’ve been through all these hundreds of murders, rapes, robberies, stabbings, shootings,” she said from her seventh floor office at HPD’s downtown headquarters.
Gibson has assisted on more than 1,200 solved cases, including the 2007 identification of Baby Grace and 2-year-old Riley Ann Sawyers, who was killed by her mother and stepfather and disposed of in a plastic storage container in Galveston Bay. Gibson’s drawing of the child, who had been dead for three months, led to Riley’s grandmother recognizing her on television just three days after Gibson completed the drawing.
"The stress of this job, most people can't take it at all,” she said, admitting that the toll of the Baby Grace case led to a brief emotional breakdown. “But if you can catch one person with a little stupid sketch, it's addicting.”
And what she says is also addicting is returning children to their families.
"I've identified nine people from age progressions,” she said, recounting one such success she will never forget.
Tina Shiets was 4 years old in 1963 when her mother died in a car wreck. She was separated from her younger brothers Craig and Chris who were eventually adopted by an unknown family. When she turned 16 she began looking for them, a 20-year search that turned up nothing until she enlisted Gibson’s help. Her age progression drawings of the brothers, based on their toddler photographs, aired on a national TV show. One of the brothers got in contact with Tina that same night.
"And that was one of the most gratifying moments in my life, because he's holding me crying and he's saying, 'I didn't know her name.' All he knew was he had a Sissy, he had a Sissy,” Gibson said. “And he goes, ‘I didn't know her name. Thank you for helping me find Sissy.’"
But at 66 years old, Gibson knows she is one of the very few left, one of just 26 full-time forensic artists in the entire country. So she's hoping to teach the next generation to do this, too, offering classes in her valuable profession to any interested artist.
"We've gotten a little better than the olden days, but we need to get after these kids,” Gibson said. “And sometimes now we're finding they are being held and held as sex slaves and all kinds of horrible stuff that people would really like to ignore."
Because of that, Gibson says it’s a calling from which she will probably never fully retire.
"And if I knew I could do a drawing in 45 minutes that would get a baby back to a mother that's crying, I can't not do that. Because it's too easy to get justice," she said.