Published on February 9th, 2013 📆 | 8191 Views ⚑0
Behind the scenes: Police sketch artist catches criminals with a pencil
BY IHOSVANI RODRIGUEZ
FORT LAUDERDALE The robbery victim was hogtied, shoved into a closet and ordered to stop looking at the gunman’s face.
Nearly three months after the crime, the cellphone store employee found himself once again staring at the gunman’s menacing mug.
“It’s him. Damn, it’s the same,” the victim exclaimed. “It’s him.”
This time, the face was a police sketch drawing, an old-school, pencil-and-paper job that is part art and part police work.
The composite was hand-drawn by John McMahon, a caricaturist with a gun, badge and pencil. A third-generation cop who was born with an artistic streak, McMahon, 55, is a veteran forensic artist and robbery detective with the Broward Sheriff’s Office.
McMahon and his brethren of forensic artists are relics in a modern crime fighting world where video surveillance systems and computer software often replace the pen and paper.
His sketches over the years — each signed “McMahon BSO” — have captured the faces of South Florida’s dark side, including serial killers, rapists, burglars, and kidnappers.
Legend has it that even some in the criminal underworld are admirers of his work.
“We have had kids come in here and say they’ve seen others with ‘McMahon BSO’ tattooed on their necks,” McMahon said. “We haven’t seen them, but we would love to talk to those people, just because I am curious.”
Recent McMahon composites include a spot-on sketch he did of a man suspected of jumping over the fence of a Wilton Manors emergency shelter for children and performing sexual acts with two teenage girls.
Less than a week later, police arrested Brian Denby, 30, who is now awaiting trail.
Wilton Manors Police Detective Nick Fiacco, who led the case, said his agency distributed copies of the sketch in the shelter’s neighborhood. An anonymous caller pointed police to Denby after looking at the sketch, Fiacco said.
“At the beginning of the case, we didn’t have a person. It was unbelievably dead-on,” Fiacco said of the sketch.
The Sheriff’s Office does not keep track of how many arrests have been made because of McMahon’s sketches, noting the artwork is only a part of an investigation. But McMahon has been an expert witness in more than 900 cases in the past 25 years because of his sketches.
He’s donated his services to nearly every other law enforcement agency in South Florida, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He is currently a forensic consultant with the television program “America’s Most Wanted.”
A sketch for the popular show became one of McMahon’s most memorable. Producers asked him to help in the ongoing search for the criminal often referred to as “The Boca Killer.”
The notorious case involves the murder of a mother and daughter whose bodies were discovered in the parking lot of the Town Center mall. Nancy Bochicchio, 47, and her daughter, Joey Bochicchio-Hauser, 7, were found on Dec. 12, 2007, shot to death in their still-idling SUV.
McMahon interviewed a witness for nearly three hours, and worked on the sketch itself nearly half a day. As recently as December, police continued to distribute McMahon’s colorful sketch in hopes of cracking the case.
The reality reflected in McMahon’s drawings can be uncanny.
During the hunt for a suspected serial rapist in 2009, Sheriff’s Office Detective Julie Bower was handing out some of McMahon’s sketches in an Oakland Park neighborhood. A man, later identified as Eduardo Ortiz-Romero, rode a bicycle right past the detective.
“I turned around and I was, ‘Oh my God, that’s him.’ Like this can’t be happening,” Bower recalled this week. “You look at the sketch and at his picture and it’s the same picture.”
Ortiz-Romero confessed and is now serving 20 years in prison.
For McMahon, the path from street cop to renowned sketch artist who catches rapists and other criminals with a pencil began in 1979 at the scene of a double murder. He was directing traffic. A police lieutenant familiar with McMahon’s artistic doodling had an idea.
“He sent over the witness to me. We went to the courthouse where our office used to be and I did the composite,” he said. “It was a nightmare. I had no training. I was a good artist, and a good interviewer, but had no training.”
Over the next three decades, McMahon developed his own style and procedure, one he still uses today.
An interview session with a victim or witness is almost like counseling. The burly detective comes across as friendly and as a confidant, offering words of encouragement as he tries to tap into a person’s memories.
“When I have a witness that comes in, I have to have a personal relationship with them so they can think of me as John, not just some police artist,” McMahon said.
Extracting an accurate portrait is crucial, he said.