Assailants Captured In Art

By Sara Faruqi, Toronto Police Service Published: 6 a.m. November 4, 2015
Updated: 10:03 a.m. November 4, 2015

When Forensic Artist Jo Orsatti is finished her work, victims and witnesses of crime, once again, come face-to-face with a painful memory.

A sketch of a man on a monitor
A composite sketch being composed by Forensic Artist Jo Orsatti using Adobe Photoshop and a Wacom display

But far from feeling revictimized, they often find some measure of solace and empowerment in completing a sketch.

While they may be scared going into it, more often than not they leave saying “I’m glad I did it.’”

This has been Detective Constable Grisel Fitkin’s experience. The Sex Crimes investigator has worked with Orsatti on numerous cases and says that often complainants are apprehen- sive about taking part in a com- posite sketch.

“I ask them, afterwards, whether they regretted doing it and they always say ‘I’m glad I did it.’ It’s overall a positive experience for them and Jo is always so supportive,” says Fitkin. They feel “relaxed, respected and that they have been treated with dignity.”

Orsatti sits with the victim or witness, alone in her studio, located at Forensic Identification Services. “This is so there is no influence from anyone else,” says Fitkin. “And Jo doesn’t know anything about the crime.”

The studio is different from most police stations. The white harsh overhead lights of an office are turned off, replaced with the glow of a lamp. There are always tea, soup and snacks available in the studio and even a care package that Orsatti will have ready with a teddy bear.

Forensic Artist Jo Orsatti Capturing Assailants In Art

Orsatti got her start as a photo technician at FIS in 1986 where, as a trained artist, she often worked with forensic artist Bette Clark. It was Clark’s idea to start a studio for composite sketches in an environment that would be comfortable for witnesses and victims of crime 31 years ago.

“Sometimes, I have seen complainants hold the bear while they do the composite. It gives them a measure of comfort,” says Sex Crimes Detective Ali Ansari, of capturing a glimpse of the process at work.

Victims and witnesses have to relive a traumatic experience, and any small measure of comfort can go a long way.

“A composite drawing is a generous thing a witness or victim is doing,” explains Orsatti. After all, they have witnessed or been a victim of a crime that is unpleasant to remember. In some cases, it’s a memory they would rather not recall.

The victim or witness is the driving engine of the drawing and I have to have the confidence to draw it

When Orsatti sits with them, she works with the flow of the person whose memory she is using to create an image.

“The victim or witness is the driving engine of the drawing and I have to have the confidence to draw it,” she says, of how they come together to create an image. “In tandem we draw. I ensure their sense of ease and enable the memory they wish they could dismiss.”

Orsatti uses a stylus to draw and execute commands over a 24-inch Wacom tablet connected to her Mac Mini, to manipulate an image in Adobe Photoshop.

The witness or victim will sit next to Orsatti, and the two will start towards creating one aspect of the image. It can take just one hour or as many as ten. Orsatti doesn’t dictate the pace or rush anyone through the process. “In a culture of quick fixes and magical software, we slow down and connect to a person’s memory.”

Orsatti describes the work as an improvisation process facilitated by the software. The artist and witness or victim can thus work in rhythm. There is no need to start from the nose or the eyes. With a large graphics tablet and Photoshop, Orsatti can change layers, redo, undo, morph and feather any part of the drawing. The two can work hand-in-hand, getting closer to a likeness.

Often, Orsatti will hand the stylus to the person if they are unable to articulate a description but can see it and change it on the tablet itself.

“She gives them a lot of control. They will move things around, she empowers them and allows them to show her how things should look,” says Fitkin.

Orsatti will work with anyone within the Service who needs her, whether it’s a sexual assault, a murder or a financial crime.

“Every investigation is individual and I am proud to work with investigators whose great desire, along with every witness and victim I have met, is to stop

the cycle.” 

It’s not necessarily a face either; she draws anything an investigator needs, whether a tattoo, a logo or a vehicle.

“A composite could be very, very helpful, especially if it is done well and we know that Jo Orsatti is one of the best and her composites are very good. And, sometimes, when we arrest an offender and we look at their booking photo and we put it besides the composite, we are shocked at how closely they resemble (each other),” says Ansari.

He adds that a composite sketch holds importance, especially when news releases go public, because people some- times pay more attention to an image rather than words describing a person.

“Words don’t always convey... so visual representation of the suspect assists the public and whoever who is going to look at this composite and say ‘oh yeah I think I know that person’ or maybe ‘so and so resembles that sketch’, and those are the people who would call us with tips,” Ansari says.

These composites also help because they can act as tool for public safety. People may be able to recognize an offender and know the person is dangerous and hopefully report a sighting to police.

A hands with a stylus over a monitor with a signature
Jo Orsatti signs her name to a composite sketch

And while Orsatti has created hundreds of composite sketches in her last 14 years as a forensic artist for the Toronto Police, one thing that remains with her is the fact that when a victim comes to her, they are doing so with a strong sense of stopping the per- petrator of a crime.

“These are people who don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she says.

Video: Jennifer Ford and Sara Faruqi

TPS crest watermark