GBI's renowned sketch artist a pro at capturing suspects

A 'D' in art didn't stop Marla Lawson from becoming the best at her craft

You wouldn't know it by looking at Marla Lawson, or by reviewing her resume, which includes a stint making sandwiches at Subway and sketching passersby at the old Underground Atlanta.

"I'd wear my short shorts and low-cut blouses to drum up business," she said with a laugh. "Of course, that was a long time ago."

As for her training, "I made a ‘D' in art," said Georgia's first, and indisputably its best, forensic artist. "I called the teacher a dirty name."

Obviously, Lawson doesn't fit any crime-fighter profile. Colleagues say that's one of her strengths.

"She makes people feel comfortable," GBI spokesman John Bankhead said. "The individual comes through in her sketches. It's like the person sat down and posed for her."

When Hemy Neuman, charged in the November shooting of Rusty Sneiderman after he dropped off his son at Dunwoody Prep, was arrested earlier this month, people couldn't help noticing the eerie resemblance to Lawson's drawing.

"To me, it didn't really look like him," Lawson said. "They didn't circulate the one I thought was best."

She's similarly unimpressed by her most famous drawing.

"All I had to do was draw on a beard and some long hair," Lawson said of her dead-on sketch of Eric Rudolph, the first physical representation of the domestic terrorist responsible for a series of bombs across the Southeast that killed two people and injured at least 150 others.

Lawson's technique isn't sophisticated -- she still uses the same mug shots she practiced on 30 years ago to help witnesses recognize physical characteristics. Her drawings will combine one culprit's forehead, another one's ears, and so on.

Psychology also plays a role.

"You've got to be a people person," she said. "A lot of people don't think they remember, so you've got to pull it out of them."

Contrarily, "I've found the people who really didn't get a good look always want to change everything you drew," Lawson said. "The ones who did get a good look, they'll sit down with you. They want to get it right."

Lawson, who also molds reconstructive sculptures to help identify anonymous remains, got her start in law enforcement back in the early 1970s, working as a typist for Atlanta police. Her father, a retired APD officer, got her the job.

Back then, there was no such thing as a forensic artist, at least in Georgia. She was recruited by detectives struggling with an investigation that was going nowhere.

"Daddy said, ‘There's a secretary down there who can draw a face,' " Lawson recalled.

A career was born, though it would take a good five years before she felt comfortable in the job.

"The one that convinced me I could help was James Walraven," she said.

Walraven, who was convicted of killing a woman in her bathtub and suspected of killing two other women the same way, terrorized suburban Atlanta in 1981 -- right around the same time the city was dealing with the missing and murdered children mystery.

Soon after Lawson's sketch, which she drew based on the testimony of an apartment superintendent who observed a man with wet hair leaving a victim's residence, hit the air, Walraven's parole officer contacted authorities.

"He knew it was him," she said.

Walraven was eventually convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

While Lawson's work was fulfilling, it was also taxing. She was drawing about 300 sketches a year for the APD -- a workload she maintains to this day, though back then, she also was filling in as a crime scene technician and fingerprint analyst.

"I was burned out," Lawson said. "I was smoking three packs a day. I didn't even know who I was."

"Retirement" didn't agree with her husband, however, who insisted she return to work. "So I became a 'sandwich artist' at a Subway [in Sharpsburg]," she said.

It wasn't long before crime interrupted when a suspicious-looking couple came into the the store.

"I knew we were about to get robbed, " she said, but the man and woman were scared off by incoming customers.

"That night I went home and drew them," she said. "It felt good to draw again."

The following day, the store next to Subway was robbed. Lawson showed her sketch to the victims and soon Coweta County deputies were using the drawings to help apprehend the suspects.

That got Lawson a job as a Coweta jailer. Then came the bomb blast heard around the world in 1996.

"After she helped us with a witness in the bombing, I went to Vernon [Keenan, then-deputy director of the GBI] and said, ‘Here's a woman whose talents are being wasted,' " retired GBI agent Charles Stone told the AJC in 1999. Keenan agreed and Lawson has been with the GBI ever since.

She flirted with retirement last year but said she'll probably hang around "two or three more years, maybe not that long." Lawson is training her daughter to fill her shoes once she hangs up her sketchpad.

"She'll be greatly missed in law enforcement," said veteran Albany Police Det. Charlie Roberts, who has worked with Lawson on several cases, none as memorable as the "Bandana Bandit," responsible for a string of armed hold-ups in 2008.

Lawson arranged for an interview with three of the serial robber's victims. During the session, Roberts got a call about a robbery in progress. The bandit was finally captured.

By the time Jerome Lowe was brought into police headquarters, Lawson had finished her sketch.

"It was so amazing," Roberts said. "He was a dead ringer for Miss Marla's drawing."

Even Lowe was impressed.

"We were in court for his trial and [Lowe]'s attorney asked to see Miss Marla's sketch," Roberts told the AJC. "[The prosecutor] showed it to him, he talked to [his client] for a few minutes and then the attorney stood up and said, ‘Your Honor, we would like to take the plea deal.' He knew she had him."

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