Lois Gibson sizes up a visitor’s face with a practiced, uncanny eye.

“I wish I had your chin. If I won the lottery, I’d have your chin. I’d pay $30,000 for it, d’ya know what I mean? It’s a nice chin. Substantial.” She could be the fast-talking protagonist in a pulp-fiction novel.

As we sit at the dining table of her home in Tomball, Gibson mentally drills through my skin as if she has X-ray vision. “I can see your skull. How much skin is here, here and here?” she asks rhetorically, pointing to to my temples and I’m not sure what else, without batting her substantial false eyelashes. “Almost nothing? I know how much is not much, and it follows the line of your mandible.”

A self-described super-recognizer of faces, Gibson can accurately fill out an image of a face that’s not all there, sketch a face a crime victim only remembers through the fog of terror, or “age progress” a person who has been missing for a decade, without digital tools.

She’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most successful forensic artist. According to the Guinness website, her drawings have helped the Houston Police Department positively identify 751 criminals and secure more than 1,000 convictions. Gibson says she has made 7,000 portraits, counting likenesses of tourists she made while working on the River Walk some years back and canvases she paints all the time from pictures of family members.

The number seems plausible, looking at the filled walls of her home. An easel is always up in the small, chaotic room that serves as her painting studio.

About 99 percent of her police work involves “witness memory” after crimes, she says. During almost 38 years with HPD, Gibson has listened to tons of real-life horror stories while coaxing details out of traumatized and sometimes hospitalized survivors to sketch head shots that lead to arrests.

She pulls glossy prints of such jobs from folders, describing them in grisly detail: The guy who raped a pregnant blind woman with a cane. The guy who shot his victim in the back and head and dragged him under a car. The guy who raped a 10-year old girl, nearly cut her head from her body and left her in a field. The guy who slashed the parents of a four year old to death while the child watched. Gibson got that guy caught by asking the child to pick out eyes, noses, chins and so on from a book of facial features she carries around; she compiles the chosen features into a single sketch.

She could go on. Prints are now splayed out across the whole table. Gibson is particularly proud of her age progression work, the art of aging people visually from earlier photographs. “You know how they’ll show babies in Parade Magazine or something of famous movie stars, and they’re sure you can’t identify them?” she says. “I can. I always could, ever since I was 10 or 12.”

She once helped police capture a murderer who had been on the lam for 30 years, she says. “As soon as I made him look older, in 10 days they had him.”

Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid

That skill, which also involves a detective’s intuition and a bit of psychic power, comes in handy outside the crime sphere. Gibson helped her latest freelance client verify that the figures in a vintage portrait he found in an antique mall are Wyatt Earp and his family. The picture was dated 1881, and to identify the subjects, Gibson compared them with “known portraits,” including one from another family gathering in 1875.

She makes the task sound easy. “He gets older, he gets more of a mustache, that’s all,” she says. It looks like Earp’s face has something distinctive going on that might make him easier to identify. “You know what it is?” Gibson says. “His eyebrows. And his superciliary arch is very narrow, like Tom Cruise. He’s got an eye socket deal.”

There are nine people in the photo. She verified three with a full work-up, including Earp’s parents — Nicholas Earp and his second wife, Virginia Cooksey — and his little sister, Adelia. “If I got three, I’m home,” Gibson says. But she’s confident she also sees Doc Holiday, his wife Mattie Blalock and Earp’s brothers in the picture.

Somehow — maybe because of the Guinness Book of World Records thing — she has become a go-to source for identifying famous figures in pictures from the Old West that collectors prize. But historical work can be surprisingly testy. “There’s artifact envy,” Gibson says. “They gave me so much trouble about Jesse James… and Billy the Kid was even worse. People in New Mexico want to kill you if you think you have Billy the Kid.”

She held to her guns after she identified Jesse James in a picture with his killer, Robert Ford, a member of James’ gang. Gibson finally made her case using James’ official death portrait for comparison. The same photographer took both images and lived a few blocks from James, but she went beyond that. “If you’re me, you can open the eyes and tilt the head,” she says.

Her Billy the Kid identification seemed unquestionable. Everything about his body matched up with the body in a verified portrait of Kidd — the hands and feet, his stance, she says. “I think it’s even the same dang pants and boots. And he had on the same pinky ring.” But her best clue of all was his rotated maxillary centrals — his front teeth.

“You get a little dark gap right in the middle – you see how this tooth is twisted a little?” she says, pointing to the verified picture. She picks up a copy of her client’s print. “And this is that same guy, if you blow it up: He has that same dot, in the same place. Also, the end of the mouth is narrow.”

Seeking justice for victims

Gibson helped other clients verify a newly-discovered painting by Gustav Klimt featuring his companion, Emilie Floge. (The painting’s owners also worked with conservation experts.) And she worked with the late Glenn McDuffie to make his case for being the lustful sailor in Victor Jorgensen’s iconic Life Magazine picture, “Kissing the War Goodbye in Times Square, 1945.”

Gibson, who was born in Kansas, has a personal thing about setting things right. A native of Kansas, she was strangled and nearly killed during a sexual assault when she was about 20, living in Los Angeles and working as a model and dancer. “That’s why I do this job,” she says. “I wanted justice and I prayed. I couldn’t stand that the guy got away with it.”

She followed her first husband to San Antonio, attending dental school until she realized she could make more money sketching tourists’ portraits on the River Walk. The police work came naturally after that.

Does she have nightmares about the horrific stuff she sees and hears?. “No,” she says. No hesitation. “I have nightmares about my art supplies being ruined.”

With today’s face recognition technology and age-progression software, Gibson’s work could be seen as a dying art. But she still mentors young forensic artists who can bring human intuition to the job, and she’s not ready to stop.

If she has to look at murdered babies to bring justice, so be it. “You realize I have cases that never get solved,” she says, sniffling. “If I didn’t go to the morgue, I’d wonder the rest of my life, what if I’d gone to the morgue?”

Ultimately though, the constant, close study of faces makes her appreciate diversity in the human race. “You see a wider variety of people you think are gorgeous. To be ugly, they have to be ugly inside,” she says. “It makes you love people more than other people love people.”

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