Man of a Thousand Faces

Chuck Steinberg demonstrates a composite sketch at his home in Medford.Jamie Lusch

In his younger days Chuck Steinberg admired the French Impressionists, who were known as the "artists of light." Little did he know that his own artistic talents would bring him close to the darkest aspects of human nature.

Steinberg's drawings of robbers, thugs, thieves, rapists and murderers have helped local police departments track down the worst society has to offer.

Chuck Steinberg

Age: 57

Job title: Police sketch artist, retired officer

Job description: Interviews witnesses and draws composite sketches of suspects in criminal cases

Salary: $30 per hour

Education: Fine arts and criminology classes at Southern Illinois University

How long at job: 22 years with Medford Police Department, 4 years with Honolulu Police Department

If you could have your dream job today, what would it be? A freelance artist who when needed helps police arrest criminals, "pretty much what I do now."

Steinberg, himself a former police officer in Medford, sees a connection between art and law enforcement.

"In some ways my art training has helped me as a police officer," he said. "Both deal heavily with details that build a bigger picture."

Capturing telling details of criminals is not as easy as it sounds. You can't just sit a witness down and tell them to describe a suspect, Steinberg said.

"It's way too general," he said. "I sometimes ask if they remember anything about the person that made them stand out. I'll even ask if the person reminded them of anyone they know."

The tactic worked well in a recent rape case at Emigrant Lake near Ashland. A young woman was sitting by the water writing in her journal on New Year's Day when a man attacked her in broad daylight.

When Steinberg asked the woman if her attacker resembled anyone she knew, he received quite a specific answer.

"She told me he looked like Johnny Depp from the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie," Steinberg said. "He had long, stringy black hair. So we went from there."

As of late March the case remained unsolved. But Jackson County sheriff's deputies now have a reliable image of him on file that could eventually lead to his capture.

Perhaps Steinberg's greatest hit came in 1995 when Robert James Acremant murdered Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill. The case rocked the area, spurring a massive investigation.

Detectives received a break when a man who glimpsed Acremant the day of the murders sat down with Steinberg.

The resulting sketch was circulated by the media. It was Acremant's own mother who recognized her son in the sketch and called authorities.

"He broke that case wide open," said Medford police Deputy Chief Tim George. "That drawing was a ringer for Acremant, right down to a flip in his hair."

George keeps a copy of the sketch alongside a photograph of Acremant in his office to this very day.

Acremant now sits in prison awaiting execution.

Some cases border on the humorous. In 2000 the Rogue Valley was victimized by a series of robberies committed by one man. Steinberg provided a sketch for local newspapers.

Soon after, a Grants Pass police officer pulled over a man and found a copy of the sketch in his pocket. The officer noticed the man looked remarkably like the suspect in the sketch.

"The man eventually said it was him, he'd been carrying it around," Steinberg said.

On average, Steinberg did 10 to 12 sketches for agencies per year. The rate has slowed since he recently retired from the force after 26 years in police work.

"I do maybe five to 10 a year now," he said.

After he took off his badge, Steinberg opened studios in Jacksonville and Ashland. He no longer operates a studio, but his work from those days adorns the walls of his home in Medford.

Most of the paintings portray faces less menacing than his suspect sketches.

"These are a lot easier to look at," Steinberg said. "None of them are guilty of a terrible crime."

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