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Bringing the dead to life
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Marla Lawson with the facial reconstruction she created of an unidentified young man whose body was found in the woods near Salem Road. - photo by Bryan Fazio

Several times throughout her life, Marla Lawson thought her career path was set.

The Atlanta native had many jobs - drawing the faces of tourists in Underground Atlanta, working at the Atlanta Police Department and even working as a sandwich artist at Subway.

However, Lawson really found her way during an attempted robbery. Since then she has been a key component in helping to identify an untold number of complete strangers.

Lawson, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Forensic Artist - the only one in the state and one of just 19 in the entire country, either helps families reunite through her work or gets an identification on suspects for police to arrest.

Among the many unidentified persons Lawson has worked on, one of the more recent cases is a young man found in the woods near Salem Road and Ellington Road in Rockdale County back in December. All the officers had to work with was the remains of the black male between the ages of 15 and 24, and between 5-foot-4 and 5-foot-10, the clothes on his back and the shoes on his feet.

Without any forms of identification, the GBI handed the young man's skull to Lawson who went to work and created the 3D model and image that has been shown on the nightly news broadcasts and here in the News. The mysterious dead man of Rockdale County became another hope that Lawson could one day find a name to the face she recreated.

"You do somewhat get attached," Lawson said. "I know it's very rewarding when you take somebody's skeleton and get them identified."

She knows the feeling because one such case got solved recently thanks to her work.

A body was found along a freeway in Hall County, and the job of getting it identified fell to Lawson. Lawson recreated a sketch and posted it on the Doe Network. A Native American, Theresa Two Bulls, was looking through it for a cousin that had been missing from her Indian Reservation in South Dakota for 27 years. Thanks to Lawson, the woman was reunited with her cousin.

For someone who would become a forensic artist, Lawson's beginnings in art were rocky.

Lawson made D's in art classes at Walter F. George High School in Southwest Atlanta, and only made it to graduation because her father had spoken so much to the teachers.

Eventually she paid more attention to her art to the point where it earned her money in Underground Atlanta as a sketch artist. However, she doesn't give too much credit to her drawings as the reason she made any money at all "I think I got $10 a portrait," Lawson said. "But I learned real quickly; I was young and I would wear short skirts and low cut blouses and stuff. These drunks would stagger out and give me a $20 tip for a $10 drawing way back when.

"I probably couldn't make a dime anymore."

Lawson knew the seasonal work wasn't something she could depend on, and she frequently walked over to the Atlanta Police Department offices to submit an application. She was hired as a clerk in 1973 and eventually became the APD's sketch artist and helped out with crime scenes, taking fingerprints and other such tasks.

Eventually she had enough police work and left. Sitting around the house, reading the paper one day, she decided to answer an ad to work at the local Subway.

It was there that a young man walked into the store and raised his shirt to show a gun as his girlfriend stood lookout. Lawson saw him and went into action.

"I thought oh my God I can't believe this, he is such a dumbass. How dumb can you be to rob a police artist?" Lawson said. "So I yelled for my friend Lorraine to get out here, because if you're fixing to die, it's best to take your best friend with you."

Lawson went home that night and drew a sketch of the two suspects. Sheriff's deputies would make contact with Lawson, use her sketch to apprehend the thief and eventually offer her a job. She took the job working in the jail, but would once again find herself changing jobs.

During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta a bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park. The APD, already familiar with Lawson from her time there, asked her to do a composite of the suspect. That led to the arrest of Eric Robert Rudolph, thanks in part to the eerie likeness of Lawson's drawing, and also earned Lawson her current job.

"It was a challenge. There weren't any schools to go to or books to read," Lawson said. "I kind of had to develop my own way of doing it. I had to teach myself and practice, practice, practice to get better at it."

For drawings she sits down with the victim or witness and shows them photos she collects out of magazines of different eyes, noses, mouths and face shapes. She then draws a composite face and asks them if there are any changes.

"I make the changes and get them to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10, and try not to quit until I get at least an eight," Lawson said. "It usually takes about an hour and a half."

For sculptures Lawson uses a formula devised to work for any victim. She cuts erasers to certain lengths and attaches them to the skull before applying clay. She them sculpts around the skull letting the dimensions of the jaw line and nose guide her. She colors in the skin, adds doll's eyes and hair.

This is the craft that she hopes will eventually find the identity of the young man that was found in Rockdale and bring him back to life in name. However, for Marla it is about her coworkers and the victims she works with.

"A lot of time it gets on the 6 O'Clock news and they go ‘The subject was apprehended from a sketch,'" Lawson said. "They give me too much credit."