She started drawing caricatures of cops, funny pictures of her colleagues at the Essex precinct, as a break from investigating street robberies. Then someone noticed, "Oh, you can draw."
Soon after, Detective Evelyn Grant turned her talent to drawing suspected holdup men and other criminals as a police sketch artist. Now she's trying something more challenging — reconstructing faces, either in drawings or clay busts, by examining a skull.
She joined the Baltimore County Police Department as a cadet at 18 and became a sworn officer in 2002. She's a cop with a gun, a badge and a pencil always at the ready.
Grant is one of 22 certified forensic artists in the country, called upon by detectives in departments around the state to assist in identifying remains and help grieving family members who have agonized for years over missing loved ones.
"It helps get somebody's name back," said Grant, who is 29 and grew up in the Baltimore area.
This month, Grant sketched a face using a skull found in 2007 at the bottom of a steep, wooded ravine in Westminster, behind a tire plant, under leaves, rocks and construction debris. The sketch helped put a name to what for years had been only a mystery. Toni Dee Vogel had disappeared from Mount and McHenry streets in Baltimore 14 years ago.
The drawing of Vogel was one of six models or sketches Grant has created using skeletal remains and the second to lead to an identification. A photograph of Vogel, who police said had been killed, and the detective's sketch are remarkably similar — down to the victim's puffy cheeks, the shape of her lips and the straight line down her nose.
Police had recovered a single strand of the victim's hair, so Grant knew that it was light in color. She gave the woman a 90s hairstyle, guessing at its length and texture. She drew it straight, while Vogel wore her hair in waves. But the resemblance was close enough that an acquaintance recognized her and called detectives.
Now, Vogel's family knows a bit more about what happened, and had remains to bury, even as state police begin a hunt for her killer.
"How do you even start an investigation until you know who the victim is?" Grant said.
While there are hundreds of forensic artists around the country, few are certified, and the group has formed a tight fraternity. They meet and compare sketches, critiquing one another's work, learning new techniques for shading and lighting. Their annual conference is filled with people carrying around sketches of the departed.
Grant, who recalls her first drawing at the age of 3 — a reindeer for a Christmas card — carries a drawing of the grim reaper with a scythe. Her iPhone screen is a sketch of a child in a head scarf.
Grant is not fazed by the morbid nature of her work — she has to handle skulls from the medical examiner's office, which come in pieces she has to assemble. And she said her husband takes it in stride, even buying her art supplies.
She's heard all the "CSI" jokes. Yes, she's seen the show and, no, she doesn't like it. The results are too quick, the technology exaggerated.
It takes her months to reconstruct a face from a skull, and she doesn't have a laboratory. The forensic part of her job is a sideline, in addition to catching robbers, and she does her "artwork" out of tiny, abandoned office in the precinct.
She made a sign for the door: "Forensic Art Room."
The International Association for Identification says about 7,000 people work in the field, most doing sketches based on witness descriptions. Only about 107 people in the United States reconstruct faces from skeletons, a more difficult discipline. Fewer than two dozen are certified.
"It's not an exact science," said Lt. Kevin Lawson, president of the association and head of the St. Louis County Police Department's training academy, but the hope is that "we get something that investigators can use."
Baltimore County police have not just one forensic artist, but two. Detective Kenneth R. Lang mentored Grant, though he is not certified. He mostly does sketches and recently completed his first skeletal reconstruction, of a victim dubbed the "White Marsh Jane Doe," found in the woods off Batavia Farm Road in 2007.
Grant, volunteering her services, put a face on remains found on a golf course in suburban Philadelphia and did a reconstruction of a victim found under a building at an elementary school in Oxon Hill in 2007.
"It's very difficult to find someone who can draw like this and do it well," said Prince George's County homicide Detective David Morissette. "On my last case, I had to hunt for an artist and found one in the military. To have one right here in the Baltimore area is a great help."
Baltimore County homicide Detective Philip G. Marll, who works in the Cold Case Unit with more than 300 unsolved killings dating to 1916, relies on Grant often.
One of her sketches helped identify a victim from Pennsylvania whose body was dumped along Falls Road in 1996. That led to a conviction in Harrisburg. Marll called Grant's reconstruction "crucial."
"They give us someplace to start, some idea of what the person might look like," Marll said.
Ask Grant how she builds a face from a skull and her answer is simple: "Read the bones."
Grant gets the skull from the medical examiner, usually cut into three pieces during the autopsy. She studies it for features — where the teeth get whiter is usually the gum line and an indication of how to contour the lips. She aligns the ear holes with the eye sockets to determine how the head sat atop the body. She covers the skull with yellow markers for clues to other facial features.
The hardest part to envision is the nose, she said. The most difficult part to draw is the hair. A pair of pants or a shirt can help determine the person's size. Knowing how old the remains are can help narrow down hairstyles. Or, as in the case with Vogel's body in Westminster, a strand of hair helped Grant get the color right.
Grant sketched Vogel's likeness for the state police in 2009, and they distributed the drawing to the public. It wasn't until August that someone saw the drawing and recognized the victim. Police compared DNA from the remains with that of Vogel's mother, and a close match confirmed the identity of the victim.
Police said Vogel, 29, had a drug habit and a history of prostitution, but that was before police started entering DNA samples of those convicted of crimes into a database. Before the tip generated by the drawing, there was nothing with which to compare the DNA from the remains.
And so Grant's sketch became the only way to link the skeleton to Vogel, who had disappeared from South Baltimore on a May evening in 1997. Police said she has no connection to Carroll County, where she was found, and that the medical examiner has ruled her death a homicide.
State police said Vogel's family did not want to speak publicly, and they could not be reached for comment. In a brief statement made through police, a relative said, "Toni was a daughter, mother, sister, an aunt and a friend who loved her family and whose family loved her."
She was someone, "who unfortunately somewhere along the way made some bad decisions and took the wrong path." She was a person "whose mother never, ever gave up on her, never stopped believing she would come home or be found alive."
Vogel's mother and father are dead, and the family, through police, said their daughter's body would lie alongside theirs in the cemetery.
Grant said she's heard that Vogel's relatives want to meet her and that she would love to meet them.
The detective said she would tell them, "I'm sorry."