Sheriff Danny Rigel was part of 'dying art'

By BUSTER WOLFE,

Danny Rigel would be sitting on a Gulf Coast shore now painting a seascape if he thought he could get a paycheck for it. At least, he would have about 40 years ago.

Rigel grew up with a pencil or a brush in his hand, sketching and painting. He parlayed his early life into the Most Talented student at Biloxi High School.

Wait, Sheriff Danny Rigel? Yes, the same one who is the top law enforcement officer in Lamar County.

“As much as I love art, I couldn’t see myself making a living at it,” Rigel told members of the South Mississippi Art Association on Tuesday night. “When I came to USM, Col. Tyler Fletcher – chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at USM – looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing in art? You need to stop.’ I had enough credits that I had a minor in criminal justice.”

After he left USM and passed the academy, Rigel joined the police department in 1982. In 1985, he was promoted to detective.

However, he never forgot his love for art. In 1986, Rigel was asked if he wanted to go to the FBI Academy and study to become a forensic artist. Mississippi didn’t have one.

“I had never really thought about it,” he said. “Let me tell you something: It is a very comprehensive and intensive application process. They only took 20 people from North America twice a year. I had to do three drawings and an interview. They had a background check like you wouldn’t believe. They even talked to my neighbors when I was in grade school just to go to the FBI Academy. I went there and they had the best training I have ever had in my life.”

Rigel became the only FBI-certified forensic artist in Mississippi and Alabama. Forensic art is any art that aids in the identification, apprehension or conviction of criminal offenders or that aids in locating a victim or identification an unknown deceased person.

It’s not the type of art that hangs in a gallery, but it might be in the post office.

“The art that I do as a sketch, I never hear when I’m done with the work, ‘Boy, that is an outstanding piece. I’m going to hang it over the fireplace,’” Rigel said. “The type of art I do is satisfying to a degree, but in other ways unfulfilling.”

Ironically, Rigel said he never had a hankering for drawing faces.

“I like doing landscapes and seascapes,” he said. “Portraits were never my forte, but they teach you what to do. I was with some of the most talented artists in that field in the United States.”

In addition to his early training and the FBI Academy, Rigel studied under Stanley Robbins, the sketch artist during the Al Capone tax evasion trial. I studied art at the University of Alabama-Mobile, the University of Virginia, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia and Frank Domingo, a renowned sketch artist from New York who founded the subdivision of the International Association of Identification that certifies composite artists.

Rigel was one of the last law enforcement officers outside the FBI to become certified as a forensic artist. Because of funding issues, the government did away with the program the next year after his training. The only people they train now are FBI agents.

Now, sketch artists’ pens and pencils have been replaced by computers and software.

“It’s a dying art,” Rigel said. “I’m not trying to be condescending or anything like that, but any monkey with a mouse can make a composite drawing with the software that’s out there. You really don’t have to have any artistic talent.”

Rigel said the sketch is essentially the product of the information that comes from the victim and how that information is obtained.

“The majority of police sketch artists are detectives because a lot of the thing that goes into the drawing is the interview and interrogation,” he said. “That’s what investigators and detectives are trained to do. They are trained to get you to remember stuff that you wouldn’t normally remember.”

The sketch artist has a distinct disadvantage, Rigel said.

“I don’t know who I am drawing; I’m going by your memory,” he said. “I’m only as good as the memory of the person who is giving you the description.”

Today, Rigel doesn’t get out the sketch book when a suspect needs to be identified. “I haven’t done one in six years. I would probably do more harm than good if I tried to do one right now.”

Certification lapsed for Rigel because he doesn’t testify as a sketch artist anymore.

“The only reason I would keep it up would be if I testified, and I haven’t done that in several years,” he said. “So, I just let it go.”

Rigel still has his love of art. He keeps a notebook of cartoons that usually relate to something going on in the office.

“Nowadays, I use my art for recreation, entertainment and enjoyment,” he said.