May 23 • 05:12 PM

Sculptor's hands-on skills could aid FBI

Local businesswoman and sculptress Suzanne Johnson poses outside the FBI’s firing range.

January 27, 2010
TRI-CITY AREA — FBI training is typically reserved for people in law enforcement or those pursuing careers in related fields.

Though not always.

An invitation to the local FBI Citizens Academy was not something local sculptor Suzanne Johnson was expecting when she got a letter from the federal agency in late 2007.

Johnson, co-owner of Gem & Diamond Specialists in Imlay City and owner of Sculpture Jewelry Design in Grand Blanc, nearly passed on the invitation.

Recalling her initial reluctance, Johnson says she is now glad she decided to participate in the 10-week program held at a facility in Rochester, Michigan.

The intensive training sessions included introductory lessons on international and domestic terrorism, white collar crime, infrastructure protection, violent crimes, hostage rescue, electronic surveillance, SWAT training, firearms safety and more.

"When I received a followup call from them (after receipt of the letter), I was interested but reluctant to make a commitment," Johnson remembers. "I didn't want to take any time away from the work at my studio."

However, a conversation with a local newscaster the very next day would change her mind.

"I was attending a dinner event and was seated next to a man who had graduated from the (FBI) Citizens Academy," says Johnson. "He told me not to pass up the opportunity. He was so persuasive that I picked up the phone the next day and said 'yes, sign me up for the program.'"

The world of law enforcement is hardly foreign to Johnson, whose father-in-law is a retired homicide detective; her sister-in-law a state trooper, and another family member a parole officer.

So it was with unique understanding and keen interest that she immersed herself in the first of what would be two training sessions with the agency.

"The FBI sometimes selects prominent community members or business owners to act as ambassadors for the agency," Johnson says. "It's an opportunity for them to respond to community issues and strengthen relationships with the community."

She notes that while the FBI generally uses trained agents, most of whom have backgrounds in law, accounting, languages, science, law enforcement or military experience; they occasionally make exceptions.

"In certain circumstances," Johnson says, "they will employ civilians in small specialized fields such as specific scientific study or the arts. The sketch artist has generally been replaced by computer technology."

Johnson says her skills as a classically-trained figurative sculptor can be helpful in certain cases where determining the identity of a victim or unknown person is otherwise difficult.

"I studied in France using traditional methods which rely heavily on the knowledge of bone and muscle structures," Johnson explains. "It is indispensible knowledge that can be applied to forensic reconstruction."

Johnson says in instances where a skull is located and experts are unable to match it with known DNA, dental records or other data, a sculptor can be integral in finding the identity.

"By reading the clues contained in the skull," Johnson says, "scientists can determine a given age range and the approximate thickness of certain muscle groups and skin tissue. After a sculpture is made from the skull, the photo of the sculpture is circulated in hopes that a family member or friend will recognize the Jane or John Doe."

Johnson's initial experience culminated in graduation from the FBI Citizens Academy in October 2007, setting the stage for a second invitation from the agency last September.

This time she was asked to participate in a week-long National Citizens Academy program that included visits to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia; and the FBI Headquarters in Washington D.C.

"When the next invitation came there was no hesitation," Johnson says. "I packed my bags and I was ready to go. Who could say 'no' to that? I knew it would be interesting."

While not as lengthy nor comprehensive as the training she received at the Citizens Academy, Johnson found the visits to the FBI Academy and Headquarters uniquely informative.

"We learned about all the state-of-the-art developments in DNA evidence, forensics, evidence recovery systems and scientific labs," she says. "I could go on forever.

"I don't aspire to a career in the FBI," she continues, "however if my sculpting abilities can help them I am more than willing to assist."

In the interim, Johnson basks in the knowledge of having shared an experience few other Americans will ever know.

She is also back in her Grand Blanc studio, working on myriad sculpting and jewelry design projects. Admittedly, her art is something she would never permanently forsake for another career.

"I find great satisfaction in the challenge of the creative process," says Johnson. "I consider myself fortunate that every day at my studio there is some creative project which occupies my time, whether it's a life-size bronze figure or a specially designed engagement ring."

Johnson's Sculpture Jewelry Design studio is located at 102 Center Rd. in Grand Blanc. Business hours are Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; and Saturday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

Johnson is married to Jeff Johnson, co-owner of Gem & Diamond Specialists in Imlay City.

For more information, call 810-695-1800 or visit Johnson's Web site at: www.SJSculptureDesign.


Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.
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