PHILADELPHIA — It was a botched robbery that led to Philadelphia police officer Sgt. Robert Wilson’s death in 2015.
Wilson had just stopped in to pick up a video game for his son’s excellent report card when he ran into two men attempting to burglarize the video store.
Suddenly, the men opened fire on him, said fellow cop, Jonny Castro.
“He drew their fire away from the customers, basically, saving their lives,” Castro said.
Wilson’s heroic efforts set in motion a new journey for Castro.
Now, he’s a forensic composite artist for the Philadelphia Police Department.
And Castro uses his artistic ability to honor law enforcement officers, firefighters and military servicemembers killed in the line of duty.
“On the one year anniversary of [Wilson’s] death, I spoke with his sister and asked her if she would mind if I painted a portrait of him,” recalled Castro.
“He was promoted to sergeant at his funeral, so he never had any photos in a sergeant’s uniform. So, I’ve painted him wearing his dress uniform with sergeant stripes and with his medals on — medal of honor and medal of valor. His family loved it.”
Wilson’s portrait became Castro’s first work of art paying tribute to fallen heroes across the country. Now on portrait of valor number 107, he finds it a challenge to keep up with the number of police deaths in the line of duty.
“I can’t do every single officer. Right now, I’m behind … but even when I start working on one, I’ll get the notification that another was killed somewhere else.”
Art student to Army vet
Castro’s love of art and sketching started at an early age because of his father’s influence.
“My dad was a big artist, he taught me a lot,” Castro said.
After beginning art school, 9/11 happened and Castro felt compelled to join the Army.
“I decided to finish out my freshman year. My dad was a Vietnam veteran. He served two of the worst years over there, and he told me a lot of stories about it and I wanted to experience that,” recalled Castro.
He spent nearly a year serving in Iraq before he returned home and joined the Philadelphia Police Department.
Castro uses a virtual paintbrush and a digital tablet and spends roughly 8-10 hours on each portrait. He does this in his spare time off from his policing job in the graphic arts unit. Since he began his self-funded art project, Castro paints two portraits a week.
He researches the fallen officer before rendering a blot that aims to capture each story of bravery in every image. Once finished, Castro contacts the fallen officer’s department and shares a signed copy, often framed, with the department and the officer’s family.
This important step in his process, Castro said, is “just so they know, they have other officers all the way across the country that feel for them. My main goal was just to make sure they get something that they can physically hold on to, and something they can hang up in their house.”
Memorializing the fallen
Castro incorporates unique touches in each portrait to help capture those who made the ultimate sacrifice. He wants each image to portray who that person was — explaining one image where the officer is split in half — wearing his US Marine Corps dress uniform on one half and his police uniform on the other half.
“I don’t want every portrait to be the same, so if they’re a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan, [the painting will include a] service ribbon, or if they were a Marine, I’ll put the globe and anchor [Marine insignia] somewhere in there — just something to give it its own personality to each painting.”
In addition to fallen officers, Castro has expanded his tributes to include innocent bystanders, such as Robert Godwin Sr. The 74-year-old Ohio grandfather was gunned down on Easter Sunday earlier this year. He was killed by a stranger.
‘Wall Of Heroes’
Always starting with their eyes, Castro sometimes gets emotional during the artistic process.
“I’ve done officers where their child was born a couple months after they were killed,” he said. “Once you start hearing things like that, it starts to get a little emotional. In the end, the main goal is to make sure that child will have this painting to hang up in their room somewhere.”
Castro has set up a “Wall of Heroes” in his unit’s office displaying 3 x 5 prints of each portrait. His work is also shared on Facebook and Twitter. But his artistic expression doesn’t end there. Castro’s creativity is not only displayed throughout his office — which is covered in his favorite movie posters and action figures — but his body is covered in similar art as well.
Castro shows no sign of stopping. His mission is to honor and remember these heroes.
“I mean they died, basically, so everyone else can live,” he said. “Most of these times, these officers are killed trying to save another person. Or if they’re killed just protecting — doing stuff that they do every day. So, I would like them to know that I’m grateful for them and their sacrifice.”