THE BLOG

The 'Re-composer' of the Decomposed

08/15/2011 11:02 am ET | Updated Oct 15, 2011

A man died recently that I want you to know about. He operated in the shadow of law enforcement and you probably never heard his name. In his own very unique way he developed an expertise that helped bring justice to those who would otherwise never get it.

His name was Frank Bender and when he died recently at the age of 70 at his home in Philadelphia he was the best known of a rare breed of forensic sculptors.

Frank Bender somehow knew how to take a fleshless mummified human skull and reconstruct its face into an eerily perfect facsimile. To compare a photo of the dead person with a finished Bender sculpture would take your breath away.

Bender started his career as a commercial photographer and had an innate curiosity about human anatomy. That lead the young Bender to visit the Philadelphia morgue and he came away with a mysterious talent that would become sought after by law enforcement officials worldwide.

He reverently began each reconstruction by focusing on and minutely measuring certain points of the skull. Bender was then able to calculate how thick the tissue, muscles and skin would have been at any given point. Working with tissue-thin layers of clay he painstakingly followed the unique bone structure of each skull and, as Bender once explained his process to a USA Today reporter, his fingers just "take over" and he "becomes" his subject.

His finished projects were stunning renditions of the forgotten dead seemingly brought back to life. Once released to the public, Bender's work brought in tips which helped identify dozens of discarded bodies that might have gone to unmarked graves had it not been for his efforts. Over the years his work helped solve numerous murders and serial killings and led to the arrest of high profile fugitives.

Bender first reconstructed skulls for the Philadelphia Police Department and when word of his success spread he was called upon to help departments in other states. Then the FBI came calling, followed by Scotland Yard, the government of Egypt and in Mexico his work identifying the remains of a string of murdered woman became the basis for a book called, The Girl With the Crooked Nose (Random House).

His most publicized reconstruction came in 1989 and originated not from a skull but from an old photograph. Police in Westfield, New Jersey had long been looking for a mild-mannered accountant named John List who was wanted for the 1971 murders of his wife, three children and his mother. The television program America's Most Wanted commissioned Bender to craft a sculpture of what List would look like 18 years after the crime. He created an age-progressed jowly baldheaded bust and because he thought an aging accountant might wear glasses Bender plopped a pair of black horned-rimmed glasses on it. The glasses did the trick.

A woman in Virginia watching the program called the tip line to report her neighbor, an accountant named Robert Clark. A fingerprint check quickly revealed the man was really fugitive List. Sentenced to five life terms, List died in prison in 2008.

One of Bender's most notable reconstructions was on the skull of a young woman found near a stream in Boulder, Colorado in 1954. Working with the Vidocq Society, a group of professional crime fighters who tackle cold cases (which he helped establish in 1990) Bender used his unexplainable sixth sense to reconstruct her face. He also told investigators the victim had blonde hair and blue eyes. How could he possibly know that, they wondered? 55 years after her remains were found she was finally identified as 18-year-old Dorothy Gay Howard. A family portrait confirmed she was a stunning blonde with sky blue eyes.

Frank Bender never made much money for his efforts. In the end, one of his meticulous creations brought in about $1,700. He worked as a fine artist and various other odd jobs, including as a helper on a tugboat, to help pay the bills.

Bender never discriminated over which skull to rebuild, but he had a passion to help solve crimes against children. Ted Botha, the author of the aforementioned book, was quoted in a New York Times obit saying the diminutive Bender was, "A fighter for justice. He's almost like a little Captain America or something."

His last reconstruction, created while he was dying of mesothelioma, came on the skull of a young boy found discarded in high grass along a North Carolina roadway. The 10-year-old's skeleton was still wearing tube socks and brand new sneakers. In his pocket were neatly folded bills totalling $50.

The sculptor told a North Carolina newspaper why he had to make this his last work of art. "A child is so innocent," Bender explained. "They have a whole life ahead, and it's taken away. It all bothers me, but they bother me the most."

No, you probably never heard of Frank Bender before now, but, as he playfully identified himself on the outgoing message on his home answering machine, he was indeed "a re-composer of the decomposed." A crime fighter par excellence.

Diane Dimond may be reached through her web site: www.DianeDimond.com.