Philadelphia forensic sculptor Frank Bender has spent a lifetime helping police solve unspeakable crimes, contouring in clay the faces of murder victims -- those without identities, whose families have never come to claim or weep for them.
His meticulously painted busts have led to the prosecution of fugitive killers for the
With William Fleisher and Richard Walter, Mr. Bender founded the Vidocq Society in 1990. Based in Philadelphia, the group comprises forensic scientists, law enforcement officers and other professionals who convene to investigate unsolved murders.
Mr. Bender was also a subject of “The Murder Room,” a book about the society by Michael Capuzzo. A documentary film about Mr. Bender, “The Recomposer of the Decomposed,” is scheduled to be released next year.
“He’s a fighter for justice,” Ted Botha, the author of a book about Mr. Bender, said in an interview shortly before Mr. Bender’s death. “He’s almost like a little Captain America or something.”
Mr. Botha’s book, “The Girl With the Crooked Nose,” chronicles Mr. Bender’s work in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where he was asked to reconstruct the faces of women killed in a series of murders. Of the eight heads he made there, three led to identifications, Mr. Botha said.
It is impossible to gauge precisely Mr. Bender’s career success rate, where “success” means identifying a victim or catching a fugitive. Mr. Bender — who, as associates attest, was a larger-than-life character with no small awareness of his own news value — sometimes put the figure at 85 percent.
The correct figure, his associates say, is probably closer to 40 percent. “Not even he knows, because nobody actually tells him,” Mr. Botha said. “The police departments don’t always come back to him afterwards; that’s one of the kind of bittersweet things about what he does.”
Francis Augustus Bender Jr. was born in Philadelphia on June 16, 1941, and grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood. After serving in the Navy, he embarked on a photography career.
In the 1970s, Mr. Bender took night classes in painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The academy offered no anatomy classes at night, so in 1977 he took it upon himself to visit the morgue.
There, he saw the body of a woman, shot in the head and unrecognizable.
“I know what she looks like,” Mr. Bender was surprised to hear himself say.
“Do you know anything about forensics?” a medical examiner asked him.
“I don’t even know what the word means,” he said.
Galvanized, Mr. Bender set to work, producing a bust of a woman with a long nose and cleft chin.
After a photograph of it appeared in newspapers, she was identified as Anna Duval, a Phoenix woman who had flown East to recoup money from a swindler and wound up dead. Her killer was later identified as a mob hit man, already imprisoned for other crimes.
Mr. Bender’s gift for waking the dead impressed the authorities, and more cases followed. At first he layered clay onto the skulls, consulting tissue-thickness charts to determine its depth at crucial points on the face.
Later on — for prosecutors were loath to see potential evidence trapped for eternity inside a sculpture — he used the skulls to make molds, from which he cast plaster heads.
cum-studio occasionally arrived to find one bubbling away in a pot on the stove.)
A former professional photographer, Mr. Bender found his calling by chance in the late 1970s, on a trip to the Philadelphia morgue. After that he was consulted by police departments across the country and abroad, and by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Of the 40 or so heads he sculptured over the years, most were designed to identify murder victims for whom DNA, dental records and fingerprints had come up empty.
In these cases, Mr. Bender endeavored to turn back time, using victims’ skulls to render their faces as they might have looked in life. A “recomposer of the decomposed” is what he called himself — quite cheerily — on his answering machine.
For fugitives, Mr. Bender coaxed time forward, using photographs and other information to sculpture malefactors as they might look 10 or 20 years on. It was in one such case that he scored his most spectacular success: a role in capturing one of the most notorious murderers in America.
A conjurer in clay, Mr. Bender was, he often said, as much psychologist as sculptor, divining — or so it seemed — features that skulls alone could not tell him: hair color, characteristic expressions or precise skin color, which he painted onto the finished sculpture.
His methods could yield striking likenesses. In the 1980s, for instance, the Philadelphia police asked him to help identify the remains of a woman found murdered in a down-at- the-heels area.
“She was wearing a Ship ’n Shore blouse — a nicely pleated blouse, not a blouse someone her age would wear in that neighborhood,” Mr. Bender told The Toronto Star in 2001. “To me, it told me she was looking for a way out, she was looking for a better life, so I had her looking up for hope.”
A few years later, a local woman identified the bust as her niece, Rosella Marie
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Comments from Our Readers
I am in the start of the book [The Girl with the Crooker Nose]. Stylistically a mix of lurid expose and hard boiled detective mystery. Fun read. Boy on the box has been introduced but is yet to be explained
This was a good quiz. Of course, when I saw the photo, I immediately thought “forensic reconstruction”. That made it pretty easy to locate Frank, and find out about him. I did forget his nickname, “Recomposer of the Decomposed”.
I did have a chance to delve into [the case of the Boy in the Box] a bit more. Sad, sad story, I so hope that you will be the one to crack, the case as they say, by providing a name for this little angel. It will open up a whole new chapter on the case when you do. The best of luck with that!
The quiz was much more fun once I realized it wasn't Phillipe Froesch. Similar appearance but not the same nose but in the basic same area of expertise. Once I got onto Frank Bender it was hard not to keep reading about his work. Fascinating area of research. One that I would have enjoyed pursuing during college had the opportunity presented itself.
It has to be really intriguing and probably at times frustrating to work on these cases but also rewarding in the satisfaction of solving them.
I am thinking of Ben Kingsley, actor in Schindler's List and a member of Gucci Cieama Film Society
I wonder if Frank Bender was the inspiration for the Eve Duncan character in the Iris Johansen series of books with the main character (Eve Duncan) being forensic sculptor?
"The Recomposer of the Decomposed"--also the name of a doc film about him that appears to be in production.
[The Boy in the Box] is one of [the books about Frank]. The other is "The Murder Room" by Michael Capuzzo. I've ordered both of them. Should be interesting reading!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Said his daughter Lisa Brawner, "He wasn't in it for the fame or fortune" she said. 'He was in it to do good."
What a remarkable man with a gift to help identify the victims of horrible crimes. He is a loss to our world.
What a remarkable man with a gift to help identify the victims of horrible crimes. He is a loss to our world.
It has a very hard one, if you're not familiar with Forensic Science, there are very few elements in the picture you can grab on to help. The clues were in the questions, and I just took advantage of it.
I found it fascinating that Bender could see the souls of the people and give them "life" again. I think it is a unique talent and I'm very glad he made good use of it.
I am also obsessed with forensic psychology, serial crime, and methodologies pertaining to finding missing persons and naming unidentified victims. This is how I ran across Frank Bender and the Vidocq Society. Mr. Bender's work was truly one of a kind, he had that something extra that doesn't come along every day and borders on an almost supernatural ability. I did not know him personally ( I wish that I had) but I was extremely saddened to hear of his death because it was a loss to the entire world.
The fact that you [may work] with the Vidocq Society is a great privilege and honor. They are a very select group. Do you know about the man that the Society is based on? That is a fascinating story within itself. Here is a link to his autobiography in case you haven't seen it. You can download it for free here:
As to the Boy in the Box, I am familiar with the Boy in the Box Case (one of the saddest in my knowledge) but did not know you had worked on it or are going to work on it, but either way I think that it is a very smart move on their part. Your contribution to the case could solve it or lead to it being closer to being solved.
Yes, I liked this one.... But I like them all. Ha. Bender was amazing because he was so instinctual. He wasn't just going through the mechanics.
Nice, a false trail (of sorts)! The family-killer John List. I wonder, though, if his craft may be turning digital. 2-D reconstruction programs already exist; it won't be long, I think, before 3-D printers can churn out a model as easily as a police sketch.
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The Girl with the Crooked Nose
Someone is killing the young women of Juárez. Since 1993, the decomposing bodies of as many as four hundred victims, known as feminicidios, have been found in the desert surrounding this gritty Mexican border town. Prodded by local political pressure and international attention, the Mexican authorities turn to the United States to help solve these horrific crimes. The man they turn to is Bender.
Through breathtakingly realistic
Few people know about the Vidocq Society, a real-life crime-solving contingent that helps local law enforcement agencies crack cold cases. Michael Capuzzo profiles the society in his new book, The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases (Gotham, $26, on sale Tuesday). Capuzzo spoke with USA TODAY
Q: What is the Vidocq Society? A: The group, founded in 1990, is made up of the world's great detectives and forensic specialists. They meet once a month over lunch in a Victorian dining room in Philadelphia to examine cold case murders. They spend years, pro bono, bringing killers to justice in cases where the cops just can't figure it out.
Q: Who are they? A: They come from 19 states, 12 different countries. They include a captain in the Egyptian army, agents from Scotland Yard and INTERPOL, FBI agents, CIA agents, private eyes, a county sheriff from California. They have a range of specialties, from Mob busters to tax experts to chemists to poison experts and experts on terrorism. I think of it as CSI to the 10th power, except real.
Q: Who is it named for? A. Eugene Francois Vidocq, the legendary father of forensic science in Napoleonic Paris. He pioneered the roots of the FBI and Scotland Yard and other investigative bureaus as well as private detective agencies and the detective novel.
Q: Does he have another claim to fame? A: He was friends with Victor Hugo, who used him as the model for the two main characters in Les Misérables: Javert, the relentless detective, and Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his family.
Q: Tell me about the Vidocq Society's most famous members, starting with Frank Bender. A: Bender is the foremost forensic sculptor. He's almost an idiot savant kind of guy who was able to put a half-dozen most-wanted criminals behind bars — including mass murderer John List, who was on the run for 18 years — based on these psychic visions he has and then applies to his facial reconstructions.
Q: And Richard Walter? A: Walter is the living Sherlock Holmes. He even looks and sounds like him. He's brooding and analytical. He's considered by some to be the world's foremost authority on the world's darkest evil. He's consulted with Scotland Yard and the Hong Kong police on major cases.
Q: What about William Fleischer, the group's founder? A: He was a federal agent for many years and then a private eye. When he was in his 40s and was looking to do something more significant with his life than bust drug smugglers for the first George Bush, he found Bender and Walter, these two amazing geniuses who represent two different sides of human nature, and all three of them together is an amalgam of the great American detective.
Q: What's one of the biggest cases they cracked? A: The Texas case of Leisha Hamilton and the killing of Scott Dunn in 1991 is pretty iconic. The society spent six years, and Richard spent 6,000 pro bono hours, tracking down Hamilton and convincing the cops that this slight, attractive woman could be a psychopathic killer.
Q: Is there a case they haven't cracked? A: The greatest heartache is the case of the "Boy in the Box," who was found brutally murdered in a field outside Philadelphia in 1957. A half-century later, a couple of cops who were on the scene are now retired but still working it. They are part of the Vidocq Society. After 50 years, they haven't given up.
Q: What drives the society's members to work these cases? A: They share a deep sense of outrage at the world gone mad because of the skyrocketing crime rates and murder rates and have a passion to set it right.
Ironically, it was the 2nd question with a lowercase "list" what helped me get the answer. Well, in fact, both 2 and 3 gave it away. After going through the "serial killers" list and "fbi mos wanted" list without success, I googled fbi "most wanted list" society "he cofounded" and the first article that came up gave me our protagonist du semaine: articles.philly.com/2009-11-08/news/24987958_1_fbi-agents-frank-bender-bust
So, although question number 2 was refering specifically to John List and his capture, I can say that Frank was indeed associated with the "most wanted list", just not in the way I had initially thought.
Frank Bender, a forensic sculptor whose work — haunting, three-dimensional faces in clay — helped identify the forgotten dead and apprehend the fugitive living, died on Thursday at his home in Philadelphia. He was 70.
The cause was pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer that attacks the outer lining of the lungs, his daughter Vanessa said.
An elfin man whose bald head, fierce gaze and Vandyke made him look like a pocket Mephistopheles, Mr. Bender was among the best known of the country’s handful of forensic sculptors — an unusual craft that stands at the nexus of art, crime, science and intuition.
Mr. Bender was almost entirely self-taught, for he never anticipated a career in forensic sculpture. Who, after all, envisions a life in which skulls, sent by hopeful law enforcement agencies, arrive periodically in the mail? (Usually the skulls had been denuded and cleaned, though not always, and luncheon visitors to Mr. Bender’s home-
Frank Bender, a forensic sculptor, with a bust he constructed in the 1980s of a homicide victim, Rosella Marie Atkinson. Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Atkinson, 18, who had disappeared in 1987. Rosella, she said, held her head up in just that way. In 2005, the killer confessed and was sent to prison.
It was not the money that spurred Mr. Bender: he charged about $1,700 for a sculptured head, and typically made only a few a year. Between assignments, he worked as a fine-art painter and sculptor and held various jobs, including working on a tugboat.
What drove him, those who knew him say, was a constitutional pugnacity.
Rosella Marie Atkinson
His greatest triumph came in 1989, in the case of John Emil List. In 1971, Mr. List, a seemingly mild- mannered accountant, murdered his mother, wife and three children in their Westfield, N.J., home. Then he vanished.
Eighteen years later, the television show “America’s Most Wanted” commissioned a bust from Mr. Bender for a segment on Mr. List. Working from an old photograph, he created a balding, jowly figure.
In a stroke of inspiration — or perhaps luck — Mr. Bender added glasses with thick black rims, the kind he felt a strait-laced man like Mr. List would wear.
On May 21, 1989, a woman in Virginia watching the broadcast thought she recognized her neighbor, a balding, jowly accountant with thick black glasses named Robert Clark. On June 1, Mr. Clark was arrested. Fingerprints confirmed his identity as John List. Convicted and sentenced to five life terms, he died in 2008.
Mr. Bender’s wife, the former Janice Lynn Proctor, died of cancer last year. Besides his daughter Vanessa, he is survived by another daughter, Lisa Brawner; a sister, Sara Thurston; and three grandchildren.
The real John Emil List (top) and the aged-progressed sculpture created by Frank Bender (bottom).
Interviewers often asked Mr. Bender whether his life among the dead gave him nightmares. Yes, he replied, but not in the way you think. For years, he explained, his dreams had been peopled by the dead, and by sinister men.
The sinister men invariably attacked him, Mr. Bender said, and whenever they did, the unnamed dead rose up in his defense.
sculptures, Frank Bender has made it his career to reconstruct the faces of unknown murder victims and of fugitives whose appearances are certain to have changed over years on the run. The busts are based in part on the painstaking application of forensic science and art to fleshless human skulls and in part on deep intuition, an uncanny ability to discern not only a missing face but the personality behind it.
Arriving in Mexico, Bender works in secrecy, in a culture of corruption and casual violence, braving anonymous threats and sinister coincidences to give eight skulls back their faces and, hopefully, their histories. Drawn to one skull in particular – ‘the Girl with the Crooked Nose’ – Bender gradually comes to suspect that perhaps he is not meant to succeed, and that the true solution to the mystery of the feminicidios is far more terrible than anyone has dared to imagine.
Ted Botha brilliantly weaves Bender’s story – the cases he has solved, the intricacies of his art, the colorful characters he encounters, and the personal cost of his strange obsession – with the chilling story of the Juárez investigation. The Girl with the Crooked Nose will haunt readers long after the last page is turned.
FBI, Scotland Yard, and even the television crime show "America's Most Wanted." He helped nail Colombia crime lord Alphonse Perisco and Warlocks motorcycle chieftain Robert Nauss.
But to Bender, children "are a different ball game," he told ABCNews.com.
He has just unveiled his last sculpture -- a 10-year-old boy whose skeletal remains were found dumped in the tall grass over a North Carolina highway in 1998.
"A child is so innocent. They have a whole life ahead, and it's taken away," he told the Greensboro News-Record. "It all bothers me, but they bother me the most."
Bender, known for his intuition as much as his forensic skills, has an 85 percent success rate, but he likely won't know the outcome of the case of John Doe 98-21372.
After a career launched from the city morgue and 30 years of handling skulls and mummified remains, Bender faces a swift-moving cancer -- pleural mesothelioma linked to asbestos exposure during his days in the Navy.
"I am used to being surrounded by death," said Bender, 68, who doesn't expect to live
past June. "I have done everything I ever wanted to do. I drove a race car, I have sky-dived and I helped identify a lot of people, including fugitives on the most wanted list."
"The only thing I didn't do was make financial gain," said. "I got by."
In hospice, Bender now struggles on $2,800 a month on full disability as a veteran. Though he never had wealth, he has earned mountains of respect.
Bender was recently honored for a lifetime of good deeds by NC Smart, a nonprofit organization that works to resolve missing person cases. The group
raised $1,700 to hire Bender to find out the identity of little John Doe.
"There will be a line waiting in heaven -- all the people he has helped," said Leslie Denton, who organized the unveiling of the boy's bust for Guardian Digital Forensics, which works with NC Smart.
"They will welcome him with open arms."
Bender, who never went to college or studied forensics, says he goes by his gut to give a real face to lost souls.
The first child he ever reconstructed -- a Philadelphia girl whose body was found under a bridge -- was an impossible case until, Bender says, the pig-tailed girl came to him in a dream.
"She looked at me and smiled," he said. "Five years later her real father saw the flyer. He came to me in court and said, 'I don't know how you did it so accurately. The skin color and details are right.'"
Bender said he hopes John Doe's killer can also be apprehended.
On Sept. 25, 1998, a groundskeeper mowing the grass found the child's scattered
bones and decomposed remains under a billboard in Mebane, N.C. Only a few clues pointed to the identity of the boy: He wore tube socks and new size-three sneakers. Folded inside his pocket were two $20 bills and a $10.
Police ruled the death a homicide, and no one ever reported the boy missing. Bender said he believes the boy was from out of state and was killed by a "caretaker" -- a family member or adoptive parent.
His detailed sculpture reveals a Caucasian, perhaps Hispanic, boy with "longish" dark hair with a "distinctive" overbite, which may identify him.
"He's clearly recognizable as an individual," said Bender.
North Carolina Boy Might Be Recognized
"The next step is to try to get as much media coverage as we can, hoping that someone out there will recognize him -- a family member, a friend, a dentist, someone who knew him in school," said Denton. "We are hoping someone who remembers the child will come forward."
She doesn't dismiss the idea that Bender might live to see the crime solved.
"It could happen tomorrow, today or 10 years from now -- you never know," she said. "And Frank's record speaks volumes."
Last year Bender helped solve the case of a homicide victim in Boulder, Colo., 55 years after her remains were found beside a creek. Bender sculpted a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman who was later identified as Dorothy Gay Howard of Arizona. She was 18 when she disappeared in 1954.
"Frank told us that she would have blue eyes and she did," said Denton. "How did he know that?"
"I just know it," said Bender.
After looking at photos, Bender takes a series of minute measurements of the skull's bone structure. He then calculates the average tissue densities and builds them up with non-hardening clay.
When that's done, he pours reinforced plaster into a synthetic rubber mold, then sands and paints the sculpture.
Bender began his career as a commercial photographer. Enrolled at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, he couldn't find an evening anatomy class.
But his best friend worked at the morgue. "I'd love to come down and watch autopsies," Bender said.
There, in 1977, Bender saw a corpse of a woman who had been shot in the head three times. He announced instinctively, "I know what she looks like."
The coroner on duty invited Bender to join him on the "graveyard shift" to learn more. Within five months, he helped identify Anna Duval, 62, of Phoenix, and helped police convict her murderer, notorious hit man John Martini.
By 1989, "America's Most Wanted" was after Bender. The show asked him to produce a sculpture of John Emil List, an accountant from New Jersey who killed his wife, mother and children in 1971, then parked his car at New York's Kennedy Airport and disappeared.
After 18 years, the sculptor used old photos and produced the killer's exact image, complete with receding hairline, wrinkles and a pair of tortoise-shell glasses that he chose from an antique dealer.
Two weeks after the show, List was arrested.
"It's interesting that I have cancer, because I have always said through the years that catching fugitives and identifying people takes a piece of cancer out of our society," said Bender.
His doctors told him last October he had stage-four cancer and eight months to live -- 16 at the outside. Now the disease has invaded his abdomen. Tumors surround his heart and ribs.
To ease the pain, Bender relies on the same visualization techniques he uses to conjure up the faces of missing persons. No morphine.
"As far as the pain goes, I image it away," he said.
He is also the primary caretaker of his wife of 39 years, Jan, who is also fighting her own battle against non-smoker's lung cancer at 61. Her cancer returned just before Bender himself was diagnosed.
"I can't believe it, boom, boom," said Bender, of the double whammy that changed a blessed life.
"Going through the same thing at the same time as Jan is in some strange, surreal sense, kind of romantic," he said.
Exposed to Asbestos in the Navy
Bender was exposed to asbestos while serving on two Navy destroyers from 1959 to 1961, making repairs in the engine room and sleeping near the laundry where chemical-laden clothes were strewn.
A photo of Bender in the Navy's official magazine, "All Hands," shows him handling asbestos on the steam lines.
"All that time I was exposed, for two years solid," he said. "We did more sea time than most sailors who signed up for four years. I wasn't just working around it, I was sleeping with it."
His daughter Vanessa, an unemployed graphic artist living in Brooklyn, N.Y., is making plans to move in with her parents.
"I talk to Frank on the phone every day," said Vanessa, 37. "He has been a great caretaker for my mother."
"He's an incredible guy," she told ABCNews.com. "He does what he does by gut and intuition and some people think he's nuts. He can be very intense to be around sometimes."
Bender had his studio at home and growing up among skulls and bone parts wasn't always easy on Vanessa and her older sister Lisa Brawner, who lives in New Jersey.
"It didn't give me the creeps at all, but it did my sister," said Vanessa Bender.
"It was on the kitchen table when I was a kid and eventually when the tenant moved away, he went upstairs," she said. "Then he bought a studio in the city."
"It was easy to explain to the kids," said Bender. "But it was hard for the kids to explain to their friends, except when it was Halloween and they thought it was really cool."
Now, he thinks about what's ahead for his daughters.
"Vanessa is taking it so hard, losing both her parents," he said. "I am absolutely worried more about my daughter than myself."
Bender, who has spent his life with the dead, retains his hearty sense of humor in the face of his own death. "Sh*t happens," he laughs, crediting his upbeat attitude to his upbringing.
"My parents raised me that way in North Philly," Bender said. "I played on the railroad, hopping freight trains, playing in old factories."
"My whole life has been a constant field trip, a balance of art and science," he said. "I am always learning something through my work."
How does he want to be remembered? he was asked. "By what I have done trying to help other people," he answered.