The ‘Re-composer’ of the Decomposed

by Diane Dimond on August 8, 2011

Frank Bender With One of His Creations

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 Also Worked on Tugboats to Pay Bills

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 U.S.A. Today reporter, his fingers just “take over” and he “becomes” his subject.

Rosella Atkins Hopeful Pose Helped ID Her

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)

Real John List (L) Compared with Bender Sculpture (R)

is 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.

Bender's Blue-Eyed Reconstruction

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.

"Dot" Howard in 1953

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 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.”

Bender's Last Sculpture

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 olds skeleton was still wearing tube socks and brand new sneakers. In his pocket were neatly folded bills totally $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.

Minute Measurements Made the Difference

 

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane August 8, 2011 at 11:42 am

ABQ Journal Reader Chuck Denk writes:

“I thoroughly enjoyed the article about Frank Bender I read in the 08/06/11 edition of the Albuquerque Journal, as it augmented what I had learned from a TV program I had seen on TruTV a year or so ago. I’m fairly certain it must have been an episode of “The Investigators” It would be a great day for law enforcement if someone happens to show up and fill the void created by his death. My condolences to his family, friends, and loved ones of course. Moreover, for the cause of justice.

BTW, I happen to agree with your viewpoint in your OpEd columns that generally tend to have an ethical argument to them. I love the poignancy you give to the subject matter at hand. As always, I look forward to more from you.”

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Diane August 8, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Facebook Friend Kim Winton writes:

“I HAVE heard of Frank Bender. He is a genius. Very interesting! I’ve seen him on differing shows many times, and what he did fascinated me.”

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Diane August 8, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Facebook Friend Teresa Moffett writes:

“What a very interesting story! Thanks.”

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Diane August 8, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Readers:

If you’d like to see more examples of Frank Bender’s work just Google his name and hit the “images” category. Amazing stuff.

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Barb Cohan-Saavedra August 8, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Diane, that was a beautiful piece you wrote about Frank. I’ve just returned from his funeral and stumbled upon your blog as I was looking to see what was being written about him.

He was an extraordinary man, talented, brilliant, eccentric, and very very sweet. I don’t think that the folks at Washington Crossing National Cemetery were quite prepared for such a massive turnout on this hot August afternoon. Frank deserved no less.

We will all miss him terribly.

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Anita Busch August 8, 2011 at 10:02 pm

What God has blessed you with, He will never let go to waste. I’ve no doubt this man had a sixth sense. There are many people who do. They are the ones who light the way for others.

“To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Think of all the people he helped. Just tremendous.

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candice August 8, 2011 at 11:46 pm

Thanks Diane! He did great work!

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Diane August 9, 2011 at 1:27 am

Facebook Friend Debi Johnson writes:

“Last I heard he was fighting cancer. So sorry to hear u lost ur battle. I’ve watched u for yrs and ur work is fantastic! You will be forever missed. I hope u trained a lot of people to carry on ur amazing WK. RIP and GOD BLESS YOU!!!!!”

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Paul Bates August 9, 2011 at 1:21 pm

ABQ Journal Frank Bates writes:

“The story of Frank Bender was truly inspiring. I think about the crimes he helped to solve and also the closure he brought to so many families. It is also important that he fostered the attitude that criminals will get caught, sooner or later. We need that deterrent in our society.
I am thankful also, that we have Diane Dimond to bring those stories of law enforcement heroes so that our young people have such wonderful role models. This column is my main reason for buying the Albuquerque Journal.”

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Diane August 9, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Dear Mr. Bates:
You made my day with your kind comments. And, I’m glad you were inspired by Frank Bender’s story. So was I when I first learned of him when I was a young rookie reporter covering the John List capture case. His true-to-life age progression of the fugitive List always stuck in my mind.
What a talent!
Thanks for taking the time to write me. It meant so much to me.
~ DD

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Lisa Pulitzer August 10, 2011 at 10:15 am

I met Frank back in the 90s, and had the honor of visiting his studio. He was a brilliant sculptor and an outstanding man.

Rest in Peace, Frank.

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Diane August 10, 2011 at 10:17 am

Linked In Friend (and Author) Lisa Pulitzer writes:

“”I met Frank back in the 90s and visited his studio in Philadelphia. Brilliant sculptor, amazing man! Rest in peace, Frank.”

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Lori Meckley April 30, 2012 at 9:40 am

Frank Bender was amazing, When I was in college working towards my Criminal Justice degree I did a facial reconstruction presentation and Frank was my muse so to speak from the moment I first saw him featured on 60 minutes, I made it part of my presentation. He will be greatly missed.

“May he always be remembered!”

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