Sculptor Puts Face to Murdered N.C. Child

Frank Bender, who gives face to murder victims, solves one last case in N.C.

ByABC News
February 10, 2010, 5:27 PM

Feb. 11, 2010— -- 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 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

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.