Sculptor Puts Face to Murdered N.C. Child

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

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.

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 "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.