Pixel Tracker

Wednesday, January 16 , 2019, 3:12 am | Overcast 54º


Diane Dimond: Frank Bender the ‘Re-composer’ of the Decomposed

His meticulous skull reconstructions brought justice for many victims by putting a face on the once unidentifiable

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

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

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 that 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 and the government of Egypt. 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.

His most publicized reconstruction came in 1989 and originated not from a skull but from an old photograph. Police in Westfield, N.J., 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, bald-headed 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, Colo., 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 blond hair and blue eyes. How could he possibly know that, they wondered? Fifty-five 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.

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 did 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 obituary 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 totaling $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 said. “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 of his home answering machine, he was indeed “a re-composer of the decomposed.” A crime fighter par excellence.

Diane Dimond is the author of Cirque Du Salahi: Be Careful Who You Trust. Click here for more information. She can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.