Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Tribute To Frank Bender

Frank Bender was a resurrectionist.

Through the magic of his fingers, he brought the dead back to life.

Bender, who died this week at his home in Philadelphia, was a self-taught forensic artist whose work helped identify murder victims and aided in the apprehension of numerous fugitives.

While working as a police reporter, I met the man when he came to my county to help in a cold case. Along with others who witnessed the process, I marveled as Frank’s skill put a face to a long-dead body fished from the river. Unfortunately, this case remains unsolved and we may never know if the young man was the victim of an accident, suicide or murder.

In his career, Frank Bender had many successes. Among them was the case of 18-year-old Rosella Atkinson, whose then-unidentified remains were found behind a city ball field in 1988. Police asked for Bender's help, and his bust led Atkinson's aunt to put a name to the face. Atkinson's killer confessed in 2005.

Bender got his start in 1976 while taking classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. A friend gave him access to the city morgue to study anatomy and, as Bender looked over a badly decomposed body, he said he knew what she looked like. A coroner overheard the conversation and challenged Bender to prove it.

Bender's sculpture of the woman helped identify her as Anna Duval, a 62-year-old from Phoenix whose body had been found near the Philadelphia airport. Years later, a man was convicted of killing Duval after stealing her profits from a house sale.

Bender also made busts envisioning how fugitives might age.

His sculpture of John List, accused of killing five family members in New Jersey in 1971, was featured on "America's Most Wanted" in 1989. The artwork led to List's arrest 11 days later in Virginia, where he had been living under an alias. List was later convicted and died in prison.

The artist sacrificed a career in commercial photography to work with law enforcement agencies around the world, a choice that often put him in danger, jeopardized his marriage and, at times, brought him near bankruptcy.

Bender didn’t originate the art, but he perfected facial reconstruction techniques of the American system pioneered by Wilton Krogman and the European system of Mikail Gerasimov.

Another intriguing aspect of his career is that Bender, along with William Fleischer, a customs agent and polygraph expert, and Richard Walter, a criminal profiler, founded the Vidocq Society, Named for the founder of the French Surete, the organization of amateurs and professionals focuses on unsolved deaths and disappearances.

For more information on Bender and his art I highly recommend Ted Botha’s The Girl With The Crooked Nose, published by Random House in 2008.