Frank Bender, who found fame as a forensic sculptor with his knack for identifying victims of violent crimes and helping capture criminals, became the latest well-known American to die of mesothelioma.
Bender, who lived and worked in Philadelphia, died earlier this month after a year-long battle with pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by an exposure to asbestos fibers. His exposure was traced to his stint in the Navy almost 50 years earlier when he often worked in a ship’s engine room.
Bender joined a growing group of well-recognized mesothelioma casualties that include actor Steve McQueen, musician Warren Zevon, pro football Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen and former White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan.
Bender’s ability to recreate faces from unidentified, discarded skulls providing closure for families and sculpt new faces from long-ago photographs to help criminal investigators, became legendary in the forensics business.
He often called himself “a recomposer of the decomposed,” which is the title of the upcoming film of his life. There already is a book, “The Girl With the Crooked Nose,” written about him and his work in Mexico, where he recreated the faces of eight women killed in a series of murders. Three of the eight were subsequently identified from his work.
His most famous work was his time-adjusted sculpture of John List, a New Jersey man who murdered his family, then disappeared in 1971. In 1989, working from an old photograph, he hand-sculpted a bust of what he thought List would look like 18 years later, and it was shown on “America’s Most Wanted,” television show. A woman watching in Virginia recognized the man as her neighbor with a different name and called authorities. List was arrested and convicted of the murders.
Most of the 50 busts he sculpted for police over the years came from skulls that were sent to him in hopes of identifying murder victims after dental records, fingerprints and DNA had not worked.
Bender helped start the well-known Vidocq Society in Philadelphia. It is an informal group of retired and some not retired investigators who meet regularly in hopes of solving unsolved, cold-case murders.
Bender started his work with the city of Philadelphia police department, but his talents became sought after internationally. He also worked with the FBI, Scotland Yard and governments in Egypt and Mexico. He worked several times with America’s Most Wanted.