Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Artist and the Killer: Frank Bender and Hans Vorhauer

Bender's Intuition

Frank Bender possesses a unique talent. Other artists can create a face from a skull or age the face of a criminal on the run, but Bender might be the only forensic artist in the world who can intuit what a face looks like with uncanny accuracy. With the barest scraps of information about a subject, he has created busts that have led to the identification of unknown murder victims and the arrests of fugitives in deep hiding.

Excerpt of quote, 'The ability'
Excerpt of quote, 'The ability'

The Philadelphia Police Department once asked him for help with an unidentified body found in a field behind a high school in North Philadelphia. In consultation with a physical anthropologist and a forensic dentist, Bender was able to determine the sex, race, age, and size of the victim. The absence of a prominent brow ridge told him that the victim was female. The shape of the eye sockets indicated that she was black. By examining the thickness of the cranium, the degree of closure in the cranial sutures, and the amount of wear and tear on the teeth, they came up with an approximate age - late teens or early 20s. The length of the skeleton provided the victim's height.

Skull with markers for skin depth
Skull with markers for skin depth

Unfortunately the body was found in an advanced state of decomposition, and the young woman had perfect teeth, no cavities or fillings, which meant there were no dental records to check. But there was one piece of evidence found at the scene that gave Bender some insight into her personality: the remnants of a blouse.

The blouse was little more than a stained, tattered rag in a plastic evidence bag when Bender examined it, but it once had been crisp and white with neat tuxedo pleats down the front. It wasn't an expensive garment, but to him it seemed a little out of place with the poor neighborhood where the body had been found. He imagined this woman as someone looking for something better in life, someone who would dress better than her circumstances. He felt that she was perhaps sad, but fundamentally hopeful, about her future, so when he created a bust of her head, working from the skull, he had her looking up with her head tilted back. He put the searching and sadness he felt into her expression. He found a similar blouse in a department store and draped it around the shoulders of the bust before handing it over to the detectives working the case.

Police took the bust with them as they canvassed neighborhoods and interviewed family members of lost young black women. No one recognized the face. After two years they returned the bust to Bender, who in turn donated it along with some of his other forensic work to the Philadelphia College of Physicians where they put it on display.

Philadelphia College of Physicians
Philadelphia College of Physicians

Three weeks later a woman happened to pass the display case at the college and became transfixed by the bust. She stared at it for more than an hour, unable to take her eyes off it. She thought she recognized the face but wasn't sure. Finally she became convinced that she knew the identity of the young woman. It was her grand niece, Rosella Atkins.

Rosella was 18 years old when she left home one day, never to return. A teenage mother, Rosella had been trying to find herself. She had enrolled in a Job Corps program in West Virginia, hoping to straighten out her life, but it didn't work out for her, so she moved back to Philadelphia. Rosella was last seen by her mother, sitting on the stoop of their home, talking to a girlfriend.

Rosella's great-aunt said the bust didn't really resemble Rosella that closely, but it was the expression that grabbed her. Bender's mixture of sadness and hope had captured Rosella in a typically reflective moment, as if she were lost in her own thoughts, unaware that she was being observed. The family had a photograph of her wearing the exact same expression. People commented that it was as if Bender had used the photograph as a model for the bust.

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