Haunted Crime Scenes
"Recomposer" of the Decomposed
Frank Bender's Philadelphia studio is housed in a converted meat shop. Eighty-eight feet long, it's filled not only with Bender's paintings and sculptures but also a wealth of antiques. In addition, you might see a molded skeleton hanging from a painted tree, a bronze sculpture, glowing skulls, or a series of pretty pastel paintings. You'll also see the clay bust of whatever case he may be working on, because Bender is an internationally reknowned forensic artist.
He got his start as a fine artist and photographer, and it was never his ambition to work with the dead. But in 1976, he was invited to tour the morgue to better learn about human anatomy. While there, he saw a decomposing corpse that had not yet been identified, #5233. The woman had been shot three times in the head and left near the airport. The possibility of identifying her seemed hopeless, but Bender said he believed that he knew what she looked like. To prove it, he set about making a sculpture from her skull and managed to get such a good likeness that 5233 eventually got a name. That led to her killer, who was finally convicted. It wasn't long before he was invited into more forensic cases by the local and state police, and even the U.S. Marshals.
Leslie Rule, daughter of true crime writer Ann Rule, interviewed Bender in his studio for Ghosts Among Us, with a suggestive introduction that perhaps his phenomenal intuition is assisted from the "other side" — those victims who want their cases solved and their remains identified. She tells the story of a little girl, Aliyah Davis, from West Philadelphia. In 1981, Aliyah was five years old. Her mother and stepfather were both abusive and one evening they beat her to death. Then she disappeared and no one asked any questions.
Eventually her remains were found in a trunk in 1992, but no one knew who she was. Bender worked on the skull, trying hard to create what he believed she looked like, but, as Rule reports, feeling frustrated with the results. Then he had a dream about walking into a morgue. Inside was a little black girl with pig-tails sitting on a gurney. She smiled at him, and he knew what he needed to do with the sculpture. It's not hard to believe this really occurred when one hears Bender describe his work. It seems to be more than just artistic prowess.
Before he begins a sculpture, Bender gathers visual information about the subject. He also wants any clothing or items found with a body, if that's what he's working with, and all the pathological reports. Then he studies the skull, noting unique features, from the brow to the nasal cavity to the jaw line. Generally, his technique involves first making a cast of the skull (or using the skull itself). Small holes are made for wooden or vinyl pegs to be inserted for measuring the facial tissue depth. Then modeling clay fills in the muscles and features around the nose, mouth, cheeks, and eyes, and a thin layer of plastic or clay goes over the mold. Facial features are formed to capture the person's basic look, and a wig and artificial eyes are added, along with make-up.
"There's a rhythm throughout nature," he said, "a harmony, whether it be in dance, painting, sculpture, or music, so I try to work with that."
Once the sculpture is the way he wants it, he makes a mold out of rubber and fiberglass plaster, then polishes everything to his satisfaction. The final step is to take a picture for flyers, newspapers, and television.
In the case of the girl found in the trunk, Bender managed to recreate a face from the details of his dream, including the pigtails. An image of this was placed in a flyer with a request for information. It took six years, but finally someone spotted the flyer and recognized the girl. It was her biological father, who'd been separated from her when his ex-wife gained custody. He notified police and they tracked down Aliyah's killers, bringing them to justice.
Not far away in another area of the state, an entire family of children became victims.