Frank Bender and Bill Fleisher, NoirCon 2008
By Robert Moran Inquirer Staff Writer
Frank Bender, 70, the world-renowned forensic sculptor whose hand-molded busts of unidentified murder victims and aging killers helped to crack cold cases, died Thursday at his home in Southwest Center City.
His most famous case involved John List, a New Jersey man who killed his family in 1971 and then disappeared. The producers of Fox's America's Most Wanted asked Mr. Bender to create a bust of List showing what he might look like 18 years later. A Virginia woman watching the show recognized the bust as her neighbor. List, who was living as Bob Clark, was arrested and convicted of the murders.
"In many ways, Frank's bust of John List really launched America's Most Wanted into a national force for catching fugitives," host John Walsh said in 2009. "Whenever I get the tough cases, I call Frank."
Mr. Bender was diagnosed that year with pleural mesothelioma, a cancer of the chest that he believed resulted from his exposure to asbestos in the engine room of a Navy ship. He was told he had only months to live.
"He had a whole extra year than anyone had anticipated. And he had a pretty good year," said his daughter Vanessa, who was in New York when her father died Thursday afternoon.
In recent weeks, with his days numbered, he was the subject of profiles in the New York Times and People magazine.
"He was thrilled," said Joan Crescenz, Mr. Bender's longtime business manager. "He felt really good about the Times article, and the People article took him over the top."
He initially ignored People's request for an interview, said his daughter Lisa Brawner. "He wasn't in it for the fame or fortune," she said. "He was in it to do good."
He had just finished one of his favorite meals, chicken and cranberry sauce, when Crescenz found him slumped at the kitchen table having a hard time breathing. He was dead a short time later.
"His life ended the way he wanted it to," Crescenz said. "He was at home."
His home was a former butcher shop on South Street that he converted into a studio. His last case and his final months were being documented by Karen Mintz, a New Jersey filmmaker. The forthcoming film is titledThe Recomposer of the Decomposed, which is what he long called himself.
Mr. Bender was born in Philadelphia and grew up in North Philadelphia. He graduated from Thomas Edison High School in 1959 and then joined the Naval Reserves, said childhood friends Dennis Binsfeld and Rich Hettich. He always had an interest in art, they said.
Mr. Bender was a commercial photographer in Center City when he reconnected with a childhood acquaintance, Janice Lynn Proctor, who had become a fashion and hand model, Crescenz said. They married in 1969.
In 1977, he was taking evening classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts when he decided to spend time studying bodies at the Medical Examiner's Office.
He saw the body of an unidentified woman who had been shot in the head and decided to create a bust that could be used to identify her. The woman was identified as Anna Duvall of Phoenix, who had been killed by a mob hit man during a confrontation.
In 1990, Mr. Bender cofounded the Vidocq Society, a group of international forensic experts who reexamine unsolved murders.
Crescenz said Mr. Bender made from 40 to 50 busts. He would get the skull, sometimes boiling away the remaining flesh, and then mold a face. The process took about a month, but much of the work was done after a flash of inspiration.
"It would hit him and he'd get it almost done, then he'd step away," Crescenz said.
His wife died last year at 61 after a battle with non-smokers' lung cancer.
He will be buried in a plot next to her at Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Bucks County.
In addition to his daughters, he is survived by three grandchildren and a sister.
Funeral arrangements were pending.
Hypothetical bust of what the unknown boy's father may have looked like, by forensic sculptor Frank Bender, V.S.M.
(Photo credit: America's Most Wanted.)