Frank Bender, 70; artist put a face on homicide victims

Forensics sculptor Frank Bender in 2006 with a bust made based on the remains of homicide victim Rosella Atkinson, 18. Forensics sculptor Frank Bender in 2006 with a bust made based on the remains of homicide victim Rosella Atkinson, 18. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)
Associated Press / July 30, 2011

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PHILADELPHIA - Frank Bender, a Philadelphia artist whose forensic sculptures helped capture criminals and identify victims of violent crime, died Thursday. He was 70.

Mr. Bender had been diagnosed with cancer last year and died at home, according to longtime friend and colleague William Fleisher.

Mr. Bender used skulls from decomposed bodies as the basis for recreating faces of unknown victims.

Among his successes 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 Mr. Bender’s help, and his bust led Atkinson’s aunt to put a name to the face. Atkinson’s killer confessed in 2005.

“This is my art, representing these people that can’t represent themselves anymore,’’ Mr. Bender said in a 2001 interview.

At that time, he estimated he had created about 40 busts of victims.

Mr. 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 Mr. Bender looked over one badly decomposed body, he told his friend that he knew what she looked like. A coroner overheard the conversation and challenged Mr. Bender to prove it.

Mr. 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 her after stealing her profits from a house sale.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Bender also helped start The Vidocq Society, a Philadelphia group that tries to solve cold cases. Fleisher, the society’s cofounder and a former city police officer and US Customs agent, said yesterday that Mr. Bender was a free spirit and a renaissance man with a “God-given talent.’’

“On a professional level, there’s nobody that does what he did,’’ Fleisher said.