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Forensic Sculptor and Wife Face Shared Tragedy


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http://www.philly.com/inquirer/health_s ... ?viewAll=y

Frank Bender lives for the dead.

For 30 years, the forensic sculptor has peered into skulls and seen souls. With no scientific training and no college education, he became an internationally heralded "recomposer of the decomposed," an artist who solves crimes while providing comfort to strangers.

His first commission, in 1977, called for him to re-create the image of a woman shot three times in the head and dumped near Philadelphia International Airport. Because of Bender's tender rendering from her skeletal remains, the victim was identified as a missing woman from Phoenix, Anna Duval.

In 1989, America's Most Wanted hired Bender to sculpt John List, a New Jersey fugitive on the FBI's most-wanted list for 18 years after killing his wife, mother, and three children. Using old photos, Bender cast the murderer in clay with wrinkles, a receding hairline, and tortoiseshell glasses. Two weeks after the program aired, FBI agents nabbed their man - looking just as Bender had imagined.

"In many ways, Frank's bust of John List really launched America's Most Wanted into a national force for catching fugitives," gushes the show's host, John Walsh, who became a friend. "Whenever I get the tough cases, I call Frank."

Bender has been profiled on 60 Minutes and lionized in the book The Girl With the Crooked Nose. He cofounded the crime-fighting cabal known as the Vidocq Society, and sold Danny DeVito the right to make a movie about the group.

The Inquirer recently hired Bender to sketch an unknown homeless man killed in July by Philadelphia police.

Bender has a priceless gift, but even with his renown he earns just $1,700 per bust. The film plans faltered, and money remains a constant worry, but Bender has more on his mind these days than big screens and mountainous bills.

That's because the man who brings the dead back to life just learned he's dying.

A deadly blow

"Do you want to feel it?" he asks.

"Uh, sure," I say, leaning over the Formica kitchen table in Bender's South Street home and studio to touch the lump below his left shoulder. "It" feels like a tight muscle no massage can relax.

At 68, Bender looks like Lenin. His exterior fitness belies the internal agony of knowing he may have only eight months to live.

Bender has pleural mesothelioma. The Navy man says he got sick from spending the late 1950s and early 1960s in the engine room of the destroyer escort Calcaterra.

"I not only worked with asbestos," he says, "I slept with it." The Department of Veterans Affairs is processing a disability claim for him.

His is a shared tragedy, since his wife, Jan, 61, has nonsmoker's lung cancer and nerve damage from chemotherapy. "I'm like a fuse that burned out at the tip," she says.

Though she outlasted her 2007 prognosticators - Jan credits Frank's devotion and divine intervention from work he did at the shrine of St. John Neumann - the patient now finds her caretaker joining the unholy battle.

"Going through the same thing at the same time as Jan," Bender says, "is in some strange, surreal sense kind of romantic."

Only a dreamy artist would romanticize their waiting game.

"Surgery would be fatal, because the cancer is already around my heart and lung like a spiderweb," Bender concedes. "Radiation might ease the pain, but it's not going to save me. Chemo could shut down my kidneys. I've got no options."

Making the most of it

Last month, the couple got a pick-me-up when they learned Bender's 2005 sculpture of a teenager helped Colorado investigators solve a 1954 homicide.

"You always knew she had blue eyes," Jan marvels.

"Frank gave Jane Doe a face and a personality," raves Boulder County Sheriff's Detective Steve Ainsworth. "The likeness was uncanny."

In Mount Laurel, the artist's daughter beams with pride.

"My father would rather see a victim identified than make money," says Lisa Brawner, 44. "It drives my mother crazy, but I know when he gets to heaven, people will be lining up to thank him."

Frank and Jan celebrated their 39th anniversary on Halloween, acting more like kids on a date than a couple facing a grim fate. They danced to "Nobody Does it Better."

"They've had a rich life," says daughter Vanessa Bender, 38. "We wish they had more time."

The cold, wet fall has been unkind to Jan. She's met with hospice workers and taken leave from her job as a law-firm receptionist.

"I'm slowing down," she says, plainly. "I need a rest."

For now, Frank numbs the pain in his knees, neck, and hands with a nightly vodka. With forensic work scarce thanks to the recession, he paints for pleasure. He shows me a piece called "Cancer Nazi," about a cartoonish ghoul.

The man may be terminally ill, but he hasn't lost his wicked sense of humor. Unlike the rest of us, Bender has no fear of death.

"I can't say, 'Wow, I wish I had done this or that,' because I realize what I've done. If I go in eight months, I'll still feel fulfilled."

Besides, he reminds, he has a karmic kinship with those he'll meet when his time is up.

"In all of my nightmares," Bender says, "the dead protect me."

. . . . . . . . .

(The Philadelphia Inquirer, Health Science, Article by Momica Yant Kinney, November 8, 2009)


The information contained in these articles may or may not be in agreement with my own opinions. They are not being posted with the intention of being medical advice of any kind.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Thanks for posting that Barb, sorry to hear that. I watched the piece that 60 minutes did on him. He is an amazing artist. He has solved so many cold cases with miminal pay which does not bother him as he feels this is his calling. But the LC certaibly was not.

He actually only lives about a 1/2 hour from me.

So sad that him and his wife are both battleing this.

Hate the f-en disease!

Maryanne :cry:

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