Recomposer Of The Decomposed

A Forensic Sculptor Brings The Faces Of The Dead Back Into Sight

Some people are just more comfortable around the dead than others, and Frank Bender is one of them.

He's a self-taught expert in rebuilding the faces of the dead and missing. And for years, lawmen have been coming to him for help solving cases once thought unsolvable. He does it all without any high-tech aid -- just his bare hands and gut instinct.

Officially, he's known as a forensic sculptor, one of only a few in the country. But unlike the others in his line of work, he's really an artist who prefers a more provocative title. As Contributing Correspondent Jim Stewart reports, he calls himself the "Recomposer of the Decomposed."

"I'm recomposing the decomposed to show what this person would look like today. I either work from a decomposed body. Sometimes, I don't even have the advantage of working from the skull," says Bender.

His job is to bring the faces of the dead back to life. And while that may sound like work for a scientist, Bender relies on something far more basic. He uses a God-given talent to see faces where everyone else just sees bones.

"The bones certainly talk back to me in a visual sense. The forms, how one form relates to another, determines how the flesh will be formed around the eyes and every other part of the face, for that matter," says Bender.

He's been having his unique dialogue with the dead for nearly 30 years, and 60 Minutes Wednesday had the rare chance to see how one of those conversations would turn out.

It involved a case that began in 2001, when a human skeleton with a bullet hole in the skull was discovered in the lush mountains of central Puerto Rico.

Detectives didn't have a clue who it was. But when a major drug trafficker confessed to a murder near where the remains were found, and police then learned a woman had been looking for her missing surrogate son in the same area, the case had Bender'' name written all over it.

What is he looking for? What is the first thing he's trying to figure out? "First thing when I look at a new skull is to try to get a visual handle on what the person looks like as a whole," says Bender.

With no DNA or dental records, the only way to possibly identify the remains would be to mold a clay face over the actual skull itself. So Bender began by carefully snapping his own photographs, not only to document the evidence, but to get a feel for it as well.

He never wants to see old pictures because he believes they would taint the originality of his work. But in this case, he did use a pathologist report that suggested the victim's age, gender and race -- and he measured, cut and applied what are called facial thickness markers right on top of the skull with the bullet hole.

"They're averages," says Bender of the markers. "Each person is an individual. Now, what makes an individual? Character."

And with each application of clay, a case that had been dead for so long began to develop a character all its own.

"I use my hands to put the clay on, and I work very quickly. I don't start at just one spot," says Bender. "Like, I don't start with putting a nose in one or any, a mouth or any, or I work the whole thing at once, very quickly … with my hands."

Bender prefers to work almost non-stop, sculpting from the imagination. He took a break in this case only for good reason, to return to the site where the body was found.

"By being at the scene, you feel the presence of the crime and the atrocity that was committed," says Bender. "There's something about a scene. When you see a scene … you're not taking it for granted."

It has always been that sense of curiosity that's defined Bender.

Born in Philadelphia, he never went to college, and after a stint in the Navy, he pursued art full time. Today, he is one of only a handful of prominent forensic sculptors, and has juggled his work on the dead with private sculptures and paintings of the living as well.

At 63, he still lives in Philadelphia with his wife of 34 years in an old converted butcher shop that is also his studio.

Bender says he's been involved with so many criminal cases over the years for the FBI, the U.S. Marshall's, and police departments, that he can't keep count.

Stewart asks Bender about the plaster cast of John List, a wealthy New Jersey accountant who killed his mother, his wife, and his three children in 1971 and then disappeared. He had been a fugitive for 18 years when the TV program "America's Most Wanted" asked Bender to construct a bust of List as he might appear after living in hiding for so long.

Bender constructed the bust, based on List's cranial structure. How did he do that?

"When I age a fugitive, I get into their eating habits, drinking habits, hereditary factors," says Bender. "Lifestyle, anything that I can find out about the fugitive, I want to know."

He also consulted with forensic experts, visited a neighbor who owned an antique shop, and found a particular style of old eyeglasses.

How close did he get? "Close enough to get him," says Bender. "And they got him 11 days later ... after it was aired on 'America's Most Wanted.'"

This case turned Bender into a national sensation, catching the attention of people in law enforcement and the art world, like Ronald Jones, an artist, critic, and at the time, professor at the Yale University School of Art.

"This was a direct incursion of art into the justice system, in this instance. And it made a difference," says Jones, who believed that Bender's almost supernatural talent was something rare. And he wanted to capture it himself. So he made an appointment to drop by Bender's Philadelphia studio.

"He had a skull boiling on the stove. And I was there for lunch, I remember that," says Jones. "I looked in there, 'cause it was boiling and steam was coming up. And he said, 'Oh, that's not for lunch. That's case so-and-so.' And he was making a joke about it."

But Jones had a proposal, and Bender knew immediately that it was no joke.

"He asked me if I would be interested in doing a joint venture with him," says Bender. "To age children that were murdered in the Holocaust, to show what they would look like today, as though it never happened."

The artwork was for an exhibit called "Monster," and at the time, it seemed like a perfect challenge for Bender. Jones handed Bender photographs of the children and asked him do what he had done in the List case: age them.

"I felt like we were putting my studio in the same position as the federal marshals, or the Philadelphia police department," says Jones. "Here's the evidence. You go do your thing. And we'll come back, and see what the results are."

One photo was of Mala Silberberg, a 4-year-old girl with a beautiful singing voice who was shot to death in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. Bender knew almost nothing about the girl, but he managed to add 50 years to her face.

"I really study and feel like I am her when I am working. Same way I would a fugitive or anybody else," says Bender. "You know, I look at her when she was a girl. And then age her according to her jowls and how I feel the flesh around the eyes is going to go and all, and try to give her this energy like, if she was alive today, she may be this wonderful singer."

Her bust was one of his 10 sculptures that made it into the show, and it reminded Jones of why he went to Bender in the first place.

"I felt like we were putting my studio in the same position as the federal marshalls, or the Philadelphia police department," says Jones. "Here's the evidence. You go do your thing."

It's a magic of a sort that no one else can do, which is why the police in Puerto Rico asked Bender for help on the case of the skull with a bullet hole.

Over the years, detectives developed a theory that the skull belonged to a man who had been killed in the woods during a drug turf war back in 1998. The only person the police could find who knew him was the woman who first reported him missing. She was like a mother to him and cared for him when he stayed with her.

Police brought her in to see if she could recognize his face after so much time -- six years since he disappeared. Bender put on the finishing touches before she arrived.

Was he worried about what she might see, or not see? "No, I'm not worried at all. When I finish a project, I'm confident," says Bender. "I don't worry."

If she could make a positive identification, then the skull would have a name, and that would be enough evidence to charge one of the region's most notorious drug traffickers with homicide. So everyone, from the detectives, to the prosecutor, to Bender himself, knew that as she tried to recall a face she hadn't seen in six years, an entire case hung in the balance.

She told the lead detective, "It looks like him."

"It was a very emotional experience," says Bender. "Tears are starting to roll down the side of her cheek and everybody else in the room as she starts going 'Whoa.' "

With Bender's unique blend of art and science, a cold case went suddenly hot. Police confronted their main suspect, who then admitted he had lured his victim, a rival drug dealer, into the woods and executed him. He pleaded guilty to homicide -- the ultimate proof that Bender's conversation with the bones paid off.

"They all have a new twist, a new story to them, a new venture," says Bender. "I mean, to me, each one that's identified is a big deal."

Did he ever imagine that he would spend so much of his life trying to bring the dead back to life? "No. Never," says Bender.