The Philadelphia medical examiner had run out of ideas and feared he might never be able to identify the badly decomposed body of a woman who’d been dumped at the airport. Then in walked Frank Bender, an eager art student visiting the office to get a quick anatomy lesson. Bender studied the remains for a few minutes and suddenly announced, “I know what she looks like.” Impressed, an assistant medical examiner asked if Bender thought he could create a bust of the woman’s face. Bender did, a photo of the bust landed in the local papers, and eventually the body was identified. “I just see the image in my head, then I let my fingers do the sculpting,” says Bender.
Since that first case in October 1977, Bender, now 70, has built a worldwide reputation as a forensic sculptor with an eerie ability to reconstruct what a murder victim might have looked like-even when he has nothing more to work with than a skull and a few strands of hair. He has helped solve dozens of murders and catch numerous fugitives. But his storied career is rapidly nearing its end; he is dying of mesothelioma, a rare chest cancer. Even so, Bender enthusiastically agreed last year when Northampton County Coroner Zachary Lysek asked Bender to take on what will be his last case, that of a woman whose skeleton was found in the woods near Easton, Pa., in 2001. For years Lysek had tried to identify the woman, but computer searches based on dental records and her DNA failed to turn up a match. Bender was his last hope. “There aren’t many in the world that can do what he does,” says Lysek. Bender’s thoracic surgeon Dr. Joseph Friedberg says his patient, who has been in and out of hospice over the past month, should have been dead a year ago. “I’m completely baffled as to how he has remained so functional through what must be an unimaginable degree of pain,” he says. “That is courage.” For Bender, who believes identifying the victim will help authorities find the killer, what keeps him going is simple: “This is my last case. I want to see it solved before I die.”