A fine artist, Bender was particularly adept at life-like sculpture. In the 1970s, he accepted the challenge to try to recreate what a dead person looked like by rebuilding their face on a skull — a murder victim. Bender called himself a “recomposer of the decomposed.” When other investigative techniques fail (dental records, fingerprints, DNA, matching up a body with missing person reports, etc.), a few times per year a skull would show up in Bender’s mail from a police department somewhere, or the FBI. He would start putting on layers of clay, shaping it to what he thought the person might look like on the surface, above the foundation of bones (or a cast replica). He did about 40 in all over the years, guessing at skin and hair colors, and other features. He didn’t do it for the small fee he got. “He’s a fighter for justice,” said Ted Botha, who wrote a book about Bender, The Girl With the Crooked Nose, which chronicled Bender’s work to identify eight victims of a murder spree in Mexico. What was his success rate? “Not even he knows, because nobody actually tells him,” Botha said before Bender died. “The police departments don’t always come back to him afterwards; that’s one of the kind of bittersweet things about what he does.” But Bender knew of several successes, and it was apparently good enough for him. He died July 28 from mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung linings. He was 70.
From This is True for 31 July 2011