Recomposer of the Decomposed

By J.D. Mullane

The Down Town Club in Philadelphia was crowded with men from the Vidocq Society who had gathered for lunch.

Cops, sleuths and gumshoes, they are the heirs to Sherlock Holmes, and investigate cold case murders, pro bono.

It was 1993 and I was there at the invitation of Vidocq Commissioner Bill Fleisher.

Vidocq was interested in looking into the unsolved case of Carol Ann Dougherty, 9, who had been raped and strangled in the choir loft of St. Mark Church in Bristol in 1962.

I had written a six-part series, based on police files, for the 30th anniversary of the murder in 1992. But before Vidocq got its investigation under way, the Bucks County prosecutor’s office put it before a grand jury.

Fleisher and his group were still interested, and so I got the lunch invitation.

I was shown to a table. On my left was Bill Ressler, the renowned FBI investigator who coined the term “serial killer.” On my right was Frank Bender, whose talent was reconstructing for investigators the faces of dead people, based on their skulls.

A self-taught sculptor, Bender called himself the “recomposer of the decomposed.”

Four years earlier, Bender had become famous when he created a bust of fugitive John E. List for the TV show, “America’s Most Wanted.” List had killed his wife, children and mother in 1971, parked his car at JFK Airport, and vanished.

Bender had aged List perfectly, with receding hairline, wrinkles and tortoise-shell eyeglasses. List was arrested two weeks later in Virginia.

That day at the Down Town Club, Frank Bender was in black. He was wiry, with an intense gaze.

Fleisher introduced us, and mentioned the Carol Dougherty case and the series. Bender wanted to know all about it. He was silent as I spoke. When I finished, he looked at me. Then he said, “You will be haunted the rest of your life.”

Odd. The grand jury had the case. An indictment was expected. Haunted? How could he be so sure? I asked.

“It’s a child,” he said.

Bender fascinated. He told stories of dead people who, he said, seemed to speak to him as their images emerged from clay.

In the late 1970s, he was an art student who studied human anatomy by observing autopsies at a city morgue.

In 1977, when he reconstructed the face of a murder victim and it resulted in the killer’s arrest, the police sent more skulls.

He had a spooky knack for guessing precise skin color and facial expressions of his subjects.

The skulls of the unidentified dead were given titles. “The Man in the Cornfield.” “The Girl on Route 309.” “The Boy in the Bag.”

They haunted his dreams, he said.

At the Down Town Club, he asked, “Tell me what you didn’t put in your story.”

An intriguing question, I thought, and I told him about “12.”

After the series ran, a note signed “12” arrived. The sender requested a meeting with me to reveal Carol Dougherty’s killer. The sender instructed me to acknowledge the note in a classified add in the newspaper. I did.

A few days later, while I was at Mass at St. Mark’s, an envelope was left under the windshield wiper of my car. Inside the envelope was a paper with “12” on it. That’s all.

I said neither I nor the police know what it means.

Without hesitating Bender said it was the killer. Instinct.

“He’s playing with you,” he said.

The Dougherty case remains unsolved. Even today, I chase leads.

I thought of this last week, when Frank Bender’s obit appeared in the newspapers. He died of mesothelioma. He was 70. He will be buried in the National Veterans Cemetery at Washington Crossing.

His final reconstruction, completed last year, was of a child, a 10-year-old boy whose remains were found in a field in North Carolina in 1998.

Bender told the Greensboro News-Record why he took the case, even though he knew he would probably not live to see it solved.

“A child is so innocent. They have a whole life ahead, and it’s taken away,” he said. “It all bothers me, but they bother me the most.”

The case remains unsolved.

  1. .2011-08-07T15 46 36.869-04 00.Frank Bender and Bill Fleisher NoirCon 2008.By Robert Moran Inquirer Staff Writer. Frank Bender 70 the world-renowned forensic sculptor whose hand-molded busts of unidentified murder victims and aging killers helped to crack cold cases died Thursday at his home in Southwest Center City.His most famous case involved John List a New Jersey man who killed his family in 1971 and then disappeared. The producers of Foxs Americas Most Wanted asked Mister Bender to create a bust of List showing what he might look like 18 years later.

    • Paul Eberle
    • March 4th, 2012

    Any new info about this murder. She was my first cousin. I know how it devasted the family. I always had some eerie feelings about the case even though I was only 4 yrs old at the time of the murder

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