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FEATURE The Face Maker Bringing Mexico’s murdered women back from oblivion BY DEBBIE NATHAN Fl rank Bender is an East Coast native who knows maybe four words of Spanish and not much more about countries where Spanish is spoken. Lately, though, he’s become obsessed with Ciudad Juarez: with bringing the women murdered there back from the deador at least, back to a semblance of life that might solve a decade-long spate of murders in Mexico’s biggest border city. Juarez has been littered the last 10 years with scores of unidentified female corpses. They are part of a bigger body count: almost 350 girls and women killed variously by husbands, boyfriends, uncles, sons, neighbors, and, apparently, also by strangers. The corpses frequently retain signs of stabbing or shooting or strangulation. Many have been raped and mutilated. The violence is appalling, but as any police detective will tell you, the first requirement for solving a homicide is the victim’s name. When a dead body is so rotted that identity is gone, the murderer will usually walk free. Frank Bender restores identity. If you visit his cluttered, combination home and art studio near downtown Philadelphia, he will lead you to long shelves of plaster busts. One is of a teenaged black girl with eyes that gaze heavenward, like a saint’s. “Her corpse was found in back of a high school,” Bender explains. He points out a young white woman with long, brown hair and a fatalistic, half smile, half frown. “This is Yvonne. She liked guys who were sharp dressers. Got mixed up with her boyfriend in a drug deal that went bad. She was killed in New Jersey then dumped in a woods near Philly.” The police at first knew nothing about gazes and dandies and drugs, because they had no idea who these dead people were. That’s where Bender comes in. The cops give him a skull. Sometimes it’s bone-dry and bone-clean. Other times it’s confounded with rotten tissue, and he gets paid extra to stick it in a pot of boiling water until the detritis falls away. Then the skull is tabula rasa and Bender makes a cast of it. After that he starts mapping the vanished identity by mounting little tubes of varying lengths on certain landmarks, like the cheek prominences and forehead. The tubes look like cut-up cigarettes and rise like girders in a tiny, Barbie-doll construction project. Bender lobs clay on the tubes and smoothes until they disappear. He gives, takes away, carves, and smoothes some more. A face takes shape. When it’s finished he casts it in plaster and shaves the mold line. He paints over the chalky whiteness: just the right skin tone, the correct shade of hair. Skulls don’t show color, of course, and Bender can only guess at it, just as he can only take a stab at curly or straight hair, styled or indifferent, short versus long. But the choices he makes come from deduction and sixth sense. Take the case of the girl found by the high school. A photograph of Bender’s sculpture of the corpse was widely distributed, leading to the identification of the young woman. After seeing Bender’s work, her parents supplied a photograph of their daughter that’s a dead ringer for the sculptureright upturned gaze, in both the picture and the plaster. “Her parents were amazed that I knew she did that with her eyes,” Bender says. “How did you know?” I ask. He explains that sometimes police show him photographs of clothing found on the body. “Her clothing was so conservative that I guessed she didn’t pay much attention to people around her. I thought her eyes would also show that?’ The girl’s race was easier: Benderwho has combined art training with a study of forensic anthropologysays you see ethnicity in certain bony features of the skull. But nuance of skin tone can be a mystery. On the shelf is a bust of another black girl, whose face Bender painted reddish brown. Police used the bust to establish an identity, and indeed, Bender says, the victim did turn out to have coppery skin. “How could you have known that?” I ask. “I dreamed it,” he shrugs. aren T. Taylor is an Austin-based, freelance forensic artist and author of Forensic Art and Illustration, the only textbook in the field. Taylor, who teaches facial reconstruction at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, says she respects Bender’s ability so much that, “I mentioned Frank in my book. Not only does he consistently use wonderful art skills in his work, but he also incorporates reliable insights. He has broken ground by employing sculpture for facial reconstruction, rather than photography or drawing. He’s an innovator?’ Bender’s combination of science and almost preternatural intuition first emerged back in the 1970s, shortly after he left the military and finished a few years of night courses at an art school in Philadelphia. A friend who fingerprinted bodies in the city morgue took him for a visit; they passed an unidentified, decomposed corpse and Bender said, “I can tell what she looks like!” The medical examiner overheard and challenged Bender to reconstruct the face. “That was the first sculpture I ever did,” he recalls. Today he is one of a few artists in the country who work with law enforcement to reconstruct identity from bones. In addition to doing forensic work, Bender 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 2/13/04