In his most unusual, fascinating book, Ted Botha, a prominent journalist, has written the true story of Frank Bender, a self-taught artist who has solved nine murders and helped find numerous criminals through his mystical talent for sculpting faces on skulls.
Don't let that scare you off. This is good stuff, meticulously researched and written with flair.
The key theme Botha develops is the mystery of the killing of 400 young women in the Mexican border town of Juarez, beginning in 1993. Those who have studied the cases call it feminicidios. When Mexican authorities asked for help from the United States, they sent Frank Bender, who carefully reconstructed the faces of the unidentified murder victims.
Bender used both accepted forensic techniques and intuition to breathe life and even some personality into these formerly fleshless busts. It was both scary and frustrating for him to work amid a culture of corruption and violence, but he pressed on. In spite of threats on his life, he produced eight busts with faces he believed looked like the women he had never seen.
He felt drawn to one skull especially, the one he called "The Girl With the Crooked Nose."
"Working on a case like this keeps you scrambling," said Botha during a phone interview from his home in New York City.
"I didn't know the difference between a pathologist and an anthropologist. I was a babe in the water, not a big forensics person. Thank God, Frank's wife, Jan, kept everything he did over the years in files and videos. I had to wade through it all. Some cases went nowhere or had no resolution."
He remembered one gory case concerned a body exhumed from a Pennsylvania field on a very rainy day. "What I wrote in the book pretty much followed the account Frank gave, either in person or on CDs. I knew quickly that I wanted to focus on Mexico. I was pretty sure that one little guy from Philadelphia was not going to find a solution to 400 murders. In Frank's opinion, the authorities were pursuing the matter just for show," Botha said.
Because Mexican law has been undergoing some reform, these cases were given a higher profile, Botha said. "But it was especially difficult because Frank didn't know either the system or the language. I kind of liked the fact that he had been unable to resolve these cases. It said a lot that the society sat back and just let it happen."
As a person, Botha found Bender "artless, not highly educated, but his instincts were spot on. He never became a professional. What he did shows that the average guy might have a really good nose for solving a crime. He was also very brave to have done it."
Botha was sure that Bender was excited about his doing the book, because on many levels he wanted the story told. "There is so much sculpting that people do individually with no praise at all," Botha said.
"When I finished the manuscript, he read it and said he loved it but we had our moments. I'm a more disciplined kind of guy than he is. It was difficult to pin him down on several things. His mind jumps all over the place, especially when he was talking about his cases from 1979 to 1987. But I could see he had a lot of information, and overall, he is a very pleasant guy."
According to Botha, Bender continues to work as a forensic artist. "He doesn't have as many cases as he would like, but there are always murder victims."
Last year, Frank's wife developed cancer, which led to surgery and chemotherapy. "She was given six months to live. I wanted to dedicate the book to her. Then two months ago, she went back to the doctor and found the cancer had disappeared. Neither Frank nor Jan are practicing Christians, but she went into a Philadelphia church and felt a shiver go through her. Miraculously, she has lived to see the book."
Botha, who also wrote "The Devil in the White City," found the structure of this book to be difficult to build. "I had a nonfiction thriller in mind, something that read very fast. But when Frank got to the final part, he went by his feeling about how everything that fits on a face relates to everything else. It was one big unit."
Bender's artistic style is best described as "a man with hands like a butterfly. The faster he works, the better he thinks he does it. He doesn't really make a living at it, but neither he nor Jan seemed bothered by the gory nature of it. She grew up reading 'Dracula' and she was fascinated by autopsies."
Botha himself recalled having "strange dreams about skulls" while working on the project, making his sleep restless. "But Frank is a tough nut. He takes on a lot, but he is very resilient. In fact, he's obsessed. He works at it as if it were a passion."Bender even tried to show "age progression" on the skulls he sculpted, "using baby steps. At first, he drew the faces, then he moved on to sculpting. It was sort of like a puzzle or a game with him. There was still a bit of the child in him. Even the affairs he always had with women were reminiscent of a naughty boy, a kid who never grew up, even though he's now 65. He really chose the crazy life of a detective."