Monica Yant Kinney: A third certainty of life

Forensic artist Frank Bender and his wife, Jan. He is terminally ill. Nevertheless, Philadelphia refuses to let him close up shop.
Forensic artist Frank Bender and his wife, Jan. He is terminally ill. Nevertheless, Philadelphia refuses to let him close up shop.

To death and taxes, add the gross insensitivity of city government.

Posted: January 13, 2010

Two months ago, I had the grim task of telling readers that renowned local forensic sculptor Frank Bender is dying. The self-proclaimed "recomposer of the decomposed" helped solve cold cases around the globe before being diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma - asbestos cancer from his days in the Navy.

Today, I'm even sadder to report that the City of Philadelphia is giving a sick man agita by refusing to let Bender close his business.

I swear I'm not making this up. If you think it's tough to open up shop in this town, try shutting one down.

Bender, 68, doesn't exactly have time to waste lugging his death sentence around the Municipal Services Building in a quest to free himself from business-tax burdens.

His wife, Jan, has nonsmoker's lung cancer. Together, the lovebirds have a standing weekly date with in-home hospice workers. At their helpers' suggestion, the couple yesterday inaugurated a La-Z-Boy couch.

"We want visitors," Bender said, "and we don't want them to see us on hospital beds."

When work hurts

Last summer, Bender walked from his home-studio in an old meat market on South Street to the MSB concourse for the sole purpose of closing his business.

"All they'd have to do is look at my tax returns," he figured. "It's pretty clear I'm not making any money."

Weeks later, a Revenue Department investigator rang Bender's doorbell. "He looked around and said, 'You'll get our decision by mail.' "

The letter arrived as promised. The verdict? Denied.

Baffled, Bender called the investigator to seek answers.

The artist said he was told that his paintings, sculptures, and supplies would have to be removed from his home for him "not" to be in business. And then there was the matter of neighbors noticing foot traffic in and out of the building.

"I couldn't believe it," Bender exclaimed. "That was family and hospice workers!"

Last fall, Bender received his diagnosis and a Veterans Administration declaration rendering him "100 percent unemployable" due to the service-related disability.

"It would be life-threatening for him to keep working around all those chemicals," argued Bender's bookkeeper, Joan Crescenz. "And financially, he'd risk his VA benefits. That would be crazy."

But the city wouldn't budge.

Suspicious minds

I spoke to the revenue investigator, who affirmed his suspicion about the artwork. But Revenue Commissioner Keith Richardson wouldn't give any details about Bender's case, citing "taxpayer confidentiality."

Hypothetically, Richardson said, "there must be a reason" the investigator didn't buy Bender's story.

"He may still be in business and telling you he's not," Richardson said. "He may have friends using his equipment. He may have some liabilities he hasn't taken care of."

Crescenz, the bookkeeper, said Bender faithfully paid roughly $3,500 a year in business taxes. (The VA will now cover his property taxes, but Bender may have to pay the $2,000 owed from last year.)

As Bender reclines on the La-Z-Boy, the government runaround is rich irony for a man who lives modestly.

Despite his acclaim - Bender was profiled on 60 Minutes and may yet be featured in a film - he never made a killing bringing back the dead.

"I'd be lucky," he told me, "to get $1,700 per bust." His fine art didn't sell well, either.

"People don't want to hang paintings of dead and morbid things up behind their couch," Vanessa Bender told her father. "Lighten up. Paint a landscape."

But Bender couldn't escape the gruesome reality of his day job. So with the exception of onetime paydays for a book and a movie deal about his sleuthing, he usually relied on his wife's income.

Now, a terminally ill artist remains taxed for a business that's preceded him in death. So much for spending his last months resting comfortably.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney

at 215-854-4670 or myant@phillynews.com.

Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney.

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