Philadelphia honors forensic sculptor who gave many survivors peace

Posted: October 22, 2010

After Margaret Davis' teenage daughter disappeared from a Kensington street corner one autumn night in 1979, Davis vowed never to move away or change her phone number, in hopes that one day her child would return.

But 16-year-old Jacqueline Gough never came home, and when her body turned up two years later in the basement of an abandoned house, investigators couldn't figure out who she was. Unaware that her daughter had been found, Davis kept her vigil.

It was noted forensic sculptor Frank Bender who eventually brought Davis peace. In 1995, thanks to a bust Bender made of Gough's skull after her death, investigators identified Gough's body.

Davis is one of many who credit Bender with helping them find closure after the death of a loved one, many who met untimely ends and became John or Jane Does in morgues. On Thursday, before an applauding crowd of dozens of forensic experts, Davis presented Bender with a symbol of that gratitude: an award from Mayor Nutter and another from City Council, both paying tribute to Bender for his service to the people of Philadelphia.

"I really feel honored, because I always loved this city," Bender said after the presentation of the awards at a meeting of the crime-solving Vidocq Society in Center City. "I grew up here, I never left. . . . Most of the cases I've done have been for the city. So it's nice to be acknowledged."

Bender's meticulous sculptures and his gift for intuiting the features of the dead have helped thousands of people around the world solve cold cases. And to people like Davis, Bender's work has helped bring an end to years of wondering.

"To be able to know where my daughter is now, after 15 years of not knowing, for him to help me close that door - he'll always have a piece of my heart," Davis said. Davis now has her daughter's remains at home in Palmyra, where she moved after learning of her daughter's fate.

Davis, who became friends with Bender after he helped with her daughter's case, began working on getting the accolades for Bender last month, after she learned he was dying. Bender, 69, has pleural mesothelioma, an asbestos cancer that he traces to the years he spent working in the engine room of a Navy destroyer.

"I wanted the city to do something to show its appreciation for what he's done," Davis said. "He's helped people like me all over the world."

Bender also cofounded the Vidocq Society, an 82-member club of international forensic experts who meet to discuss and reexamine unsolved murders, using modern forensic techniques.

Doctors who diagnosed Bender's condition a year ago said he might not live through the beginning of the summer. But in August he saw the publication of The Murder Room, a best-selling book about the Vidocq Society, written by former Inquirer staffer Michael Capuzzo.

"I'm going to ignore the illness and keep on living," Bender said Thursday. "I'm still kicking, and I'm going to keep kicking."

Bender said he considered his work on identifying Gough to be a career highlight, because it led to his meeting Davis.

Gough vanished Sept. 30, 1979, from Fourth Street and Lehigh Avenue. A girlfriend told police that she and Gough met a man there and that Gough left with him, saying she would be back. Police found her decomposing, unidentifiable body in 1981 in the basement of an empty house in North Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Detective Virginia Hill came to Bender's studio in 1995, hoping to link some of Bender's sculptures to cold cases. Bender had created a bust of Gough, using her remains, and Hill recognized the face as that of a girl pictured on an old missing-persons flier. Her next step was showing Davis' family a photograph of Bender's sculpture.

"When I saw it, I knew," said Lisa Gough, 49, who was 20 when her sister vanished. "I just knew. It brings tears to my eyes to this day."

An investigator at the Medical Examiner's Office had kept a tooth from Gough's remains, and DNA from Gough's father provided enough information to identify Gough.

Davis had Gough's remains removed from a potter's field for unclaimed bodies, where she had been buried. Weeks later, Davis held a memorial service for her daughter, with Bender in attendance.

"Frank's been like a part of my family ever since," Davis said.


Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or asteele@phillynews.com.

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