Envisioning A Face

by longformphilly


Michael E. Ruane | The Philadelphia Inquirer | November 1987

“The big one,” investigators call her – a tall, thin woman, about 5 feet, 9 inches in height, between the ages of 20 and 30, with a narrow, graceful skull and two simple earrings.

In the death room of Harrison “Marty” Graham’s fetid North Philadelphia apartment, they hadn’t found her right away, though her skeleton was right under another decaying human body.

No, like some archaeological excavation, the investigators had found her face-up at a lower level in the debris-choked room, her body withered away inside khaki slacks and two long-sleeve shirts.

She had been killed – strangled or suffocated – months before. Most likely not the first victim, she may have died within feet of unseen others already killed and left hidden in the room.

Like the six others, she was probably lured from the street with the promise of a “high.” But Graham, 28, who is charged with killing her and the others, later told detectives he didn’t remember who she was.

Now, 13 weeks after police first pulled the nails from the door in that foul, sealed room, after all the other victims have been mourned and buried, she remains behind: stored in a freezer at the Medical Examiner’s Office, her tiny earrings wrapped in gauze inside a manila envelope, her case file marked ”unknown.”


The human skull on the artist’s table is a vision from a horror tale. The dark recesses contrast sharply with the shiny bleached bone. The face of the skull is pocked with tiny pink rubber posts.

Red plastic orbs rest in each vacant eye socket, and there are several back molars missing from the lower jaw. A magnifying glass, stainless steel calipers and X-acto knife rest beside the skull.

Nearby, also, is the body tag from the morgue, number 3760. Written there in pencil is the spare biography of the skull’s owner: “1631 N. 19th St.,” the address of Graham’s apartment where the body was found, and “unk F.B.,” unknown female, black.

Circling the skull and peering intently from under thick blond eyebrows is forensic sculptor Frank Bender, an impish-looking man with a goatee who sports blue jeans, black turtleneck and white sneakers.

From the stark skull before him, Bender, 46, is seeking a face, trying to envision the mobile features of a living human being, studying what each ridge and hollow in the bone might tell him.

As he has often done before, Frank Bender has been called in on this case as a last resort, after all other avenues of identification have been exhausted. Using scientific techniques and artistic intuition, Bender will sculpt a clay face over the lifeless skull that he hopes will be a good likeness of the unknown woman.


And perhaps, someone, somewhere, will recognize that face as a sister, daughter, mother or friend.

This day, Thursday, Bender already has begun. He has retrieved the skull from the Medical Examiner’s Office. In his bright but cavernous studio, he has applied with glue 21 rubber posts to the surface of the skull.

These are markers for facial tissue thickness, he explains. Based on scientific formulas, they mark the average thickness of facial skin at 21 different points, ranging from about 4.5 millimeters to 14.5 millimeters.

“But they’re only averages,” he warned. “If you go by the charts exclusively . . . you wind up with an average, rather than an individual. So there’s a part where art supplements science. ”

“You constantly have to play between the two,” he said. “You have to keep that balance going. You can’t go too much toward the art of it because then you’ll wind up with an artist’s interpretation of the person. ”

Bender also has placed the two red orbs in the eye sockets. Each is 24 millimeters in diameter, the precise size of eyeballs, and will later be meticulously painted.

Bender has been doing this work for about 10 years, sculpting more than a dozen faces, many of which have led to identifications of unknown persons, many of them murder victims. He says he got into the work one day when he was being shown around the Medical Examiner’s Office by a friend.

During the tour, a pathologist indicated the decomposed body of a woman, noting that her identity was unknown.

“I can tell you what she looked like,” Bender said. He made a sculpture of the woman and it led to her identification.

He is paid $1,200 for each work.

His sculptures are frighteningly lifelike, looking as if they were about to speak. He sometimes adds clothing – in one case re-creating a distinctive, pink V-neck blouse on one murder victim – and unique hair styles to his sculptures.

But it is the skull itself that tells him the most about the person whose face he is seeking.

In this case, he has already noted the elongated face, a pointed chin, a slightly unsymmetrical look to the nose aperture and a deep lower jaw bone.

They are thin clues, really, but matched with the two small earrings found by the woman’s head in the debris where she died . . .


Charles G. Johnson had just come from church that fine Sunday of Aug. 9 when he was called to Harrison Graham’s apartment.

Trudging up to the third floor through the overpowering odor, Johnson, a forensic investigator with the Medical Examiner’s Office, waded through the debris of the outer room of the two-room apartment and stood outside the inner room.

As Johnson, 49, peered through a crack in the door, he could see at least two bodies amid one “grand mess.”

A policeman pulled the nails from the door and Johnson went inside. It was a little before 2 p.m.

Before him, in the center of a room choked with trash, shreds of clothing and hunks of broken furniture, a woman’s nude body lay sprawled across a rotting mattress.

Nearby, along the west wall, lay the body of another woman, dressed in a gray denim miniskirt and a light-colored shirt with the French words Pour Toi – for you – and a red rose printed on the front.

Both women had been dead a matter of days. Johnson immediately suspected homicide. The scene was photographed. The body on the mattress was designated number 1, the other, number 2, then both corpses were taken to the city morgue.

Johnson turned his attention back to the room. “We’ve got to . . . move some of this stuff around,” he thought. “We got two; I just want to make sure we don’t have any more.”

Two hours had passed since the first bodies were found.

As Johnson and the two morgue technicians began moving around the debris, they lifted some clothing and blankets and there, directly underneath where body number 2 was, they uncovered a fully clothed human skeleton.

“Johnson!” one of the technicians called out. “You’ve got another one.”

The body was also photographed, carefully lifted so that no associated debris was lost, and also taken to the morgue. This was designated body number 3 – the one that today remains unidentified.

Johnson ordered that acting Chief Medical Examiner Robert Catherman, who was being kept abreast of developments, be contacted again: “Tell him we got another one, (and) we’re going to look and see if we’ve got any more,” Johnson instructed.

A little over an hour later, a fourth body – another skeleton, clad in shreds of clothing – was found under some old blankets and sheets. Designated body number 4, it was also removed. A short time later, Catherman arrived at the scene and joined the search.

About 30 minutes after body number 4 was discovered, searchers lifted the mattress on which body number 1 had been found. There, lying on a second mattress underneath, was body number 5, another skeleton wearing shreds of clothing.

Shortly before 8 that night, it seemed as if they were finally finished. The room had been scoured, and nothing else had been found. Catherman, though, remembered the small closet in the southeast corner of the room.

The door was opened and inside the six-inch-deep closet was body number 6 – yet another skeleton, placed in a sitting position, knees up, wrapped in a sheet and bound with white electrical cord. A crude ring was still on the right ring finger and a small earring dangled from the left earlobe.

Several hours’ more work that night revealed nothing more. (Parts of a seventh body would be found over succeeding days on a rear roof of the building and buried in the basement of a house down the street.)

Now, the often time-consuming process of identifying the dead and probing the cause of death began.

Examining each body and sifting through its associated debris, Catherman doggedly searched for tiny hyoid throat bones that he knew could be major clues to how the women were killed.

Catherman knew that all too often in cases where a woman’s body has been discovered in such circumstances, it can be the result of a sexual attack. And he knew that such attacks often involve strangulation, in which the fragile hyoid bone at the top of the throat is broken. Therefore, recovery of the small U-shaped hyoid can be critical.

After hours of work, Catherman found all seven hyoid bones – including two that were broken. (Graham, who was arrested after an eight-day manhunt, would subsequently admit, according to police, that he had strangled his victims while having sex with them. )


Meanwhile, the task of identification was going well. Johnson scrambled among medical centers, hospitals and clinics throughout North Philadelphia gathering medical records of women who had been reported missing. Medical and dental X-rays were then compared against X-rays taken of the seven bodies at the morgue.

Within days, positive identifications began to emerge.

The first to be identified – body number 2 – was that of Mary Jeter Mathis, of the 2100 block of North Corlies Street. She had been wearing the Pour Toi shirt. She was 36, the mother of several children, and, dead about 72 hours, had been the most recently murdered.

Information on the others flowed in. Eventually all but one had been identified.

That was number 3 – the big one. Clues about her were skimpy. Her khaki pants had a 29-inch waist and a metal label on the back that said “Lap Ferrat. ” She wore two long-sleeve cotton shirts – one khaki, the other tomato red – and a size 30-B bra.

There were two other clues. Tiny earrings had been detected in nearby debris when the body was X-rayed. One was a small silver post with a heart on the end. The other was a hook-type earring from which a small, corroded bowl dangled. Johnson believes they were probably worn in the same ear.

Armed with what he knew of number 3, Johnson pursued several leads – including the missing sister of a clerk in his office. She was found alive and well.

Finally, it was time to call Frank Bender.


By Friday, Bender was almost finished. He had crafted with five pounds of sticky brown clay the living features of a young black woman over the skull. She had a longish face, close-set brown eyes and a look as if she had just been asked a question.

“The essence should be there,” Bender said. “That is basically the way she’s going to look. . . . I feel (the identity) there. ”

Yet he was not quite through.

“A face, whether beautiful or ugly, there’s always this harmony,” he said. “What I do when I finish it, is, I look at it and where the harmony is broken I correct it to go with the rest of the harmony that’s working.”

Still, there already was a personality to it. He had made her come alive. He had thought a lot about her, about her death and the difficult life that she probably had led. And he had come, in a sense, to care about her.

“When you work on them, and you put all that time into it,” he said, ”you become part of them.

“You care.”

Writer bio: Michael E. Ruane is a general assignment reporter at The Washington Post. Ruane, a graduate of Villanova University, wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 15 years before leaving for The Post in 1997. He shared the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News with a group of Washington Post reporters who covered the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007.