MEBANE, N.C. – A terminally ill artist says he has produced his last painting in hopes that it will help authorities in North Carolina solve the 10-year-old case of a missing boy.
The News & Record of Greensboro reported that officials unveiled a facial reconstruction by renowned Philadelphia artist Frank Bender.
"This is the last one," Bender said in a telephone interview from his home. "Most people with terminal cancer and eight months to live might not have even attempted this. But I didn't want to turn this down if I could help identify him."
On Sept. 25, 1998, a groundskeeper for a billboard company was mowing along the Interstate 85/ Buckhorn Road exit and discovered something in the long summer grass at the edge of the woods.
It was the scattered remains of a skeleton, a 10-year-old child, with tube socks and new boy's sneakers still on the child's feet. Folded neatly in the pocket of a pair of khaki shorts was $50 — two $20s, one $10.
Before Bender's painting, detectives had no picture to help identify the boy.
Not only was there no clue to John Doe's real name, but detectives couldn't even describe his face until a North Carolina child advocacy group commissioned Bender to create the reconstruction.
On Saturday night, detectives were able to see art meet science. From what was just a hollowed, mummified skull, Bender produced a lifelike painted sculpture.
Bender said the boy, age 10 to 12, had longish brown hair and a severe overbite that may help identify him. He was Caucasian, possibly Hispanic, and Bender has the feeling the boy was killed by someone he knew.
"I would say more than likely a caretaker — aunt, uncle, father, stepfather. That's usually the way it goes," Bender said.
"That's why they don't show up (as missing). You're thinking, 'Oh, the parents are going to be doing everything under the sun to find them.' "
The people who organized the event believe someone will come forward.
"It could be that somebody sees that bust and says, 'Yes, I remember that child, and he disappeared right around then,"' said Mike Craig, a former police officer who founded N.C. SMART, the nonprofit missing-and-abducted response team that commissioned Bender. "Then, the investigation starts anew at that point."
Bender, 68, is credited with solving dozens of murders and disappearances for the FBI, Scotland Yard and America's Most Wanted.
Leslie Denton, who organized Saturday's event for Guardian Digital Forensics, pointed to the famous Jane Doe homicide victim in Boulder, Colo., who was finally identified in 2009 — 55 years after her remains were found beside a creek.
Bender's facial reconstruction portrayed the unknown victim as blond-haired and blue-eyed. She was later identified as Dorothy Gay Howard of Arizona, who was 18 when she disappeared in 1954.
"Frank told us that she would have blue eyes," Denton said, "and she did. How did he know that?"
Bender began this career through a chance anatomy lesson at the morgue.
Now, he is living under hospice care with mesothelioma linked to asbestos exposure, and his wife also has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
Suffering from a bout of the flu and unable to travel to Raleigh, Bender said the Mebane case likely will be his last reconstruction. Perhaps it is a fitting swan song: Child victims, to him, are always the most compelling.
"A child is so innocent. They have a whole life ahead, and it's taken away," he said. "It all bothers me, but they bother me the most."