by David B. Caruso, Associated Press
PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Its membership list is straight out of a pulp novel:
private detectives, retired FBI agents, polygraph experts, even a forensic
scientist specializing in blood spatters.
Together they form the Vidocq Society, a 12-year-old Philadelphia-based
group specializing in solving murder cases that have stalled or been dropped
"The problem with most police departments is that they are so busy that
these older cases get put on the back burner," Vidocq Society co-founder
Bill Fleisher said. "Mostly we just act as a catalyst. We want to get the
assigned investigators excited about these cases again."
The group's 82 members worldwide include Robert K. Ressler, the former
FBI profiler who invented the term "serial killer" and spent 16 years
interviewing mass murderers from David Berkowitz - The Son of Sam - to John
Also on board is Edgar Adamson, chief of the U.S. National Central Bureau
of Interpol, the international police force.
This year, the group has been trying to solve the mystery of "the boy
the box," a child whose body was found inside a cardboard container in
Philadelphia in 1957. And in April the society signed on to look into the
case of Amy Wroe Bechtel, a Lander, Wyo., woman who disappeared while
running in the mountains in 1997.
The group is hoping to add both cases to a string of successful
In a 1991 case, Vidocq members helped win the acquittal of a Little Rock,
Ark., restaurant worker accused of beating his boss to death with a golf
club. They also solved the 1991 disappearance of a Lubbock, Texas, man and
helped convict an ex-girlfriend for his murder in 1997.
Not bad, Fleisher says, for retired investigators and forensic experts
working for free and meeting mostly in their spare time.
Named after Eugene Vidocq (pronounced VEE-duck), an 18th-century French
police detective who pioneered modern forensic science, the group functions
more like an academic society than a police force.
The group only takes on murder investigations, selecting a handful of
cases out of the hundreds of requests for help it receives from victims'
families. Cases are considered only if the crime is at least two years old
and the victim wasn't involved in illegal activity at the time of death.
Once it has accepted a case, the society offers to fly the police officer
assigned to the investigation to Philadelphia to make a formal
Each case then gets a thorough review by individual members, who apply
their years of forensic training to look for things police might have
missed, such as an improperly diagnosed cause of death or DNA evidence that
was never collected.
Frederick Bornhofen, the society's case management director, said
sometimes all a cold case needs is an extra look to get it started again.
But he also cautioned that only about one in 10 of the cases taken on by
group has resulted in an arrest and conviction.
One of those success stories involved the 1984 murder of a Drexel
University student found strangled in a stairwell with her socks and
Police, following up on a Vidocq Society suggestion, found that a
security guard at the Philadelphia campus had been court-martialed for
stealing women's sneakers at an army base in 1979. A search of his apartment
turned up 20 pairs of women's sneakers, along with other evidence that led
to his 1995 conviction in the slaying.
The society does its work in secrecy. It won't discuss ongoing
investigations with reporters - a rule that has helped it earn the trust
law enforcement agencies, which frequently give them access to confidential
files off-limits to the general public.
"We live on trust," Bornhofen said. "If we didn't have the trust of
people in law enforcement, we wouldn't survive for a minute."
That unusually close relationship with police has been important in
Philadelphia's "boy in the box" case.
In 1998, the society effectively reopened the investigation when it went
to court to have the child exhumed from a pauper's grave and tested for
And last month, two Vidocq members accompanied a Philadelphia police
detective who flew to Cincinnati to interview a woman who claimed to know
the circumstances of the boy's death.
Bornhofen said he is confident the case will eventually be solved, in
part because Philadelphia police officers have treated the society's
investigators like partners.
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"They forget that we are civilian, because we can walk the walk, and
the talk," said Bornhofen. "They know that we don't blab to the victims'
families or to the press. And If the case is solved, the police take the
credit. We aren't here to steal headlines."