Ex-Cops, Private Eyes, Forensic Scientists Come Together to Solve Killings in Spare Time
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 by police.
"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 Wayne Gacy.
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 in 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 investigations.
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 presentation.
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 the 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 sneakers missing.
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 of 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 DNA. 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.
"They forget that we are civilian, because we can walk the walk, and talk 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."