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American Way Magazine

July 1999

Case Unclosed

The little-known Vidocq Society reopens old police
files in an effort to make sure criminals don't get away with murder

By Ken Englade

The room reeks of money and power: Soft, subdued lighting; walls paneled with irreplaceable aged walnut lovingly buffed to a rich patina; tables covered with crisp, white linen.

The crowd -- mostly male, mostly late thirties and up, conservatively attired in dark, well-tailored suits and expensive silk ties, possibly corporate CEOs or CFOs, bankers, insurance executives, or successful brokers -- hovers around the massive bar, conversing amiably in hushed, cultured tones.

At a signal they move to their places. Tuxedoed waiters bustle about, bringing garden salad, braised breast of chicken, baked potato, steaming rolls fresh from the oven. Gradually, the friendly colloquy dwindles as attention shifts to the head of the room. A picture, several times life-size, pops up on a screen which has been set up behind a lectern. It is a head and shoulders shot of a hard-looking woman aged somewhere between 30 and 40. Her face is swollen, the skin mottled with ugly, purple bruises. We are told that her name is Susan, and that the slide was taken shortly after she had been roughed up by her boyfriend.

Another image fills the screen. It is a long shot showing Susan, clad now in a blue and white blouse with a haunting skull-and-crossbones motif, stretched across a rumpled motel room bed. It is obvious that she is dead.

Other slides follow in rapid succession. They are increasingly graphic. One shows a needle-tracked arm; another is a close-up of Susan's face. Sightless eyes; painful-looking contusions including a shiner that glows with near neon brilliance. Officially, Susan died of a drug overdose. But did she really?

During the presentation, lunch continues as usual. The waiters flit about in apparent unconcern, serving carrot cake and freshly brewed Colombian. No one among the hundred or so people witnessing the presentation flinches at the gruesome illustrations. No one winces; no one pushes away dessert as the talk turns grisly. Instead, the diners are fascinated, expectant. This is, after all, what they came to see.

Everyone in the room, except for fewer than a half-dozen special guests there by special invitation, is connected to a group called the Vidocq Society, an exclusive, Philadelphia-based organization that few beside law enforcement professionals or dedicated crime buffs have ever heard of.

The Society was created almost a decade ago, the brainchild of three men well known in criminal justice circles: William Fleisher, a former police officer, FBI agent, and Customs Service administrator; Frank Bender, a forensic reconstructionist whose work is recognized by professional crime fighters around the world, and Richard Walter, a forensic psychologist and criminal "profiler."

Named after Eugène-François Vidocq (pronounced vee-DUCK), a mysterious Frenchman born in 1775 who was both a convicted criminal and a prominent, early member of the organization that evolved into Sûreté, the internationally known French police force, the Society is unique both in purpose and configuration.

By decree of its founders, the Society is limited to precisely 82 men and women, a semi-secret list of law enforcement professionals, each of whom has to be voted into membership much as others are accepted into a country club. The number was chosen because each member represents one year of Vidocq's adventure-filled life.

After realizing they had more requests for membership than they had openings, an "associate " category was created. Currently, the Society has some 70 associate members. Counting both regular members and associates, the Society has representatives in 17 states and 11 foreign countries, from Asia to the Middle East, Canada to South America.

In theory, the Society's goal is simple. Its creators envisioned it as a group that would use the members' centuries of combined experience to help solve extra-violent crimes, murders and abductions in which the victim was killed. However, there is a gap between principle and practice.

Since group members are either retired or come from widespread jurisdictions (in fact, around the world) they would lack authority to actively take part in a local investigation. As a result, the group acts only in an advisory capacity.

The way it works is this:

Every case in which the Society becomes involved has whiskers. That is, each has been around long enough to be taken off the active list and shoveled into the "unsolved" file. Most cases considered by the Society are five, ten, or fifteen years old. In taking this stance, the Society is protecting itself from possible criticism of unwanted interference by local investigators, who tend to be quite territorial. The importance of this condition is further underlined by the fact that the Society accepts only cases brought to them by a local investigator, a member of the family of the victim, or a family representative, such as a private investigator or other law enforcement professional.

Potential cases, whether they come from frustrated lawmen or relatives, are put before members at a Society luncheon. These presentations commonly are graphic and usually are accompanied by dialogue that non-law enforcement people might find unsettling. This is one of the reasons why the sessions are closed to the public.

Once the presentation is complete, Society members who are present vote on whether to become involved. Associates, despite their affiliation, are not given a voice.

Because everyone affiliated with the Society is a volunteer, plus the fact that the Society has only limited funds, it can accept only a small percentage of the cases it is asked to take on. Even then, the degree of Society involvement varies widely, often consisting only of a review of available documents.

However, this can be quite effective, as it was in the case of Deborah Lynn Wilson, a student at Philadelphia's Drexel University, whose barefoot body was found in a campus basement hallway in 1984. She had been beaten and strangled to death. Despite a full-press investigation, detectives were unable to find a viable suspect or come up with a plausible motive for her murder. Eight years later, the Society was invited to look at the paperwork. Following a review, the group made a very simple but hugely practical suggestion: In view of the fact that the woman was barefoot investigators should cross-check the records of university staff members to see if any had ever been suspected of suffering from a foot fetish. Using this hint as the basis for a new avenue of exploration, investigators discovered a campus security guard who once had been court-martialed for stealing women's sneakers. In 1995, almost a decade after Wilson was murdered, the guard was convicted of killing her

Since the Society is headquartered in Philadelphia and many of its members live in the area, Pennsylvania and New Jersey cases get more attention. However, the Society has become involved successively in investigations in cities as distant as Lubbock, Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas.

Because the degree of Society involvement can swing so drastically -- begging the question of what is involvement -- it is virtually impossible to say precisely how many investigations it has taken part in or what the results have been. Also, given the tendency by some local officials to resent the Society's intervention, the group must tread a fine line. Sometimes, apparently fearful of being embarrassed, local officials deny that the Society has played a role, significant or otherwise, in solving a crime. In such situations, the Society usually keeps quiet about its participation, preferring anonymity to a public argument.

On the other hand, some overworked investigators welcome the group's participation. Take, for instance, what is the Society's hottest current case, a 42-year-old Philadelphia murder that has been publicized nationally in newspapers and on tv programs ranging from Dan Rather's nightly news to the popular "America's Most Wanted."

Known as the Boy in the Box Murder,(see sidebar) it centers around the killing of a blond-haired, blue-eyed child somewhere between 3 and 5 years old whose body was found in a suburban wood on February 26, 1957. Despite huge efforts, the boy has never been identified and investigators have never developed a serious suspect.

Late in 1998, the Society - at the request of the Philadelphia Police Department - accepted the case for review. Currently, there are three Society volunteers -- all retired Philadelphia officers with a total of almost 150 years experience -- working with homicide detective Thomas Augustine to try to resolve the four-decade old mystery. While some investigators might resent the Society's presence, Augustine -- who can devote his time only when he is not investigating an active murder - is thankful for the assistance. "Am I upset by their participation? Absolutely not," Augustine says emphatically. "I can use all the help I can get and those guys are great. Really wonderful."

The Boy in the Box

After 42 years, Sam Weinstein wants to fulfill a vow.

On February 26, 1957, the then 31 year-old patrolman was dispatched to a lonely wood in suburban Philadelphia to investigate a report of an abandoned body. As the second officer on the scene, what he found made a permanent impression.

Inside a battered cardboard carton that once contained a bassinet from J.C. Penny's was the nude, blanket-wrapped body of a boy somewhere between 3 and 5. Although a coroner later determined that he had been beaten to death, x-rays failed to disclose any previous fractures, which would have demonstrated a history of abuse. To the contrary, there were indications the boy had been relatively well cared for. His toe and finger nails were neatly clipped; his hair was trimmed in a tidy but unprofessional buzz cut, and the cloth that cloaked him had been newly washed. This only deepened the mystery.

Despite a huge effort by Philadelphia Police Department, investigators were never able to identify the boy or find anyone who could be seriously labeled as a suspect in his murder.

With a cold rain soaking him to the skin, Weinstein stared at the boy's body and promised himself that he would do everything he could to find the killer. During his 40 years with the Philadelphia Police Department Weinstein was never able to fulfill that pledge.

When Weinstein retired in 1985 he thought he would never have another crack at the case. But that was before he got involved with a group called the Vidocq Society.

In 1998, the Society led a movement to exhume the boy's body from the potter's field where it had been buried soon after it was found in order to extract DNA, theorizing that the genetic material could later be used to match with that of a surviving relative, provided one could be found. The group, at the request of the Philadelphia Police Department, also adopted the case as one it would actively investigate. Weinstein, a still-spry 73, volunteered to spearhead the Society's effort.

For 14 months, Weinstein has been working to help resolve the mystery. For much of that time, he was working alone. Now, however, he has been joined by two other retired cops, Joseph McGillen and William Kelly. Together, they are sifting through six large storage boxes of material that has accumulated in the case, plus trying to track down hundreds of written and telephoned tips about the boy that have come in since the case was featured on the popular tv show "America's Most Wanted" last October.

Frustratingly, most of the leads have gone nowhere. But the search continues. What Weinstein wants more even than finding the killer is to identify the boy. "He is entitled to a name," Weinstein says sadly, something more than the "America's Unknown Child" that is engraved in the new, black granite marker on the boy's new grave, a memorial that was paid for and erected by the Vidocq Society late last year.