The Vidocq Society: Solving Murders Over Lunch

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The Vidocq Society sounds like something straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel.

Once a month, the members of the 20-year-old club — mostly detectives and forensic experts — meet at an old Victorian dining room in the middle of Philadelphia to eat lunch and solve crimes that have perplexed investigators for decades.

"I think of it as CSI to the 10th power but real," says journalist Michael Capuzzo. There are profilers and pathologists, experts in white-collar crime, terrorism and sadism. They have Interpol represented, and a captain from the Egyptian army — and for good measure, they even have a psychic.

Capuzzo has spent years becoming intimately familiar with the Vidocq Society, which is named for the 18th-century criminal-turned-crime-fighter Eugene François Vidocq. Capuzzo's new book, The Murder Room, details how the three founding members gathered crime experts from around the world to solve cold cases. He also profiles some of their more famous investigations.

Both Capuzzo and Richard Walter, a forensic psychologist considered to be the father of criminal profiling, join Dave Davies for a conversation about how the monthly lunchtime meetings turn into round-table discussions about possible motives and murder suspects.

The Murder Room
The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases
By Michael Capuzzo
Hardcover, 448 pages
Gotham
List price: $26
Read An Excerpt

Walter describes one case, the brutal 1984 murder of a night manager named Terri Brooks in Falls Township, Pa. She was stabbed inside the Roy Rogers restaurant where she had been working. The extremely violent attack — her head was wrapped in cellophane, and a knife wound had punctured her throat — was perplexing to local officers. The safe inside the restaurant had been manipulated, so investigators thought the murder was the result of a "robbery gone wrong."

For 14 years, the case went unsolved — until the case was brought to a Vidocq Society meeting. After listening to officers from Falls Township describe the case, Richard Walter stood up and told the officers that this wasn't a robbery gone wrong — and that Terri Brooks had been targeted and murdered by someone she knew.

"When you looked at the body, when you looked at the crime scene itself, it was obvious that it was not a robbery," Walters explains to Davies. "What robbery suspect would stab someone so viciously that the knife enters the tile floor and wrap the head in cellophane? A robber is simply not going to do that. It's not efficient. There's no value in that kind of an activity. So you have to look how he spends his time and his interest by what's there and by what's not there."

Walter thought the staged robbery was simply a red herring staged by the suspect to throw police off his trail. The police then asked Walter to create a profile of a potential suspect.

"Given the amount of violence at the scene and how it was personalized to the victim," Walter suspected that the murderer wasn't a stranger. "Also, the victim had to let the suspect in, and so, therefore, the presumption is that she knew him. ... There's extreme hostility, and you see that he doesn't really care when the victim dies. He cares when his anger has been sated. ... So it was simply a matter of watching and plugging in the bits and pieces along the way. In this case, it was reasonable to assume by police that a boyfriend may be involved."

Michael Capuzzo i i

hide captionMichael Capuzzo is also the author of Close to Shore, about the first shark attack in American history.

Bevin Coffee
Michael Capuzzo

Michael Capuzzo is also the author of Close to Shore, about the first shark attack in American history.

Bevin Coffee

Members of the Vidocq Society talked to Brooks' parents, asking them about any possible boyfriends. They remembered one, a man they thought was named O'Keefe. The detectives scoured arrest records and articles for any mention of an O'Keefe, and found nothing — until they looked at the funeral guest book for Terri Brooks.

Sure enough, a man named Alfred Scott Keefe had signed in to Brooks' funeral registrar. Police officers obtained a warrant to get Keefe's DNA — from cigarettes he threw out at the curb. It matched DNA from the crime scene. After an interrogation, he confessed. Sixteen months later, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Walter says members of the Vidocq Society try to look at cases — like the murder of Terri Brooks — from all angles.

"I think that many times, we tend to look at things linearly on a straight, flat line and don't see a relationship between evidence," he says. "I try, particularly when humans and people are involved and motives and all of these sorts of things, to look at the evidence on a differential plane. And so you get a sense of depth and insight into [the crime.]"


Richard Walter i i

hide captionRichard Walter is a forensic psychologist and one of the creators of modern criminal profiling.

Penguin
Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a forensic psychologist and one of the creators of modern criminal profiling.

Penguin

Interview Highlights

On interviewing a suspect

Richard Walter: "In terms of interviewing an anger-retaliatory type, one of the things that must be understood by the detectives is, contrary to popular opinion, the perpetrator does not feel any guilt for committing the killing. When they leave the killing site, they many times have a sense of well-being and a sense of relief and a sense of charm because they've just had 50 pounds of emotional baggage taken off their shoulders. Police don't expect that."

On sadists who show up to hear Walter give lectures

Richard Walter: "Years ago, I was in Topeka at a conference, and I had been at the police department and was going to give a lecture on sadism. The detective who had been with me [at the police department] showed me a suspect in a murder case [and] came up to me just before I went up on the platform and said, 'You know that guy that I pointed out to you at the police department? I just flushed him out of your audience.' ... I've had other places where if I'm lecturing on rape or whatever else, rapists will sneak into the audience."

Excerpt: 'The Murder Room'

The Murder Room
The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases
By Michael Capuzzo
Hardcover, 448 pages
Gotham
List price: $26

The Connoisseurs of Murder

The great hall was filled with the lingering aroma of pork and mallard duck sausage as black-vested waiters appeared, shouldering cups of vanilla bean blancmange. Connoisseurs sat at tables between the hearths under glittering eighteenth-century chandeliers, chatting amiably in several languages. When the coffee arrived, a fine Colombian supremo steaming in its pots, the image of the corpse of a young man of uncommon beauty, lying on his back, materialized in the center of the room.

A gray winter light slanted into the hall, as the midday sun had sailed beyond the city, and the image on the large screen was crisp. The young man's blond locks were matted in a corona of dried blood, his sculpted cheekbones reduced to a pulp. The police photograph had been taken at night in a restaurant alley, and the surrounding scene was obscured in darkness. Yet the strobe light had thrown the young man's face into sharp relief. Out of the shadows of a distant southern night, the stark, wide-open eyes loomed over the room.

It was shortly before one o'clock in the afternoon, and the fifth and final course had been served to the connoisseurs of the Vidocq Society.

"My goodness," said a short-haired young woman in a red dress. Patting her mouth with a napkin, she excused herself from the table and, a hand over her mouth, hurried to the door. William Fleisher, a big man in a magnificent blue suit, WLF embroidered on his custom shirt, sadly shook his large, bearded head. "We need to do a better job screening guests," he said. Richard Walter, his gaunt cheekbones sunken in the wan light, glared at the departing figure. Frank Bender — clad in a tight black T-shirt and jeans, the only man in the hall not wearing a suit — whispered to the detective next to him, "Nice legs."

Fleisher shook his head in wonderment at the two eccentric, moody geniuses with whom he had thrown in his lot. His partners were criminologists without peer or precedent in his thirty years with the feds.

Forensic psychologist Richard Walter was the coolest eye on murder in the world. Tall and acerbic, he spoke with a clipped propriety that had earned him the moniker the Englishman from certain criminal elements. Walter had spent twenty years treating the most violent psychopaths in the state of Michigan at the largest walled penitentiary in the world, in Jackson, and at one of the toughest, the old Romanesque castle in Marquette on Lake Superior. His habit of peering over the top of his owlish black glasses and boring into the souls of inmates was known as the "Marquette stare," and it was a look to be avoided at all costs. He employed it to crack the facade of psychopaths. Walter was unsurpassed in his understanding of the darkest regions of the heart. In his spare time, moonlighting as a consulting detective, he was one of the small group of American criminologists who invented modern criminal profiling in the 1970s and '80s to battle serial killers.

At Scotland Yard, which used him on the most extreme murder cases, he was known as the "Living Sherlock Holmes" — an epithet that horrified him.

"Richard looks like Basil Rathbone in The Hound of the Basker­villes," Fleisher said. "He talks like him, he thinks like him."

"Whenever someone says that," Walter said, "I look away and wait for the moment to pass, as if someone has just farted."

Frank Bender was the most celebrated forensic artist working at that time, perhaps in history. The wiry ex-boxer was muscled and balding, with a Van Dyke beard and piercing hazel eyes. For the occasion, he wore long sleeves that concealed his Navy tattoos. Bender, who grew up in tough North Philadelphia with bullets hitting the row house wall, was high school — educated, blunt-spoken, happily sex-addicted, and a psychic — a gift he was shy about in the roomful of cops. But cops were awed by his ability to keep six or seven girlfriends happy as well as his wife, and to catch Most Wanted mass murderers with a sketchpad and scalpel.

"Frank," Walter liked to tease him. "You would have been burned at the stake in the seventeenth century. Now you'll just get shot in the back."

The tall, melancholy, deductive Walter and the manic, intuitive Bender were blood brothers and partners on major cases. A detective duo without precedent, the psychologist and artist were capable of penetrating secrets of the living and the dead. When they could stand each other.

Bender saw dead people; Walter was contemptuous of spiritu­alism. The artist counted his sexual conquests in the hundreds; the psychologist, divorced, shrank from the touch of man, woman, child, dog, and cat. Walter was the most orderly mind on a murder, Bender the most chaotic.

William Lynn Fleisher was the glue that held the three together — the one, friends said, "with a sail attached to the mast." The sartorial big man was the number two in charge of United States Customs law enforcement in three states, a world-class polygraph examiner and interrogator, a former FBI special agent, and an ex–Philadelphia beat cop. Fleisher was obsessed with the truth, had made himself a scholar of the history of truth-finding and an expert at distinguishing the truth from a lie. He used the polygraph to try to peer into the hearts of men to judge them, but really what he wanted to do was redeem them—both the criminals whose psychophysiological signs spiked with guilt, and their tragic victims whose suffering society forgot. The big man, it was said by his special agents, had gained a hundred pounds to make room for his heart.

Excerpted from The Murder Room by Michael Capuzzo. Copyright 2010 by Michael Capuzzo. Excerpted by permission of Gotham.

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The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases

by Michael Capuzzo

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