'Murder Room': Impossible Mysteries Over Soup

Founded in 1990, the Vidocq Society met monthly in Philadelphia for lunch and to solve some of the nation's most vexing cold cases. Host Liane Hansen speaks to Michael Capuzzo, author of The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Before Victor Hugo created his character Inspector Javert for "Les Miserables," before Arthur Conan Doyle formed Sherlock Holmes, there was Eugene Francois Vidocq, a flamboyant, 19th century, French detective. He was real, and his crime-solving inspired those detective novels.

It also inspired the Vidocq Society. Founded in 1990, its members meet monthly in Philadelphia for lunch and solve the cases the police have given up on, over their soup. Author Michael Capuzzo has just published a book about this exclusive club, called The Murder Room, and he's in the studios of member station WYPR in Baltimore. Welcome to the program, Michael.

Mr. MICHAEL CAPUZZO (Author, "The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases"): Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: Whats the difference between the Vidocq Society and the Baker Street Irregulars, which is a kind of a club - a gathering of Sherlock Holmes scholars and fans?

Mr. CAPUZZO: Well, the Baker Street Irregulars is a wonderful club that exists for entertainment and inspiration. And the Vidocq Society started out that way, as a social club of great detectives and forensic specialists from around the world, but evolved rather quickly into a pro bono, crime-fighting society attempting to sort of, you know, address the issue of unsolved crimes, and help people catch killers who have caused great harm to their families.

HANSEN: How does one become a member of the society? There are 82 members now?

Mr. CAPUZZO: Eugene Francois Vidocq was born in, I think, 1775 in Arras, France, and died in, I think, 1857 - I hope Im doing the math right. But he lived 82 years, and there's one full member for each year of Vidocq's life. And I think they have something like 50 associate members at the moment, who all bring - the full members have to be reputed and known to their peers as among the best, you know, detectives, forensic specialists, blood-splatter experts, pathologists in the world.

And so there are people from the - you know, agents from Scotland - well, Scotland Yard connections and Interpol and NYPD; and a lawyer who was on the commission investigating, you know, the - JFK's assassination and Martin Luther King; and terrorism experts and, you know, sadism and white-collar crime and psychics; and just about anything you can imagine.

I think of it as sort of a CSI on steroids but sort of - real.

HANSEN: The society was formed by three men: William Fleisher, a federal agent; Richard Walter, a profiler; and Frank Bender, a forensic artist. Fleisher had a picture of Eugene Vidocq in his office. How did the 19th century detective influence crime-solving? Why did he fascinate Bill Fleisher?

Mr. CAPUZZO: Well, Bill is a - Philadelphia born and bred, and he had a troubled childhood, which he'll happily talk about; it's in the book. And when he came across - he thought he would end up as either a criminal or a cop. He was getting into fights and sort of a juvenile delinquent. And when he came across, as a young man, and then in the FBI Academy - when he was becoming an FBI agent - the story of Eugene Francois Vidocq, I think he found his sort of doppelganger, his spiritual twin through time.

Vidocq - first he was a criminal, a notorious sort of highway robber and an escaped prisoner, sort of the Willie Sutton of his time. And then eventually, convinced the French police chief that there should be such a thing as the surete, the sort of plainclothes intelligence officers who would think a little bit more about the motives of criminals - which is the first time that that had happened.

And he pioneered that as well as the first private detective agency.

HANSEN: Talk about Richard Walter, the profiler. There couldnt be two more different men. William Fleisher, he's got a beard and he's rather corpulent. But Mr. Walter is like this sliver of a man...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAPUZZO: Right, thats a great...

HANSEN: ...in a blue suit, with his nose always seeming to be up in the air.

Mr. CAPUZZO: Right, exactly. Richard is - really is a sort of a prototypical Thin Man, and he wears one blue suit and drives one dark-blue Crown Victoria and - until they both wear out, then he gets replacements. And he smokes Kools, every 20 minutes a new one. And he is the most sardonic - I mean, they call him the living Sherlock Holmes at the Philadelphia D.A.'s Office and the Hong Kong Police and Scotland Yard, and other places he consults because he really is one of the tops in the world. Rather flamboyant when you look, act and sound like Sherlock Holmes.

But he's a sort of old-school, Victorian gent who prattles on about having values and standards and then, you know, roars like a sailor, things you can't let people even hear, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: And then the third Musketeer in this trio is Frank Bender, probably best described as one of those lusty - lusts for life artists.

Mr. CAPUZZO: Oh, thats beautifully put. Frank recently lost his wife of many years, Jan, to cancer.

HANSEN: Oh.

Mr. CAPUZZO: And Frank also has fatal cancer and mesotheleoma. And in one of these sorts of stories that I guess shows the peculiar capabilities, flexibility of love, theyve loved each other desperately for decades; had a child, grandchildren and Frank, at the same time had, I think, 76 girlfriends while he was married. He gave me a list of the names. And he was sort of a force of nature and had always worked for Jan.

He says that, you know, in this sort of narcissistic, genius kind of way that his ability to follow all his desires allows him to float in some sort of ether and be a sort of psychic detective. You know, it's sort of true, as strange as it sounds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Can you take us into one of those lunches and, you know, how does it work?

Mr. CAPUZZO: The way it works is that the Vidocq Society meets in an old - sort of walnut-paneled room in Philadelphia, across from Independence Hall. It used to be a men's club, and there are men and women in the club. And the police will come in, or the, you know, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, often assisted by family members or prosecutors.

On cold cases, where there are innocent victims and the trail is cold, and they're sort of at a court of last resort, asking the Vidocq Society for help. And then in this case, you know, they show up and they make a PowerPoint presentation. So it's this fairly nice, you know, elaborate lunch of four courses and the, you know, white tablecloth, round tables and the glittery room. And the fifth course is the headless corpse up on the screen.

In this case, Dr. Kenny Andronika(ph) and Zoya Asur(ph) - Zoya was a sort of lovely, you know, 26-year-old Russian immigrant, young woman who was going to college in New Jersey, and her fiancee was this successful doctor. And she disappears in the Pine Barrens, and this case is unsolved for years. I should say up front that Dr. Andronika has never been changed, although he's been publicly accused of the crime.

HANSEN: And when was this? Give us just a place and time.

Mr. CAPUZZO: This was in the early '90s in New Jersey. And Zoya Asur had been shot - and fairly obviously, I think if you looked at the evidence, she was murdered. But then again, it's not my job; it's the New Jersey authorities who have determined that.

And Richard Walter did a profile of him, of this doctor. And you know, thats an unresolved case. You know, one of the lessons of the book is it's not always a happy ending.

HANSEN: It took them a while to be able to begin to solve some cases. And do you think people thought that they were just a collection of almost, you know, academic thinkers about murder, when they weren't getting results?

But thats an important story and it's wonderful if we could find a resolution, but it was a little bit - it was like a parlor exercise. But then, even if you read the New York Times story at the time, they're kind of implying, the reporter saying, couldnt you be helping people? I mean, there's this sort of natural human tendency to want to find justice. And I think the Vidocq Society members realized that they had this time and talent.

But thats an important story and it's wonderful if we could find a resolution, but it was a little bit - it was like a parlor exercise. But then, even if you read The New York Times' story at the time, they're kind of implying, the reporter saying couldnt you be helping people? I mean is there's this sort of natural human tendency to want to find justice. And I think the Vidocq Society members realized that they had this time and talent.

And you know, the numbers are really sort of dismaying. I mean, an estimated 100,000 Americans have gotten away with murder in the last 30 years and are still floating around. And if you talk to Richard Walter about it - and this is how he speaks - he says: And I think thats just wrong.

HANSEN: Michael Capuzzo is the author of "The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases." He spoke to us from the studios of member station WYPR in Baltimore, Maryland. Thank you so much.

Mr. CAPUZZO: Thank you.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.

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