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The Vidocq Society: Solving Murders Over Lunch

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The Vidocq Society: Solving Murders Over Lunch

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The Vidocq Society: Solving Murders Over Lunch

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

It's fun to play detective, read a mystery, or see a film and try and figure out who the killer is. In Philadelphia, there's a group that regularly meets for lunch in an old, Victorian dining room and tries to solve cold cases. But they aren't playing.

The Vidocq Society is a collection of detectives and forensics experts, some retired, who meet to discuss unsolved murders, usually brought to them by law enforcement officials looking for help. Over 20 years, they have helped police solve many crimes.

The founders of the group are former FBI Agent William Fleisher; Frank Bender, a world-renowned forensic artist and sculptor who is sadly, dying of mesothelioma; and our guest, Richard Walter, a nationally recognized criminal profiler.

Walter is a forensic psychologist who worked for years in the Michigan prison system. He's examined countless crime scenes and interviewed thousands of felons. I spoke to Richard Walter, along with Michael Capuzzo, who's written a book about the Vidocq society called "The Murder Room." Michael Capuzzo has written for several newspapers and magazines and is the author of a previous book, "Close to Shore."

Well, Michael Capuzzo, Richard Walter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Richard Walter, I thought we'd begin by talking about one of the cold cases that you looked at, to get a sense of how you work. And I thought we might talk about the terrible case of a woman named Terry Lee Brooks, who was a night manager at a fast-food restaurant. Found murdered; safe was open; the police were stumped. Tell us about the crime.

Mr. RICHARD WALTER (Forensic Psychologist): The crime was committed inside the Roy Rogers restaurant. It was discovered when people came to work in the morning. The victim, the night manager, had been brutally murdered, had been manipulated in the sense of having Saran Wrap wrapped around her head, excessive violence to the body, as though it were just a catharsis of violence and venom against her.

The safe had been manipulated. I think there was a belief that it was related to a possible robbery. When you looked at the body, when you looked at the crime scene itself, it was obvious that it was not a robbery.

DAVIES: Now, that's the interesting thing, because the local police were looking for a robbery suspect, right?

Mr. WALTER: Yes.

DAVIES: What did you see that they didn't?

Mr. WALTER: What robbery suspect is going to stab the victim so viciously that the knife enters the tile floor, and wraps the head in cellophane? And body position, again, is important - face up, face down, all these other sorts of things.

A robber simply is not going to do that. It's not efficient. There's no efficacy or value in that kind of an activity. And so you have to look of how he spends his time and his interest, by what's there as well as by what's not there.

And I found, then, that the primary focus was an intense anger, catharsis, against the victim - that the staged robbery aspect was just a red herring created by the suspect to throw the police off - which it did.

DAVIES: So you developed an uncannily precise profile of who the suspect was. Who did you what kind of person should they have been looking for?

Mr. WALTER: Well, given the amount of violence at the scene and how it was personalized to the victim, this normally would not happen to a person that the victim did not know. Also, the victim had to let the suspect in and so therefore, the presumption is that she knew him.

There is a presumption, obviously, that there's hostility, extreme hostility, and you see that he doesn't really care when the victim dies. He cares about when his anger has been sated.

So as a consequence, then, already, we know a great deal about him because of previous research done in the area of subtypes of murders. The anger-retaliatory, then, have these characteristics. In fact, it was a textbook case for anger-retaliatory. So it was simply a matter of watching and plugging in the bits and pieces along the way. In this case, then, it was reasonable to assume that a boyfriend may have been involved.

Mr. MICHAEL CAPUZZO (Author, "The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases"): Richard actually predicted he'd be living with his mother and having a menial job, which was all right on target.

But he'd also been spotted by another Vidocq Society member as a name appearing on a funeral, you know, the funeral register of his victim. And by the time he was caught, he had actually - the motive was that he was - they were engaged, and they had actually bought a wedding dress and made honeymoon plans, and she broke it off because she was looking for a, you know, a more ambitious young man - and that was behind it, too.

DAVIES: You know, in terms of looking at what is unseen at a crime scene, I thought I wanted to ask you, Richard Walter, about the case of a tragic murder of a Drexel University woman, who was murdered in a laboratory late at night, right?

Mr. WALTER: Yes.

DAVIES: Tell us what the police missed in that case.

Mr. CAPUZZO: Do you want me to describe, in brief, how the body was lying, and then you can it is just that she was a blonde - young, blonde mathematics major at Drexel, lying on her back, in her 20s. She's been murdered, and she's got on it's just before Thanksgiving.

She's at the bottom of an outdoor stairwell of like, a big classroom building. She was staying up past midnight, working. She's still wearing her winter coat. She's still wearing her watch. She's wearing pants. There's no sign of sexual assault, and her socks and shoes are missing.

The police can't get it for seven years, and then enter the Vidocq Society and Richard.

Mr. WALTER: When you're looking at a major violent crime, you look at what was the simplest thing to get done, what needed to be done - i.e., if the intent was to murder, then what was the simplest form? And anything past that, then, tells us about the perpetrator.

And in this case, the extracurriculars were the shoes and socks. Well, I'm not naive in the sense of foot fetishes, shoe fetishes, etc. No other real options came forward. There was no other real explanations for the evidence, or the lack of evidence, of which they had.

Mr. CAPUZZO: You suggested, didn't you, that they ought to look into the primary suspect, who they could never get a sort of handle on. He was a burly sort of Drexel guard. And Richard suggested he look into his Army records. Perhaps there were issues with foot fetishes.

Mr. WALTER: And there were.

DAVIES: Right, and eventually, he was arrested and confessed to the murder, right?

Mr. WALTER: Yes, and he had hundreds of women's shoes and whatever else. And he had his wife also then said that he had a profound foot fetish issue.

Historically, they many times do not end in murder. In this particular case, it did.

DAVIES: Do you often interview when you are assisting a local police department, Richard Walter, do you often end up interviewing suspects themselves?

Mr. WALTER: Occasionally, mostly by proxy. Sometimes on the request of the department, and if I'm comfortable with it, I will interview the suspect. Most of the time, I give advice to the detectives, then, on how to approach and what is probably going to be their primary three strategies that they may want to consider for that particular kind of murder, given the class and the level and the sophistication of the suspect.

DAVIES: Can you think of a case where your intervention, in that interview, mattered?

Mr. WALTER: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALTER: I'm not sure how far I want to go into this, but yes. Well, I could liken it to the case that we talked about earlier.

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.

In point of fact, 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.

Equally, when it then comes, then, to an interview, and whether by wit or skill - and many officers have a lot of skill - they may get the guy into a frame where he's re-angry at the victim, is recounting it, and you and he senses and feels that the guy is just about ready to confess.

And so he comes to his aid and says: And so therefore, you were so mad you just killed her, and now you feel bad. And it's just like throwing cold water on an interview. You never, never, never would do that.

Mr. CAPUZZO: Give the power back to the perpetrator.

Mr. WALTER: Exactly.

Mr. CAPUZZO: And as you've pointed out to me - and the worst thing to do is to show him the butchered body and say, don't you feel terrible that you did this to this woman?

Mr. WALTER: Exactly. Those are just no-nos. And so you guard against that, and then you aim toward facilitating, then, those things that a guilty person would use and become identified with, and confess.

DAVIES: And just to follow that up for a second, so you're getting close. You don't show them the pictures of the body. You don't try and make them feel sorry for it - they don't. What, instead, brings you the confession?

Mr. WALTER: Anger, that she deserved it.

Mr. CAPUZZO: Reproduce the anger that led to the killing.

Mr. WALTER: Yes.

Mr. CAPUZZO: Right.

DAVIES: So what kind of question would elicit that?

Mr. WALTER: Well, she rejected you. She didn't want you. She told you to get out of her life. She dismissed you like a small child , etc., etc., etc., but obviously much more intense - where even your own mother, you know, says that you're a failure.

And so now it's just not the victim, but it's women in general, that group that he relies on, is trying to exploit. In the course of events, then, he's going to come to the conclusion - if he's wrapped up into it -he's going to come to the conclusion that's what they were doing. And yes and by God, she deserved it, and I gave it to her, and I'm happy, thank you very much. Do I want to go to jail? No, but she deserved it.

DAVIES: Richard Walter is a forensic psychologist. He's worked on hundreds of murder cases. Also with us, writer Michael Capuzzo. His new book is "The Murder Room." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Richard Walter. He is a forensic psychologist. Also with us is writer Michael Capuzzo. He's written a book about a group of retired and active investigators, including Richard Walter, who meet regularly to discuss and work on cold murder cases. The name of Capuzzo's book is "The Murder Room."

Michael Capuzzo, let's talk about this group of investigators, the Vidocq Society. Who's in it? What are the rules?

Mr. CAPUZZO: Well, the Vidocq Society was founded by Richard Walter, the forensic psychologist and profiler, and his friends Bill Fleisher, who is the commissioner and is the leader of the society - he's a former FBI agent and a sort of tough-nosed Philadelphia private eye; and Frank Bender, who is the world's most famous - if not most gifted - forensic artist.

And the three of them were having lunch in 1990 and bemoaning the rise of murder rates all across the country, and they had the idea that they wanted to get together over lunch.

Actually, it started socially, and evolved into a club of great detectives and great forensic specialists from around the world who meet once a month - the third Thursday of every month, in an old Victorian dining room in Philadelphia - men and women - and solve murders over lunch, or begin to examine them over lunch. And then when passion grows and relationships are formed between great detectives like Richard and, say, you know, a Kansas Bureau of Investigations agent who needs help on a cold murder case he can't get his hands around, well then, Richard - for instance, in the Texas case, went out and spent six years and 6,000 hours, pro bono, putting a killer in jail.

So they're a crime-fighting, pro-bono organization of real characters and a delight to be around.

DAVIES: Now, are there rules about who gets to present a case to the Vidocq Society?

Mr. CAPUZZO: The rules, in general, are that the Vidocq Society makes every effort to stay in the background and be an assistant to law enforcement. So they will not engage or consider any cold case unless it's at least two years old, and they will not consider a cold case unless it's an innocent victim.

In other words, you know, a drug dealer who's been murdered, and even if his mother's upset, is not going to get an audience before the Vidocq Society.

And after that, you know, it's whoever they think they can help - and whoever they think they're interested in helping.

DAVIES: All right. Now, it's not a case where they're butting into local law enforcement, typically, right? You will have local law enforcement will come and actually make a presentation over lunch. Is that the way it works?

Mr. CAPUZZO: Yes, like in the case you brought up, the Falls Township Police Department made a presentation. There were friendships between former Philadelphia police officers and some there at the Falls Township, and they come to lunch, and they have a PowerPoint presentation, and it's a white you know, round tables and white tablecloths.

And lunch is served, and then in about the fourth or fifth course, up comes the corpse on the PowerPoint, and the lights go down, and there's a real exchange.

The detective - cold-case detective from the police department or the, you know, federal or local or state - will stand at a podium and run through the case, and then ask for questions and help. And there's a close relationship and interchange.

DAVIES: And give us a sense - now, we know that former FBI Agent William Fleisher is involved. Richard Walter, who is with us in this interview, is there; and then the sketch artist, Frank Bender. What are some of the other criminal investigative skills that are represented in this society?

Mr. CAPUZZO: There's a tremendous range. I think of it as CSI to the 10th power, but real. I mean, they have other profilers in addition to Richard, like Robert Ressler, the great former FBI agent, Interpol and the director of Surete, a captain from the Egyptian army, experts in white-collar crime, in terrorism, in sadism and even a psychic, pathologists and, you know, the bread-and-butter stuff of criminal investigation.

DAVIES: Richard Walter, I wanted to talk a little bit about the kinds of killers that you have seen over the years. What kind of killer covers the eyes of his victims?

Mr. WALTER: Anger-retaliatory.

DAVIES: Meaning what?

Mr. WALTER: Meaning that they're - out of anger, out of an intense anger, they're reacting to a perceived - real or manufactured - slight that they believe that the victim created against them. Therefore, then, they aggress, and they destroy. They don't care when the victim dies. They care when they're satisfied.

They do not feel guilty. They cover the eyes because they don't want the victim, even in death, to be looking at them as they walk out the door. They try to eclipse that from them. And they feel good after the murder.

They historically have a sense of well-being for about 45 minutes to an hour and a half, and then they have different plots past that point, in terms of the investigation.

DAVIES: You have written there are three other types of killers: the power-reassurance killer, the power-assertive killer, the anger-excitation killer. We won't go over them all. But one of the things that struck me was that you wrote in this book, that you have to be careful what you say and write because sadists are the first ones who will attend your lectures and order reprints of your papers. How do you know that?

Mr. WALTER: True. Because they do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALTER: In fact, I think Mike even included in the book a story that I told him - that years ago, I was in Kansas City - or Topeka, rather - at a conference. And I had been at the police department and came - was taken back then, to go and give a lecture on sadism.

And the detective who had been with me earlier in the day and showed me some - a suspect in a murder case - came up to me just before I went up on the platform. And he said, you know that guy, he said, I pointed out to you at the police department? And I said yes. And he said, I just flushed him out of your audience.

And I said oh, okay. And I've had other places where if I'm lecturing for instance, on rape or whatever else, that rapists will sneak into the audience. It's not just myself, but Bob Ressler has had the same thing. I think...

DAVIES: He's the FBI profiler, right?

Mr. WALTER: Right.

DAVIES: But tell me, what is it you think that they're there for? What is it that you're might they learn that troubles you?

Mr. WALTER: Ah. If I then show them the learning curve for sadism and they understand its direction and its power, then they can try to manipulate that and make it more complex. And I think it's complex enough, and I don't want to interfere with the investigation any further.

And I think it furthers their pathology, actually. And so good people are supposed to be stopping them, and we don't want to make them more efficient at knowing how we're going to do it.

Mr. CAPUZZO: Richard...

DAVIES: Your book go ahead, Michael Capuzzo.

Mr. CAPUZZO: Richard doesn't want to become, if I might there, Dr. Frankenstein.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAPUZZO: I mean, I was fascinated by the whole notion that there's this downward growth. I mean, we think of an upward growth toward God or whatever, you know, goodness, whatever we perceive as personality growth. And there's inexorable downward growth that Richard has identified, sort of right to hell. And he becomes he doesn't want, I think, I would interpret it for him, to become their interpreter, their coach, their doctor.

Mr. WALTER: Right.

DAVIES: Richard Walter, you've spent most of your life doing this. You're not married, right?

Mr. WALTER: Not anymore.

DAVIES: What kind of person does it take to do what you do, well?

Mr. WALTER: I wouldn't encourage anybody who I loved to follow in my footsteps.

DAVIES: Why?

Mr. WALTER: There's a price to pay. I'm willing to pay it. I would much rather encourage people to develop healthy families, relationships, enjoy the beach. And yes, can I do all that, too? Yes. But I think that I've come out reasonably well. But if you haven't figured it out by now, there are those of my friends who might even say I'm a little eccentric.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You know, eccentricity doesn't seem such a terrible price. What is the price you think you pay for doing this well?

Mr. WALTER: Loss of innocence. The you say, if I do my job well, there's going to be somebody in this society who maybe I can protect, that doesn't have to learn all the evils that there are. They can go ahead, and they can live their life, and they can go to the theater, and they can go to the art, and they can live the quality of life that I think that all of us would like.

But sometimes along the way, there are those people - and I'm probably one of them - who then see that life just doesn't always happen that way. And so therefore, sometimes, somebody has to make the investment into how do we protect people, that is the most efficient. And so sometimes we pay the price.

DAVIES: Well, Richard Walter, Michael Capuzzo, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. WALTER: Thank you.

Mr. CAPUZZO: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Richard Walter is a forensic psychologist and a founding member of the Vidocq Society. Writer Michael Capuzzo's book about the society is called "The Murder Room." You can read an excerpt at our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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