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The Vidocq Society

Breathing new life into cold cases

Created date

October 26th, 2010
Cuisine & Crime-Solving never has a more unlikely pairing of words appeared on a website. The phrase says little about the group to whom the page belongs, nor does the light-purple logo, complete with a 19th century portrait of a man. He s the organization s namesake, the French ex-convict turned detective Eug ne Fran ois Vidocq, and the site is the cyber home of the Vidocq Society. The nonprofit group s 82 members (one for each year of the legendary inspector s life) come from 12 countries and represent a broad canvas of backgrounds that include homicide investigation, criminal psychology, and forensic analysis.

Single purpose

Once a month, they meet across the street from Philadelphia s Independence Hall in a luxuriant, wood-paneled room atop the historic Public Ledger Building. All of them come together with one objective: to breath new life into murder cases that have long gone cold. Since it started in 1990, the society has turned up hard evidence in more than 20 of the murder cases presented during its luncheons lavish meals like pork and mallard duck sausage chased with cups of vanilla bean blancmange. Equally as strange a combination are the society s principal members, whose experience and natural talents bring fresh leads to old cases. William Fleisher is an ace federal interrogator; Frank Bender, a genius forensic sculptor with a gift for giving the dead a face; and Richard Walter, a criminal psychologist and modern-day Victorian gentleman. They are the subjects of Michael Capuzzo s new bookThe Murder Room(Gotham, 2010).

Unusual trio

The bestselling author immediately felt the allure of the society s mysterious tagline. After meeting all three men Fleisher, a burly people lover, Bender, an artistic seer, and the Basil Rathbone-ish Walter he knew he d found his next book. I was so struck with these real-life detectives and how grounded and human they are as compared to what you see on shows likeCSI, Capuzzo recalls. In fact, their varied abilities make them a near unstoppable team. Fleisher, for one, is a human lie detector thanks to decades spent as a special agent for the FBI and U.S. Customs. I believe there is such a thing as having a detective s nose that enables you to formulate an instinctual assessment of the facts surrounding a case, he says. To solve crimes, you need three things: experience, good training, and natural ability. We have all of them in the Vidocq Society. Fleisher insists that this is especially true of his colleagues Walter and Bender. Their talents most famously led to the capture of mass murderer John List, who killed his wife, mother, and three children in 1971. Eighteen years later, Walter used his vast understanding of the criminal mind to predict with almost scientific precision every aspect of List s new life. Bender then worked his magic and gave police an aged face to go on. Though it may seem like sorcery, my job is really probabilities and learning, says Walter, who worked as a criminal psychologist at Jackson Prison in southern Michigan. Based on List s rigid personality, for instance, we knew he wouldn t modernize his appearance all that much. His eyeglasses, hairstyle, and mode of dress would essentially remain the same. Frank translated information like that into his age-progressed sculpture. As effective a team as the two may be, though, Walter admits that they wouldn t get anywhere without Fleisher, who he describes as the glue that holds us all together. This trio, once dubbed the heirs of Holmes, was behind the genesis of the Vidocq Society. The premise was that in light of all the new investigative advances, we could help solve these crimes together, says Fleisher. It was always our game plan to use relatively new fields like criminal profiling to close cold cases. And that s precisely what they ve done, working pro-bono with local investigators and prosecutors to help bring closure to heartbroken loved ones. The society only considers cases two or more years old that involve victims with no connections to illegal activities. These stipulations satisfied, the crime could make its way to that wood-paneled room as the subject of intense conversation over plates of delicate cuisine. But nothing tops the gratification that members derive from making justice possible. The reward is in knowing that you did a good job on a cold case, and after all these years, that feeling hasn t gone away, says Walter. From Fleisher s perspective, it s the next best feeling to watching the birth of your child. For the victims families, it s a comfort to know that there are people willing to listen.