Excerpt: The Murder Room
Mike Capuzzo (2011)
M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction
The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases Excerpt
Chapter 1: 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, chat- ting 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 pho- tograph had been taken at night in a restaurant alley, and the sur- rounding 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 detec- tive 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 larg- est walled penitentiary in the world, in Jackson, and at one of the toughest, the old Romanesque castle in Marquette on Lake Supe- rior. 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 façade 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 mur- der cases, he was known as the “Living Sherlock Holmes”—an epithet that horrified him.
“Richard looks like Basil Rathbone in The Hound of the Basker- villes,” 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 hit- ting 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, intui- tive 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 spiritu- alism. 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 poly- graph 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 poly- graph 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.
Bender and Walter were the most astonishing investigative team Fleisher had ever seen, equal parts reason and revelation, when they turned their combustible gifts on a killer and not on each other, like a man trying to extinguish his own shadow. The stout federal agent was the administrator who allowed them to take shape and function in the world.
They had met that morning in Bender’s hall of bones, where a legendary and especially terrifying mob hit man had been the force that first brought them together, bonded in their fierce and awkward way, to create a private club of forensic avengers. Fleisher was sipping coffee with Bender at the kitchen table when the thin man entered the warehouse studio, nose wrinkled in disapproval “at the cat smells and whatever else.”
“Richard!” Bender shouted, pumping Walter’s hand enthusi- astically, yet careful not to give a manly hug. “Let me show you my new painting!”
It was an enormous, brightly colored oil portrait of one of his many girlfriends, rendered in paint as thick as cake frosting. It was an eight-foot frontal nude; from the left nipple dangled a real brass ring.
“Chrissie has the cutest little butt,” Bender said quietly, smil- ing as if visited by a wonderful memory.
Walter stood with his nose upturned, which pushed his mouth into a frown, studying the painting for a long moment.
“It’s smut, Frank,” he declared, turning away. “Simple smut.” Bender howled with delight, as if there was no greater compliment. Walter glared at him. “Frank, Jesus Christ, you’re almost sixty years old, and you’re behaving like a fifteen-year-old Bolivian sex slave houseboy! You’re using sex as an antidote to depression. As I have tried to explain, at our age it is not healthy for one to live as if one is poised before a mirror ringed with stage lights. One day the lights will go out and you will look in the mirror and see nothing at all.
“Now I’ll take some coffee, black, if it’s not too much trouble,” Walter added. “I’m not fussy, so long as it wasn’t boiled with a head.”
Now with Fleisher in the great hall, Bender and Walter greeted each other warmly. The three men radiated an energy that seemed to animate the room. The habitual sadness in Fleisher’s brown eyes lifted like a mist as he looked proudly across the gathering. All morning forensic specialists from around the globe had been quietly arriving at Second and Walnut streets in Philadelphia. They had gathered as they arrived in the high-ceilinged Coffee Room and Subscription Room on the first floor of the tavern, where colonists had once discussed politics, trade, and ship movements over the lat- est magazines and Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. Fleisher had felt the heady buzz of reunited friends, peers, and rivals. But now as he studied the assembly of sleuths from seventeen American states and eleven foreign countries, he sensed that something special was hap- pening. Each man and woman was more renowned than the next.
There was FBI agent Robert Ressler, tall and silver-haired, who had confronted Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, and more “serial killers,” a term he coined, than anyone in history. He was accepting congratulations, and no small amount of teasing, for The Silence of the Lambs, the new hit movie featuring Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter being hunted by the FBI’s Jack Crawford, a character based partly on Ressler. Ressler was never far from his cohort Richard Walter. They were two of the greatest profilers in the world.
Of equal distinction were the forensic pathologists. Their table included Dr. Hal Fillinger of Philadelphia, who had proven that the “Unicorn Killer,” fugitive Ira Einhorn, had murdered his girl- friend Holly Maddux; Fillinger had arrived in his big white Cadil- lac with the “Homicide Hal” vanity plates. Next to him sat Dr. Richard Froede of Arizona, who would autopsy the remains of kidnapped CIA agent William Buckley, tortured, murdered, and dumped at a Beirut roadside by Islamic jihadists. Among the Phila- delphia cops was Frank Friel, the former homicide captain who solved the 1981 assassination of mob underboss Philip “Chicken Man” Testa, immortalized in Bruce Springsteen’s song “Atlantic City”: “. . . they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night . . .” Fleisher saw noted investigators of the JFK and Martin Luther King assassinations, and a CIA friend who was leading the bureau’s secret war on Afghanistan, sitting with a colleague, a young blond female “spook” who loathed to show her face in public, even here. At the French table, with the agents from Interpol in Lyon, sat the director of Brigade de la Sûreté, in Paris, the French equivalent of the FBI. Sûreté, founded in 1811 by Vidocq, had been the very first state investigative agency, later inspiring the creation of the FBI and Scotland Yard.
The chamber on the second floor of the City Tavern was the historic Long Room, forty-four feet long and narrow with a soar- ing chapel ceiling, the first ballroom in the New World, where General George Washington had toasted his election to the presi- dency as cannons boomed across the city and Madeira glasses smashed. By modern standards it was austere, a pale green chamber with chair rails and candle sconces. But now it had been arranged to re-create the spirit of a second-floor chamber in Paris in 1833. In the upstairs room of No. 12 rue Cloche-Perce, Vidocq had run the first private detective agency in history, Le Bureau des Renseigne- ments (Office of Information), seventeen years before the Pinkerton Agency was founded in the United States. It was the first room in history designed for a group of men to systematically deduce and brainstorm solutions to murder cases.
In the north corner of the room, overlooking the Delaware River, a bronze bust of Eugène François Vidocq rested on an oak pedestal. The wide, arrogant face was stippled in shadows from the heavy green drapes, beneath crossed French and American flags. In the room at No. 12 rue Cloche-Perce, in the flickering shadows of hissing gaslights, Vidocq and his men kept intricate records to track criminals’ patterns. They discussed motive and modus ope- randi in greater detail than ever before in history. They made plas- ter casts of shoe impressions and studied bullets to link them to crimes. They worked under paintings of Damiens being quartered, John the Baptist losing his head, and Ravaillac being tortured. They were the first modern criminologists. Convinced of their superior knowledge of the criminal mind, Vidocq had chosen them from the ranks of ex-convicts, like himself.
Each of the men and women at the long tables wore a red- white-blue pin on their lapels—Les Couleurs, the colors of France, the signature of their status as Vidocq Society Members (VSMs). There were eighty-two VSMs, one for each year of Vidocq’s life. It was the world’s most exclusive club, open, regardless of race, sex, age, or national origin, only to the best detectives and forensic scientists on the planet. They had been called the greatest gather- ing of forensic detectives ever assembled in one room. “No police agency in the world has the luxury of this kind of talent,” Fleisher said. The New York Times declared the Vidocq Society “The Heirs of Holmes.” “This is not a gathering of a ragtag bunch of Baker Street Irregulars playing dutiful amanuensis to Sherlock Holmes’s genius,” the Times said. “Nor are they a bunch of good-natured Archie Goodwins, filling the role of narrator and legman to the sedentary but brilliant Nero Wolfe in the mystery novels of Rex Stout. . . . It is a group that collectively has hundreds of years of crime-solving experience.”
The Vidocq Society’s mission was simple and straightfor- ward: As many as one in three murders in the United States went unsolved. It was a well of suffering scarcely known to the jour- nalists who claimed crime was sensational and overblown, or the millions of Americans entertained nightly by it on TV. Murder was a scourge that had taken more than a million lives, more than most of the American wars ever fought in the twentieth century. Cops were overworked, departments underfunded; the criminal justice system favored the rights of criminals over victims. In a world that had forgotten its heroes, they resolved, by the light of a twelfth-century chivalric pledge, to hunt down murderers in cold cases, punish the guilty, free the innocent, and avenge, protect, and succor families victimized by murder. They resolved to work pro bono rather than swat a golf ball around in Florida or Ari- zona. They met on the third Thursday of every month; they were the Thursday Club. The eighty-two of them pledged themselves to their cause until death, when the rosette would be pinned on another man or woman chosen to fight for a better world.
The old Victorian brownstone on Locust Street in Phila- delphia, headquarters of the Vidocq Society, was besieged with requests from around the world from cops and victims seeking an audience in the private chamber in City Tavern. A congress- man who wanted to solve a murder in his family. A federal agent in Washington who needed another pair of eyes on the assassina- tion of a woman agent in broad daylight while jogging. A young, small-town Tennessee cop overmatched by an elderly millionaire serial killer who moved from state to state killing his wives. But the Vidocq Society would not touch a case unless it was a murder, the victim had committed no crimes, and the case was at least two years old, officially a “cold case.” “Our mission is to help the police at their request, working quietly in the background without fanfare, to act as an agent for justice,” Fleisher said. In all cases, the society required the presence in the room of the municipal police officers, state or federal agents, or government prosecutors working on the cold case; families looking for vengeance became too emotional without official support. Yet in rare instances, when police corruption was suspected, an ordinary citizen was granted an audience before the Vidocq Society. This afternoon was one of those cases, when an ordinary citizen had earned an audience before the forensic court of last resort.
At one o’clock, Fleisher stood at the lectern and welcomed them from four continents to Philadelphia and the monthly con- vening of the Vidocq Society. Before lunch, he had led them in the Pledge of Allegiance, hand clamped over his heart, his voice the loudest in the room. He had introduced a pastor who asked that God favor and guide their undertakings for justice. Now Fleisher loosened the room with a joke about their purpose, “to enjoy my great hobby, which is lunch.” Then he reminded them somberly that their work was to speak for the dead who cannot speak for themselves. It was sacred work.
The essential method that Fleisher, Bender, and Walter had resurrected from the nineteenth century was deceptively simple: They had filled a room with detectives to unmask a crime of mur- der. Like Vidocq’s ex-cons, though far more sophisticated, they had at their disposal the most advanced forensic tools of their age. Busboys swarmed out of the kitchen and swept away the last of the silver and china, carded the remaining crumbs from the white tablecloths. As the coffee was poured, the historic chamber was no longer the Long Room. It was the Murder Room, reborn.
At ten past one, Fleisher introduced Mr. Antoine LeHavre of Louisiana. A rotund man in his forties with dark hair and a gentle- manly manner, LeHavre wore a sports jacket and eyes burdened with woe. He stood at the lectern, slightly to the right of the grue- some image of his slain friend. There was an air of anticipation, as never before had an ordinary citizen presented to the Vidocq Society, alone.
LeHavre began by thanking the society for inviting him. “I know that you better than anyone else understand what I’ve been through,” he said. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t do it anymore alone.”
They had all seen enough cases to know the Murder Room was a place to walk far around, a step in life to bypass if you could. The chamber was invisible to a happy man. Agony lit the way. The room appeared to the suffering. They had seen his like before. He was one of the walking dead, zombified by the unsolved murder of a friend or loved one, a man willing to crawl to the end of the Earth to right a terrible wrong. But they saw something else as well, also well known among them: After four courses served hot, Antoine LeHavre was ready for revenge, served ice-cold.