In The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases, author Michael Capuzzo introduces us to an elite group of criminology experts who meet regularly to have lunch and to use their combined knowledge to help solve cold case murders. Capuzzo tells us that the meetings have been described as “the greatest gathering of forensic detectives ever assembled in one room.”
In early 1990, forensic psychologist and criminal profiler Richard Walter was in Philadelphia to join his professional colleague, forensic artist Frank Bender, in tracking escaped murderer Robert Nauss. Bender’s friend, William Fleisher, was anxious to meet the world-renown Walter. Bill Fleisher, a highly regarded polygraph examiner and interrogator, had worked for both the Philadelphia Police Department and the FBI before rising to a senior position in the United States Customs Service. He was delighted when Bender set up a lunch date.
The men fell into shop talk immediately and found that they shared a strong interest in crime, cold cases, and, most of all, justice. With their individual skills, it seemed obvious that if they united to focus on crimes that had long gone unsolved, they could help catch the murderers.
That afternoon, the three determined to establish a club for law enforcement officials and forensic professionals: dentists, pathologists, anthropologists, etc. Although Walter had some reservations, they decided to also invite a few “civilians” who had exceptional skills in topics of interest such as linguistics. The talent and training of those gathered would bring together the science, the art and the instinct of crime solving. The new organization would strive to help resolve cold cases. And the members would work pro bono.
Bill Fleisher, who’d long been hoping to start an association of this kind, was ready with a name, the Vidocq Society, in honor of Eugène François Vidocq (vee-DUCK), once a convict, later the founder of the French Sûreté in 1811. According to the Vidocq Society bio, Monsieur Vidocq:
- introduced record keeping (a card-index system), criminalistics, and the science of ballistics into police work;
- was the first to make plaster-of-paris casts of foot/shoe impressions;
- was a master of disguise and surveillance;
- held patents on indelible ink and unalterable bond paper;
- and founded the first modern detective agency and credit bureau, Le Bureau des Renseignements.
With these credentials and the great popularity throughout Europe of his autobiography, Memoires, Vidocq is generally considered to be the father of criminal detection, so his name provides the perfect identity for the group.
The Vidocq credo is Veritas Veritatum – The Truth of Truths.
Membership, it was determined, would be by invitation only, and more than two dozen experts showed up for the first meeting. They decided that Fleisher would function as Commissioner, and there would also be a board of directors. The entire group would meet every two months to hear and consider the facts of a cold murder case, which had to be more than two years old. After lunch, each member (known as a V.S.M.—Vidocq Society Member) listens attentively to the history of a cold case murder from his or her own vantage point of expertise. Quite often, individual V.S.M.’s will make suggestions that help the jurisdictional detectives change the direction of the investigation. Sometimes, one or several V.S.M.’s will actually give hands on help with the inquiry. Here are a couple of examples of what the V.S.M.’s have accomplished:
In 1984, Deborah Lynn Wilson, a student at Drexel University, was found beaten and strangled. Her shoes and socks were missing. The Philadelphia Police Department presented the case to the Vidocq members in 1992. Richard Walter suggested the police check their files for known foot fetishists as well as look for such a fetish among possible suspects, which led to a Drexel security guard, who had been court-martialed while in the military for stealing women’s sneakers and socks. The guard, David Dickson Jr., was arrested and convicted of Ms. Wilson’s murder.
Several years after Scott Dunn disappeared from his home in Lubbock Texas in 1991, his father, Jim Dunn, appealed to the Vidocq Society for help. After learning the problems surrounding the case, V.S.M.’s arranged for the Texas detectives and prosecutors to get assistance from Scotland Yard which led to a conviction in the crime, more here from the Bucks County Courier Times.
(For an entertaining keynote discussion hosted by Michael Capuzzo with Vidocq Society founders Richard Walter and Bill Fleischer discussing in more depth what they do and how, scroll down the speakers page to see the video or listen to the podcast, courtesy of this February’s RSA information security conference in San Francisco.)
Although the Vidocq Society members have worked on hundreds of compelling mysteries, produced a high rate of gratifying endings, and continue to do so, don’t look for the movie version any time soon. Danny DeVito’s production company, Jersey Films, bought the motion picture rights directly from the founding members of the Vidocq Society nearly ten years ago, but the project seems permanently stalled. However, it seems The Murder Room may have revived enough interest to bring the Vidocq Society to a small screen near you, becaause its author reports that the creator of CSI has a television version currently in development.
Image via Tim Downs.