The Murder Room

Why an Obscure Club May Hold the Key to Solving This Crime

You could be forgiven some skepticism when first hearing about the Vidocq Society.  “Cuisine and crime-solving,” reads their home page, going on to explain how the world’s greatest forensic detectives gather monthly at the elegant walnut-lined Down Town Club in Philadelphia – all to dine on fine food and solve murder cases gone cold.

Right.

“I thought this can’t be real,” says former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Michael Capuzzo.   “This is like the ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ or some James Bond sort of thing.”

Bondian, perhaps.  But as Capuzzo and others have learned, Vidocq is real.  And hyperbole aside, it can legitimately claim to being one of the world’s most successful organizations when it comes to solving cases previously considered unsolvable.

Here’s why this is important: Vidocq may just be the last best hope for answering the riddles of 1509 Swann.  How, and how you can help, follows. 

Vidocq is not what you would call a completely transparent organization.  However the rules – such as they are – of what cases they work on are fairly basic…if also unyielding.

Here’s how it works.  Vidocq and it’s 82 members will offer their help, pro bono to law enforcement agencies trying to solve a long-cold crime provided:

  1. The case involves a homicide that has gone unsolved for at least two years,
  2. the victims were not involved in any illegal or criminal activity, and
  3. the case is presented to them by local law enforcement officials.

While writing a profile of the group for his book “The Murder Room”, Capuzzo became close with the club’s three founders: forensic artist Frank Bender, psychologist Richard Walter – who boasts that he’s never been wrong about a crime – and former federal agent Bill Fleischer, who now runs the Keystone Intelligence Network – ‘the FBI for the little guy.’

Frank Bender and some of his clientsHe got to know what interests them, what they look for in a case, how they take very different paths to the same solution.

They are, he says, all opinionated, eccentric, often egocentric, but passionate about solving crimes that have eluded others.  In short: characters.

“Fleischer – he loves characters…he’s one himself,” says Capuzzo.   “He waives around copies of Hugo’s Les Miserables, and talks about redeeming victims like Bishop Myriel did.”

If Vidocq accepts a case, the police departments that asked for help suddenly have at their disposal some of the greatest forensic professionals on the planet.  From profilers like Walter or Robert Ressler, to pathologists, to crime-scene reconstructers, district attorneys, blood-spatter analysts, experts in arson, mob-busting, terror – they’re all there, in one place, and ready to help.

“It’s been said they’re the greatest collection of forensic talent ever assembled in one room, and I don’t think that’s much of an exaggeration,”  says Capuzzo.  Which is exactly why it can intimidate police agencies, large and small.

Cases go cold all the time as police departments struggle with rising needs and declining resources.  Still it’s never easy to ask for help.

What unites those that do, says Capuzzo, is a burning drive to solve the case, whatever it takes.

Listen to our complete interview with Michael Capuzzo:

For those agencies that swallow hard and reach out, the rewards can be great.  Take, for example, Oregon’s tiny Coquille Police Department.  Profiled recently by ABC’s 20/20, Coquille asked Vidocq for help in solving the 2000 murder of Leah Freeman.

“The police could never put it together,” says Capuzzo.  But when Richard Walter went out to Oregon to look over the same evidence that led nowhere for ten years, he was able to break through.  “It’s not that he found different evidence, although he did help point them to new alleys,” Capuzzo says.

What Walter was able to do was synthesize the evidence with fresh insight, and his experience and intuition, and yield a possible new answer.   Within weeks, Leah Freeman’s murderer was identified and arrested.

Which brings us to August 2nd, 2006.

Cathy Lanier and the MPD have clearly done everything they can – and then some – to identify and prosecute those responsible for Robert’s death.  Despite their best work, it has remained a puzzle.

Just about 140 miles north of the District are a group people who may be able to help find the keys that unlock this mystery.   We have asked Chief Lanier to please consider reaching out to Vidocq.  We’re now asking you to do likewise – reminding her office of the great value and respect you have, and letting her know that this may be the last, best chance to solve Robert’s murder. 

It’s Vidocq’s third rule: a plea for help can’t come from a friend, a family member, or even a community.  It must come voluntarily from the local police.  “This is a volunteer thing and the Vidocq Society investigates cases that they think they can help on and that fascinate them, and with people that they think they can work with,” says Capuzzo.

We have good reason to believe this is exactly the sort of case the Vidocq members wait for, and would be eager to help the MPD find its solution.

All Cathy Lanier has to do is ask.

56 comments for “The Murder Room

  1. dieter
    12/13/2010 at 11:34 AM

    “Despite their best work…”

    GIVE
    ME
    A
    BREAK

    Those guys and gals down at the MPD are all clowns, and we all know it. I understand it might pay to “butter ’em up” a bit now, but let’s not go overboard here with the rhetoric

  2. christy love
    12/13/2010 at 11:44 AM

    It makes sense for the police to ask them as well because then they’d be privy to police info.

  3. Rebecca
    12/13/2010 at 3:59 PM

    What an exciting possibility to enlist the help of that team of experts! I hope Chief Lanier and the Metropolitan Police agree.

    I am sure the Vidocq Society would find this case fascinating, compelling and challenging.

    Editors – any insight on whether Chief Lanier is inclined to ask for assistance?

    • Doug
      12/13/2010 at 6:08 PM

      Rebecca: no insight, but we think gentle pressure might help.
      -Doug, co-ed

  4. Hoya Loya
    12/13/2010 at 4:12 PM

    The WaPo review includes a quote from the book that the Society focuses on “the psychology of the murdering mind, its artistic, symbolic expressions in the positioning of the body just so, the hidden meaning of the knife in the chest.” Sounds tailor-made for this case.

    • Clio
      12/13/2010 at 10:54 PM

      Yes, indeed, Hoya, it does.

      The Society also seems spot-on for the candid assessment of a person of interest who once said in a college catalogue: “I had never thought about how texts create their readers, how representations of children reflect adult concerns, how words and pictures ricochet to ironic effect …” Given the ricocheting ironies and text-constructed audiences (this blog) of this case, Lanier or her successor must contact Vidocq … for explaining the Shakespeare angle at the very least.

  5. mw
    12/13/2010 at 4:23 PM

    This really is a perfect case for this group, but I’m just guessing MPD is not the type of department to ask for help and hand over its files.

    • Doug
      12/13/2010 at 6:09 PM

      MW: it seems there’s no “type” of department to come to Vidocq, other than those that are committed to solving stubborn cases. Let’s hope the MPD is one of those that will reach out.
      -Doug, co-ed

  6. 12/13/2010 at 5:14 PM

    Current DC rumors have it that Cathy Lanier will be reappointed as Chief of the MPD under the new Mayor, rather than replaced like some other department heads have been. I hear that the announcement of her reappointment will be made Wednesday. So one “hook” for those writing her (rather than to kow tow) is to congratulate her on her reappointment (and encourage her to follow through on solving this old case).

    Question Doug: Your letter implies the Society had/has made an “offer” to the MPD. Did I miss something? Do they even know of the Wone case? Would it help to enlist the Wone family in encouraging the MPD to take advantage of this possible opportunity and joining with the MPD in the request?

    One of our posters earlier wrote about this society and its possible utility to the unsolved Wone case.

    • Rich
      12/13/2010 at 6:35 PM

      Dear Gloria:

      I’m not so certain Lanier’s appointment is a slam dunk.

      Vince Gray has remained quiet on Lanier since before his election and following his victory. He has kept his cards close and when queried repeatedly by the press about her, he has never once stepped up to the plate and endorsed her.

      However, with an 80%+ approval rating, he has to be careful.

      She wants the job. She earns well over $200k and gets, “Long Term Pay,” for longevity. She stands to take 72% of her base if she leaves.

      We shall see.

    • Bill 2
      12/13/2010 at 7:42 PM

      Gloria, that’s a good idea for the “hook” when writing after her reappointment announcement. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • Clio
      12/13/2010 at 10:37 PM

      And, one thing that Chief Lanier could do (while she is channeling Philadelphia Freedom) is to update those flipping information fliers with correct contact info. How much does it take to update an information flier, Editors?

      • Craig
        12/14/2010 at 9:57 AM

        It only took us a half hour to make our fliers…

        WaPo’s Allison Klein, who covered the murder in its earliest days, has a piece this morning on Mayor-Elect Gray likely to keep Lanier on board. Check your inbox Chief.

        • Rich
          12/15/2010 at 9:14 PM

          I’m afraid the longer there is a silence on Lanier, her time will be shortened.

          As believe I said before, Gray has never publicly endorsed her and folks in the know are somewhat sure he is searching for her replacement.

          • Rich
            12/15/2010 at 11:06 PM

            Okay, she’s gonna make it.

            New Fire Chief, though.

            Look for an announcement on Thursday afternoon.

            A good egg she is.

            Gray was concerned about the backlash if he didn’t reappoint her with a 80% Approval rating.

            • Rich
              12/16/2010 at 12:20 AM

              Should have provided more detail over an hour ago.

              Former Asst Fire Chief Ellerbe is coming back to DC to be Chief.

              He still owns real estate in Ward 7.

              Has been in Sarasota, Florida.

              • denton
                12/16/2010 at 11:13 AM

                Confirmed:
                Lanier, new Police Chief
                Ellerbe, Fire Chief

                • denton
                  12/16/2010 at 11:18 AM

                  …by NBC.

      • susan
        12/15/2010 at 10:59 PM

        I wonder about keeping Lanier. I think most people thought she was doing a generally good job (except for not updating contact info. for MPD staff to contact re the Wone case!!!) but then remember her deputy was recently charged with fixing the tests for her staff. I believe Groomes, the dep., is currently suspended:

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/19/AR2010111905347.html

        I also recall back when Lanier was appointed chief reading that Lanier and Groomes had a close relationship, so that doesn’t look good. Whoever gets the post, perhaps they will update their contact info. for open homicide cases. Would be a good idea.

        Re Judge Hedge she seems like a person with a lot of integrity. If she is replaced hopefully it will be with someone fair and just. Being appointed a judge doesn’t always make that so.

        • susan
          12/15/2010 at 11:00 PM

          Meant that to be a stand alone post, not in response to any one particular posting. Consider it so.

  7. Doug
    12/13/2010 at 6:13 PM

    Gloria: members of Vidocq are committed professionals, and it’s more than likely many of them have heard of the Wone case – either in passing or detail.
    As to what helps: Vidocq is clear that they exist to help local law enforcement. There’s no turf, no ego-battles; they really want to help, but recognize – pardon the self-help language – there’s nothing they can do unless their local partners want – really want – to solve the case.
    We believe the MPD wants a solution to this case, and would welcome your support to that end.
    -Doug, co-ed

    • Clio
      12/13/2010 at 11:08 PM

      I think that Vidocq is just divine: enjoying both gourmet cooking and crime solving in an elite club strikes me as deliciously Victorian.

      Yet, Doug, several nagging questions do arise: Are there any ladies — either biological or cultural — in this Vidocq Club? Has the Club solved any cases with a BDSM and/or gay male angle before?

      • Bruce
        12/13/2010 at 11:16 PM

        She said “male angle.”

      • Doug
        12/14/2010 at 1:39 PM

        Clio – yes and yes; there are most definitely ladies in the club, and a number of the cases have involved sex crimes. I realize that’s a shade of a different answer to your specific BDSM angle, and I’m not saying Robert’s murder was definitely a sex crime. But they are equipped to handle the intricacies of this case.
        -Doug, co-ed

        • Clio
          12/15/2010 at 9:21 AM

          Thanks, Doug. Anyone who knows Hugo and Bishop Myriel is well-suited to assess the theories of this case: even the Wards (with their youngest son a graduate of St. John’s “Great Books” curriculum) would concur.

  8. anotherbill
    12/13/2010 at 6:44 PM

    I note that the terms in the enclosure to your letter to Chief Lanier are slightly different from those presented in the summary.

    According to the enclosure, a family member with standing in the case can request their help; the LEA involved must be receptive. This could be a subtle but important difference in that the MPD need not be the ones to initiate contact.

    • Craig
      12/13/2010 at 10:46 PM

      Only family or law enforcement can initiate. If VS accepts, could MPD conceivably turn down their offer to assist? Don’t let that memo get leaked.

      So little of this will play out in public but you gotta wonder what Lanier has to lose by calling these guys.

      • Doug
        12/14/2010 at 1:40 PM

        Only once before – to my knowledge – has Vidocq heard a case plea from a family member, rather than local law enforcement. PS: it didn’t end well for the man who brought the plea…turns out he was the guilty one.

  9. susan
    12/13/2010 at 7:36 PM

    I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to bring this to the attention of Mayor-elect Gray right now. As the chief exec. he could direct MPD to take this action. I imagine he himself could make the request and have his request taken under consideration by Vidocq.

    If anyone knows how to develop an online petition, that might be another avenue to take.

    Also, if you live in the city and Gray or whoever the MPD chief ends up being speaks in your neighborhood (town hall or association) that would be a great time to make this suggestion about Vidocq.

  10. Bea
    12/13/2010 at 8:26 PM

    If undertaken, I’m curious if Joe Price will choose not to speak with the experts (on so-called advice of counsel) or if his many friends will encourage it to ‘clear his name’ and allow his ego to be stoked – you know, genius to genius!

    • susan
      12/13/2010 at 8:49 PM

      But Bea, that is a great point. Clearly the time and energy of each of the Swann 3, the then family that survived while their guest was murdered and other family member (Sarah M.) was staying overnight elsewhere in the ‘hood, has been preoccupied with their trials, suits, etc. But here is a chance, if any of them are innocent or if all are–as they say–to appeal to experts–experts who will use their own time and energy and expense towards solving the case of who murdered Robert Wone. Friends of the trouple who believe they are innocent–send your letters to Gray and the head of MPD.

      • Bruce
        12/13/2010 at 9:20 PM

        Hi Susan & Bea:

        I doubt the Society members would like to be called as a deponent and/or witness at the civil trial, which is exactly what would happen if any of the Swann 3 spoke to any of the Society members.

        There would be no privilege attached to such a conversation. But its a nice thought.

        Just saying.

        • susan
          12/13/2010 at 9:42 PM

          Hey Bruce,

          I thought it was clear that I meant that they and their friends should appeal to the MDP and Mayor-elect Gray to go forth and contact this Society. Please excuse any confusion.

          • Bruce
            12/13/2010 at 10:21 PM

            Sorry, Susan, for my confusion.

            Bea’s post seemed to be devoted to Joe possibly choosing to speak to the “experts,” and by that I’m pretty darn sure she meant the Society.

            Your response post started off with the words “great point” to Bea.

            That was what my post was about.

            I do see that later in your post you write of those truly innocent to “appeal to experts,” which I can see now was the larger intention of your post.

            Only human.

      • Bea
        12/14/2010 at 2:50 PM

        It would be interesting to see the reaction of the three should there be an offer/request by the MPD – I wonder if the remaining supporters would welcome it (those who believe in the three’s innocence) and even the three themselves if indeed they are innocent (my personal reservations noted on that score). Seriously, if I’d been walking around under a cloud of suspicion and DIDN’T do it, I’d be grateful. Will be an interesting ‘tell’. . . though it’s easy enough to appear happy about it and yet deep six passing along meaningful information whether or not they speak directly to these folks.

    • Bill Orange
      12/14/2010 at 9:03 AM

      Interesting thought. My guess is no. I think that Joe’s lawyers have successfully trumped Joe’s ego at this point. Otherwise, I think that he would have testified at the criminal trial.

  11. Bill Orange
    12/14/2010 at 9:07 AM

    Question for the lawyers and the insurance folks out there:

    Our best-guess about how this is going to play out is that Ms Wone is going to win a substantial settlement, and then the defendants are going to file numerous appeals. How far is Joe and Victor’s insurance company obligated to go in terms of funding the attorneys for the appeals process? Do they have to cover this? Or can they just say, “You lost, we’re paying out the maximum amount that we’re obligated to pay, and then you’re on your own?”

    • Bruce
      12/14/2010 at 8:10 PM

      Hi Bill O:

      I am not an insurance expert, but I can tell you what I know from my perspective as an attorney dealing with settlements and payments with insurance companies.

      The insurance agreement is a contract, and the agreement spells out the obligations and duties of the insurance company and the insured. Usually, but not always, those contracts for liability insurance give the insurance company the power to decide whether to settle a case, pay a judgment or appeal, not the insured.

      If I am hired by an insurance company to defend one of its insured, I can’t get involved with any conflict between the two as to whether a judgment should be paid or an appeal taken. I would be in a conflict of interest, since I represent both of their interests usually (at least in Illinois, an attorney hired by an insurance company to defend an insured is considered to have both as a client, although our ultimate duty is to the insured.

      So, the insurance company and the insured have to work it out between themselves if there is an issue, and either one could file a Declaratory Judgment against the other if they can’t come to agreement, and allow a judge to decide the issue.

      As a practical matter, I don’t think this issue would come up in this case. The insurance company is not going to pay out big payments on a judgment if it thinks it has a chance of winning on appeal. Appeals are relatively inexpensive (when you consider the cost of going through a trial), and usually can be handled for $25,000 or less.

      The one thing that can have an effect is the amount of an appeal bond required. In most states, you have to put up a bond (in my state, I believe that it is now 3 times the judgment), if you have a judgment against you and you want to appeal. If a judgment of $20 million comes down in this case, and there is an appeal by the defendants, someone would have to put up $60 million as that bond (I am assuming that DC is like my state).

      The defendants probably don’t care who pays anything, as long as it is not them doing the paying. The insurance company, if it is only liable for a small amount (say, $2 million), based upon the total amount of the judgment, might have some incentive to just pay and close out the file.

      I believe the insurance contract would have some clause dealing with possible appeals, etc., and I again think that the power as to that is with the insurance company.

      Hope that helps. Also hope someone with more of an insurance background can clarify or correct what I say here.

      • Bruce
        12/14/2010 at 8:17 PM

        Bill O:

        I should also add that if the insurance pays out what it is obligated to pay, and the judgment is much higher, the plaintiff can start collecting that excess from the defendants individually (wage garnishments, property, etc.) in what is called “Proceedings Supplemental.” Being supplemental to collecting the full judgment.

        Thus, there could be a dispute whether to appeal and the Swann 3 would try to pressure the insurance company to appeal if it is thinking of paying and running away after a big judgment.

        The plaintiff can’t collect anything on the judgment if it is properly appealed and a proper appeal bond has been satisfied. I can see that this could get messy, and there could be disputes between the Swann 3 and their insurance carrier, and possible Declaratory Judgment actions could be filed in this instance.

      • 12/14/2010 at 8:38 PM

        please–spare me the conflict of interest–that’s just a way for an attorney to weasel out that he is throwing his client under the bus. A law firm that gets regular contracts from an insurer will not care about defending a nobody if they fear their firm will lose potential contracts–sound jaded–I could tell you a story but lets see how this case gets played out.

        • Bruce
          12/14/2010 at 8:52 PM

          Noah:

          He asked. I tried to answer.

          Sorry about your experience.

          • 12/15/2010 at 8:32 PM

            yeah the tread marks are still on my forehead but there is KARMA lookk at Bernie

  12. Kate
    12/14/2010 at 10:36 AM

    The Murder Room is an excellent book. I just finished reading it last week and I recommend it highly. But please be forewarned, the descriptions of each case are extremely graphic and when Walter gets into the minds of these murderers, it can be quite horrific.

    You may want to wait until the cold, dark days of January to read this one – it could put a damper on your holiday cheer.

    Regards,
    Kate

  13. Bruce
    12/14/2010 at 10:39 AM

    Hi Bill O:

    Excellent questions. I have deps all day, but will try to respond tonight. Hope others can respond today.

  14. Michael
    12/14/2010 at 10:57 AM

    Bad news, guys – The Great Mouse Detective isn’t real. He’s just a cartoon. =(

    The good news, though, is that Vidocq IS real!!

  15. Craig
    12/14/2010 at 1:46 PM

    Thanks to TBD’s Sarah Larimer for her interest in the case and Vidocq.

    BTW Bruce: I think you may have mistakingly confused Regan for Razi in this comment. [Like 5 times :)]

    Also: Welcome to the new reader(s) from the League Office. [wink-wink]

    • Bruce
      12/14/2010 at 4:43 PM

      Craig, et al:

      Shocked, embarassed and sorry. All references to Razi in my too long post from last night under “Cold Comfort,” should have been to Regan. Arggggg.

      • Michael
        12/15/2010 at 8:07 AM

        I will never forgive Bruce for what he has done

        • AnnaZed
          12/15/2010 at 9:13 AM

          I don’t know about forgiveness, but I was certainly stymied.

  16. dlpetersdc
    12/16/2010 at 11:42 AM

    Can someone please answer a question for me? Was there any direct testimony presented during the trial that proved the exact time Robert Wone departed from the Radio Free Asia offices that fateful evening? I know it has been written several times on this site that he left RFA ‘around 10:30 pm’ but was there any direct testimony during the trial from a witness who said they saw Robert at the RFA office until 10:30 pm? I was looking for a transcript of the trial and I can’t seem to locate any. Any assistance that anyone might provide would be appreciated.

    • Craig
      12/16/2010 at 12:15 PM

      dlp: We have a stack of stipulations from the criminal trial that we will be publishing in the coming weeks and/or months. I believe Robert’s RFA departure time and 1509 arrival times were included in one of those. Watch this space.

    • Hoya Loya
      12/16/2010 at 1:10 PM

      Per Judge Liebovitz’s decision, Robert phoned 1509 Swann Street “from his desk at 10:24 p.m.” to say he was on his way.

  17. Craig
    12/17/2010 at 11:49 AM

    Our thanks go out to Harry Jaffe for his piece in today’s Examiner on Chief Lanier and Vidocq.

    • Rich
      12/17/2010 at 1:25 PM

      Now, that Lanier has a job for awhile, she can revisit old business and Robert Wone is one of them.

      Unless, she receives an overwhelming amount of pressure from folks on this site and elsewhere, I highly doubt she would invite Vidocq to help.

      It is an admission of failure on the MPD’s part and she is not ready to concede.

      Sure, it sounds like a, “Request for Help,” but in reality it’s an admission of failure.

      • Clio
        12/18/2010 at 12:08 PM

        So, Chief Lanier’s ego and image will come before solving this “very, very, very active” investigation: how typical that that is of urban criminal justice! At one time, certain citizens discerned that a woman’s touch would be necessary to reform or to at least redecorate the MPD: that prospect of institutional change and success seems ever more remote at this writing.

        • Bill 2
          12/19/2010 at 7:12 PM

          I’m totally lost on this. Where do we get the information that Chief Lanier’s ego is in the way of asking the Vidocq group for help? Is it based on her past history with that group or is it based on something that she recently stated in regard to this case? I can’t find any info that shows her disinterest in Vidocq looking into the Wone murder.

Comments are closed.