Lunch and a Murder

Murder cases, prime time television has trained us to believe, are investigated by multiple, highly experienced homicide detectives with access to seemingly endless resources. At their disposal are things such as high-level scientific testing labs able to extract fingerprints and/or DNA from seemingly nothing; machines which can take even the grainiest closed-circuit camera image and give us a perfect depiction of a suspect’s full face; and other tools bound only by the show writers’ imaginations. Reality, especially for small town police departments, is very different. Take, for example, the murder of then 26 year-old Alexandra Ducsay of Milford, Connecticut — which happened in May of 2006, but remains unsolved.

What can police departments like these do? Call Batman? Hardly. But they can call the Vidocq Society.

Founded in 1990, this group of forensic professionals — psychologists and prosecutors, homicide detectives and FBI profilers, scientists and coroners — gathers monthly in Philadelphia, hoping to give a cold case a fresh lead. the Society is named after Eugène François Vidocq (pictured above) a French criminal turned vigilante crime fighter — a man who was perhaps the first private detective, and regarded as the father of modern criminology.  It was founded by three men — all of different backgrounds — who met during the course of crime-solving endeavors.  Bill Fleisher is the most vanilla of the bunch — an FBI agent.  Then there is Richard Walter, a forensic psychologist, and one of the forefathers of modern criminal profiling.  And finally, the Vidocq Society counts among its co-founders the late Frank Bender, a self-taught sculptor with a particular knack for being able to create reproductions of people’s heads using only their skulls and photos of what they once looked like.  (His New York Times obituary is nothing short of amazing.)

The Society began on a lark.  The three had corresponded over the years but only first met, face to face, in May of 1989. As expected, they began to talk shop, discussing the mysteries they were working on, informally collaborating and helping each other. One suggested that the trio make it a regular event; another suggested inviting other colleagues from across the law enforcement world.  According to The Telegraph, they sent out 28 invitations expecting only a reply or two.  They received 26 acceptances, and with that, the Vidocq Society was born.

Each month, the Vidocq Society — at the Society’s expense (they pay for travel out of the group’s $100/year membership dues) — invites a group of law enforcement officers to present a cold case, with two specific requirements: the unsolved death has to be at least two years old and the alleged victim mustn’t have been involved in criminal activity such as dealing drugs or prostitution.  And to date, they’ve had some success, helping to solve a handful of crimes over the years, including the double homicide of Dan O’Connell and James Ellison of Hudson, Wisconsin, in 2005, as discussed by America’s Most Wanted.  And in at least one case — the death of Huey Cox of Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1991 — the Society managed to free a wrongfully accused man, demonstrating that the suspect police had charged with the crime was innocent of it.

Bonus fact: While the Vidocq Society focuses on cold cases, University of California, Santa Cruz professor George Mohler focuses on future crimes. The mathematics and computer science professor uses computer-generated math models to locate crime hotspots — areas where, and when, a crime is likely to occur — with success.

Related: “The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases” by Mike Capuzzo — a book about the Vidocq Society. 3.5 stars on 87 reviews, available on Kindle.

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