PHILADELPHIA -- Its membership list is straight out of a pulp novel: private detectives, retired FBI agents, polygraph experts, even a forensic scientist specializing in blood spatters.
Together they form the Vidocq Society, a 12-year-old Philadelphia-based group specializing in solving murder cases that have stalled or been dropped by police.
"The problem with most police departments is that they are so busy that these older cases get put on the back burner," Vidocq Society co-founder Bill Fleisher said. "Mostly we just act as a catalyst. We want to get the assigned investigators excited about these cases again."
The group's 82 members worldwide include Robert K. Ressler, the former FBI profiler who invented the term "serial killer" and spent 16 years interviewing mass murderers from David Berkowitz -- The Son of Sam -- to John Wayne Gacy.
Also on board is Edgar Adamson, chief of the U.S. National Central Bureau of Interpol, the international police force.
This year, the group has been trying to solve the mystery of "the boy in the box," a child whose body was found inside a cardboard container in Philadelphia in 1957. And in April the society signed on to look into the case of Amy Wroe Bechtel, a Lander, Wyo., woman who disappeared while running in the mountains in 1997.
String of successes
The group is hoping to add both cases to a string of successful investigations.
In a 1991 case, Vidocq members helped win the acquittal of a Little Rock, Ark., restaurant worker accused of beating his boss to death with a golf club. They also solved the 1991 disappearance of a Lubbock, Texas, man and helped convict an ex-girlfriend for his murder in 1997.
Not bad, Fleisher says, for retired investigators and forensic experts working for free and meeting mostly in their spare time.
Named after Eugene Vidocq (pronounced VEE-duck), an 18th-century French police detective who pioneered modern forensic science, the group functions more like an academic society than a police force.
The group only takes on murder investigations, selecting a handful of cases out of the hundreds of requests for help it receives from victims' families. Cases are considered only if the crime is at least two years old and the victim wasn't involved in illegal activity at the time of death.
Once it has accepted a case, the society offers to fly the police officer assigned to the investigation to Philadelphia to make a formal presentation.
Each case then gets a thorough review by individual members, who apply their years of forensic training to look for things police might have missed, such as an improperly diagnosed cause of death or DNA evidence that was never collected.
Frederick Bornhofen, the society's case management director, said sometimes all a cold case needs is an extra look to get it started again. But he also cautioned that only about one in 10 of the cases taken on by the group has resulted in an arrest and conviction.