Send to printerClose window

Philadelphia's Vidocq Society Battles Age and Dead Ends to Stay Hot on the Trail of Cold Cases

Even as the Vidocq Society continues to investigate unsolved murders and other cold cases with Sherlock Holmes-like vigor, the aging sleuths’ club with Main Line ties and international reach may be facing its own extinction.

By J.F. Pirro
Philadelphia's Vidocq Society Battles Age and Dead Ends to Stay Hot on the Trail of Cold Cases

John Bailey can’t seem to shake the case he most wanted to solve as a detective sergeant with Tredyffrin Township Police: the 2007 murder of 60-year-old Michael Caulder in his home off a remote cul-de-sac in Wayne. 

“It’s one of the most bizarre cases in my 34 years,” says Bailey, who’s now a magisterial district judge serving the Exton area. “It’s all there, but it all leads to dead ends. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. I can’t believe someone doesn’t know something. But like Richard Walter says, the homicide isn’t over until the perpetrator says so.”

Walter is a founder of the Vidocq Society, a renowned cold-case brain trust started in 1990. The private Philadelphia-based club is still 82 members strong, but time passes. Frank Bender, another high-profile founder, has died; other members are aging. In the meantime, new, ever-stranger murders—loads of them—are added to the pile. Defense lawyers confound progress while their slippery clients often revel in their handiwork.

These days, only the best good guys have a shot. A Vidocq Society member since 2008, Bailey is one of them. So is Elverson’s Frederick A. Bornhofen, the group’s chairman and case manager. Onetime Philadelphia district attorney Lynn Abraham is a Vidocq member—so is former Phoenixville dentist and Chester County coroner Norm Goodman.

The society has connections to several famous cases. Renowned forensic dentist and Vidocq member Haskell Askin’s testimony in the trial of Megan Kanka’s brutal rapist/murderer led to Megan’s Law. The group also helped with the Noe family crib-death case in Philadelphia.

All those years of dead ends have a way of convincing killers that they’re masked geniuses for a year, a decade or more. Or not. Crimes can play on the minds of such creatures. Meanwhile, time passes.

The Caulder murder is hardly typical of Tredyffrin. Prior to 2007, the township’s only other homicides were in 2002 and 1983. In the ’02 murder of Mildred Allen, there was a suspect in custody within a week and a DNA match a year later. The man was already incarcerated at Montgomery County’s State Correctional Institution at Graterford on unrelated charges. He committed suicide before murder charges could be filed.

It was Vidocq’s Bailey who reopened the cold case on Tito Norcini’s 1983 murder 20 years later, even presenting it at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va. Nonetheless, it remains unsolved.

There’s space dedicated to the Caulder case at Tredyffrin’s police headquarters. Accessed through a side door, it smells of corkboard. On the door hangs a yellow legal pad with the date “14 November ’07.” Only authorized personnel have access. Bailey used to see other investigators walk in, then leave with a binder, murmuring something about wanting to make sure all the bases were covered.

Officials have spent days in there, laying out evidence again and again. In November 2010, they conducted a reexamination on the murder’s three-year anniversary. In April 2011, Bailey presented the case to the Vidocq Society. A month later, they hosted a three-day work block. Vidocq founder Richard Walter sat in.

About 8,000 murders go unsolved in the United States each year, and cutbacks have hurt law enforcement, ensuring that even more investigations grind to a halt. Vidocq members review just nine annually. “We sort of invented the term cold case,” says Bornhofen. “We have lots of strange people who have wanted in.”

Michael Capuzzo’s 2010 book, The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases, brings attention to a host of local murder cases and their connection to the Vidocq Society. One involved Jack Sugarman, a World War II hero from Delaware County turned criminal enforcer —“a gangster’s right-hand man,” according to Capuzzo.

Sugarman was the guy who traveled to Boston to point out B-girl dancer Vicki Harbin for notorious hitman Hans Vorhauer. Later, Vidocq combined efforts with Upper Darby Police to nab Vorhauer for the 1971 murder. He later escaped from Graterford. “One thing you have to realize is that some people who kill do not feel guilt,” Bornhofen says.

“We sort of invented the term cold case,” says Bornhofen. “We have lots of strange people who have wanted in.”

In another area case heard by a Vidocq member in the spring of 1997, a 27-year-old woman was strangled to death and left to rot between hedgerows in a remote area. Despite six years of work, police couldn’t solve it. The victim’s 24-year-old live-in boyfriend was a pizza delivery man with no criminal record, though he had nicknamed himself “Ted Bundy.” The case drew offers for movie rights.

But the “Boy in the Box” remains the most notable murder with Vidocq ties. On Feb. 26, 1957, the battered body of a child with sloppily cut hair was discovered in the woods off Susquehanna Road in the Fox Chase section of Northeast Phildelphia. He was found in a cardboard box that originally held a white bassinet sold at a J.C. Penney in Upper Darby. 

The Vidocq Society footed the bill to exhume the murder victim to extract teeth and bones for DNA testing, reburying him in 1998 in Ivy Hill Cemetery, which donated a prime burial plot. Inscribed on his headstone: “Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy.” 

There’s still a website dedicated to the investigation (americasunknownchild.net), but it remains unsolved. The best lead in 50 years came with Vidocq’s involvement. In 1988, a woman now known as Mary told her psychiatrist that she was present when the boy was killed by her librarian mother in their Lower Merion home. Her father taught at Lower Merion High School. Both parents had since died.

Two years of interviews followed—and more details. Mary’s mother had taken her to pick up the boy a year earlier. He was exchanged for an envelope of cash, and a year of abuse followed. He was kept in the basement in a room once used as a coal bin, and fed in dog dishes. One afternoon, after throwing up baked beans, Mary’s mother threw the boy into a bathtub and beat him, smashing his head against the tile floor. Mary said she accompanied her mother to dispose of the body.
 

Continued on page 2 ...
 

Philadelphia investigators reopened the case and drove to Cincinnati, Ohio, to meet with Mary, a drug company executive, in 2002. They returned convinced of by the story, but her history of mental issues, coupled with a reluctance to confirm details, left some skeptical.

Then, in December 2006, the Philly homicide detective who presented the case to Vidocq members retired after 39 years, after a drug test came up positive for cocaine. He’s kept a low profile ever since, refusing media requests.

For his part, Vidocq’s Walter was never convinced of the mother’s guilt. He suspected the Peeping Tom college student who found the body. Even more dead ends.

On April 26, 1993, the last day of the school year at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the body of Sophie Sergie was found in a second-floor dormitory bathtub. Posed with her glasses in her hands, the 20-year-old former student had been raped, stabbed three times in the face and shot to death with a .22-caliber gun in the back of the head. A stun gun may have also been used. Despite 80 DNA comparisons, there were no matches.

At a 2011 meeting, Vidocq members viewed photos of Sergie’s wounds. At first, the questions were fairly benign: Was the bullet available? Were other rooms searched? Were there any other fingerprints on the bathroom surfaces? Was the body found wet or dry?

The questions continued: Was witness hypnosis used? Was there any record of stun-gun purchases? Had investigators used the FBI Behavioral Science Unit?

But it was a tough crowd, and before long, Richard Walter was fuming. “The security guard shouldn’t be ruled out. He wanted a piece of action, but when she wasn’t interested, he shot her in the back of the head,” said Walter in a near tirade, suggesting that crime-scene evidence demonstrated ritualistic-sadistic behavior by the perpetrator.

After the meeting, Vidocq’s Bornhofen weighed in. The goal, he said, is always to “lock up somebody who needs locking up.”

As for Walter, he wouldn’t divulge much. “Part of our success is not talking to [the press],” he said. “After a case is solved, that’s a different issue.”

Late in the afternoon on Nov. 14, 2007, real estate attorney Wendy Bookler returned home early to check on her husband, Michael Caulder. Their adopted daughter had missed the bus to Conestoga High School and couldn’t reach her father for a ride.

Bookler found Caulder lying unresponsive and bloody, the covers pulled up to his chest. A Tredyffrin police report describes the spouse as calm and unemotional at the scene.

Bookler repeatedly told police she didn’t want an autopsy, a Jewish faith preference. One was conducted anyway. Results indicated that Caulder was shot from approximately 18 inches away and died almost instantly. The single wound was about an inch below Caulder’s left eye and exited the back of his head. But investigators didn’t detect it right away.

“It was almost like makeup had been applied over it,” says Bailey, who also found two bloody washcloths someone used to clean up the mess.

A gun has never been located, though investigators checked more than two miles of sewers using underground cameras. They also swept a pond behind the home, and Bailey even led a 12-hour dive with a SWAT team. All that effort didn’t turn up anything other than one large, nasty snapping turtle.

Police did uncover a 9 mm handgun shell casing in the couple’s bedroom. They intentionally didn’t mention it to Bookler until two hours into the investigation. “Oh, I picked that up and put it on my dresser,” she told investigators, according to the report Bailey later presented to the Vidocq Society.

Questioned about weapons in the house, Bookler claimed she didn’t believe in them. She’d never registered a gun. Caulder had one, but it was confiscated after his 1990 theft arrest and conviction. That weapon was destroyed.

Caulder served time in Graterford—a place often reserved for far worse crimes. His victim, William Batoff, was a powerful, politically tied Philadelphian. Batoff died in January 2011, but not before undergoing police interviews and having a weapon similar to the one used in the Caulder murder tested ballistically. It didn’t match. “And why would you wait that long for retaliation?” Bailey poses.

At Caulder’s home, there was no forced entry or signs of robbery, and his two small white-haired dogs had no blood on them. When police let them out, one headed for the upstairs steps and had to be tackled to keep from contaminating the crime scene, Bailey recalls.

Vidocq members learned that the crime scene was unusual, and they characterized statements made by Bookler as inconsistent. Today, when asked directly if Bookler has been cleared, Bailey offers a definitive no. “Everyone is on the radar screen, but it’s one of the most frustrating cases because of the lack of cooperation,” he says.

Since the murder, Bookler—who now serves as the Philadelphia SeniorLAW Center’s first legal director—hasn’t once called for an update, Bailey says. She sent him one email after Batoff died, wondering if police had interviewed him prior to his passing.

“She does not call,” he says.

Police last met with Bookler in March 2008. “We’re not allowed to talk to her,” says Bailey. “I don’t know if that’s typical, but I’ve never had that before. I’m following orders. We must go through her attorney.”

Bookler is represented by Kennett Square-based lawyer Tom Schindler, who describes the case as “frustrating” and “sad.” Despite Tredyffrin’s diligence and Vidocq’s involvement, there’s been no progress “That’s quite a group, so it’s not a knock,” he says.

Because there were never any concrete leads, Schindler says, everyone became a suspect, including his client. “She would like nothing more than for this case to be solved and to change the direction of what’s been a really difficult time in her life,” he says.

Bailey retired from the force in 2011, but he continues to network—especially with a case like this one. “You can’t do it alone,” he says.

Bailey’s career was planned for as long as he can remember. At Conestoga High, he took advantage of a program that let him ride with Tredyffrin officers his senior year. It was hard to walk away and leave the Caulder case cold.

He’s left it to guys like Taro Landis at the Tredyffrin police department. He will only confirm that the case is still under investigation, and that there’s still dedicated space at headquarters.

“We’ve kept it pretty much as John left it,” says Landis.

Bailey continues to have faith. “They’ll all work together,” he says. “It’s not a perfect crime. I know it’ll be solved.”