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Mad Scientist of the Month: Who’s Afraid of Taylor Wilson?

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Update (2/7/2012): Taylor Wilson at the White House

by Judy Dutton

At 10, he built his first bomb. At 14, he made a nuclear reactor. Now he’s 17…

Taylor Wilson makes people nervous. While his beanpole frame and Justin Bieber–esque haircut suggest he’s just a harmless kid, his after-school activities paint a far more ominous picture. At age 10, he built his first bomb out of a pill bottle and household chemicals. At 11, he started mining for uranium and buying vials of plutonium on the Internet. At 14, he became the youngest person in the world to build a nuclear fusion reactor. “I’m obsessed with radioactivity. I don’t know why,” says Wilson in his laid-back drawl. “Possibly because there’s power in atoms that you can’t see, an unlocked power.”

Shouldn’t teams in hazmat suits descend on Wilson and shut down his operations before someone gets hurt? On the contrary, there are people in the government who think that Wilson is key to keeping this country safe.

“The Cold War is really when nuclear physicists got their shot, and those people are all retiring,” points out one of Wilson’s mentors, Ron Phaneuf, a professor of physics at the University of Nevada in Reno. “I think the U.S. Department of Energy is a little concerned that the motivation of young people to get interested in that kind of science has waned. I think that’s one of the reasons doors have been opened to Taylor. He’s a phenomenon, probably the most brilliant person I’ve met in my life, and I’ve met Nobel laureates.”

When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security heard about Wilson two years ago, officials invited him to their offices to hear more about his research and determine whether or not it could be applied toward their counter-terrorism efforts. Because Wilson was only 15, they weren’t expecting much, but Wilson came prepared. After shaking everyone’s hands, he announced, “You know your building’s radio-active, right?” The pager-sized Geiger counter attached to Wilson’s belt was beeping, an indication that the granite surrounding them contained unusually high amounts of uranium—not enough to be harmful, but enough for Wilson to raise a few eyebrows.

“Their own building was radioactive and most didn’t know it,” Wilson says. “That’s when they started to take me really seriously.”

The Young Fusioneer

Wilson got his start on Fusor.net, a website where nuclear hobbyists who call themselves “fusioneers” fill message boards on topics that would enthrall only the geekiest subset of society, like “So where can I get a deal on deuterium gas?” The goal of every fusioneer is to build a reactor that can fuse atoms together, a feat first achieved by scientists in 1934. Ever since, nuclear fusion has been hailed as a potential “clean” energy source, although scientists have yet to figure out how to harness its power. By the time Wilson stumbled across Fusor.net, 30 hobbyists worldwide had managed to produce the reaction; Wilson was determined to become the thirty-first. He started amassing the necessary components, such as a high-voltage power supply (used to run neon signs), a reaction chamber where fusion takes place (typically a hollow stainless steel sphere, like a flagpole ornament), and a vacuum pump to remove air particles from the chamber (often necessary for testing space equipment).

Wilson also funneled money collected from Christmases and birthdays toward buying radioactive items, many of which, to his surprise, were available around town. Smoke detectors, he learned, contain small amounts of a radio-active element called americium, while camping lanterns contain thorium. In antique stores, he found pottery called Fiestaware that was painted with an orange uranium glaze. Wilson trolled websites such as eBay for an array of nuclear paraphernalia, from radon sniffers to nuclear fuel pellets, and came to own more than 30 Geiger counters of varying strengths and abilities. Most of Wilson’s radioactive acquisitions weren’t dangerous, given their small quantities. But a few—vials of powdered radium, for example—could be fatal if mishandled, which is why he’s never opened them. (Although he’s been tempted.)

To expand his collection, Wilson dragged his dad, Kenneth, on long road trips into the New Mexico desert to go prospecting for uranium ore; they returned with boxfuls. Meanwhile, Wilson’s growing obsession with all things radioactive “worried me a whole lot,” admits Kenneth, who turned to pharmacists and professors he knew around town to ask if what his son was doing was safe. “After they talked to Taylor, they’d tell me not to worry so much, because they said Taylor understands what he’s doing,” Kenneth says. He and his wife, Tiffany, tried to tell themselves that Wilson’s “nuclear phase” would pass, just like his previous obsessions. At age 3, he asked for a hard hat and orange cones and then directed traffic on his street. At age 7, he’d memorized every rocket made by the U.S. and Soviet governments from the 1930s onward. But of all of Wilson’s obsessions, radioactivity stuck.

Hoping that the right guidance could keep their son from doing damage to himself or others, the Wilsons moved from Texarkana, Ark., to Reno and enrolled Wilson in the Davidson Academy of Nevada, a public school that caters to gifted kids. (Wilson’s IQ tested in the 99.99 percentile.) His physics teacher, George Ochs, encouraged Wilson to enter the local science fair, but did a double take when he heard that Wilson had his heart set on building a nuclear reactor in his garage.

“I said, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. You’re going to irradiate your parents, and maybe the whole neighborhood,’” recalls Ochs. “I suggested he build it somewhere safe, like a university."

Ochs introduced Wilson to Phaneuf, and the professor quickly saw Wilson’s potential and helped him set up shop in the subbasement of the university’s physics department. Around Wilson’s work area, a shield of paraffin and lead absorbs any radiation he might produce. A radiation safety officer stops by periodically to assess the safety conditions, and Wilson must wear a dosimeter, a badge nuclear power plant workers use to measure an individual’s radiation exposure levels. So far, Wilson says, “I’ve never gotten a dose that’s above legal levels.”

After months of researching, building, and welding, Wilson put the parts of his nuclear reactor together, using the basic blueprints posted on Fusor.net. He added his own personal touches. It looked like a cappuccino maker on human growth hormones. To find out if it worked, Wilson filled its reaction chamber with deuterium gas, retreated behind the lead wall, and then flipped the switch to the reactor’s high-voltage supply. Tens of thousands of volts of current coursed through a golf ball–sized wire grid within the reaction chamber. If all went well, this would fuse the atoms of deuterium together and release radiation—not nearly as much as fission (or the splitting of atoms) produces, but enough to cause radiation poisoning or other health complications if things went to hell.

Wilson picked up a tiny glass tube called a bubble dosimeter that he’d placed near his reactor. If he saw bubbles, the subatomic particles that make up radiation had penetrated the tube, heating the hypersensitive liquid inside. Squinting at the tube, Wilson spotted five bubbles.

On Fusor.net, Wilson was proclaimed the youngest fusioneer ever, at just 14 years old. A year later, he met with officials at both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Energy, who offered him their expertise and equipment and encouraged him to apply for a research grant. “I started thinking, ‘What can I do with this?’” Wilson says. I wanted a real challenge. So I decided to try fighting terrorists.”

Taylor Wilson and one of his “nuclear mentors,” Bill Brinsmead, in Wilson’s basement lab at the University of Nevada in Reno. In the foreground is the nuclear fusion reactor Wilson built at 14—making him the youngest person in the world to ever do so. He spent two years scrounging the parts and radioactive materials.

Becoming a Terrorist Fighter

Every year, more than 35 million cargo containers reach U.S. ports of entry. “They’re big, and there are so many of them. It’s the perfect way to smuggle in nuclear weapons,” Wilson says. “If I were a terrorist, that’s how I’d do it.” Making matters worse, the most sensitive radiation detectors contain helium-3, a man-made chemical that is expensive and in short supply. “The only place you can get helium-3 is in the decayed remains of nuclear weapons components, and our supply is running out,” Wilson says. He started wondering whether there were a cheaper, more plentiful alternatives.

In May 2010, Wilson entered his nuclear fusion reactor in a series of science fairs that won him a trip to Switzerland to tour the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, where many of the most cutting-edge nuclear experiments on the planet take place. Within the collider’s labyrinthine corridors, located 300 feet below ground, Wilson gawked at swimming pool–sized Cherenkov detectors, which identify radiation by measuring the light that is emitted when these subatomic particles move through water. That got Wilson thinking: Water is plentiful. Maybe he could build a liquid-based radiation detector that would work on a smaller scale.

Wilson returned home, went to the hardware store, bought a five-gallon drum, and filled it with water. He mixed in gadolinium, a chemical element that emits light when hit with radioactive particles. Because those flashes would be too weak to be seen with the naked eye, Wilson bored a hole into the drum and inserted a highly sensitive light detector, which he hooked up to his computer. He then placed the drum next to his nuclear reactor, behind the lead wall, and flipped the reactor’s switch to produce a silent explosion of radiation. Checking his computer, Wilson was delighted to see that his detector had picked up brief emissions of light. The detector worked—and unlike helium-3 testers, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Wilson’s cost a few hundred bucks.

He filed for a patent. In May 2011, Wilson entered his radiation detector in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair against 1,500 competitors and won the $50,000 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award. In September, once school begins, he plans to do full-scale testing of his invention by hauling a 30-foot cargo container into the Nevada desert. If all goes well there, he will start road-testing his detector at ports. “I want to get this stuff deployed—the sooner the better,” Wilson says. “Radioactive materials could be coming through ports as we speak.”

Wilson’s expertise is in high demand: Raytheon, the fifth largest defense contractor in the United States, tried to hire Wilson to develop security technologies. Numerous universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have recruited Wilson to lend a hand in various research projects. Since Wilson’s meeting with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Energy two years ago, both government agencies are checking in with him regularly to monitor his progress. For now, in order to protect his intellectual copyright, Wilson has refused their offers for funding, but once his patent is securely in place, he hopes to share his findings and roll out his radiation detectors in Iran, North Korea, and other high-risk countries.

“It would scare my mom to know I’m in some hostile country, tracking down terrorists,” Wilson admits. But if his parents have learned anything over the years, it’s to trust their son and let go.

“Sometimes I’ll blow up something in the backyard that’ll rattle all the windows in the house,” Wilson says. “My mom will come out, shake her head, and then head back in.”

Chicks Dig Nukes

Wilson isn’t an across-the-board thrill-seeker. Roller coasters scare him. He was reluctant to obtain his driver’s license and avoids getting behind the wheel. The only time he was grounded was when he let the family’s golden retriever out in the backyard while he was detonating bombs (not nuclear ones, Wilson clarifies, just garden-variety explosives made from household chemicals like stump remover). Now, when the dog smells explosives, he gives Wilson a wide berth.

In spite of his efforts to make the world safe from terrorists, Wilson is still sometimes seen as a menace. In March 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused one of the country’s nuclear power plants to leak radiation into the atmosphere, Wilson tested the groceries in his refrigerator. He found trace levels of radioactive isotopes iodine-131 and cesium-137 in milk and spinach. After posting his findings on his website and talking to the Associated Press, “I got a lot of angry calls from the dairy association,” Wilson recalls. “I had explained that the radiation levels were low and not a health threat, but still some people freaked out.” Even at the physics lab where Wilson works, “next door there’s a laser guy who was scared that my nuclear reactor was irradiating him,” he says. “I had to calm his fears. A few people at the university have said, ‘You shouldn’t do this. You’re scaring people.’ I have to keep telling people I’m not a terrorist—I’m fighting the terrorists.”

Part of the problem, says Wilson, is that “pop culture has instilled in Americans an irrational fear of radiation, when in fact the household chemicals under your sink are more dangerous. I also think it unsettles people because I’m so young. They associate age with experience. But that isn’t always true.” Carl Willis, a nuclear engineer in New Mexico and a Fusor.net member who’s tracked Wilson’s progress, agrees. “Age discrimination against the young is widespread and was a constant obstacle in my early chemistry hobby life,” says Willis, who built his first bomb at age 12. “We automatically associate young age with poor judgment and inexperience, and while that’s typically the case, that’s just not Taylor. He shouldn’t be prejudged.”

In fact, Wilson thinks his youth is an asset.

“Because kids haven’t been exposed to the bureaucracy of professional science, they’re a lot more open to trying things,” Wilson says. “In that way, I think kids are able to sometimes do better science than adults.”

Among his peers, Wilson’s interest in science also has its perks. “At first when I was doing nuclear stuff I wondered, Is this going to make me a nerd? But I don’t think that was ever the case,” he says. “I’ve even used it to pick up chicks. I take women to my lab sometimes.” After all, what girl would be able to resist the line “Would you like to see my nuclear reactor?”


As for how he balances the demands of being a terrorist fighter/radioactivity obsessive/mad inventor with the challenges of being a 17-year-old kid, Wilson says it’s tough. “Nuclear stuff takes up most of my time,” he says. “Sometimes I have to decide: Do I want to be at my lab or hang out with Sofia?” (Sofia, a fellow Davidson student who’s an avid softball player, is his latest crush.) “She’s one of the few people who’ve been to my lab, which makes my friends mad, because not many have been able to visit,” Wilson says. But no one gets too mad, he jokes: “My friends always say, ‘Don’t mess with Taylor. He has radioactive stuff.’”

This article is your special sneak peek at the September-October issue of mental_floss magazine. Click here to get a risk-free issue!

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Art
Brigido Lara, the Artist Whose Pre-Columbian Fakes Fooled Museums Around the World
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In July 1974, Mexican authorities sent a man named Brigido Lara to jail. His crime wasn't a violent one, but it was serious nonetheless: Archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), a Mexican federal government bureau devoted to preserving the nation's heritage, claimed that Lara had been found with ancient ceramic artifacts looted from archeological sites in the state of Veracruz.

Lara was convicted of stealing and smuggling antiquities, but he insisted he wasn't a thief—and he could prove it. All he needed were tools and some clay brought to his jail cell. 

FORGING A CAREER

Lara grew up in Veracruz, in the village of Tlalixcoyán. While his parents were peasant farmers, Lara showed artistic talent—specifically, a knack for creating figurines from clay. Veracruz is home to many archaeological sites that date back to hundreds and thousands of years before the arrival of before Christopher Columbus, and the young Lara would often find ancient terra-cotta figurines in the fields and near rivers. He claims that by the time he was 9 years old, he was making versions of these artifacts using clay harvested from a local stream.

As Lara grew older, his skill set expanded. He reportedly taught himself how to prep and oven-fire local clay, and began making objects that mimicked those of several ancient Mesoamerican cultures—imitation Olmec pots, Maya polychrome vessels, and figurines in the Aztec, Mayan, and Totonac styles. He began specializing in replicating works by the Totonacs, a culture that flourished in central Veracruz until the Spanish Conquest introduced diseases that ravaged the communities. These figurines ranged in size from large to tiny, and often depicted mythological gods wearing masks and headdresses.

It's not entirely clear whether Lara began making these figurines for fun or profit. But according to the man himself, traveling dry-goods merchants had noticed his talents before he had even reached his teens. They accepted his "interpretations," as he called his early work, in lieu of cash—then sold them on the black market. Looters also came to Lara, asking him to fix and restore stolen works. Eventually, the artist wound up working in a Mexico City atelier that produced forgeries.

No detail was too tiny for Lara. He visited archaeological sites to study just-dug-up artifacts, and harvested clay from the surrounding region to sculpt exact likenesses. He later told Connoisseur magazine that for true authenticity, he even crafted his own primitive tools and stockpiled 32 grades of cinnabar—a reddish form of mercury used by the Olmec, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that existed between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE—for precise pigmentation. He finished his works with a ancient-looking patina made from cement, lime, hot sugar water, urine, and other ingredients, and coated the final products with a seal made from dirt and glue.

But even though Lara was a stickler for the details, he also took artistic liberties with some of his "interpretations," adding elements that wouldn't have appeared on the original artifacts. Sometimes he would include a fanciful new detail from his imagination: a winged headdress, or one that writhed with serpents; a duck-billed mask, or a dramatic, lifelike pose.

Lara didn't consider himself a forger. "My style was born with me," he told The New York Times in 1987. "I didn't learn from anyone. I studied the pre-Columbian pieces in my town that came from the burial mounds, and I used the ancient techniques. I made these pieces and I am very proud."

But by young adulthood, he'd also become a businessman, selling his unsigned pre-Columbian replicas to middlemen who re-sold them to illegal art collectors both domestically and abroad. "I was aware that many buyers then sold them as authentic pre-Hispanic works," Lara admitted to Art & Antiques magazine years later.

COMING CLEAN

Lara's forgery career may have continued undetected had he and four of his buyers not been apprehended in 1974 and charged with trafficking in pre-Columbian works. The police didn't consider Lara an artist or a forger—his works looked so real, the authorities thought they'd been dug right out of the ground.

Lara was sentenced to 10 years in jail. To regain his freedom, he devised a plan: He asked law enforcement officials to grant his lawyer permission to bring him clay and art tools. Right there in his cell, Lara created replicas of the antiques he'd reportedly stolen. Experts from the INAH examined the earthen artworks, and declared them "genuine" ancient artifacts.

The stunt worked. Lara had proven he had made the works himself, not smuggled them out of ancient sites. Finally convinced of his innocence, prison officials released him in January 1975 after he'd served only seven months of his sentence.

After his release, Alfonso Medellín Zenil, head of the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, offered Lara a job. "Our policy is, when you can't beat them, hire them," Fernando Winfield Capitaine, then the museum's director, joked to Connoisseur.

The Museo de Antropología is home to an extensive collection of artifacts from Mexico's Gulf Coast produced by ancient indigenous peoples such as the Olmec, the Huastec, and the Totonac. Lara was hired to restore these works as well as to make replicas for the museum's gift shop.

But his career as a forger wasn't behind him quite yet.

REVELATIONS AND REFLECTIONS

In the early 1980s, Veracruz governor Agustín Acosta Lagunes began repatriating pre-Columbian works from abroad, expanding the collections at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. But when Lara saw some of these imported works, which had been purchased at Sotheby's auction house in New York City, he pronounced them fakes. He knew, he said, because he'd made many of them—including a figure of a male dancer that had been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s “Ancient Art of Veracruz” exhibit in 1971.

Little by little, it emerged that Lara’s works might have made their way into pre-Columbian art collections around the world, including in prestigious museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, as well as in renowned private collections. Lara claimed credit for a 3-foot statue of the Mexican wind god Ehecatl in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and out of approximately 150 works on display in the "Ancient Art of Veracruz" exhibit, asserted that he had made about a dozen.

Among the most notorious fakes Lara claimed to have created were three life-size ceramic sculptures in the Dallas Museum of Art that had once belonged to film director John Huston. "If you look at them closely, they are copies," Lara told the Associated Press in 1987. The works were attributed to the Totonac, and thought to have been made between 600 to 900 CE. Lara, however, claimed to have produced them during the 1950s: "The details are different than the originals … the details in the breast decorations, in the shoulder patches and so on," he said. "They are very different. They are originals of course—my own."

As news spread about Lara’s forgeries, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Met in New York City, and the Dallas Museum of Art responded to the controversy by taking works off display. "All three museums acknowledged that many of the Veracruz-style objects in their collections were problematic," Matthew H. Robb, a former curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum who is now chief curator at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, tells Mental Floss.

Nobody knows exactly how Lara’s creations made their way into American museums (Lara blamed various high-profile art traffickers and dealers), but experts say they noticed when suspicious artifacts resembling his work first began popping up in the 1950s, as pre-Columbian art was becoming more and more popular among American art collectors. "They appeared out of nowhere, resembling nothing previously excavated," Edmund Carpenter, a New York archeologist, told The New York Times. "I saw some in New York, Los Angeles, Paris. Museums bought them, big collectors bought them. But nobody asked, 'How come a big find like this?'"

Bryan Just, a curator and lecturer on pre-Columbian art at the Princeton University Art Museum, chalks the phenomena up to scholarly ignorance. At the time, "there wasn't a lot of material available for comparison," he tells Mental Floss. "There are many regions, including Veracruz … where not a whole lot of archeology had been done. So for a lot of these [new] artworks, there weren't great sources to reference that answered questions like, 'How should this stuff really look?' And at that time, what had been excavated may not have been published."

There was also a shortage of experts to consult because the very idea of pre-Columbian relics as art was still relatively new. Connoisseurs only began collecting and selling these works in the early 20th century, and university scholars didn’t begin offering pre-Columbian art history courses until the 1950s, according to Just.

Not that collectors were necessarily consulting scholars in the first place: "If you were considering work that was offered to you by a dealer, you may have not wanted to consult a colleague who's an expert in that particular area if they work at a collecting institution," Just says. "You know, out of concern that they might snag it up before you do."

Fortunately, modern scholars have access to a greater body of knowledge about pre-Columbian art than their predecessors. "In retrospect, when I see Lara's stuff now, it seems pretty obvious to me that it's wrong," Just says. "It doesn't make sense when you think about it in terms of the broader context of what we know about these particular traditions."

But even today, it isn't always easy to ascertain what's real and what's not when it comes to pre-Columbian art. Experts sometimes use thermoluminescence tests, which involve removing a tiny piece of the object, grinding it up, heating it in a furnace, and observing how much light it emits. Ideally, this process can measure how long ago the clay was fired, but the results can be skewed if a work was recently exposed to extreme heat or had been cleaned.

Another issue is that "lots of these complicated ceramic sculptures are pastiches," Victoria Lyall, a curator of pre-Columbian art at the Denver Art Museum, tells Mental Floss. Artists "will use bits of older sculptures and put them back together. So you have to test a lot of different spots to really get a better sense of whether the entire piece is fake."

X-rays are a good way to spot a composite, but they interfere with thermoluminescence test results, putting conservationists between a rock and a hard place. Furthermore, clays from certain regions—like the clay Lara worked with in Veracruz—reportedly aren't as conducive to thermoluminescence testing.

A LEGACY OF LIES

Lara is now in his mid-70s. He no longer restores antiques at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa full-time, but he still works as a consultant there, and he continues to make art under his own name. However, his legacy will forever be tied with the difficult history of pre-Columbian artwork. According to experts, it's possible that his artworks are still masquerading as artifacts around the world, and that he may have even helped shape modern scholars' perception of pre-Columbian art from Veracruz.

However, it's also feasible that Lara's stories are a composite of fact and fiction—just like his work. The artist claims to have made thousands of forgeries (one estimate places the number at more than 40,000 pieces), but some experts say it would have been nearly impossible for Lara—who was only in his 30s when he was arrested—to have produced so many works in just a few decades.

Plus, the timelines don't always add up: Lara "was about 8 years old at the time that the [Ehecatl statue] was supposedly manufactured and purchased by the Met," Lyall says.

Lara also claims to have been self-taught, but some have speculated that he's stretched the truth about his natural talent. He may have instead learned his trade by apprenticing at a young age in a Veracruz workshop that specialized in forgeries, theorizes Jesse Lerner, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College. Lara "denies all that, but it's hard to know … Just by the nature of his business, it's kind of shady," Lerner tells Mental Floss. (Lerner's 1999 documentary Ruins—a look at the history of Mexican archeology and the traffic in fakes—features an interview with Lara.)

This workshop might have sold both Lara's wares and similar works to international collectors through an established underground market. Such a scenario would explain the artist's familiarity with pieces in faraway collections, like the Met's statue, which he could describe in great detail despite likely having never produced it with his own hands. Because forgeries aren't exactly signed, it's difficult to know for sure which pieces are Lara's and which may have been made by other forgers.

Either way, Lara's frauds are a reminder to avoid believing everything you read—even if it's a label in a museum. And they offer another lesson, too.

"The types of ancient works that Lara and other forgers were imitating, they weren't intended as aesthetic objects," Lerner says. "They weren't for museums. They were representations of this whole world view of cosmic forces."

That makes forgeries like Lara's particularly problematic. "If the only way we can access that worldview is through these objects that survive, [Lara] is just adding bad data to the pool of data that we have available. He's messing up everyone's understanding of who these figures are representing, and how their universe was understood and functioned."

In other words, sometimes fakes don't just fool art lovers—they can also change our understanding of history.

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Rob Culpepper
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Hot Meals and Cold Cases: Solving Crimes at the Detectives’ Lunch Club
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Rob Culpepper

By Matthew Shaer

On a brisk day last November, law enforcement professionals and forensic scientists crowded into a dining room at the Union League in downtown Philadelphia to eat lunch and stare at photos of dead bodies. The contrast was startling: fine steaks served on white china, sumptuous wallpaper dimly lit by elegant candelabra, and blood and limbs projected onto a screen. Tucked into the back of the room, I struggled to keep down my coffee. My tablemates, most of them graying and austere, clad in smart, dark suits, seemed unbothered.

“Can you make the picture a little bigger?” shouted one.

“It’s hard to see the hands,” added another.

The hands in question belonged to David Hayes, a retiree from a small town in Nebraska. Two years earlier, in the fall of 2010, an intruder had broken into the back door of a condo owned by David and his wife, Joan.* David was savagely shot and bludgeoned to death; Joan was stabbed repeatedly in the chest and face. A pocketknife emblazoned with the logo of the Nebraska State Police was found buried in Joan’s sternum.

The details mystified police. Nothing appeared stolen. Joan was posed in a sexual way—her nightgown jimmied up around her neck, her legs splayed apart. Rings of table salt were spread in careful circles around the bodies. The pages of a rare edition of the Bible were scattered over David’s corpse, and there were multiple, careful stab wounds around his eyes.

After two years of investigation, the case was ice-cold. So in late 2012, David Schumann and Pete Webber, the Nebraska cops running the case, packed information on the Hayes murders into manila envelopes and sent them to the headquarters of the Vidocq (pronounced vee-dock) Society, a crime-solving organization founded in 1990 by a group of forensics specialists. Well-known in law enforcement circles, the Vidocq Society is a last resort—it’s where cops turn when every lead has come to naught. For Schumann and Webber, it was their best and perhaps last hope for a break. If the Vidocq Society couldn’t crack the case, nobody could.

FRESH EYES FOR COLD CASES

At first, there were three: William Fleisher, Richard Walter, and Frank Bender. At the time, Fleisher, now retired, was a police officer turned FBI special agent turned chief of Customs Service in Philadelphia. Walter was a respected crime scene analyst and forensic psychologist for the Michigan prison system—what Hollywood calls a profiler. Bender (who passed away in 2011) was a forensic reconstructionist who specialized in taking the skulls of murder victims and sculpting recognizable three-dimensional models of their faces.

In 1989, Bender introduced Walter to Fleisher over lunch, and the three men got to talking about old cases—the ones that congealed like aging butter, the ones investigators abandoned for lack of time or resources. They talked for three hours, leading Fleisher to make a proposal: Why not formalize this process into a kind of club where they could more rigorously tackle the cases that interested them? Fleisher had a name in mind—the Vidocq Society, after Eugène François Vidocq, a 19th-century fraudster turned private investigator. He also supplied the motto: Veritas veritatum, or “truth begets truth.”

The first Vidocq Society meeting was held in late 1990, in a conference room at the Naval Yard, in Philadelphia. Twenty-six people attended. The crime in question involved a South Carolina car dealer, his wife, and their son, all of whom had been tied in their home, killed, and left to rot in an upstairs bathroom. The society’s members felt they could identify the culprit if they could ask more questions, but no investigators directly connected to the case were on hand; Walter, who had consulted on the case, had presented the crimes to the group himself. Next, the society tried solving historical cases, but again, the members couldn’t share their suspicions with or ask questions of anyone who’d been on the scene. Not being able to affect the course of the long-abandoned investigations was too frustrating.

“We thought, ‘OK, we’ve got to have a mission, and we’ve got to have some clarity,’ ” Fleisher said. The members decided to set some ground rules. Cases should be relatively recent but at least two years old. The police should be willing to cooperate, if not present the cases themselves. And drug and organized crime killings were off-limits.

But why take any murders off the table? “Those cases are very slippery,” Walter says. “There are a lot of angles and twists that often have to do with the crowd that the victim associated with. The story of the dealer, the buyer, local gangs, the milieu of the city itself”—the particulars would be too difficult to convey in the course of such a short presentation.

At the same time, the Vidocq Society also decided to codify regulations on the membership process. Applicants had to be referred by a current member in good standing and offer something that others could not. “We’ve had experts on drowning—saltwater and freshwater—psycholinguists, entomologists, people who specialize in the amount of time it takes for insects to swarm onto a dead body,” says Fred Bornhofen, the society’s 75-year-old chairman of the board emeritus and case-management director. “We’ve just recruited a woman who does research on isotope analysis. The point is we’re not for voyeurs.”

Word soon got out and detectives from all over the country flooded the office with requests. Before long, the Vidocq Society upped its meeting schedule from four times a year to nine. Today, the 82 chartered members hail from all areas of the crime-solving trade. There are DNA specialists, experts on cults, psychoanalysts, Naval Intelligence men, polygraphers, and long-retired FBI special agents. They convene every month, except July, August, and December—even veteran sleuths need a vacation—in the upper reaches of the Union League, a stately old building in the heart of Philadelphia. And at each meeting, over a lavish multicourse meal, they hear the details of a single unsolved case.

Fleisher does not like to speculate on the precise number of cases the Vidocq Society has helped solve. From the beginning, the club has made it policy to take a strictly advisory role in ongoing investigations, leaving the glory to the police officers in the trenches. But there’s a clear advantage to collecting and tapping into dozens of the best minds in law enforcement, and the fact that more than 300 cases have been brought to the group is testament. “I’d put it this way,” Fleisher laughs. “Eighty percent of the time we figure out who did it. It’s how you prove it—that’s the critical thing.”

Fleisher is careful to clarify that the Vidocq Society doesn’t always get its man. Still, there have been several notable successes. In the early 1990s, the members took on the case of a murdered woman and concluded that her killer had been a foot fetishist. The tip off? The woman’s shoes were missing—the killer had stolen them as mementos. More famously, there was the case of Scott Dunn, a 24-year-old Texas man who disappeared in 1991. Bloodstains had been found in Dunn’s apartment, but there was no body. In the mid-1990s, the Vidocq Society agreed to look into Dunn’s death. After a reexamination of the blood spatter patterns and DNA evidence, its members concluded that Leisha Hamilton, Dunn’s longtime girlfriend, was the killer. She is currently serving 20 years in a federal penitentiary.

Bornhofen chalks up the society’s accomplishments not just to the expertise of its members but to their ability to examine a crime scene without any prejudice—in one case where a priest murdered an undertaker and his assistant, for instance, local police were reluctant to point a finger at a man of God. The Vidocq Society had no such problem.

REVISITING THE HAYES MYSTERY

David Schumann was still relatively new to homicide investigations when he and Pete Webber were assigned to the Hayes case. Webber, taller and wirier than his stocky partner, had been on the force for decades. The two detectives opened their investigation with a careful analysis of the crime scene and a list of potential suspects. The son, David Hayes, had been in charge of dispersing his parents’ trust. Louis Beck, the Hayeses’ fiftysomething son-in-law, had been the one to call in the murders—he claimed he’d found the bodies on his way back from church.

But there was the question of motive—no one seemed to have one. Truth be told, the detectives had a hard time imagining anyone would want to kill the Hayeses. Joan was soft-spoken and charming, a beloved fixture in the neighborhood. David, a former accountant, spent most of his time at church or volunteering at a local ministry; in recent years, he’d become involved in a Christian movement led by a charismatic preacher named Bill Forster. The Hayeses lived quietly and simply.

They were not typical murder victims. Before long, Schumann and Webber’s investigation hit a brick wall.

In the minutes after lunch at the Union League was cleared, the crowd in the dining room circled the identity of the Hayeses’ killer carefully, asking gentle then pointed questions of Schumann and Webber and requesting second looks at some of the more interesting slides. It was clear that the cops had focused a good deal of their energy on the son-in-law. There wasn’t much motive there, but Beck had discovered the bodies, and he had also lawyered up, which certainly suggested something to hide.

A rotund Vidocq Society member raised his hand. “Maybe David Hayes was a pedophile, and he was killed by a victim,” the man said, stroking his chin. “Did you find any child pornography on his desktop?”

“None,” Webber said.

Another hand went up. This time, the questioner was a primly dressed woman in her sixties—an eminent forensic scientist. She pointed out that the Bible pages and rings of salt seemed to suggest a religious aspect to the crimes. In the Bible, after all, salt is often used to symbolize purification. Maybe the killer was a parishioner at the chapel where David Hayes sometimes worked? A murmur rippled across the room. The hive mind lurched into gear. An expert on cults confirmed that pagan groups also use salt. A ring of the stuff, she continued, might indicate that the bodies were a kind of offering. Attention was called back to stab wounds around Joan’s eye and the knife buried in her chest—two acts of extreme violence that might also be viewed as ceremonial in nature.

Then Walter strode to the front of the room and took the microphone. Later, he told me that it wasn’t typical of him to commandeer the floor like that, but he’d felt energized, on a roll. Clicking back through the pictures and eagerly gesticulating, he pointed out that the ring of salt around David’s body was incomplete; surely, if the murderer were actually interested in purification, the circle would have been closed. “I think what we’re looking at,” Walter said, “is someone trying to conceal the true motive of their crime.”

He suggested the detectives focus their energy on Bill Forster, the preacher, self-help guru, and friend of the Hayeses. David, as the detectives had noted, had been a prominent supporter of Forster’s. Perhaps he had grown disenchanted with the preacher or discovered that Forster was funneling the proceeds from his self-help products to some less-than-Godly enterprise. In that case, Forster certainly would have had a reason to kill the Hayeses.

At first, a few heads bobbed uncertainly, but then the entire room was nodding along; there were even some tentative claps.

“That’s very interesting,” Webber said.

A few minutes later, the meeting was officially adjourned, and the members of the Vidocq Society filed out into the hallway, one by one, happily chattering about the particulars of the case. Only Schumann and Webber stayed behind—they wanted to talk to Walter privately.

CASE CLOSED

A few weeks later, I called Walter at his home in northern Pennsylvania. When Walter is not occupied with Vidocq Society business, he keeps a busy schedule, traveling across the country for consultations and lecturing at conferences and universities on the finer points of profiling. Still, the Hayes killings had remained stubbornly on his mind.

“Of all murder cases brought to trial, only 27 percent have physical evidence and fingerprints,” he said. Because of television shows such as CSI, he continued, “we naively think that DNA can solve everything. It can’t. Sometimes it’s the good old-fashioned investigative arts. That’s where we can help.”

The Hayes case is extremely complicated—a “multilayered, economically related, cover-up kind of thing,” Walter says. But Walter had been in constant touch with the detectives from Nebraska, and he was confident they were zeroing in on the right suspect: Forster. “The guy will get caught,” Walter said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

As for the Vidocq Society, the next few years will be pivotal. The society remains an anomaly in the U.S.: a crime-solving organization made up entirely of freelance experts. But many of the original members, including Bornhofen and Fleisher, are hitting an age where they’re thinking about retiring from the club. The baton will have to be passed to a new generation of Sherlocks, and the founders are actively recruiting up-and-comers. Interested in joining the society? Well, the process is secretive, Walter says.

In other words, don’t call them. They’ll call you.

* Names, locations, and details have been changed to protect the identity of the victims.

This story originally ran in 2013.

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