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GRAHAM YELTON

Welcome to the Body Farm

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GRAHAM YELTON

By Rene Ebersole

Beyond the border of an ordinary parking lot lies the most cutting-edge graveyard in the world … and a hands-on lab for cops and forensic anthropologists.

It was Valentine's Day when the gravediggers finished. The crew stood there waiting, their long-sleeved shirts drenched from a mixture of cold rain and sweat. At their feet were the holes—four of them—dug deep into the heavy clay. Nearby, young women and men in rubber gloves and medical gowns prepared to haul the cadavers down the hill.

Picking their way through the barren woodland, they carried 10 bodies to the burial site. Into the first ditch, the widest, they placed six corpses. In the second, they arranged three more. Just one body went into the third grave. The last was left empty. Then the gravediggers picked up their shovels and filled the holes.

Nicknamed “the body farm,” the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center is the oldest and most established of only four such facilities in the country. Since its inception in the early ’80s, its three wooded acres have been rife with corpses: bodies stuffed inside cars, enshrouded in plastic, rotting in shallow graves. Among them, grad students dutifully clock hours combing corpses for insects, while law enforcement agents undergo crime-scene training exercises.

It’s here, using donated cadavers, that scientists have pioneered some of the most innovative techniques in forensic science, particularly practices that help investigators pinpoint time of death—that linchpin of criminal cases that so often determines whether a killer is charged or set free. “The research we do at the facility is predominantly based on decomposition,” says center director Dawnie Steadman, “but we’re expanding that tremendously.” Now, as the bodies rest in those four anonymous graves, the center is primed to undertake a cutting-edge three-year experiment that may help scientists uncover clandestine burial sites in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones. With the help of laser technology, the reach of the body farm is about to grow exponentially, and the findings will shed light on some of history’s most heinous unsolved crimes.

Plotting the Farm

Back in 1969, the director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation needed some advice. He had a dead cow on his hands and was trying to determine when it had died. At the time, cattle rustling was a local problem. Rustlers killed cows in the field, butchered them on the spot, hung up the meat in refrigerated trucks, and sped off. With thousands of acres to manage, ranchers rarely discovered the carcasses before several weeks had passed. Inevitably, they would call the police. But the cops were powerless—without knowing when the cows had died, there was no way to build a timeline and narrow the suspects.

The investigator figured that if anyone could age a bovine carcass, it was Bill Bass, a 41-year-old forensic anthropology professor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Bass sometimes lent a hand identifying skeletal remains for the agency and local law enforcement. He could look at a pile of bones and read clues in them: who the person was, what had happened. Bass’s credentials were impeccable. He’d trained at the University of Pennsylvania under the internationally renowned bone detective Wilton Krogman, known as the “medical Sherlock Holmes.” Krogman had worked on hundreds of criminal cases: everyday homicides, mob victims dug from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, even the kidnapped Lindbergh baby. One of the major things he’d taught Bass was how teeth can shed light on a murder victim’s age and identity.

But Bass didn’t have much experience studying the remains of large livestock. When he first got the request, he did what any scientist would do. “I looked in the literature,” says Bass, now 85. “There wasn’t much there. So I called him back and said, ‘We really don’t know this. But if you can find a rancher who would give us a cow, I will look at it every day to see what’s happening.’ I put a P.S. on that letter and said, ‘We really need the rancher to give us four cows. One in spring, one in summer, one in fall, and one in winter. Because the major factor in decay is temperature.' Well, nothing ever happened with that.”

A few years later, in the spring of 1971, Bass took a new job teaching at the University of Tennessee. He moved to Knoxville, where the Tennessee medical examiner asked whether he would serve as the state’s forensic anthropologist. Bass accepted and quickly realized he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. In the sparsely populated and relatively arid Midwest, police typically brought him boxes of dry bones. In Tennessee, which had twice as many people and significantly more rainfall, the corpses were “fresher, smellier, and infinitely buggier.” When agents asked how long the bodies had been stewing, Bass could hardly say; there was no scientific basis for an answer.

So he resolved to fill the void. “In 1980, I went to the dean and said ‘I need some land to put dead bodies on,’” he recalls. “Everybody says, ‘Well, what’d he say?’" Bass continues. “He didn’t say anything. He picked up the phone and called the man on the agriculture campus who handles land, and I went over to see him.” There were a couple of wasted acres behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center where the facility used to burn its trash, the ag man said. Bass could use those.

CSI: Farm

On his newly staked plot, Bass spearheaded the first organized effort to determine what happens when a body rots. He and his students re-created crime scenes, placing bodies in shallow graves and putting them in abandoned cars. The initial investigations were fairly basic: How long until the arms fall off? When does the skull start showing through? How long before all the flesh is gone?

They weren’t surprised to find that temperature figures heavily in the rate of decomposition. A body decays faster in summer than in the winter—therefore more quickly in Florida than in Wisconsin. Is the body in the sun or shade? What was the person wearing? Bodies rot faster in wool than in cotton because wool preserves heat. Gradually, the team developed timelines and statistical formulas that could help estimate, with incredible accuracy, how long a person had been dead based on atmospheric conditions.

There are also the bugs. One of Bass’s graduate students tracked the insects that feed on corpses. Blowflies are first on the scene, and they’re crucial in helping determine time of death. As soon as the flies land, they begin laying eggs in a body’s damp orifices (eyes, mouth, nose, open wounds), and the life cycle of the insects marks the hours since death occurred. The method proved highly accurate when atmospheric conditions were taken into account, and it put entomology at the forefront of forensic science.

As the anthropology program expanded to offer a Ph.D. degree, Bass started running field courses for cops and FBI agents. He became a star member of investigative teams working on tough criminal cases, from serial murders to celebrity plane crashes. Although he’s now retired, he still consults on tough cases. “The smell turns a lot of people off,” Bass says. “But I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it as a challenge to figure out who that individual is and what happened to them.”

In the three decades since the body farm began, it has schooled hundreds of graduate students, law enforcement agents, and scientists. “It is impressive,” says Frank McCauley, who has worked for 25 years as an agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. McCauley was a student under Bass, and he regularly attends a recurring week-long course for law enforcement covering the basics of forensic evidence collection. “It arms you with enough knowledge and enough resources to recognize and know what you may have,” he says. “I consider Dr. Bass a national treasure.”

Graham Yelton

With hundreds of people signing up every year to donate their remains to the body farm, the center continues to grow. And recently, it acquired a new piece of land that promises to take forensic research to a whole new level. In 2007, a Vancouver-based forensic anthropologist named Amy Mundorff was rock climbing in Squamish, British Columbia. Mundorff, who carries a Prada key chain emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, was a veteran of the New York medical examiner’s office. She’d been injured as a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and then spent years identifying the remains of victims before relocating to the West Coast. With her on the cliffs was an old friend, Michael Medler, a geographer at Western Washington University.

As the two scientists scaled the face of granite masiffs, they chatted about their research. Mundorff wanted to use her experience in New York to tackle global human rights issues, but she knew about the field’s frustrations. While attempting to recover a victim of the 1995 genocide in Bosnia, one of her colleagues had followed a tip and dug around the suspected grave site, only to come up empty-handed. All the known graves in Bosnia had been excavated, Mundorff told Medler, yet more than 7000 people were still missing. Where could they be? Without better technology, the mystery might never be solved. Forensic scientists working with human rights groups were trying to use satellite imaging and aerial photography, but those methods weren’t effective at finding unknown burial sites.

“Has anyone tried lidar?” Medler asked. Lidar is a remote sensing laser technology that analyzes light reflections to detect subtle changes in the topography of the land. Medler had been introduced to it while studying the effects of forest fires. Unlike satellite scans, lidar penetrates the tree canopy, making it possible to see where the ground has been disturbed. Mundorff and Medler realized that maybe they had found a solution. Excited by the possibilities, they wanted to team up on a study immediately, but lidar was expensive. To do real experiments they’d need funding and the support of a research facility. They looked for open grants but were unsuccessful.

Finally, in 2009, Mundorff took a job as a professor at the University of Tennessee’s anthropology department and moved to Knoxville. Now she had the resources, the land, and the support of an internationally renowned institution. She called Medler and told him that they were going to test their theory. Medler was thrilled; he would consult from afar.

As soon as Mundorff arrived in Tennessee, she began doing the spadework for the lidar project while also working on a study examining the DNA in skeletal remains. Six months in, she got an email from a prospective graduate student named Katie Corcoran who had been using lidar on archaeological sites; Corcoran wanted to apply the same technology to finding mass grave sites. “I was blown away because she literally pitched our idea right back at me,” Mundorff says.

To begin the study, Mundorff would need a fresh piece of land. The center had recently acquired an adjacent property, which was quickly designated for the project. Ten bodies were ready, gifts from donors who wanted to help advance forensic science. There was just one hurdle: The new property needed fences—one for privacy and a barbed-wire one for security. This didn’t prove so easy. For three years, approvals sat snagged in university red tape. Mundorff was frustrated. At last, in February 2013, the fences went up, and by Valentine’s Day, the burial site was ready to receive the bodies.

Mundorff and her team were primarily looking at how decomposition changes the chemical content of the soil and nearby vegetation. This is the reason it had been important to secure new land, away from where other cadavers had decayed. If the extra nitrogen emitting from the corpses went into the soil, theoretically it would fertilize plants, resulting in subtle cues over the burial site—the plants would be greener and taller than the surrounding vegetation because they’d thrive in the aerated nitrogen-rich soil. That fine contrast—potentially not discernible by people traveling through a jungle on foot—might be detectable with lidar.

Mundorff and her team have another theory they’re testing using thermal imaging technology. Because decomposition creates a lot of thermal energy, imaging equipment can help identify areas where “something warm is going on,” Mundorff says. Last fall, a partnering colleague from Oak Ridge National Laboratory set up $150,000 worth of thermal equipment on the property. With temperature probes in the ground, a giant camera took pictures at five-minute intervals, allowing researchers to see the changes in temperature overnight. On the first night, Mundorff and Corcoran camped out at the center, their sleeping bags spread out on desks. They didn’t want anything to happen to the equipment. (What if it rained?) They ordered takeout Mexican and set an alarm to go off every hour so they could stumble through the dark woods to check on the camera. “Katie carried the spider stick,” says Mundorff. “She has no fears.”

The Future of Forensic Science

Today, data from the experiment is just beginning to accumulate. But what Mundorff and Corcoran suspect—and hope the experiment confirms—is that graves with multiple bodies emit more heat than those with fewer. (The empty grave is the control, representing a place where there might be a hole but no bodies.) “There are hidden graves all over the world, and a good number of them are in areas that are still dangerous,” says Mundorff. “Being able to detect them remotely is a first step in recovering the bodies and returning them to the families—and in collecting evidence if there are going to be criminal prosecutions.”

Over the next three years, about a dozen researchers and graduate students will continue monitoring the four graves. If things go as planned, the project will assist countries trying to recover from the losses of hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of people. Human rights investigators are searching for genocide victims in Argentina, Cyprus, Bolivia, Guatemala, Uganda, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and beyond. Steadman hopes the center can play a role in helping families find their loved ones. Bass, for his part, intends to remain part of the effort by donating his own remains to the body farm. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and I don’t see why I should stop when I die. If the students can learn something from my skeleton, well that’s OK with me.” He’s not alone in this hope. Nearly 3300 people from all 50 states and six different countries have registered to join him.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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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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