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The Twilight Zone

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This story originally appeared in print in the November 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

For Rod Serling, TV was the perfect landscape to battle bigotry and corporate censorship. But was the nation ready for it?

In the late 1950s, Rod Serling found himself sitting in a London airport tired and ready to go home. As he waited to board his flight, he spotted something eerie. Across the room stood his doppelgänger: a man who looked to be his same height, sporting the same coat and carrying the exact same cowhide briefcase. It blew his mind. As the award-winning TV writer tried to catch a glimpse of his double’s face, a strange thought hit him: What if, through some glitch in the universe, he was watching another version of himself?

“I kept staring and staring,” Serling recalled, “with this funny, ice-cold feeling that, if he turns around and it’s me, what do I do?” Eventually, the gentleman did turn around. He was a decade younger and, Serling joked, far better looking. But the experience was too uncanny to forget.

As a writer, Serling made his name toying with unsettling concepts, which made him a critical darling. His 1956 teleplay, Requiem for a Heavyweight, had garnered numerous awards, an Emmy among them. But corporate sponsors didn’t find his work appealing. Always looking to skirt controversy, they preferred to work within the confines of formulaic Westerns and bland sitcoms. Serling wanted none of that. He thought TV should probe deeper, believing it could address big concerns: social injustice, bigotry, mortality. In 1959, he got the chance to do just that, using that strange airport experience as the kindling for his legendary science fiction TV series, The Twilight Zone. The series would be a double itself, a serious exploration of politics and ethics disguised as harmless sci-fi. The question was whether he could get away with it.

Even as a teenager, Serling had been a social activist. Growing up in Binghamton, New York, he was editor of the high school newspaper, injecting social commentary in between box scores. Fighting in World War II only galvanized his mission. Stationed in the Philippines with a demolition platoon, he witnessed horror firsthand. Serling left the island consumed by a hatred for war, and he brought back a souvenir: a piece of shrapnel in his knee that bled spontaneously for the rest of his life.

At home, Serling struggled for direction. “I didn’t really know what the hell I wanted to do with my life,” his daughter Anne quotes him as saying in her book, As I Knew Him. He eventually registered as a phys-ed major at Antioch College and tried to fit in. But he kept noticing discrimination. When he noticed that a local barbershop refused to cut the hair of African-Americans, he insisted that his friends stop patronizing it.

Meanwhile, Serling found what seemed to be his calling: manning the microphone of the campus radio station, where he wrote scripts, directed, and acted. By his senior year, he was doing weekly shows. One of his scripts would win a national radio contest.

Writing became Serling’s way to deal with the psychological scars of war. Plagued with nightmares, he wrote and sold scripts to radio companies, which eventually led to television gigs. His early work was taut and uncompromising, doggedly pursuing questions about morality and inequality. He thought that TV, film, and radio should be “vehicles of social criticism.” The trouble was, exploring prejudice on TV was nearly impossible. Corporate sponsors ritually censored and watered down his teleplays. When one script about the lynching of a young black man was turned into a popcorn western, Serling became furious. In his words, all the networks wanted was to showcase “dancing rabbits with toilet paper.”

Despite the censorship, Serling had nabbed three Emmys by 1957. But he was also exhausted by the constant battles for creative control, so he returned to an idea he’d had back in his college radio days. Inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and the pulp stories of his youth—writing that couched complex messages in pure fantasy—he wrote an hour-long teleplay called The Time Element, in which a distressed American has recurring dreams that he’s transported to 1941 to warn of the pending attack on Pearl Harbor. He consults a psychiatrist, who tries to diffuse his anxiety. Suddenly, the patient stops showing up and, in one of Serling’s trademark twists, the psychiatrist learns the distressed man died in the attack 15 years earlier.

CBS was lukewarm on the script, and The Time Element seemed destined to rot in the network’s archives. But in November 1958, a producer who wanted to air something by Serling plucked the episode from storage. When it ran, more than 6,000 glowing letters flooded in.

The execs took the hint. Soon after, the network asked Serling to write more stories like it for a new series. At last, Serling’s dream was coming true: The Twilight Zone was born. The title, aviation lingo for the point where a pilot can no longer see the horizon, had a double meaning. For Serling, it represented the point where executives could no longer see his true intentions. The spooky show would be a smokescreen for exploring themes like racism, government corruption, and persecution. Anne recalls her father musing that “an alien could say what a Democrat or Republican couldn’t.”

As he worked 12- to 14-hour days seven days a week, Serling’s ashtray overflowed. His smoking habit made his fingers too stiff and cold to type, so instead, he kicked his feet onto his desk and dictated into a recorder. He made different voices for different characters, reciting camera directions and marking punctuation. The scripts quickly piled up. In the afternoons, Serling visited the set in Culver City and wandered the MGM backlot for more inspiration. The studios housed every setting imaginable, from Martian landscapes to barren wastelands.

The 1959 pilot episode, “Where Is Everybody?,” set the tone for the series. In it, an astronaut finds himself dropped in a deserted town, and the unfolding story slowly reveals that he’s part of an experiment testing whether astronauts can handle the isolation of long-term space travel without cracking. Hours after a private screening, General Foods and Kimberly-Clark agreed to back the series. Serling’s Trojan horse was off to the races.

The Twilight Zone premiered Friday, October 2, 1959, at 10 p.m. Almost immediately, angry letters poured in—not from offended viewers, but from parents who were irritated that their kids were staying up late to watch the show. “Every week you looked forward to a different kind of realization and shock,” says author Mark Olshaker, who was 10 when the series debuted (he would later consult with Serling on a biography). “You knew you were going to get something that was going to make you think. On Monday morning, that’s what you would talk about.”

It wasn’t just kids. Adults were captivated by the fantasies, the themes, and especially the ironic endings that made the series famous. As civil rights debates exploded, the episodes mirrored newspaper headlines. In “I Shot an Arrow Into the Air,” three astronauts crash-land on a strange alien landscape. Without laws or consequences, one of them regresses to animal instincts and murders the others. The survivor’s fate? Accountability. (They had landed in the Nevada desert.) In “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a neighborhood devolves under suspicion that someone might be an alien invader. In the end, none are—but real aliens observe the chaos from above, musing that mankind is all too quick to destroy itself. Attentive viewers realized the only thing black-and-white about The Twilight Zone was its cinematography. Fan clubs sprang up in most states, with members christening themselves “Zonies.”

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow famously dubbed TV a “vast wasteland,” but he made an exception for Serling’s show. The title even entered the popular vernacular: When boxer Archie Moore was KO’d in a 1961 match, he told reporters, “Man, I was in the Twilight Zone!” By 1962, the show had made a huge dent in popular culture. Serling released a collection of short stories based on the series, and it sold more than a million copies. Before long, a Twilight Zone board game, comics, and a record appeared on the market.

Despite all the success, the show still hadn’t won over the network. CBS president James Aubrey continued to chop away at the show’s budget, convinced it was eating up too much money. Meanwhile, Serling refused to compromise and often dipped into his own pockets. By season three, Aubrey was pinching so many pennies that he insisted that six episodes be shot on videotape rather than film. The quality would be a jarring contrast to the film-noir feel the crew was careful to keep consistent. Serling was so angry he threatened to resign. (He was bluffing.)

It was clear that Serling was losing control. One sponsor called CBS repeatedly, demanding to know what Serling was really getting at: He sensed a deeper layer but couldn’t articulate exactly what it was. Serling, for his part, was making his points more obvious. (In an audacious move for the era, he cast three black actors in leading roles in “The Big Tall Wish.”)

As ratings idled and sponsor suspicions grew, the network effectively canceled the show in spring 1962. But then, in a bizarre twist, it was resurrected when CBS realized it had no solid replacement. It renewed the show and expanded its time slot from half an hour to an hour.

But messing with the formula was a mistake. At an hour long, the show lost its crucial tension. Ratings plummeted, and though a fifth season was ordered, it was clear the show was running on fumes. When CBS finally let the axe fall in early 1964, Serling held a tongue-in-cheek wake, complete with a tombstone, on the MGM soundstage. “He thought it had run its course,” Anne says. Dejected, Serling told journalists he thought The Twilight Zone would be forgotten in short order.

Burgess Meredith, here in "Time Enough at Last," was also featured with Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. Photo courtesy of Alamy.

This wasn’t a good prediction. While the void left by Zone was indeed filled with vapid sitcoms— like 1964’s megahit Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.— something about Serling’s ability to weave cultural commentary into popular entertainment would captivate viewers for decades to come. The Twilight Zone’s O. Henry–esque twists became pop culture staples: gut-punch scenes, like the climax in “Time Enough at Last” (in which an introverted bank teller longing to be left alone with his books finds himself the lone survivor of an atomic blast that has mercifully spared most of the books in the nearby public library; unfortunately, he ends up shattering his glasses and can’t read without them) would become timeless TV tropes—even parodied on The Simpsons. The show had proved that audiences were just as willing to consume ideas as they were slapstick, which opened the doors for shows like M*A*S*H, which padded entertainment with rich, powerful messages.

“Almost any writer, when you ask who influenced them, will say Rod Serling,” says TV critic Mark Dawidziak. That includes J.J. Abrams, who gushed over Serling’s allegory in Wired in 2007, and Stephen King, who, in a chapter in his memoir Danse Macabre writes: “Of all the dramatic programs which have ever run on American TV, it is the one which comes closest to defying any overall analysis. It was its own thing, and in large part that fact alone seems to account for the fact that a whole generation is able to associate the Serling program with the budding of the sixties ... at least, as the sixties are remembered.” Unfortunately, Serling, who passed away in 1975, wouldn’t live to watch his influence spread. 

At one point, Serling recalled the incident with his would-be double at the London airport and said that it was typical of “the kind of story you’ll be seeing on The Twilight Zone.” Of course, that was not entirely true. There was no one kind of Twilight Zone story. The thread was simply that each episode held a mirror to society and compelled viewers to question both their own preconceptions and the wisdom of the powers that be. Serling was just reflecting on the era: the tumult of civil rights, the Vietnam War, and a surging counterculture. 

With Zone, viewers found a show that not only grappled with messy topics, but also tried to provide answers. “To my generation that came of age in the ’60s, the show was amazingly important,” Olshaker says. “[We were] idealistic enough to believe anything is possible and cynical enough to believe nothing is true. Twilight Zone was one of the seminal forces in that realization. It opened up possibilities of imagination, of social consciousness, but also realities of evil and prejudice.”

As for the question of the doppelgänger, perhaps Serling realized he could be two people at once: one who could entertain and one who could provoke. Maybe his fifth dimension wasn’t fantasy. Maybe it was a way for television to face reality. 

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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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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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