Profilers warm to killer's trail
By DAVID BALLINGRUD, Times Staff Writer
PHILADELPHIA -- After a convivial lunch and dessert in the comfortable, walnut-paneled Down Town Club here Thursday, two small-town Florida police officers stood before the roomful of people and asked for help.
Twelve years ago, they said, a skinny 11-year-old girl and a 32-year-old woman were brutally slain and assaulted during a home invasion in sleepy Cape Coral, a residential community near Fort Myers.
Now the trail is cold, they said.
Can you help us? they asked.
For two hours, an unusual group of detectives called the Vidocq Society went to work. They pored over crime scene photos, debated one another and asked a torrent of questions.
By the end of the afternoon, they said, a psychological portrait of a long-elusive killer was emerging, one that might help bring the monster to book.
And that's the idea.
The Vidocq Society was created in 1990, the same year Lisa Story and fifth-grader Robin Cornell were slain in Cape Coral.
The Society is named for Eugene Francois Vidocq (pronounced vee-DUCK), the 19th century founder of the Paris police department's first detective unit. Vidocq, something of a rakehell who had a few scrapes with the law, was a proponent of modern methods in crime solving. He is sometimes credited with being the inspiration for the detective Dupin in Edgar Allan Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue. The society was begun by William Fleisher, a former FBI agent now a polygraph expert; Frank Bender, an artist and forensic sculptor; and Richard Walter, a forensic psychologist.
"We started talking over lunch in a restaurant one day about the need for an organization like this," Walter said Thursday. "The next thing we knew it was dark outside."
The club has 82 full or voting members, one for each year Vidocq lived. In has 150 or so associate members. There are numerous professions represented -- attorneys, judges, profilers, coroners, psychologists, police detectives, blood spatter experts.
They are united, they say, by an interest in solving crimes and helping victims.
"We're a small, nonprofit organization with a very limited budget," spokesman Richard Lavinthal said. "But we are as public-spirited as any organization you will find."
Thursday's meeting began with a briefing on the events of May 9 and 10, 1990, by Cape Coral detectives Charles Garrett and Doug Christiansen.
Garrett said Robin Cornell's mom, Jan Cornell, left home at about 11 p.m. May 9 to spend a few hours with her boyfriend. Lisa Story, they said, was an acquaintance who had just moved in. She was left in charge of Robin that night.
They said they think a person or persons entered the townhouse through a sliding glass door, then climbed the stairs to the bedrooms.
They said they believe the killer or killers found Lisa Story first and quickly suffocated her with a pillow.
They said they think Robin heard a noise and came to investigate, and that she was silenced with blows to the face and then suffocated.
They said they believe that while ransacking the place, the killer found a pornographic magazine and a sex toy belonging to Story, and then violated the bodies of his victims.
"I have his DNA," Garrett said. "I just need to tap the right guy on the shoulder."
Society members were intrigued by the pornographic magazine, and by the fact the killer apparently perused it near the foot of Story's bed. It might have prompted his post-mortem burst of sexual violence, they said.
"It fits a certain deviant profile," said psychologist Walter. "In the minds of some killers, the murder isn't over until they say it is over. I hope the Cape Coral police will explore this fully."
The briefing prompted a host of questions:
Footprints in the bathroom suggested the killer might have taken a shower. Were the drain contents collected, someone asked. No, came the answer.
Was the neighborhood canvassed? Yes.
Were stolen credit cards used? No.
Were phone records carefully examined? Yes, but a better job could have been done, Garrett answered.
Toyota car keys were found on the scene. Were traffic records checked for possible stops of a Toyota around the time of the crime? Yes.
Lisa Story and Jan Cornell worked together at Cape Coral Hospital. Were those connections, and their friendships and relationships, thoroughly explored? Yes, Garrett said.
The questions were intense, but remained friendly. The Vidocq Society's relationship with the police is a sensitive one.
"Their trust is our most important asset," said Fred Bornhofen, Vidocq's chairman of the board. Most meetings, therefore, are held in secret. From time to time, if police see an advantage in it -- as in the current Florida case -- members of the media might be invited.
"We don't talk to the families," Bornhofen said. "We don't give progress reports. We just try to serve as a catalyst. We don't compromise the police or embarrass them. We just try to give them ideas."
Bornhofen spent time in military intelligence and is the retired director of security for Sun Oil Co. The society was started "to see if we could make a difference," he said.
There are some conditions. Crimes where the victim was engaged in risky activity, like prostitution or organized crime, are given a pass.
The society has solved about 15 percent of the 115 or so cases it has taken, Bornhofen said. "And solved means arrested, convicted and gone to jail. In another 30 or 40 percent of the cases we know who did the crime, but we can't get convictions."
At the end of the meeting, Cape Coral detective Garrett seemed pleased. The coming days and weeks, he said, should produce a lot of suggestions as society members ponder the case.
It will be nice, he said, to see the killer in front of a judge someday.
"I put my ego in my back pocket a long time ago on this case," Garrett said. "I'm not above making mistakes and I might have made one in this case. It will be good to have fresh eyes take a look at it."
A mother remembers
At 4 a.m. May 10, 1990, Jan Cornell awoke with a start on her boyfriend's couch. She had come over at 11 the night before to watch David Letterman on television, and the two had fallen asleep.
At some point, the boyfriend went to his bedroom; Cornell remained on the couch until she awoke. Seeing the time, she said she felt near-panic.
"I had to be at work at 4:30 a.m.," she recalled in an interview this week. "I was very late."
She drove the few blocks to her townhouse as fast as she dared.
The night before had been a busy one. Her friend Lisa Story had moved into the Cornell apartment -- some help with expenses was welcome -- and there were lots of boxes to move to Lisa's second-floor bedroom.
Cornell's daughter, an 11-year-old sprite named Robin, helped, as much as an 81-pound girl can help.
Cornell arrived at the Courtyard of Cape Coral in minutes. She felt the first shiver of uneasiness when her key would not open the front door of her two-story unit. The door had two locks -- a deadbolt, which worked, and another in the doorknob, which did not. One key opened them both.
Everyone, including Lisa, knew not to lock the doorknob lock, Cornell said. That night, the deadbolt opened, but the doorknob had been locked.
Cornell said she then became vaguely conscious of footsteps in the house, then more footsteps, "a lot of footsteps." But she acknowledges today that her memory of the footsteps is uncertain.
Something frightened her, though, and she ran the 20 or so paces to a patio at the side of the townhouse. There she saw the vertical blinds blowing through an open sliding glass door.
She stepped into the kitchen. The lights were on. She called the names of her daughter and her friend, noting a blast of cold air from a full-throttle air conditioner.
In the kitchen was an ironing board. On it, arranged in two neat rows, were photos of Robin and her older sister Jeni, who no longer lived at home. They had been taken from a nearby entertainment center, where they had been displayed.
"I felt sick. I knew something was very, very wrong," Cornell said. "I ran up the stairs, screaming Robin's name." On the way she stepped on bits of scattered jewelry, a crushed ring.
The next few minutes were a blur of horror and hysteria.
A glance past the open door of the guest room revealed Lisa, in bed, eyes closed, head hanging slightly off the bed's edge.
In her own room, in her own bed, Cornell found her daughter -- a child who two weeks earlier had asked when she would finally be old enough to kiss a boy -- cold and dead, her nightgown pulled up around her neck.
Both victims had been suffocated, apparently with pillows, police said, and had been sexually violated after death. In a final act of brutality, Robin's body had been posed.
"I knew she was dead," Cornell said, "she was cold, and rigor had already begun. I screamed for Lisa, thinking she might come and help."
Mother placed daughter on the floor and began CPR. "I was thinking, we believe in God ... why can't we have a miracle?"
Somehow, 911 was called, and the apartment quickly filled up with police and paramedics.
"I had been fighting for control, thinking I had to be able to help my daughter," Cornell said, "but when I saw one of the paramedics come down the stairs crying, that's when I started screaming."
Keeping a promise
Recovery from that night has come slowly.
"I slept my weekends away for three years," Cornell said. "People learned not to bother me. I would just sleep and think, sleep and think, trying to organize my thoughts.
"I didn't celebrate Christmas for six years. How could I without my little Christmas cheerleader?"
Fear and suspicion were everyday companions for years, and still make the occasional appearance.
"I couldn't take a shower without people in the house. I would sit so I could see all the doors in every room. I still can't sleep with my back to a door.
"I thought, maybe he's still out there. Maybe he's someone I know."
The boyfriend she visited the night of the homicide has become her husband. She has taken his name, but asked that she be identified as Cornell in this story out of concern for their safety.
She went to a psychic with members of Story's family, but didn't think much of the result. "It cost us a lot of money to feel dumber," she said.
She says she has struggled mightily with guilt for being away from home watching the tube with a boyfriend when the killer came.
"I know this for certain," she said with coldness in her voice. "If I had been there, Robin would not have been killed. I would have thrown her out the window to save her."
Cornell was not extended an invitation to Thursday's Vidocq Society meeting in Philadelphia, even though it took place because she asked the group to become involved.
"It's a hard and fast rule. We don't invite the families," said Bornhofen, Vidocq's board chairman. "It would have a chilling effect on the police presentation. Officers have to be able to speak frankly and not be concerned about the feelings of family members."
So Cornell spent Thursday at Cape Coral Hospital, where she has worked for 24 years, "thinking a lot, saying a lot of prayers, hoping for a miracle."
Over the years, she has nagged and prodded the Cape Coral police department and any other agency she could interest in the case. When they didn't move fast enough, or if the investigation seemed stalled, she went to the local newspapers for help.
"I know they thought I was a pain in the neck," she said.
And the investigation did stall.
Hundreds of people gave DNA samples, but no matches were found.
Leads dried up. New crimes were committed. New headlines were written. People moved on.
"Not me," she said forcefully. "Not me. I promised my daughter I would never stop looking (for her killer) and I won't."
Detective Garrett retires today. His presentation Thursday to the Vidocq Society was his last act as a Cape Coral police officer. The case now belongs to Detective Doug Christiansen, and Cornell worries that the investigation will suffer while he gets up to speed.
Meanwhile, she tends her memories.
Every weekend, "sometimes Saturday, sometimes Sunday, but every weekend bar none," little
Robin gets fresh flowers.
Robin's body today is above the ground, in a crypt at Memorial Gardens in nearby Fort Myers
"I put her high up," her mother said, "way high up ... where no one can ever touch her again."
Vidocq at a glance
Vidocq: the man
Eugene Francois Vidocq (1775-1857) was a roguish French detective considered by some "the father of modern criminal investigation." As a young man he served time in prison for petty offenses before joining forces with the state to create the French police de surete or security police. His background among thieves in Paris and elsewhere served him well in his new role, and in time Vidocq ran a squad of 28 detectives, all of whom were former criminals. A master of disguise and surveillance, Vidocq is credited with a number of crime-fighting innovations, including indexed record keeping, ballistics studies, and plaster of Paris casts of foot and shoe impressions. His exploits are said to figure in the writings of Herman Melville, Victor Hugo and Edgar Allan Poe.
The Vidocq Society
The Vidocq Society (www.vidocq.org) is a nonprofit organization of 82 forensics specialists -- "one for every year of Inspector Vidocq's life" -- who examine long-unsolved murders and major crimes. The society, which works pro bono to help police investigate carefully selected cases, meets periodically in Philadelphia's Public Ledger Building for a luncheon and case review. The work of the Vidocq Society has led to arrests and convictions in 15 percent of the 115 cases it has taken since its establishment in 1990. The organization also serves as a clearinghouse for inquiries on forensic issues.
From the case files
The society helped solve the murder of Deborah Lynn Wilson, a Drexel University student who was found beaten and strangled in a basement hallway without her shoes or socks in 1984. Consulted on the cold case eight years later, Vidocq experts suggested that Philadelphia police check their files for known foot fetishists and look for such a fetish among possible suspects. The cross-checking turned up a former security guard who had been court-martialed for stealing women's sneakers and socks. The guard, David Dickson Jr., was arrested and convicted of murder in 1995. In more recent cases, the society is looking into the unsolved 1996 stabbing death of Felicia Carson, a 33-year-old divorced mother of two from Tennessee; the 1991 killing of Kentucky farmer George Lollis, 42, who was found bludgeoned to death in his home; and now, the 1990 murders of Lisa Story, 32, and Robin Cornell, 11, of Cape Coral.
Sources: The Vidocq Society, Encyclopedia Britannica, New York Times
An unusual group of detectives investigates a Cape Coral double murder scene, 12 years and 1,200 miles removed.
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