Shallow grave

New Scientist, 29 April 2000

ON THE evening of 29 May 1973, Leesa Jo Shaner drives to the airport in Tucson, Arizona, to pick up her husband, Gary. He's returning from a tour of duty with the US Air Force in Okinawa. With his flight due to arrive at 10.15 pm, Leesa sets out in her father's car at 9.25. At 10.30, Gary phones home from the airport to say she hasn't arrived.

Leesa's father, Jim Miller, figures she's had car trouble. So he drives to the airport, keeping an eye out for her along the way. Once there, he searches everywhere, even the women's washrooms, and asks every staff member in the terminal if they've seen her. No one has.

About half an hour later, father and husband find her car in the parking lot. One window is partly rolled down, and Leesa's open purse is on the back seat. Her money is untouched. Her car keys and parking stub are missing.

At home, a party is under way to celebrate Gary's homecoming. Leesa had lived in Okinawa with Gary until just before the birth of their second child only six weeks earlier. Their infant son and his two-year-old sister are waiting at home for them now.

The family never see Leesa again. Three and a half months later, her remains are found in a shallow grave about 90 kilometres south-east of Tucson airport, in a remote part of a federal military base called Fort Huachuca. Only Leesa's bones and a few items of jewellery remain. No one has been charged with the murder.

Those are the bare facts, the ones retired FBI special agent Tom Weber brings to us over lunch. We are gathered on the 11th floor of the ornate Public Ledger Building in Philadelphia. After Weber introduces the case, the chicken and asparagus is served. Fancy waiters inquire delicately, "White or red?", by which they mean lemonade or iced tea.

The room is stuffed with experts. "One of the individuals in attendance today may take a look at the evidence and say there's a lead here," says Weber. There are psychologists and forensic scientists, handwriting analysts and homicide cops. Many of them wear a distinctive red, white and blue rosette, indicating their membership of the elite society that is meeting today to try to crack this unsolved crime.

The Vidocq Society (pronouced "vee-duck") is named in honour of Eugène François Vidocq, the 19th-century French criminal-turned-cop who was the inspiration for several fictional characters, including Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean and Honoré de Balzac's Vautrin. Vidocq is considered by many to be the father of modern criminal investigation (see "The thin blue line"). Like Vidocq himself, the society aims to use its formidable forensic and investigative skills to solve crimes that others have given up on. A quorum of the 82 members -- one for each year of Vidocq's life -- get together once every two months to re-examine unsolved murders.

My table is filled with retired FBI special agents and their wives. Someone tells me the unofficial history of the Vidocq Society. Bill Fleisher, a legendary FBI agent, who I'm told has nabbed more felons than anyone else in the history of the Philadelphia police department, was at a "murder mystery weekend" party with his buddy Frank Bender, a forensic reconstruction artist. Together with a third friend, Richard Walter, a forensic psychologist, they got to thinking: what would happen if a bunch of us got together like this to solve real crimes?

So that's what we're doing here, pondering the real-life case of Leesa Jo Shaner. Over pudding, Sergeant Don Cahill, a homicide detective with the Prince William County police department in Virginia, gets up to speak. Cahill is a big, avuncular man with yellow-tinted glasses and a talent for telling a story. He's so friendly it's hard to believe he's spent his career outwitting murderers. Over the years, that's meant everything from going undercover as a member of a biker gang to washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant. Or just sitting it out in a cell with a suspect until he makes a fatal slip. "You've got to have a strong bladder," Cahill tells me later.

He combs back through the details of the Shaner case. It's May 1973. A tall, slim, blonde 22-year-old woman drives to the airport to pick up her husband. At 10.30 pm, the husband calls to say she hasn't arrived. The family come to look for her but find only the car.

When the vehicle is dusted for fingerprints, a palmprint is found on the hood. Leesa's father -- who, not incidentally, is himself an FBI special agent -- says he washed the car that afternoon. Still, after extensive inquiries, no one can be found to match the print.

There are no reports of an altercation in the parking lot. No one questioned by Leesa's father has seen Leesa. Later, though, a security guard admits to having seen her walk into the airport terminal, and he even identifies her from a set of photos.

A few days after Leesa's disappearance, an elderly Hispanic woman contacts the police. Maybe it's nothing, she says, but at 10.30 on the evening Leesa went missing, she was sitting on her front porch and saw a girl try to escape from a van. The girl cried, "Mother help me!" but two white men dragged her back inside. Another white man was at the wheel. The old woman lives just south of the airport -- en route, as it turns out, to the place where Leesa's bones are later found.

Some five weeks after Leesa's disappearance, on 6 July, her father gets a collect call at work from an unknown male. The man tells Miller he knows who killed Leesa "Kaner", but is uncomfortable talking on an FBI line. He asks for Miller's home number so he can ring later. He never does. The call is traced to a Detroit phone booth, and when the voice is analysed it is said to belong to a sincere, black male. A front-page appeal in the Detroit Free Press leads to nothing.

On 16 September 1973, 110 days after Leesa Jo Shaner disappeared, her skeletal remains are found in a shallow grave in a dry stream bed at Fort Huachuca. The bones have been disturbed by coyotes, and the flesh has been eaten or dried out in the Arizona sun. There is no bone damage, so no clues as to how she might have died. There are a few bullet casings lying around, but this is a remote corner of the base used for target practice. Thousands of military personnel live on the base, and prints are checked for every last one. Hundreds of people who left the base that weekend are investigated. Anyone with even the hint of a sexually deviant past is interrogated. Still no leads.

Then in 1993, twenty years to the day after his daughter's disappearance, Jim Miller gets a mysterious greeting card from Tucson. It's got a stock photo and caption, which reads: "Known to each other only as "X" and "Q", the two agents often arranged inconspicuous rendezvous in public places." Inside, the card continues: "I'd love to tell you all the exciting things I've been up to, but if I did, I'd have to kill you." To this, someone -- who has never been identified -- adds "Dear X, didn't you recognise me? Q." The card is mailed to Miller's new address, and is addressed in clumsy German to "J. Müeller".

It's ten years before this, in 1983, that Cahill first hears about the Shaner case. He's having lunch in a popular law-enforcement hangout in Triangle, Virginia, the Globe and Laurel, owned by his friend Rick Spooner. He mentions a homicide he's working on, a 42-year-old woman, shot dead, found behind an elementary school in a shallow grave. Spooner tells him he should have a chat with the fellow in the corner from Tucson, a psychologist working on the Shaner case.

Cahill is intrigued. He already has a suspect in mind for his homicide. He found him by sifting through 20 000 applications for accommodation in a block known as the Oakwood Apartments in Alexandria, Virginia. The dead woman's friends said she met a guy in a bar who lived there. Cahill did an FBI check on 31 of the applicants and one matched the set of partial fingerprints left in the dead woman's apartment. Interestingly, the owner of the fingerprints, Gregory Barker, once lived in Tucson.

The two men talk, and the connections get stronger. "The way the body was found is exactly the way our body was found, other than our body had her hands tied, and we could show she was shot in the back of the head because we found a bullet hole," says Cahill. Because Cahill is closing in on Barker, he's made it his business to know everything about the man. An only child, Army brat, spent a few school years in Germany. Joined the Army, trained in Army intelligence, saw two tours of duty in Vietnam.

Cahill recalls one other significant detail: in the early 1970s, Barker was working as a civilian at Fort Huachuca. In fact, his main work took place just a few kilometres from where Leesa's body was found. Cahill checks the record and finds that while the Army claims to have interviewed all the people working on the base at the time of Leesa's death, somehow Barker has escaped being interrogated.

Cahill thinks Barker is the man. "We can physically put him there on the day of the murder," he says. After Barker is convicted in 1992 for a series of bank robberies and for the murder of the Virginia woman, Cahill tries to get him to confess to murdering Leesa too, but he won't talk.

Barker is in one of the meanest prisons in the US, in Florence, Colorado -- "the most secure of secure prisons", says Cahill. The convicts live three floors underground and they're either locked up or working. Barker lives like a prisoner of war. He gets no mail, no visitors. Except from Cahill. "I'm biding my time. I send him a postcard once in a while, to let him know I'm still out there, still interested in talking."

The Vidocq members lean forward in their chairs as the coffee is poured. Someone asks about the handprint on the car -- was it Barker's? No, says Cahill. The husband's? No. Has the husband been eliminated as a suspect? Could he have set this up? Where is he today? Cahill replies that Gary Shaner relocated to the West Coast, remarried some years later, and has stayed in close contact with Leesa's family. He was never a serious suspect.

Barker went to school in Germany. Could he have sent the card with the bad German? Cahill is doubtful. By 1993, when the card was sent, Barker was already in prison. Cahill reminds us that there is no record of Barker having sent a letter to anyone. But has anyone tested the licked flap of the envelope for DNA? Someone offers to do the testing in his lab in Boston.

Was there soft tissue on Leesa's body that could be analysed? No tissue at all, says Cahill. Were her bones entombed or cremated? Cahill isn't sure, but agrees the bones or photos of the bones should be re-examined. "It would be good to have a forensic anthropologist look at those bones," he says. "They could see something an ordinary cop couldn't." He urges people to look at copies of the autopsy, pictures of the bones, anything from the crime scene. "The more you know about how that person died, the more you can question the suspect."

Did Leesa work? Yes, she had a clerical job in Okinawa. Had Barker ever been to Okinawa? Could he have met Leesa there? Interesting question. Barker may have passed through on his way home from Vietnam, says Cahill, and could have met either Gary or Leesa. But there is no evidence that he did.

The parking stub was dated and timed. Why did it go missing, do you think? What could the motive have been for the murder? Did the father have enemies?

The coffee cups are cleared away with a clatter. A few members shake hands and hustle back to work. Others linger around the podium. "She wouldn't have gone into the airport without her handbag," says one woman to Cahill. "The security guard must be wrong. Has he been checked out?"

The meeting is over. I feel glum. They have so little to go on. Yet in its ten-year history the Vidocq Society has managed to solve a handful of "cold case" homicides -- the ones the police have given up on and filed away.

Sometimes all a case needs is the fresh scrutiny of outsiders. In 1992, Vidocq was asked to consider the case of Deborah Lynn Wilson, a student whose beaten and strangled body was found eight years earlier in a basement hallway at Drexel University in Philadelphia. There was neither a suspect nor a motive. Vidocq members reviewed the files and were intrigued by the fact that the victim was barefoot: was anyone at the university on record as having a foot fetish? Their suggestion led investigators to a campus security guard once court-martialled for stealing women's footwear. He was convicted in 1995 of Wilson's murder.

Then there was the case of 24-year-old Scott Dunn from Lubbock, Texas. He was missing and presumed dead for over a year. Scott's father, Jim, started to suspect the girlfriend Scott had been living with. In addition to her strange behaviour -- telling Scott's dad she was worried "something had happened to him", for instance, but telling his employer he'd gone off with another woman -- traces of Scott's blood were splattered all over the flat they'd been sharing. According to Texas law, a person can't be charged for murder if there's no body, but Walter, and Frank Friel, a Vidocq Society member and former cop, stepped in. They reckoned that Scott's blood could amount to a body, and helped by Scotland Yard, proved that enough of it spattered the apartment that he could not have survived the attack. The girlfriend was convicted in 1997.

In Leesa's case though, time is running out. Her father, Jim Miller, is dying of cancer. Before he goes, he wants to know what happened to his daughter. A roomful of files in Phoenix, Arizona, and over 25 years of searching have led nowhere. Miller has even written a letter to Barker -- who is still in jail -- and asked FBI friends to make sure he gets it. "All I need is closure," he says.

Miller lives with a nagging fear that maybe his position as an agent had something to do with Leesa's death. "Part of the speculation was that this was retaliation against me," he says. He spent eight years in Central and South America with the FBI. "I made a lot of enemies." Even the call from Detroit got him wondering. Not long before Leesa died he'd run a raid on a group of soldiers who'd gone AWOL from Fort Huachuca, and some of them had been from Detroit.

Or maybe it was just something Leesa let slip. "She may have made the mistake of saying, `My father is an FBI agent. He'll get you'." Vidocq is still hoping he will.

Thin blue line

EUGÈNE François Vidocq (1775-1857) spent most of his early life thieving. Though sentenced to prison a few times for petty crimes, he never stayed long, as he was a skilled jailbreaker.

Vidocq believed that in order to catch criminals, you had to be one. When he was 34, the French authorities began to see things his way and welcomed him in the fight against crime. He founded the Police de Sûreté, the world's first detective bureau, where he orchestrated a network of spies and informers. His arrest rate was legendary.

During his career, he introduced many of the procedures that have since become a standard part of forensic science. He was the first to keep detailed records on criminals and their habits. He introduced handwriting analysis, fingerprint identification and plaster impressions of feet and shoes. He used the science of ballistics. He cultivated informers. He personally held patents on indelible ink and unalterable bond paper. He was also a master of disguise and surveillance.

He felt strongly that criminality was caused by poverty and that criminals could be reformed. Sadly, he failed to live up to that ideal and was dismissed in 1832 for a heist that he allegedly organised. Resourceful as ever, he set up a private investigation firm, and continued to tread the thin blue line between the right and wrong sides of the law.