So. I wanna tell you a story. About a man named Will King, NYPD detective—like me. King investigated the 1928 disappearance and presumed death of 10-year-old Grace Budd, who left her home to attend a birthday party and never returned.
There wasn’t much to go on. In fact, there was nothing at all. No body. No eyewitnesses. No physical evidence of any kind. Little Grace was just gone. And so no arrest was made for a full two years until Charles Edward Pope was accused of the murder by his estranged wife, who claimed to have witnessed incriminating evidence. But since there was nothing for a jury but Mrs. Pope’s word, Charles was found not guilty in December, 1930, and released after 108 days in jail—whereupon I’m sure he had quite a few words for his wife.
For a time, it seemed like that would be the end of it. But in 1934, four years after the trial and six years after the murder, Grace’s mother received an anonymous letter purportedly from the killer which described in bald tone how he had enticed the girl into his room on the pretense of needing help, how he had quickly removed his clothes on her way up the stairs so as not to get her blood on them, how he had strangled her and butchered her body, and how he had eaten it, roasted in the oven, over a period of nine days. The note ended with the “reassurance” that the girl had died a virgin.
Mrs. Budd was illiterate and had to have her eldest son read the letter to her, whereupon she handed it over to the police. Although there was nothing distinguishing about the page, it had been delivered in an envelope that was marred in one corner. Once dampened and viewed under a magnifying glass, the mark revealed an emblem containing the letters N.Y.P.C.B.A., for the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association. After interviewing the Association’s employees, Detective King discovered a janitor who admitted to stealing some stationary, although he claimed to have left it in an apartment he had rented on East 52nd. The landlady of the house provided King with the names of all her recent tenants, whereupon—much to his surprise—he recognized one.
Albert Fish was a real grandfatherly type. He had a bit of a shamble to his walk. He was warm and soft-spoken. He was himself a father of six and visibly delighted in his youngest grandson. He read the Bible and could quote it prodigiously. By all accounts, a liked and respected man, and at 68 years old, with a head of gray hair and that shambling gait, he was the picture of harmlessness. Without a shred of physical evidence to link him to the murder, Fish had been quickly exonerated, despite that he had actually been the last to see Grace Budd alive, when he accompanied her to the birthday party with her mother’s blessing.
The landlady informed Detective King that Fish had been receiving money from his son, and that he was due one more check, which had arrived, so the policeman waited outside the room until his quarry came to collect the letter, whereupon King asked the soft-spoken old man to accompany him to the station for questioning. Fish agreed, but as soon as Detective King turned, the doting, Bible-reading, gray-haired father of six produced a razor blade and tried to slice King’s neck open. He failed and was subdued and arrested and brought to trial.
After the arrest, Albert Fish claimed to have committed close to a hundred murders in a number of different states, although he was only ever linked to nine and was only ever convicted of one—that of Grace Budd, for which he received the electric chair. Prior to the trial, he admitted to experiencing a pair of involuntary ejaculations while he dismembered the body, and since it could never be proved whether he had eaten her or not, the motive was described as sexual and no account of the supposed cannibalism was given to the jury.
But what is true beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the kind and elderly Albert Fish, who spent all that time reading the Bible, regularly heard the voice of God commanding him to torture people “with implements of Hell.” What’s true is that he liked to beat himself with a nail-studded board and to stick wool soaked in lighter fluid in his anus, where he would light it on fire. What’s true is that he liked to stick needles in his scrotum. And to leave them there. An X-ray revealed more than two dozen were present at the time of his arrest—so many that the electric chair shorted in the middle of his execution and kind old Albert Fish had to wait in excruciating agony while they reset the switches and finished the job.
I imagine Detective King was changed by that case. I would’ve been. I bet he was changed by the knowledge that he’d had the killer from the start and had let him go. I bet he never again made the mistake of presuming innocence just because the alternative was inconceivable. I bet he recognized that the only difference between solved and unsolved was perseverance. I bet he was proud of the fact that he’d finally caught Grace Budd’s killer and seen him punished. I bet it never made up for all the others who got away.
Why am I telling you this?
Because despite what you see on TV, or hear from the government, that’s hardly ever how it goes. And I don’t just mean about cannibalism and needles in scrotums. I mean about who gets caught and who gets away.
If you believe the official statistics, just under 2/3 of all murders in this country are solved.
If you believe the official statistics.
But there’s some flexibility, you see, in what gets logged as “solved.” And the aggregate numbers hide a big difference between major metropolitan areas, like New York and Chicago, and the rest of the nation. If you live in a big city, a better rule of thumb is about half.
One out of every two murderers is never caught—which means you probably know one, even though it’s inconceivable to contemplate.
The difference, of course, is perseverance. And maybe a little luck.
But then, I swear, some bodies want to be found.
Take the corpse of one Craig Leach of Trenton, New Jersey. Mr. Leach owned a tattoo parlor in SoHo and had his face blown out the back of his head by a large caliber revolver. As with the Grace Budd case, there wasn’t much to go on. No eyewitnesses. No hint of a motive, although the personal, violent nature of the death—Forensics said the barrel couldn’t have been more than a foot or two away—suggested someone had genuinely reviled the man. Not that it was hard to understand why. Leach ran around under the alias Damien Rops and accumulated quite the rap sheet, including several arrests for drugs, one for rape, which was later dismissed on lack of evidence, and one for fraud that was sealed by the court. Case notes by the arresting officer suggested Leach might also have owned a large stash of child pornography, and that several witnesses claimed he had been asking around about snuff films and ritual sacrifice.
I’m sure the killer thought that was the end of it. The body, after all, had been disposed of in a most peculiar way. It had been sealed in a drum tagged as part of a shipment of radioactive hospital waste—nuclear medicine is a big producer these days—set to be buried for all eternity on a reservation in the Great White North before it was spread over a highway in New Brunswick. The truck carrying the shipment was struck by another semi at high speed. Both drivers were killed. And there in the middle of the wreckage was the faceless corpse of Mr. Leach, resting in a puddle of toxic biomedical sludge and covered in KitKats, which had broken from their pallets in the back of the oncoming semi.
Since the corpse had been rotting in a drum for three to six months, we couldn’t get a precise date of death. All we got from the body was a single fragment of a .357-caliber round that had lodged itself inside the man’s skull. It was too small for a full ballistics analysis, but there was enough for a partial match to 42 weapons in the system. Of course, the gun could’ve been from someone’s private collection. But violence tends to beget violence. And anyway you have to run with what you have.
Of the 42 partials, thirteen were listed as impounded or destroyed. Yours truly was trying to find a connection between the other 29 and Mr. Leach—just one of eight active homicides I was working—when a package was plopped onto my desk. Padded manila envelope. Shipping label. Bogus return address. Plain, unmarked VHS tape inside.
And that’s how everything started.
This might be the new opening to Bonewhite, the third course of my forthcoming occult mystery.
Sculpture by May Von Krogh