It was not a typical Walsh family
outing.Translation: For once, I wasn't running late.
I was driving up the Florida Turnpike, headed into Orlando. I had one quick speech to make, but then I was meeting the family for a long weekend, and as I'm pulling off the highway onto the exit ramp, I'm thinking, let me make this a trip for the kids.
People tell me I can get awfully somber. When you deal with the world of death and violence and darkness, you always see the worst of humanity, and you get pretty morose about that without realizing it. So whenever I get home, I try to tell myself: You'd better put that all behind you, and start thinking about soccer and lacrosse and cheerleading and Rugrats and all the things your kids want you to think about. So that's what I'm trying to do on this trip. Keep it light. Get the speech out of the way, and try to turn back into a regular person for a while.
The gas gauge is low, and I know I'm going to forget about it once I get into town and get busy. I actually have a little time, so I pull off into a gas station. As I always do, I pick up the local paper. It's a habit I got into a long time ago -- whenever I travel, I like to read the local papers. It gives me a feel for where I am, who the people are, and what's going on in town.
And that's the first time I saw him. Staring up at me, from the front of the local section of the Orlando Sentinel. There was something about his eyes -- even in a back-and-white photo, you could make out that they were piercing blue, but behind that dull, mug-shot stare there was something more, something cold. After you've looked at a few thousand of these photos, you get to where you can read a lot into them. But there was something here I'd never seen before.
Then I looked over at the article, and saw what he'd done. And I gotta say, no matter how tough and macho you think you are; no matter how many people call you The Manhunter and tell you what a great asset you've been to crime fighting; No matter how many police reports you've read, how many forensic profiles you've studied, how many autopsy photos you've pored over -- Nothing prepares you for something like this. You become hyper-alert at these moments : The adrenaline starts pumping, you start sweating a little bit, your heart becomes strongly attuned. You smell the gasoline on the asphalt, hear the hum of the motor of the ice machine next to the mini- mart's front door, notice the missing hubcap of the car at the next pump.
I don't want this. Not now. But there was no way around it. The ugly, dark world that America's Most Wanted inhabits had somehow insinuated itself into this brilliant, shining Florida morning. As I was pulling away, I was turning over in my mind what I'd read.
The new article had one unusual fact: this vicious psychopath who had preyed upon an innocent family was no stranger to his victims. They knew him well, and until this moment, considered him a good friend. From what I read, I knew that this guy was probably already out of the state, meaning the local cops had virtually no chance of catching up to him.
I knew that we had to hunt this guy down. And fast. He was too dangerous to be out on the street. And now that he'd committed this horrible, horrible act -- possibly the most terrible act I'd heard of in my six years at America's Most Wanted -- now that he had done this, he had nothing to lose.
He was born Edward James on August 4, 1961, in Bristol, Pennsylvania, a small river town outside Philadelphia, but from the time he could speak, he believed his name was Edward Matlack. It wasn't until he was ten years old and looking through some family photos that he realized the man who was raising him was really his stepfather. His natural father had disappeared when he was two.
But shortly before Eddie's twelfth birthday, his dad showed back up on the scene. That's the first bad break in this story. Eddie wound up living with his dad for a while. While his mom kept a tight rein on Eddie, teaching him right from wrong, his dad was more of a party guy, trying to teach Eddie the ways of the world. "That's when I was introduced to drugs," Eddie says. His dad "told me what was going on, let me experience it and see what it was like."
It started off simply, with Eddie sampling the marijuana he says his dad shared with him. "He showed me how to roll a joint. Basically, he showed me everything that was going on, so I'd be aware and I'd know what to be careful to talk about." So with that twisted logic, Eddie says, his dad brought him into the world of drugs. And here's the sick irony: Eddie's dad was a drug counselor." He made a joke out of how he was a drug counselor and he did more drugs than the people he was counseling," Eddie remembered. Very funny.
Eddie was dumped back on his mom, Nancy, after a while. But she had her own problems. With her current marriage hitting the skids, she moved to Florida to be near her mother. They stayed at her mom's in Winter Park for a while, then wound up settling in the Orlando area, near a town called Casselberry. By now Eddie was in the ninth grade, and was having problems in school -- problems like not showing up. And when he did, the school psychologist reported that Eddie said he was having blackouts. "That's what he told them," said Nancy. "That he was having blackouts.
I don't know if that's true. It would help me to think that he did have some mental problem, to tell you the truth. It would help me to believe that that led him to do what he did." Nancy did all a mother could. She couldn't find a therapist to help her deal with her problem son -- "When you don't have money, there is no place" -- but begged and pleaded with a counselor at a local mental health clinic who agreed to see Eddie on the side, for free, twice a week. It did little good; Eddie kept getting more violent, more angry. His life by then was beginning to revolve around fighting and drugs. He'd graduated to angel dust -- but what he wouldn't graduate to was the twelfth grade. When told he would have to repeat his junior year of high school, Eddie dropped out.
When he turned seventeen, Eddie entered the army. You'd think that maybe the discipline of the army would help him get his head on straight -- but he was too far gone for that. He was stationed in Germany, in a town where drugs were easily accessible. For Eddie, it was a time to go wild. When someone would walk up to him and say, "Eddie, this stuff, can you get high off of this?" his standard reply was, "I dunno. Let me take some. Come back in an hour and I'll let you know."
It didn't take long for Eddie to earn a general discharge. The stated reason was "failure to conform." The admitted reason: drugs, alcohol, and fighting. So Eddie was turned loose back on the streets of Casselberry, Florida. When he was straight and sober, he made friends easily, getting people to believe he was on their side in whatever little struggle the day presented. But when he was stoned, he was like a vicious, caged animal. The demons that welled up inside him were waiting to pounce, to strike out in pure rage.
Now, I don't want you to think for a minute that I'm telling you about Eddie James's background because I want you to feel sorry for the guy. Lots of kids grow up without a father, and some experiment with drugs, without becoming a psychopathic lunatic. It's just that when I come across an animal like Eddie James, I have to wonder: How did he get like this? How did he reach a point where he has no regard for human life, for his own life, for anyone around him? Sure, Eddie James had some tough breaks. So what? We all have. He had a bad role model at a crucial point in his life, but he was taken out of that situation, and was back with a mother who cared about him, tried to discipline him, and, within her abilities, tried to make all the right moves.
In the end, you have to put the responsibility back on the individual. Eddie James was turning into a monster inside. And he'd feed the monster that was growing inside him. He'd feed it alcohol, angel dust, then later LSD, and crack. And the monster would speak to him: It would say, it's not your fault, Eddie. It's them. All of them. It's all their fault. The hell with them. The hell with them. He'd feed the beast in his belly, and it would comfort him: It's not your fault, Eddie. They're all assholes. They don't deserve to live.
That summer, Eddie was talking about going into business with his friend Tim Dick -- but there was a lot more talking than there was business. Eddie was a lot more interested in doing drugs and drinking than in looking for work, which is why their last business fell apart. Tim was living at his mom's house: That summer there were lots of family barbecues there, and Eddie was always invited. It was a big, warm, extended family, and it opened its arms to envelop Eddie James.
The matriarch of this big family was Betty Dick. After her husband died, she packed up the kids and moved to Casselberry, settling in a nice, light-blue, one-story three-bedroom house, set a good ten yards back from the sidewalk, with four tall trees jutting up from a mottled but well-trimmed front lawn. Betty had two of her kids and seven grandkids living just blocks away -- Tim, of course, was still living at home -- so on summer afternoons the house became a beehive of activity and laundry and laughter, always bustling with children running all over the place, screaming and horsing around and eating and squirting each other with hoses.
At the center of the action were two of Betty's grandkids, two beautiful blond girls: Wendi and Toni. Wendi was about as sweet as a nine-year-old could be, the kind of kid you never had to tell things twice. She and Toni, who was a year younger, would fight, like any sisters do, and they'd cover up for each other, like any sisters do. They were inseparable: In the midst of all the chaos at Grandma Betty's, you'd look around for Toni and you'd find Wendi, and vice versa. Wendi was the more outgoing of the two; she was the mixer.
It was summer, but Wendi was already fretting about her birthday. She had every child's most dreaded birthday -- December 24, which meant she always got shorted when it came to birthday and Christmas presents. One day she asked Grandma Betty if they could switch birthdays. Grandma, of course, said yes. She would do anything for her grandkids; something as trivial as this was nothing at all. Toni was the shyer of the two, although she had a tiny streak of mischief about her: The lasting image in the home movies from those days is Toni laughing and pointing a finger at the camera. She loved to do that: laugh and point her finger at you. It was an impish, sprightly gesture, the kind of thing that an eight-year-old can do to melt your heart. Toni was the one who was most attached to her grandma; when Mom would take a long weekend at the beach, Toni was excited, because it meant the kids would stay at Grandma's and have her all to themselves.
Their mom, Lisa Neuner, did have to rely on Grandma Betty a lot for help with the kids (in addition to the two girls, she had two little boys, but no husband at the moment). But Betty didn't mind. In fact, she relished the job. She was a generous woman whose door was always open to her family; and that summer, her family included Eddie James. Eddie, in fact, became a sort of uncle to the kids, especially to Toni. One neighbor remembers driving past the house and seeing Eddie softly brushing Toni's hair. "Me next," the neighbor called out, and Eddie laughed.
He was something of a frightening sight, if you weren't used to him: Eddie had fallen on a slide when he was nine, and his front tooth became broken and discolored. He never bothered to have it repaired or replaced. It was part of the eerie visage he presented, under his Mohawk-cropped blond hair and that frightening, disarming stare. But once you were used to him, his gap-toothed grin and wide smile made people comfortable. It certainly made the Dick family comfortable. Around the kids, and around the family, he was a gentleman. He was the guy who would fix your car when it broke down, baby-sit your kids when you needed to go to the store. He was also the class clown. He loved to draw attention to himself, and he loved to make the kids laugh.
But when he was on drugs, the clowning of the man who came to be known as Crazy Eddie and Caveman Eddie took on a strange edge. He would fill his mouth with butane, then exhale and flick a disposable lighter, so that big billowing flames appeared to be coming out of his mouth. Or he would start gnawing on the bark of a tree, like a crazed animal. Everyone thought Eddie was funny. They couldn't know that the beast inside him was raging. That the last shreds of his humanity were falling away.
At night, the rage was more obvious. By now he had taken to petty crime: His rap sheet is a litany of assaults. He once stole a yacht in San Francisco, and once shot a man in what was later determined to be self-defense. But mostly it was fighting. Sometimes, when he was bored, he'd say to a friend, "Yeah, come on, let's go out to a bar and get into a fight." But t o Betty Dick and her clan, Eddie was family. In fact, at the end of the summer, Tim moved next door to live with his girlfriend, leaving a room open in Betty's house; and, since Eddie had nowhere else to live, Betty took him in.
"I felt close to them, like they were my family," Eddie said. "I was closer to them than I was to my real family." When I think back on those words, on hearing Eddie James speak those words, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. To think that these people accepted him, made him feel like part of the family, is so tragic, so unfair. They could not have known what was coming. They did nothing to deserve what happened to them that warm late-summer night, as Lisa Neuner was heading back from the beach, and her four children were as safe as safe can be, having a sleepover with Grandma Betty.
It started earlier that day, September 19, 1993. Eddie was without work, and began the day with his new drug of choice, crack cocaine. He smoked quite a bit of it, then began wandering around the neighborhood. "I ran into some guys that had some downers, did that. To get off the jones-feeling of not having no crack no more. We started drinking beer, smoked a few joints, you know." Evening began to fall, and Eddie found himself at the home of a friend, Todd. It was Todd's thirtieth birthday; Eddie arrived around 6:30 P.M. with a twelve-pack of Budweiser. Todd felt that, it being his birthday, he shouldn't have to deal with the barbecue; Eddie told him, relax, party, have a good time, I'll deal with this. He threw some chicken on the grill, and got the hamburgers ready, and the party wore on.
A photo remains from that moment. Eddie at the grill. We later took the photo in to the lab and blew it up for use on the show. One of our producers said it was the most frightening face he had ever seen. It is, quite simply, the face of the beast. Eddie's eyes are glowing and fierce; his snaggle-toothed mouth is twisted into a hideous grin. You have to understand how expertly guys like this can hide their true selves. How they rope their victims in. It is the most infuriating and frightening aspect of these predators: They are extremely adept at hiding their evil natures until it is much too late.
Eddie's wild day was beginning to wind down. Although it was only a little after 11 P.M., a dozen straight hours of drugs and drinking were about his limit. After finding and downing some gin, and smoking another joint, he headed home for the night, the home that Betty Dick had so graciously allowed him to share. The front door of Betty Dick's house opened into the living room. Asleep on an overstuffed, three-cushion couch against the right wall were Lisa's girls, Toni and Wendi. An Indian-print rug hung on the wall above them, and another lay on the floor next to them. Between the couch and this rug slept Lisa's two young boys.
The wood-paneled wall that the couch rested against separated the living room from Grandma Betty's room. She was asleep in her waterbed when Eddie came home. He stumbled through the living room into the kitchen to raid the refrigerator. Wendi woke up when she heard Eddie; from her spot on the couch she could see the glowing red LED readout of the microwave in the kitchen, and noticed that it was eleven-thirty when Eddie headed off to bed. His bedroom was off the opposite side of the living room from Betty's bedroom. He walked down the hallway, passed the bathroom, and collapsed in his bed.
But he did not sleep. He was angry. In his warped, twisted way, he was angry at Lisa for leaving the kids with Betty. Angry for Betty that she had been taken advantage of. But that was just a momentary catalyst. The rage and fury that had replaced any shred of common human decency in Eddie James, the anger that he stored and fed and nourished, were finally ready to explode. The monster was loose.
Eddie walked into the living room, and saw the two little girls asleep on the couch. He picked up little Toni, still asleep. Not the way you pick up a child: He picked her up by the throat. And shook her, like a rag doll. Toni awoke in panic. Eddie held her up to his face, and for a moment, their eyes locked. This beautiful, wonderful, sweet child, who never hurt a soul in this world, was just a few feet away from the grandmother she knew would protect her, but with Eddie's hands around her neck she could only gurgle, staring into his frightening, fiery blue, soulless eyes. He began to squeeze, tighter and tighter. Her eyes bulged, and her tongue swelled. Eddie thought, "You little bitch! You little bitch!" Then he began to say it out loud: "Die, you little bitch!" This poor, terrified girl, in the hands of a madman, heard her own neck begin to crack. There were small popping sounds, as her bones gave way to his massive hands.
And then this sick, demented excuse for a human being dragged the defenseless eight-year-old into his bedroom by the throat, undressed her, and raped her. I have seen the photos of what he did to this child, the condition he left her in, how mangled and torn her body was. And they leave me no doubt that this was the most vicious , cruel attack we have had to bear witness to in all the years we've been producing America's Most Wanted. And I remember the words Eddie had used to describe his relationship with Toni: "You know, she was like a little niece to me. I sort of looked out for her if the other kids were picking on her. I looked out for all of them. Because there's sick people out in this world."
When he was done with his depraved act, Eddie James left Toni's body in the space between the bed and the wall. Later, he would say that he believed Toni was already dead when he raped her. "I can't believe I did something like that, but I remember thinking and it was, she was dead, and I figured, 'What the hell, why not,' you know, and I did what I did." But Toni wasn't dead. She lived through the terrible nightmare, powerless to stop the terrible fear, the terrible pain. It wasn't until after he left her that this poor, crumpled child passed away.
Eddie walked into Betty's room -- "to get me a grown woman," he was thinking -- and saw her sleeping quietly on the waterbed. Above her head was a small crucifix; on the nightstand nearby was a large candlestick. Eddie picked it up, and brought it down, with all his might, on Betty's head, so forcefully that the candlestick broke in two. As though drowning, Betty awoke gasping for air, struggling to understand what was unfolding before her, what was happening to her. Eddie looked in his hand; the candlestick was gone. In its place was a knife from the kitchen.
Eddie began furiously stabbing Betty, and pulling up her nightclothes; but by now there was so much blood around that he had lost interest in sex. And so he continued: With his left hand, he grabbed her by the throat. With his right hand he stabbed her, twenty-two times: eighteen times in the back, twice in the neck, once in the ear, once in the face. Through it all, Betty pleaded: "Why, Eddie? Why!" And Eddie shouted back, "Don't worry about it! Just give up the ghost!" Betty kicked at him, trying to push him away with her feet, putting up an enormous struggle to stay alive. Finally, for reasons we'll never know, Betty's thoughts turned to her baby, her youngest, her son Tim, who had moved next door; as the small figurine of Jesus on the crucifix above her head looked down upon her, she cried out, "Tim! I'm dying! I'm dying, Tim!"
Tim, of course, could not hear his mother's desperate cries. But they did not go unheard. A small figure in the doorway, wearing her mom's oversized T-shirt, bore witness to this horrifying scene. It was little Wendi. She had been awakened by Betty's screams, and stood motionless as Eddie stabbed her grandmother, as her grandmother pleaded for her life.
At that moment, Eddie turned around and saw the little girl.
He let go of the knife.
He let go of Betty's throat.
He turned and moved toward Wendi.
The child, frozen, could not move.
Eddie grabbed her by the neck, and violently threw her into the living room. She smelled the beer on his breath as he dragged her toward the same room where her sister lay, disfigured, on the brink of death. And then, for some reason, he stopped short. He dragged Wendi into the bathroom next to his room, tying her hands with a sock. And then he took off the bloody shirt he was wearing and tied her feet with it.
With astounding composure, Wendi asked Eddie to turn on the light, which he did. She then asked if he was going to hurt her little brothers: He said he wouldn't, because they were asleep. And then he gagged her with a pillowcase, tying it around the back of her head, so she could ask no more questions. Eddie then went into the kitchen and grabbed another knife. An eight-inch butcher knife. He went back to Grandma Betty's room, and plunged it into her back. Because he wanted to make sure that she was dead. Then he rolled her over, onto her back, and thought, "Let's see them figure this one out."
Eddie James, having raped and killed an eight-year-old girl, having stabbed a woman twenty-three times as she pleaded with him for her life, having tied up and gagged a young girl and left her on the bathroom floor to consider the carnage she had witnessed, proceeded to take a shower.
Afterward, Wendi, still tied in the bloody shirt, poked her head out of the bathroom to see Eddie James rifling through her grandmother's room, taking her keys, her wallet, and her purse. She could not see him going to her grandmother's bloody body and removing the rings that her husband had given her, or taking the bracelets her husband had given her, but Wendi did notice Eddie wearing all these things on his left hand as he exited the room. He looked at Wendi as he headed for the front door, and said, "I'll be back."
It amazes me, in retrospect, to think of the courage and strength of this little girl in that moment. She didn't panic; she didn't freak out; she calmly watched what was going on, and tried to figure out what she was going to do next, to save herself and her two little brothers, who, astoundingly, had slept through the entire ordeal, and who still lay curled up on the floor next to the couch. She didn't have much time. After she heard Eddie leave in Betty Dick's car, she struggled in vain against her restraints. About five minutes later, she heard a car pull up.
Eddie walked back in the front door.
He was carrying a cup of coffee.
He looked down at Wendi on the floor.
He pointed his finger at her.
And he laughed.
Then he walked out the front door, and drove away.
Hours passed, and Wendi was alone, unable to free herself, unable to do anything but contemplate the horrors she had witnessed. This was probably the first time in her nine years that she had been alone in a house for more than a few minutes. And now she was alone with her sister dead in one room and her grandma dead in another.
The next thing she heard, at about 5:30 A.M., was another car pulling up in the driveway. Incredibly, she recognized the sound: the loud, muscle-car rumble of a Pontiac Firebird, like the one her Aunt Brenda drove. I'm saved! Wendi thought. Aunt Brenda is here! Brenda, Lisa's younger sister, was at the front door with her two children, whom she dropped off every morning on her way to work. Brenda knocked; one of the children, imitating Mom, copied the same knock, but more quietly.
Wendi wanted to call out: I'm here! I'm here! Come get me!
But she could not call out at all.
She had not been able to loosen the gag from her mouth.
Brenda, puzzled, loaded the kids back in the car and drove off.
Wendi thought, now what?
Somehow, perhaps through the excitement of hearing her aunt at the door, Wendi found new strength, enough to wrestle her hands free. She then undid the restraint around her legs, and pulled the gag out of her mouth and down around her neck. It was still dark out, and she was afraid: the fear that any nine-year-old would have alone in a house in the wee hours of the morning, multiplied a thousand times by the shock of what she'd seen, the trauma of what she'd been through, and the inexplicable terror of knowing that, at any moment, Eddie James could walk through that front door again.
Still, she managed to keep her cool. She thought Eddie might still be out front, and so she unlocked the back door and tried to climb the backyard fence. From there it would be a fifty-yard-dash to the house where her uncle Tim was living with his girlfriend, Nicky. She made it over the fence, and ran like she'd never run in her life. She could see her uncle's house, on the corner. She could also see a car, coming up the block. And she thought it might be Eddie James. But the car passed. And breathless, barefoot, exhausted, and covered with blood, she made it to her uncle's door.
And, in her own words: "I 'bout broke down the door from knocking on it so hard. And then Nicky goes, 'Who is it?' and I go, 'Hurry up! Unlock the door!' and then Uncle Tim goes 'What's going on?' and I go, 'Grandma's dead.' And he goes, 'Nuh-uh. Are you telling me a lie?' and I go, 'No, you can go over there, and look.' "And he ran over there and looked. "She was cold." At first, as Tim looked down at the child at his door, he thought that the blood was from his dog. The dog was just about to have puppies, and his mind hit on that as an explanation for the blood that covered this little girl. Certainly that's it, he thought. The dog had her puppies in Grandma's bed, and Grandma was asleep, and Wendi woke up in the night and saw the blood, and figured that Grandma was dead. Poor child.
He tried the front door, but it was locked, so he went around to the back, and entered through the kitchen. First, he saw the two little boys, asleep, without a care in the world. That's when he opened the door to his mother's room, and found her, half off the bed, soaked in blood. It was clear that the life was gone from her, but to make sure, to make absolutely sure, he touched his hand to her face, and, as Wendi said, she was cold. But now a thought struck Tim like a bolt: Where was his other niece? Where was Toni?
He ran into the back bedroom -- but he didn't see her. All you could see between the bed and the wall in the spare bedroom was a pillow. Frantic, he ran around the house, a thousand thoughts running through his mind -- whoever had done this, had he kidnapped Toni? Where could she be? Who could do such a thing? Back at Tim and Nicky's, Wendi, still calm, was asking to have the pillowcase removed from around her neck. Nicky managed to work it off. "Eddie did this," she said. "He made me watch and everything." Nicky was dumbfounded. "You have to tell your uncle Tim that," she said.
Nicky had already called 911; Tim had already run next door to his friend Frank's, and the two men returned and searched the house for Toni. Minutes later, two officers from the Casselberry police department, Eddie Robinson and Valerie Mundo, arrived. It was Eddie who noticed the pillow against the wall in the spare bedroom, and moved it aside. Nothing could prepare him for the sight. A beautiful little girl, her body bloody and twisted, in the position she was in when she died: her dead arms pointing straight down, her dead hands clutching her genitals, her last act in her short life on this earth being one of self-preservation, trying to stop the pain that, thank the Lord, she no longer could feel.
So there I am, leaving the gas station, headed to the hotel room in Orlando. I'm thinking, Why didn't I call Lance? I gotta call Lance. I gotta call Lance. Lance Heflin, our executive producer, started out in the business as a shooter -- a cameraman -- and has always retained the shooter's eye for detail and the shooter's ability to focus instantly and totally on what's in front of him. This drives his staff crazy sometimes: It's not always useful for the big boss to get so focused on a single story that he forgets, say, to come to a show meeting. But it's also why he's as good as he is -- because he has that ability to laser-beam in an important case.
Like this one. Lance knows exactly how I feel about child-killers. They are the lowest form of human life. In that moment, I know -- we have to catch this guy. And I know that we can catch this guy. This is what we're good at. This is what we do. I'm thinking, Eddie James has crossed the line, Eddie James has nothing to lose, Eddie James is nothing but a desperate, extremely dangerous scumbag who will do anything to survive.
Here's what happens with fugitives: It becomes a game. A survival game. A game of beating everybody and everything -- beating the cops, beating the boredom, beating the odds, managing to stay out there. After they're caught, they shed rivers of crocodile tears, but while they're on the run, there is no remorse. There is only the focus: Stay low. Stay clear. Do whatever it takes. And that's why I know we have to go after him, and fast. As soon as I hit the hotel, I make the call.
I tell Lance as much of the story as I know. We talk for a brief minute about how impossible it is to believe -- who could rape and kill an eight-year-old girl? What lowest form of life in the most barbaric of societies could even conceive of such an act against a child, any child, let alone one you consider your adopted niece, a child who believed in you, trusted you? Lance stops me, as he always does. Lance is all business. He wants names. I give him names. He wants a police department. I tell him to call the Casselberry police department. I give him the area code. He says, as he always says: "All right. Lemme get on it. Talk to you later." He doesn't say goodbye. He hangs up. He is already working.
And that's all it takes. And the process begins. The mercurial, improbable, unique process of catching a killer by using a television show. I try to gather my thoughts. In a few moments, I will go make a speech to law enforcement officials, and after that I will meet my wife and kids. We will have a nice dinner, and we will not mention this terrible crime. The kids will not have watched the news, and it's my job to make sure that they don't have to live every day in the nightmare of crime. And so we will go out to eat, and I'll stay calm, and we'll just have a nice fun family dinner. And then I'll go out and nail the son of a bitch.
Back in Casselberry, Lisa Neuner had returned from the beach late, and had gone home to sleep. She'd thought about picking up the kids at her mom's, but she knew they'd already be sleeping, so she figured she'd get them in the morning. Instead, she stood watching the ambulances and police cars surrounding the house where her four beautiful children had gone to sleep the night before, and no one knew what to tell her. They told her that her mother was dead, and that Wendi was down at the Police station, and that the two little boys were fine.
But how do you tell a mother that one of her daughters is dead? At first, she was told -- someone told her -- that Toni had been kidnapped. But on her way to the police station, she stopped at her boyfriend's house. "Bobby," she said, "Toni is dead. I can feel it."
By then the sky was beginning to show the first signs of light. Detective Mike Toole, a tall, good-natured man in his mid-forties, got the call around 5:30 A.M. at home about the murder of a fifty-eight-year-old woman in Casselberry; halfway through the twenty-five-minute drive, he heard that a second body had been discovered. About two hours later, Detective Lynn Cambre, who looks a bit shorter, a bit balder, and a bit older than his partner, was called as well: It was his day off, but this was not a usual case. He joined Toole at the scene.
Both men have children of their own. Both had been to many homicides and death scenes before. Both said then -- and say to this day -- that they have never seen anything so horrific in their lives. "Lynn processed about ninety-five percent of the crime scene," said Mike. "Both of us can do it, but I have no desire to process a crime scene like that."
A day like this drags on endlessly; hours and hours of taking statements, collecting tiny bits of evidence; long, mundane hours of doing what cops are trained to do -- be thorough, remain detached, gather the facts. And intertwined with it all is the horror, the pain, the suffering, the torture of all these good people around you, holding each other, breaking down and crying. As the sun climbed in the sky, onlookers gathered on the street outside the yellow crime-scene tape, first one or two, then groups of five and six, trying to make sense of what happened, the day growing warm and beautiful, a good Florida "beach day," a good day for a grandma to take the kids to the beach.
Everyone tried to make sense of it in his or her own way; one of the relatives decided he had to go in and see the crime scene, to see Betty, to see for himself. By now the crime scene had been sealed, and the officers literally had to tackle him to keep him from going inside. Mike Toole had left his partner the tougher part of the crime-scene detail, but he would have the toughest task of all. He headed down to the station, to take a statement from little nine-year-old Wendi Neuner. It was a videotape of this statement that would be the first tape to reach the offices of America's Most Wanted. It was a tape to break your heart.
The America's Most Wanted offices are located in a nondescript building in Washington, D.C. We've always tried to keep the location fairly quiet; there are just too many people out there with too big a grudge against us. There's nothing on the outside of the building that announces our presence.
Our studio, the Crime Center, is downstairs. A few flights up, in a little warren of offices that could pass for an insurance office -- except for the mountains of papers and open boxes of videotape strewn everywhere, the writing on the walls, the gaggle of young producers running around discussing murders and rapes and dismemberments and kidnappings, and the metal carts on wheels bearing Zenith TV monitors and Sony Betacam viewing machines -- are the production offices of America's Most Wanted. It's a little disconcerting for first-time visitors, for a couple of reasons. One, as you walk through the office, you pass edit rooms and viewing stations from which the sounds of reenactments emanate -- so almost every conversation is punctuated with the sounds of screams, car crashes, and gunfire. We are so used to it we don't hear it anymore -- like people who live by the airport not noticing the roar of the jets -- but newcomers are usually startled to come into what sounds like John Walsh's House of Horrors.
The other thing that strikes people as odd is the laughter. There's lots of it. A lot of gallows humor. "How'm I going to put this story on the air?" Lance was saying at a story meeting the other day. "It's all filled with dismemberment and body parts." "Yeah," came the reply. "But they're all attractive people, so they're attractive body parts."
I think the gallows humor is a defense mechanism. You have to understand that producing a show like America's Most Wanted is a very, very stressful activity. For one thing, producing any reality TV show is tougher than you'd think. There's just so much involved. Let me give you one example: Let's say you're a reporter for a newspaper, and I'm a producer for America's Most Wanted. We both need to get a quote from a guy in, say, a small town in Florida. We both call him on the phone. You get the quote, thank him for his time, and go to lunch.
I call him on the phone, get the same quote, and decide I'd like to get it on tape. If he agrees, I have to fly a producer down to Florida, or find a freelance producer who already lives there. Then I have to find a camera crew to work with the producer. Get them to the guy's house. They've got to haul lights and gear into his house, attach a microphone to his lapel, and the producer -- we hope -- will ask him questions that elicit the same response that he gave spontaneously on the telephone.
Then, after breaking down all that gear and loading up their trucks, they have to find a facility that can uplink to a "bird" -- that is, feed the tape to us via satellite. Satellite time can go for up to four hundred dollars for a fifteen-minute window, so you don't want to screw up this part. If I'm lucky, and all has gone well, I've just made thirteen seconds of television.
This process, in various forms, is repeated hundreds of times a week to produce the forty-seven minutes and seventeen seconds of television that comprise an episode of America's Most Wanted. Add to that the actual reporting of the story itself -- getting the facts perfectly accurate, describing the story in an understandable and interesting way, finding pictures to go with your words. So far, no different from any other TV producer's job.
But now add to that the fact that our producers aren't dealing with any happy stories, or fluff pieces, or human interest features. They're dealing with the worst of the worst, under the incredible pressure of knowing that if they don't do their jobs well, and fast, a maniac will remain on the loose and could kill again. Think of how odd it seems to you, the reader, right now, to be pondering these minute details of television production, when just a minute ago you were reading about the most heinous crime imaginable -- doesn't it seem odd? Doesn't it seem strange? Well,
that's the schizophrenia that goes on behind the scenes at America's Most Wanted. Which is why the people who've lasted are the ones who have a sense of humor. The ones who take their jobs very seriously, but don't take themselves too seriously. Laughter is a defense, a protection against letting your mind get overwhelmed by the sheer sadness of the stories you hear day after day after day. But on that day, there was no laughter. On that afternoon, you could hear a pin drop.
Lance, the executive producer, walked into the office after lunch to see his entire staff huddled around a cubicle in the back of the room. Sitting in the cubicle was Amy Green, a freelance producer with a little daughter not much younger than Wendi Neuner, screening a tape on one of the metal roll-around carts. One by one, staff members had gathered around to watch the tape with her. Keep in mind that these are seasoned professionals who deal with murder every day. It takes a lot to get their attention.
On the videotape, recorded by the Casselberry police, a tired little Wendi Neuner, her head leaning against her fist, her voice oddly matter-of-fact in comparison to the content of her discourse, was telling detective Mike Toole what she saw the night before. It is a conversation you never want to have with anyone, let alone a nine-year-old child.
"So, somewhere around eleven-thirty, somewhere around there, shortly after that you fell back to sleep?" "We fell, everybody fell asleep again and then, he [Eddie] fell asleep for about an hour, until it was like one o'clock. And then, I guess he went and got a knife or something and started stabbing my grandmother."
"You didn't see him go get a knife or anything, right?"
"No, I seen it in his hand."
"Okay, when you wake up, what wakes you up?"
"My grandmother screaming."
"And when you wake up what do you do?"
"I went in there and he has her like that and his hands are right there" -- she indicates the position of holding someone by the throat -- "and he grabbed me by my neck and threw me. And I smelled beer on him, on his, um, on his breath. I smelled beer." "Okay, and what's your grandmother doing while he's doing all this? I mean, what do you see when you go in the room?" "She, she grabbed, um, he kept on choking her and stuff and he goes, if you're not dead by the count of three, I'm going to start stabbing some more. So, she wasn't, and he started stabbing her some more."
I am, by my profession, a hunter of men. I can look back at the police file on Eddie James, and I can read the interviews, and I can see that he was turning into an animal long before he met the Dick family; that by the time he knew them he had already become a sick, twisted monster, waiting to strike out. After the crime, people were starting to ask me, John, wasn't this family at least partly to blame? Shouldn't they have seen what a cruel, heartless individual he had become?
This is the burden of being a crime victim. Outwardly, everyone wants to comfort you; but inwardly, they want the little details of the crime, they want somehow to figure out how you were to blame, how you were at fault. I know that my wife, Revé, and I have asked ourselves a thousand times what we could have done differently that day that our beautiful son Adam was abducted and murdered. You can torture yourself with these questions until you can't function anymore, and I've seen so many crime victims' families torture themselves this way. The reason people want to blame the victim is simple: They want some reassurance that these terrible, terrible things won't happen to them.
Think of yourself. If you are a person just like the crime victim, if there's no difference between you and these tragic individuals, then there's nothing to say that you, or your own family, won't meet the same fate that they did. But if you can find something this victim did wrong, then somehow you feel protected. You think, all I have to do is not make that same mistake, not walk that same erroneous path, and it won't happen to me.
But the truth is, you can't protect yourself, ultimately. You can take precautions, you can make all the right moves, but you can never be perfectly safe. Crime victims are no different from everyone else. They are everyone else, until that one fateful night. Betty Dick and Lisa Neuner did nothing wrong. You can't blame the victims. They're not in our profession. They're not trained to spot animals like Eddie James. We're trained to spot them. And, should they flee, to catch them.
By Thursday morning, we had our team in place, and a producer on the ground. Because of the nature of what we do, the typical America's Most Wanted producer is a little different from the people who produce other shows. Many of the producers who stay with us have been victims of crime; all have a particular softness, a concern, for the crime victims we deal with. The one thing I insisted on when I agreed to do the show, way back when, was that we would not revictimize the victims of crime. That what was done to me after my son's death -- the screamed questions, the horrible, unsubstant iated accusations, the rumors presented as news for the sake of selling papers, the terrible, callous way producers tried to get my wife to cry for their cameras -- would not be done to others. I felt, either that had no place in our operation or I had no place in our operation. Those were the rules we started with, and those were the rules we stayed with. The public might perceive us as a fugitive-chasing show, but we perceive ourselves as a victim-advocate show. Our producers are on the side of the victims.
And Susan Baumel is no exception. Susan is a freelance producer working in Washington, D.C., a single mother of a sixteen-year-old boy. She is a scrappy, skinny woman with a wide smile and a startling mop of big, frizzy black hair that makes her look like a refugee from the sixties; but her strong spiritual bent comes not from sit-ins and be-ins but from someplace deeper. Her parents were both Brethren ministers; she was raised with a sense of peace and spirituality that would be sorely tested in the days that followed.
She got her marching orders from the Washington team. She would be the field producer, our person on the ground in Casselberry. She landed in Orlando, where the weather had turned steamy and hot, and met her camera crew, a team of two young men -- a cameraman and sound man -- and they drove her to the Casselberry police department.
Detectives Toole and Cambre were happy to see her: The cops knew that we were their best chance at catching Eddie James. They drove her to the crime scene, 111 Cloisters Cove, and led her under the yellow crime-scene tape and into the house, her crew in tow. Other than the two detectives and their fellow officers, she would be the first one al lowed in. "There was a feeling of horror in the air," Susan remembers. "It was hot, and disgusting, and there was this feeling, as if something had gone horribly wrong."
The feeling was strongest as she walked into Grandma Betty's room. "In my mind's eye, Grandma was still in that bed," Susan would say later. The crew got the shots they needed: The officers walking the crime scene explained in calm, measured tones the outrage that had taken place. It was now three days after the murders, but it was as if it had all happened just moments ago, as if it was happening again as the officers were telling the story, as though Betty was again gasping, as though drowning, and crying out, "Why, Eddie, why?"
It was a question that would echo throughout the day. Because the next stop was to visit the relatives left behind: Tim, who first discovered the body; Nicky, who untied the bloody pillowcase from around Wendi's neck; and finally Lisa Neuner, who had lost both her mother and her daughter.
Now, a lot of people ask, why is this necessary? Why, if you are so sensitive to crime victims, do you make them go on camera like that? Why not just put the guy's picture on the air and have people catch him and be done with it? I think it's a fair question. Believe me, if we could do it like that, nothing would make me happier. But there's a dynamic at work here, and it's as simple as this.
We have to do two things to make America's Most Wanted work.
One, we have to get people to watch.
And two, we have to get them to care.
It's sad but true: The American public is inundated with crime stories. Most of their local newscasts, more often than not, begin with a crime story. We have to cut through all that noise. Somehow, we have to get viewers all over the country to pay attention to one single case, and to believe that they -- personally -- can become involved and make a difference. The process of watching television is a passive one; to turn that into an active one, to get people to exert the energy it takes to get up out of that chair and do something in response to what they've seen -- that takes a unique kind of passion.
It is the passion that only a crime victim, only one who has stared into that great dark void, can possess and pass along. And so we ask the victims to come on the air, in the hope of engendering that passion. But we have several rules that govern our behavior in these situations.
One, we never, ever try to get a sound bite from a crime victim who has decided, for whatever reason, not to be interviewed. We never, ever stick a camera or a microphone into the face of an unwilling crime victim or family member.
Two, we do not try to elicit tears. We've learned, over the years, something that I wish all news organizations would learn: that viewers don't like to see people crying hysterically. They find it terribly intrusive. Tears are inevitable when you're recounting the life and death of a loved one, but we tell our producers: Be kind. Be sensitive. Don't push.
Three, we give victims the option of backing out. I remember that this started with a teenage girl who wanted to come on camera and talk about being raped. She felt that she had done nothing wrong, and that she wanted other young teens in the same situation to come forward. After much discussion, Lance and I agreed to have her tell her story on camera, but only if her mother and her psychologist both tol d us they felt that the girl was ready, and understood the ramifications of her actions -- and then, only if our producers agreed to call the girl the day after the interview, and see if she'd changed her mind about airing it. The agreement was, if she wanted to back out, then we'd burn the tape.
That girl did decide to go on air, with her mother's and therapist's approval. As we expected, we got dozens of calls from other teenagers saying, I was raped, or I was molested, and I've never told anyone before. It was an amazing moment for us -- and we've kept those rules ever since. As a result, we've thrown away better footage than a lot of programs have ever aired; but also as a result, we've gained the trust of crime victims, who know we are sincere when we tell them that we are on their side, and that we need their help in catching their attackers or the killers of their loved ones.
It was that trust that greeted Susan Baumel when she entered the home where Lisa Neuner and her relatives were waiting. It had already been agreed that we would not put little Wendi through the trauma of talking about the case anymore. When Susan arrived, she found that the mother, Lisa, was also too upset to talk. She also sensed something else. She realized there was a terrible fear, an awful anxiety, among the people gathered in the yard that day; among Betty's son, Tim, his girlfriend, Nicky, and their friends, and among the children.
And then she realized what that fear was.
They feared that Eddie James hadn't taken off.
That he was still around.
And that he would come back for them.
Actually, I've learned that that rarely happens. As I mentioned earlier, after a crazy, irrational, heinous act like the one Eddie James perpetrated, the survival instinct kicks in for a period of time. He was unlikely to return to this block, where he'd be spotted instantly. It's not true, despite what you see in old black-and-white detective movies, that the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime; in fact, it's quite rare.
But in this particular case, there was an extenuating factor: Eddie had left a witness behind. For whatever reason, he'd allowed little Wendi to see what happened, and to live. That altered the equation. Because now there was no way to guarantee he wouldn't change his mind -- no way to guarantee he wouldn't come back to kill the witness, or to take out anyone who stood in his way.
In the days that followed, the fear grew worse. Wendi stopped sleeping: Family members would try to sit up with her all night, but they would doze off, and when they did, she would shake them, and say, Did you hear that? Did you hear that? I think it's him! I think he's back! It was terrible, seeing this little child go through such torture. Her mom, or her uncle Tim, or his pretty girlfriend, would put their arms around her, and try to tell her, don't worry, child, Eddie isn't going to come back, but a little voice inside them was saying, how can you be sure?
Susan recorded the interviews she needed as quickly as she could. They were heartbreaking. Lisa's sister Brenda talked about one of Lisa's sons, who had slept through the entire ordeal: "It's sad when her little boy comes up to her and says to her, 'Mommy, can you please turn me into Captain Planet so I can go up and bring my grandmother and Toni home?' And we don't know how to explain to him that they can't come back," she said.
The most articulate was Tim, who managed to hold it together for much of the interview, until Susan asked about Betty's relationship with her grandchildren. "They loved their grandma, and their grandma loved them," he said. And then the tears came, and he walked away, and the interview was over. His girlfriend consoled him, and he told her: "She asked me a question that hurts. But I don't mind answering," he said through the tears. "It's hard. But we gotta do this. We gotta let people know. It's the only way they're going to get him."
Susan relayed what she had learned back to the folks in Washington, who briefed me that evening. And when I talked with Lance, we made each other a promise. This was a case like none other that came before it, and we would do something we had never done before. We would commit all the resources of the show to catching Eddie James, come what may. We would air Eddie James's story every week, for as long as it took, until the bastard was caught.
Emotionally torn up, Susan Baumel nevertheless made it through that weekend. Hour after hour, she and Amy Green screened the tapes, the two women crying as they listened to Wendi's interview. Susan told Amy what it felt like, being down in Casselberry. "It was a feeling of evil," Susan would recall later. "You could feel it when you were in there. When you're in that place, you are fighting the devil, and I didn't feel prepared for that." It was almost as though the bad karma of Eddie James was a tangible thing, a physical presence, that threatened to suck her in. "I don't believe that anyone is Satan -- just that Satan can prevail over them -- or us, if we're not careful. "Spiritually speaking, it was the end of the line for me."
This would be the last America's Most Wanted story Susan would work on for a long time. Anthony Batson, the news chief, had also been working long, long hours, coordinating the hundreds of little details that comprise a breaking news story. At night, he would go home to his wife, Annette, and their baby boy, Alex, just five months old. He would ask Annette how her day was, and she would fill him in on the details of life with a toddler. But he would not tell her how his day went. He couldn't bring himself to relive all the terrible details, all the horrible facts, that had cascaded down on him all day, couldn't relive the moment when he saw little Toni Neuner on the tape, and realized that this was the very same girl who had been raped and killed.
"You're wearing three hats," Batson would say later. "Crime fighter, producer, and dad. So when you see that tape, it's like, 'Oh, my God, how could this be?' It was very different, after Alex was born. It was a lot harder." So Anthony didn't talk to Annette about his day -- "to protect myself from reliving all those details, and to protect my family as well." And then he went back in the morning, and it all started again.
They worked through the weekend: Amy, plowing through hours of tape; Anthony, trying not to think of his newborn son as he watched home movies of a girl who was no longer alive; and Susan, knowing this would be her last story, but trying to put the thought aside and get the job done. They slogged on, through the long hours it would take to put together the trap that they hoped -- that we all hoped -- would catch a killer.
We aired the case on Tuesday, September 28, 1993. It was our first show since we 'd heard about the case, but a full eight days since Eddie James had taken flight, so we knew we had our work cut out for us. From time to time, we take the show on the road, to focus on a particular city's crimes. That week's show was scheduled to be taped in San Francisco. It would be easy to work in Eddie James, because we had a San Francisco connection in his case -- he'd been arrested there once, when he was drifting around the country.
Lance was already in his hotel room in San Francisco when I landed there. The way we worked a remote like this was, Lance and I would handle the San Francisco end, and the show production team -- a mix of good, solid TV producers and former print journalists -- would handle things back in D.C. The first thing I did when I landed was call Lance, with one question. Did they catch Eddie James yet? There were other stories in the show, of course, other cases to worry about. But I didn't care. For me, this was the only case.
I was thinking, this guy shouldn't be so hard to spot. But I also knew, both from my experience searching for my son Adam, and from the years of chasing fugitives at America's Most Wanted, that a small police department doesn't really stand a chance. The Casselberry cops were hard-working, and well-intentioned, but what kind of resources did they have? What kind of sway? If Eddie James was spotted in Los Angeles, would the L.A. cops or the FBI there even know about the case, even care about it?
And I knew that if he stayed out, he was going to hurt people. This was not some mobster with big connections to give him money and passports; this is a lowlife, a bottom feeder who was going to kill again. I could feel it. When I called Lance, I was hoping that he would tell me they'd already arrested Eddie James. And, in the best of all possible worlds, that he tried to shoot it out with the cops, and they shot him dead like the rabid dog that he is.
I know that sounds harsh. But I've seen it too many times. These are brutal beasts; you can study them forever, you can take pieces of their brains, you can study their genetics, their backgrounds, you can find out about the father who abandoned them or turned them on to drugs -- but once they've crossed that line, there's no coming back. I wanted to see the Dick family and the Neuner family spared the horrors of a trial, the horrors of the description of the rape, the dehumanizing, devastating experience of living this hell all over again. I wanted to spare the rest of us the very real possibility that Eddie James, even if convicted, would get out of jail at some point, as so many violent offenders do, and kill again.
There was no question who committed this crime. No question. So I was just hoping that Eddie James had the balls to try not to be taken alive, or that he would be found somewhere with a gun in his hand and a bullet in his head, having done the right thing -- tried himself and found himself guilty and given himself the death penalty right there in a cheap motel room. Go on to the next life and try again, and maybe that time you'll get it right. But once I got to San Francisco, and checked in with Lance, it turned out, of course, that none of that had taken place. So the hunt was still on. It was time to get busy.
I went up to Lance's room. He had received a VHS tape of the rough cut of the piece, and he popped it in the VCR. I must say, I was so proud of what our staff had put together. It showed how dangerous Eddie James was, how horrible this act was, without being graphic, without being exploitative. It included a good, strong "call to action" -- good photos of James, and a good description of the car he stole from Betty Dick that night: a 1984 four-door Chevy Cavalier station wagon, with a license plate bearing the slogan "You've got a friend in Pennsylvania." That was damn ironic, I thought.
We reminded people that James had stolen a lot of Betty's jewelry and might be trying to pawn it. There was one surprise I hadn't heard about: The team had tracked down Eddie's mother. She had agreed to come on camera and plead for him to turn himself in, then stunned the producers when she said: "If I'd thought, ever, that he would hurt a child, I would have ended his life myself. That might sound cruel, and cold, but if anyone ever hurt my daughters, I know what I would do."
The story was solid. We phoned in a couple of minor changes back to the staff in Washington, then headed out to shoot the introduction, in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. America's Most Wanted was a different show back then. In the last couple of years, Fox has given me the leeway to say what I want to say; but back then, I was still supposed to be acting like an "objective" journalist, just sticking to the facts. So we opened the story this way:
"A few years ago a drifter from Florida named Eddie James passed through San Francisco. He stayed just long enough to get arrested for grand theft, and then moved on. Police say he recently returned to his hometown of Casselberry, Florida, just outside Orlando. He rented a room from Betty Dick, the mother of a friend. Betty was matriarch of a large family. Nine days ago, her grandaughter Wendi was sleeping over. Police say what happened next is one of the worst crimes they've ever seen."
Here's what I wanted to say -- and if we were doing this story now, here's what I would say: "This is the number one guy on my list. This is the kind of guy who goes out and kills innocent people for no reason. This is a coward, a scumbag, a despicable human being who really does not deserve to walk on the planet."
The show aired at 9:00 P.M. on the East Coast, and almost immediately, the hotline started ringing. Detective Cambre was in our studio, helping to field the calls. We were still back in our original studio then, a small room decked out to look like a fifties police station, with mug shots and blown-up photos of fingerprints on the walls, and big ugly filing cabinets everywhere.
It is, by the way, just a set -- but when you watch the show, the phones you see behind me are the real thing. Our real hotline. And at nine-thirty on this particular Tuesday evening, it was overwhelming: Hundreds of calls were pouring in. This is partly a reflection of how moving the story was: People wanted to help. They wanted to have seen Eddie James. If you think that people don't care about each other anymore, you only have to listen in on calls like these.
They came from New Jersey, from Mississippi, from Florida; from a bail bondsman who travels all over the U.S., calling to ask if he could help pass out posters of Eddie James, free of charge; from jewelers and pawn shop owners offering to send in jewelry that had recently been pawned, to see if it matched what James had stolen from Betty Dick. Dozens of callers told us of Chevy station wagons they'd spotted all around the country.
The calls continued to flood in, from all over the East Coast. We must have heard about every blond man missing a front tooth from Bangor to Key West. At about 10:30 P.M., the calls subsided. They picked up as the evening wore on and the show aired again, first in the mountain time zone, then on the West Coast. Those airings would be the key.
Aaron Nelson, a young man with waves of curly dark hair and a Bruce Springsteen goatee, was in his kitchen, making dinner, when America's Most Wanted came on in the next room. He heard the terrible story about the family that had rented a room to a man who turned on them. As he walked into the room where the television was, he saw the picture of the man accused of the crime.
He couldn't believe his eyes. Two days earlier, on Sunday, September 26, Aaron had been working behind the counter in the pawn shop he owned in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, about two hours west of Denver. At about 1:00 P.M. that afternoon, a guy he thought appeared "pretty scary looking" walked in. Snarly, broken teeth, nasty scar on the right side of his face, dressed in blue jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt. Kind of dirty-looking, like he'd been on the road. He wandered around the shop, pausing to look at the guns behind a glass case.
"He was a pretty cool character," says Aaron. "He came in and acted just like he was a normal Joe. Wanted to know if we'd buy some pearls from him and we talked about it and it was no big deal." The law required that Aaron ask the customer for ID. When Aaron noticed it was a Florida driver's license, they made some small talk; by coincidence, Aaron was also from Florida, not one hundred miles from where the customer lived.
They couldn't agree on the price for the big string of pearls, so the man left, and came back a short time later with about eight smaller strings of pearls, along with two nice watches and a crucifix. "He wanted three hundred dollars for them," says Aaron. "I talked him down to taking a hundred dollars for them, which is a pretty good deal. I mean, he must have been pretty desperate, to settle for a hundred dollars for this stuff."
Two days later, as he carried his dinner into the living room, he saw the same face, staring up at him from his TV screen. It was the same photo I had seen in that Orlando paper the week before. "I just about got sick to my stomach. I just couldn't believe it," Aaron said. "It was a shock. I knew it right from the second I saw him. I knew it was him. I mean, he's a pretty scary looking guy. He's not somebody you'd forget real easy." Aaron picked up the phone, and dialed 1-800-CRIME-93. And the line was busy.
Back at the hotline, Detective Cambre was having a field day. The hotline supervisor had the twenty-four hotline operators furiously taking down information on tip sheets, which they piled up on the desk next to Cambre. The operators were pointing out the ones they thought were on the money. Cambre was fielding some of the calls himself. Before long, all of the lines were lit up, and the twenty-four standby lines were also filled with people waiting to get through. It was a total informational traffic jam.
The first trick of working the hotline is triage -- prioritization. Any calls that (a) contain information making you certain that the caller has identified the fugitive, and (b) indicate that the fugitive's location is known at that very moment -- "He just told me his name is Eddie James, and he's missing his left front tooth, and he's sitting next to me at the bar and about to pay his check," let's say -- those are the ones you move on fastest. You call the FBI or the local police in the town the call is coming from and you ask them, politely, to get their asses in gear and nail the guy.
We didn't get any of those calls. But we did get the next tier: calls that could be verified as definite sightings of James. By midnight, James's trail had begun to become clear. A pawn shop in Indianapolis faxed a pawn ticket showing that he was there on Tuesday the twenty-first, one day after the crime. He'd used his own name. Some states require pawn shops to fingerprint out-of-staters; this pawn ticket indeed bore an inky thumbprint that matched Eddie James's. So it was a confirmed sighting of James in Indianapolis -- which would be a crucial factor in sorting out the calls for the rest of the evening.
A few hours later, the next bit of solid information came from clear across the country in Pueblo, Colorado, about two hours south of Denver. Another fax: James had once again used his Florida ID. Now we were on Eddie's trail. But we couldn't figure out exactly where he was. Disappointed, our tired crew headed home, and a tired Detective Cambre headed back to his hotel. He'd catch a few winks, then pick up the chase in the morning.
Back in Colorado, Aaron Nelson had had a fitful night. He kept thinking, this killer was right here in Glenwood Springs just a couple of days ago! It was too scary to think about. He tried the call again; still busy. He slept in fits and starts. In th e morning he called America's Most Wanted again. This time, his call went through.
When we'd gone to sleep, the last known sighting of Eddie James was two hours south of Denver, apparently heading west. Now, here was Aaron, calling from a pawn shop two hours west of Denver. The hotline operator knew right away we had a live one. Eddie had clearly headed north on I-25 to Denver, then west to Glenwood Springs. Another piece of the puzzle fell into place.
After he got off the phone, Aaron headed down to the pawn shop. He knew no one there would believe him -- that one of America's Most Wanted had been in the shop just three days before! When Aaron arrived at the pawn shop, Justin Glasenapp, one of the salespeople, was helping some customers. Aaron told Justin his frightening tale. About realizing he'd had a murderer for a customer, that the killer had been right there in the store.
As he listened to Aaron's description, Justin's eyes grew wide. Not ten minutes earlier -- not ten minutes! -- a man fitting the same description, blond hair, scary looking, scraggly teeth, scar on his cheek, had come in to pawn some jewelry for fifteen bucks. He was better dressed than Aaron's man, but otherwise he sounded the same. Aaron told Justin the name of the man on the television program. Eddie James. Justin looked down at the pile of pawn tickets for the morning. He picked up the top one, the one he'd just made out, the one for the blond guy with the scraggly teeth.
He handed it to Aaron.
Aaron read the name on the ticket.
Edward T. James.
James had been so nonchalant, so cool, that the morning after he had appeared on America's Most Wanted, he had walked back int o the same pawn shop to pick up a few more bucks before hitting the road. Within hours, we'd relayed word up and down the line. Cambre was faxing BOLOs -- "be on the lookout" sheets -- to every agency west of Denver. Our staff sent photos of James to all the law enforcement agencies around Glenwood Springs -- the county sheriff, the Carbondale police department, the Newcastle police department (two neighboring towns) -- and they were scouring the streets for James. No sign.
But the next morning -- Thursday morning -- the cops got a call from a pawn shop in nearby Carbondale. James had tried to pawn another item, and had produced the Florida ID. Sirens blazed on the streets of Carbondale. But at the end of the day, Eddie James was still on the loose.
We knew what car he was driving.
We knew what towns he'd been in.
We'd done everything we could.
The cops had done everything they could.
And it wasn't enough.
Back in Washington, we were going crazy. How could this have happened? How did we miss him? How could he get away? How could we be this close? How could someone so stupid still be out there? To be honest, I was worried. About twenty-five percent of our captures happen within twenty-four hours of broadcast. A good number take place in the twenty-four hours after that. Once two days have passed, the calls start to diminish, and the chance of capture starts to diminish. In this case, we had an advantage -- we knew a lot about the fugitive, where he'd been, which way he was headed. But I couldn't help wondering. Where was Eddie James? What was he thinking right now?
James was cruising along in Betty Dick's car, trying not to think too much about what he had done. Every once i n a while he'd pull into a rest stop, and some state troopers would pull in, and he'd think, well, this is it. But somehow they never caught up to him. In his heart he knew he couldn't run forever; but he figured he had at least six months before anyone caught up to him.
He had not seen the America's Most Wanted broadcast. Although he'd later say he was filled with remorse, he clearly wasn't so upset that he was going to turn himself in. No, Eddie James -- pothead, cokehead, crackhead, boozehead -- was stone cold sober and enjoying the drive, planning to see some old friends for perhaps the last time. Pawning Betty's most precious possessions, the jewelry her husband had given her over the course of a lifetime, pearls and rings and a crucifix, in exchange for a few more hours out in the bright sunlight.
The hunted man will always seek out a place he has some familiarity with, someplace that he at least has a sense of, so that he can operate with at least a modicum of comfort. He won't go someplace obvious like back to his mother's house. But he usually won't go to a place he has no knowledge of at all. He'd feel too exposed. Ironically, Eddie James was headed to the very place where we knew he had once hung around, the very place we'd started this story, the very place we'd been just three days before. San Francisco.
Back in Washington, we turned our attention to the next airing of America's Most Wanted, on Tuesday, October 5. There was no question as to whether we would air the case again. The only question was what information we would divulge. That's probably the biggest way we differ from "straight" news operations. Any straight newspaper, or TV broadcast, would l ove to have the information we had. It would be a big exclusive, a big scoop. But for us, there was a more important question. Would focusing the public's attention on the Colorado sightings help, or hurt, the hunt for Eddie James? Sometimes, clues like those are vital: They can give viewers exactly what they need to focus in on the fugitive. Or it could have a negative effect: The people outside Colorado might let down their guard. And that can cost you a crucial clue.
Sometimes, you want the fugitive to know that you're on to his trail -- it spooks him into making a mistake, or scares him into turning himself in. Sometimes you decide just the opposite -- let's not let him know we're on to him. Let's not tip our hand. In this case, we agreed that alerting the viewers on the West Coast that Eddie was headed their way was the wise move. We decided to go with the sightings. In the studio, the tape was rolling, playing the one-minute-forty-second update that Anthony Batson had put together about the Colorado leads.
The director keeps my microphone open while the tape is rolling, so I can talk to the control room. I told them to stay with me after the piece -- that I wanted to ad-lib a little something. At the end of the piece, I pleaded as hard as I could, asking our viewers to help this family find justice. I wanted so much for this to work.
I thought, this one's for you, Toni.
And for you, Adam.
I took this job because I was so angry, so filled with rage, after my son's death, and I needed a place to channel that anger. A case like this brought it all back. It felt like I was trying to will our viewers into spotting Eddie James. That night, the hotline lit up again. And aga in, the night came, and the night went, and Eddie James was still on the loose. I thought, how could we have failed again? How could this lowlife have avoided fourteen million pairs of eyes?
How could he be so lucky?
And what if he hurts someone else?
I went to sleep that night praying for a miracle.
And God sent us a saint.
Priscilla Valdez is a young, proper woman of impeccable taste, with an air of quiet strength about her. She is the kind of woman you can never imagine losing her temper; she fixes your eyes as she speaks, fixes you with the tranquil, peaceful gaze of a person who has decided what she believes about life.
At the time, Priscilla lived with her husband in Bakersfield, California. She'd met him in 1986, when she was working as a dental assistant. One afternoon, across town, a young man working on a construction job was hit in the face with a two-by-four, and fell off a bridge. Somehow he'd survived fairly intact, except for two loose front teeth. He walked into the office where Priscilla was working and, as she later joked, it was love at first bite.
They married and had three children. Priscilla raised them as she had been raised, in a deeply religious Catholic tradition; in her words, "believing in God, and believing that there is evil out there." It was her job "to teach the children who the good guys are and who the bad guys are." Their youngest, Michael, was just eight weeks old, and Priscilla was suffering from a normal case of postpartum blues. She wondered, what is my lot in life now? What is my purpose? How will I make a difference? She prayed to God for a sign.
That evening, the family gathered for dinner. Normally, on a Tuesday night, Priscilla would watch America's Most Wanted; but on this night, as her family was finishing dinner, she was planning to skip it. Her husband had some early business in the morning, and she liked to be up with him for breakfast, so she put the kids to bed early. Her husband headed off to the bedroom, and she locked up the house. It was a little after 9:00 P.M., and as she crossed through the living room she thought, well, I'll just see what they have on tonight. And she watched the update on Eddie James, and saw that virulent face, and heard the details of that despicable crime.
"I was just playing it over and over in my mind. I went to bed thinking about it, and I woke up thinking about it, my mind was just going all the time, and I'm thinking, why can't I get this person out of my mind? It must have been the hideous crime he committed. And the number, 1-800-CRIME-93, kept playing over and over in my mind, too, like an old song."
With her dental-technician background, Priscilla took particular notice of James's teeth. "They're a dead giveaway," she thought. "He can alter his features, except the teeth." Priscilla had just returned to work part-time after her maternity leave, so the next morning, after getting her husband out of the house, Priscilla had to head to work herself. She couldn't stop chattering on about the America's Most Wanted case she had seen the night before. It had affected her so deeply, so heinous was the crime. "They're gonna catch this guy," she told her co-workers. "It's going to be his teeth."
At lunch hour, Priscilla had to head to the state unemployment office to drop off some paperwork for her boss. It was a huge office, a hundred yards long, with a long glass wi ndow, and a partition about halfway along the building. She had her five-year-old son with her, and was third in line from the window, when she felt it. A presence, moving behind her. "I just had an eerie, uncomfortable feeling, about anyone moving so close, I guess." So she looked over her left shoulder at the man who had passed behind her. And he turned to look at her as well. And she saw the eyes.
"First, I thought to myself, it can't be this person. Not in Bakersfield. Nothing ever happens here in Bakersfield." She took one more glance, memorizing what he was wearing: black shirt, baggy pants, tennis shoes. He looked disheveled, like he hadn't slept. She kept an eye on him by watching his reflection in the glass. She saw him walk toward the wall, sit down in a chair, put his hands behind his head and lean back, stretching his legs out, like he had nowhere to go, nothing to do, not a care in the world.
Her son, meanwhile, was about as antsy as kids can get waiting in long boring lines in big boring offices. He kept wandering into the area where Eddie James was sitting. As calmly as she could, she called him to come back and stand next to her, and each time she did, she took the opportunity to take one more peek at Eddie James. And then she saw the teeth. And she knew. After what seemed like an eternity, Priscilla made it to the counter. "I need to use the phone," she told the woman behind the counter. "The gentleman sitting against the wall was featured last night on America's Most Wanted."
"I don't watch that program," said the teller.
"Believe me," said Priscilla. "I need to use the phone."
"You can't use this phone. You have to use the public phone," came the reply .
The public phone was three stalls down.
Right next to where Eddie James had parked himself.
Priscilla pleaded. "I can't use that phone!" she cried in a hoarse whisper.
She was directed to another pay phone, across the room. She made the slow, painful walk, grasping her son's hand, all the time repeating, like a mantra: "1-800-CRIME-93. 1-800-CRIME-93." She was afraid -- what if he gets away? What if he sees what I'm doing, and comes after me? But bravely, she took a deep breath and picked up the phone.
Her son began acting up. Why do we have to stay here so long, Mommy? What's going on? Who are you calling? She listened to the phone ringing, her heart pounding, and finally she heard the words "America's Most Wanted." It all came flowing out at once; the explanation of why she was calling, where she was, where Eddie was sitting. She described Eddie James perfectly, right down to which teeth were missing. The hotline operator recognized this as a Level One call -- he's here, I'm sure it's him, and he's paying the check. The operator promised Priscilla that someone would be dispatched immediately.
In our office, the news spread like a bolt of lightning. There is a gray partition, about six feet high, separating one series of cubicles from the main section of the room. During the week, hotline chief Sharon Greene sits on one side of this partition; Anthony Batson, the news chief, sits at an open area in the center of the main newsroom, on the other side. When there was big news, Sharon, rather than running all the way around the partition, would get up on her desk and poke her head above the partition.
Anthony saw a short shock of jet-black hair popping up, and a hand clutching the pink carbon copy of a tip sheet. Sharon got up on her desk and waved the sheet at Anthony. "Woo-hoo! Anthony, we got a good tip on James! He's in an unemployment office in Bakersfield right now!" Everyone knew Sharon had the best radar for these things; when she said it was a good tip, you knew it was solid.
In the next moment the two spoke at the same time.
Anthony: Did you call the cops? Are they on the way?
Sharon: I called the cops. They're on the way!
But while Sharon and Anthony were anticipating a capture, Priscilla Valdez was terrified that no one would get there in time. She walked out of the unemployment office, her mind racing. This guy has no business here in Bakersfield, she thought. He's just going to leave. Someone's got to stop him. What she didn't know was that a plainclothes deputy had already been dispatched, and was already in the building.
The detective, Vernon "Dusty" Kline, was pretty close when the call went out for a patrol car, so he arrived first, entering from the north side of the building. Eddie was sitting on the south side. By the time Deputy Norman Stone and his partner pulled up in their cruiser and were walking into the building, Kline had already approached the suspect. Problem was, he approached the wrong suspect. He had heard what little information had come through the call, and the man he approached did seem to match the description. Except that he was black. And Eddie James was white. Kline quickly figured out the mistake. Fortunately, James hadn't spotted the commotion. The two uniformed deputies approached him from the north door. The plainclothesman approached him from the south sector. Finally, finally, Eddie James had nowhere to run.
Eddie James had still not seen America's Most Wanted. On his meandering route to San Francisco, he had run out of gas in Bakersfield. He spent the night at a homeless shelter, and that morning had left the car and walked the mile to the unemployment office. He hoped to get some food stamps, or score some work, possibly get some emergency cash and move on. When the deputies approached him, he looked exhausted. "He looked at me," said Deputy Stone, "like, hey, this is the end of the road. He didn't offer any resistance." And there it was: the chase was over. The handcuffs were on. The bad guy didn't get away.
Finally, finally, Eddie James was captured. They put him in the back of the patrol car, and drove him to the sheriff's office. They had about half an hour alone with him. They gave him his Miranda rights; then Dusty began asking some questions. You never know with fugitives. You want to get them to talk as soon as possible. By the time they've gathered their thoughts, they may decide to clam up. So this is a key moment. Eddie James didn't disappoint them. He began to tell them his story. Later that day, he would tell it to us.
Priscilla Valdez had walked inside the unemployment office to see the arrest happen. To see the answer to the prayer she had sent heavenward: God, what is my purpose? How can I make a difference? She watched them walk Eddie James out to the squad car, and thought of the people she had seen on television the night before. "Honestly, the first thing I thought of was the family," she said. "I thought, they can finally rest, now that he's been caught. They can lay their people to rest as well."
By that time, it was approaching 4:00 P.M. on the East Coast. The shadows were getting long on that cool afternoon in Casselberry, Florida, when Nicky Angel, girlfriend of Tim Neuner, came running around the corner from their house onto Cloisters Cove. "They caught him! They got him! They got Eddie!" she was screaming. Tim was following on her heels. One by one, friends and relatives came running out, hugging each other, crying. It was over. It was really over.
Lisa Neuner had gone to stay with her sister Brenda in Erie, Pennsylvania. When the call came in from the police, "I was stunned," said Lisa. "And then we all started crying and laughing. We didn't know what to do." "I laughed at first," said Brenda. "And then I cried, because it won't bring my mother and my niece back. But at least it's a start, and he didn't get away with it."
And with that, Brenda realized what we all must realize, all of us who have become victims of crime. That it's never really over. The wound closes, but the wound does not heal. You find closure, but you do not forget. In the two weeks since the crime, we had all had a purpose: to find Eddie James. It gave us all something to do, something to think about. You could wake up in the morning, and get an update. Now, there are no more pressing issues. Not until the trial, anyway. There are no updates. There was nothing to take your focus away.
And for the first time, you truly look back at what happened, at the hole that has been left in your life, at the empty place in your heart, you hear the wind swirling through you, and you know now what the rest of your life will be like. You had hoped for peace. You did not find it. You found closure. It is not enough, not nearly. I t will never be enough. But, as Brenda said, it's a start.
"I'm glad they got him," said Lisa, "because now my mom and Toni can rest in peace...." and her voice trailed off in tears, and she held her sister, for a long time, and their thoughts turned to Lisa's daughter, Wendi. The Survivor. "We've all got a long hard journey ahead, but Wendi's got the longest journey of us all," Brenda said. "But she's not going to be alone in this. She was alone when that happened, but she's not going to be alone anymore."
About six-thirty that evening, Lisa called Wendi, who was staying at her father's house. She laughed, and went "Yippee!" and said a few words in relation to Eddie James that she's not supposed to say. And that night, for the first time in what seemed to everyone like a million years, Wendi lay down in her father's bed, and went to sleep, and slept, and slept, all through the night. And sometimes, when you are looking for proof that there is a God, you look at a child, asleep in her father's arms, and it is all the proof you need.
Back in Washington, Anthony Batson saw the shock of jet-black hair popping up above the gray partition. "It's him!" he heard. "Eddie James is in custody! Direct result!" "There's about two seconds of jubilation," he remembered. "And then you realize, there's a lot of work to be done, and you get to it."
Batson got on the phone with Priscilla Valdez, but could hardly hear her over the yelling and screaming in our office. He was busy setting up interviews, for the report on the capture we would air on the next show. The rest of the staff was busy high-fiving. We have a wall, in our conference room, where we started writing the names of everyone who was captured. In a high-tech world, it's a nice low-tech way of keeping track. Like that board you see on Homicide. The latest capture had been number 266, Mark Adams, a murderer who had escaped from San Quentin. Someone grabbed a marker pen, and wrote above it: "267 -- Eddie James!"
They called me at home that afternoon, to tell me that Eddie James was in custody, direct result -- meaning the capture was a direct result of a viewer tip to our hotline. I remember being ecstatic. And I remember thinking about Adam.
This capture brought back a flood of memories. The days and nights of searching for Adam, the smell and feel of the parking lot outside the Sears where he was taken, the phone call when I found out that he had been murdered in a horrible, horrible manner, that the killer was still out there, capable of doing anything; I thought of all the years and years that Revé and I waited for some arrest, some word, some closure, and how years and years went by without that closure coming; and now, it felt that almost by dint of sheer will, we, America's Most Wanted, had helped capture Eddie James. My chest just welled up with pride for what we had done. And now Eddie James couldn't hurt anybody else. There would be no more Adams, no more Tonis. Not because of this guy, anyway. And that was something. That was something.
Then I started to wonder. Wait a second. What else has he done? Has he hurt anyone else? Are we gonna find a string of bodies he left behind? What is the next call gonna be? In time, those answers would come: Thank God, there had been no more victims. We had found Eddie James in time. I thought about the family of Toni Neuner and Betty Dick. I knew that they would be torn, in this moment, as I was, feeling elation, but also feeling that nothing would bring back their loved ones. Still, I knew that this moment would bring them some peace, some closure, and -- depending on an interview that was about to take place -- some answers.
"Thank God it's finally over." That's what Eddie James had to say to our reporter when they sat down in the jailhouse that afternoon. The reporter's job: to see if James would verify, or correct, what we had pieced together about the story so far. And to see if James would talk about the crime. He was successful on both counts. Some of our producers, when they watched the tape later, said it helped them understand why Eddie James was able to sucker people in so easily. There is something charismatic about him, they said, something fascinating, some way his eyes make him appear powerful and focused, something perfectly real and sincere, that draws people in. I don't see it.
I look at the tape and I see a sniveling coward, with no sense of the boundaries of human existence, speaking matter-of-factly about the most heinous moment imaginable, as though he were as shocked and concerned as his listener, and trying to understand how someone could do such a thing. The reporter began by collecting the details about Eddie's flight from justice, his background, and his relationship with the Neuners, all of which basically jibed with what we'd put together so far. Then he moved on.
"Let's talk about the incident....Was Betty in bed?" "She was in bed sleeping. And all the kids were sleeping, I remember that. I'm, why I chose to do the way I did, I don't know, what prompted that. That's a blank, still." "And what did you do?" "I strangled Toni and stabbed Betty a bunch of times." "You, um, you stabbed somebody you were so close to. Seems like you must have gone off for some reason. You have no idea." "None, none. I wish I did know."
"Can you recall Betty that evening, did you wake her up and kill her or kill her in her sleep?" "Nah, she was awake when I -- when it started out. I hit her with a candlestick or something, and that woke her up, and then I killed her. Stabbed her." "What is going through your mind at that point?" "Just pure anger, pure rage. Anger. I remember, I remember when I was strangling Toni, I was like, 'Just die, you little bitch.' You know, just pure freakin' anger. Raw anger." "And at Betty, were you screaming things? Was it pointed to her, or just anger?" "I don't think it was any direction in it at all. Really don't. I'm still, right now, I don't understand, like I said, why I did what I did....It's just like a blank wall. It's like standing at a blank blackboard and trying to figure out what used to be writ on there....That's not making, I'm not trying to excuse anything I did. What I did, I did, and it wasn't right. It wasn't right at all. It was rather sick."
"What about Toni?"
"That's a hard one to talk about."
"Let's talk about it. Let's try to get that out. You left Wendi. Did you go to Toni...?"
"No, I killed Toni first."
"So she was the first one you killed." "She was in on the couch, I don't know why I chose, I don't know why I picked and chose, if I did, or if it was just the first one I reach for. And I just strangled her. And I remember, she was like, right there. I was holding her up in the air, and you can hear her bones cracking and stuff. I wa s squeezing so hard, telling her, 'Die, you little bitch.' And, uh, they say I raped her, and I remember when we was talking and it was, she was dead, and I figured, what the hell, why not. You know, and I did what I did, and then I went and killed Betty...."
"You said you did what you did. What did you do?"
"I raped her."
"You remember that now?"
"Yeah, I remember it. I remember doing it. Yes, and it's not an easy thing for me to live with. For me. And I'm sure it's not easy for anybody in the family or nothing. I can't believe I did something like that."
"What was going through your mind?"
"I couldn't begin to tell you."
"I try...I really wish I could. I just can't right now. It's, I remember, I can close my eyes and I see what I've done. But why I'm doing this and what I'm thinking, I guess, I'm scared to think, or bring back the memory of why I did it or what I was thinking." "You crushed her with your hands." "Yeah, I remember the blood coming out of her mouth, and her little facing turning all purple. [Turns his head like he's going to cry.] Damn."
"A lot of family members and friends out there lost two beautiful people. What do you want to say to them?" "I would like to say that I'm sorry. I'm remorseful for what I did, but to say I'm sorry for doing something like that, to think it's going to make it better. It isn't. It's not going to make nothing better for them. You know, I pray to God He helps them out, makes them stronger, and you know, survive it. And like I said, I pray to God He makes it easier to live with. Maybe my death will make it easier for them to live with. I hope."
"If you were released today, would you think you could commit a crime like this again?" "I'd be afraid I would. For the simple fact that I've done it once already, and that means I'm capable of doing it again. I don't think there's anything -- that part of my mentality is always going to be there, I think. Which scares me. It goes for anybody. Once you done something like this, I don't think there's any way you can change to where you can actually guarantee anybody, even yourself, that you won't never do it again. Cause it's too deep. It's too deep a part of the psyche." "So you accept the fact that you might be put to death for this crime."
"I look forward to it."
"Look forward to what?"
"To dying for this. Like I said, saying I'm sorry is so insignificant, my death would be a life for a life."
An officer in a green shirt and glasses was assigned to guard Eddie James during the interview. Afterward, he had a disgusted look on his face. "You look like you don't believe what you just heard," the reporter said to him. "In my opinion," said the officer, "that's the smartest thing that an attorney or anybody else would have told this guy to say, is what he said. 'I'm sorry, I did it, I'm ready to take my medicine.' I just don't buy this guy being so sincere right now. I mean, he's caught. He's red-handed, and I really don't think that when the time comes, and he's sitting in the electric chair, that he's really going to agree with everything he just said." Man, you have no idea how smart that cop really was. We'd find that out a few months later, when the case of Eddie James reached the courtroom.
The day after the capture, detectives Cambre and Toole flew out to California to collect Eddie James. They picked him up at the Bakersfield county jail, and were driving him back to the sheriff's office, when Cambre noticed one thing: James stank. Even for a prisoner, he was filthy. A little later, Cambre found out why. Earlier that morning, James had been on a bus with a group of other prisoners. There is a code: Even among the most violent of criminals, a man who molests or kills a child is considered the lowest of the low. Everyone looks down on you: They don't care if you have killed ten people, raped a goat, robbed an orphanage, or mugged the Pope. Child molesters are scum even to scum. So on that day, after everyone had heard what Eddie James had done, they made him sit in the front row of the bus, and then wait there while everyone else got off.
And as each prisoner passed by, he spit on Eddie James. So there's Eddie James, in the back of the car, covered in dried drool and spit, smelling to high heaven, with Cambre thinking, "This is not going to be the most pleasant interview I have ever done." But James was polite, and willing to talk, which was all that mattered. They got to the sheriff's office, ordered some pizza and Pepsi, and started talking. "He talked about the murder like you and I would talk about a Monday Night Football game," Toole would say later. They talked about fishing, and hunting, and Louisiana, and hot sauce, and working offshore, and they talked about murder; James's handcuffs rattled as he raised the pizza to his mouth and gave up the details that would -- we all hoped -- seal his fate.
There was one more very important visit that needed to take place. Most of the time, our victims never get to meet our tipsters. They live in different parts of the country, and don't get a chance to look into each ot her's eyes, even though they have had a profound effect on each other's lives -- the tipster on the victim's life, mostly, of course, but it works the other way too; the tipsters, once they realize what they have done, also find themselves changed, forever. Empowered, as though they've learned a lesson that they want to share with everyone, a lesson we began closing every broadcast with shortly after this case was completed: one person can make a difference.
The emotions were so strong on both sides, that we thought it would be great to give Priscilla Valdez and Lisa Neuner a chance to meet each other. We decided to fly Priscilla east, to bring the women together. I was going to join them. I had wanted to visit with Lisa ever since this story began. I knew that family was hurting. I always call it a terrible club that we belong to, we parents of murdered children. And within that club, there are those who must live with the fact that their children not only were taken from them, but that they suffered terribly at the hands of a brutal madman in their last hours. That is an image that never, ever leaves you. I knew Lisa needed to share her pain with someone. But I'll tell you, when I walked up to Lisa's house, I was terribly nervous. I fumbled with the gate. I slipped my hands in and out of my pockets. I struggled in vain to think of the words I would say.
I wanted to tell her so much. Mostly, I wanted to tell her, you will survive. You must survive. You must survive for those three beautiful children you still have, especially for little Wendi, that beautiful child who is probably damaged, horribly, forever, that fragile flower. I wanted to tell her, make sure everyone is strong, and rallies around her, and showers her with love, and she will survive too. The mother and daughter you lost, I wanted to tell her, are in a better place now. They're out of the pain and torture of this life, this imperfect planet that we live on with death and violence and sadness and all the horrors that we have to put up with. It's those of us left behind whom we have to help. And I wanted to tell Lisa that with love, and with patience, it will be okay, she will be okay, that I am living proof it will be okay.
But I was dreading the visit as well. I've seen so many crime victims, so many over the years, who have been torn apart, destroyed, devastated by what has happened to them, and I know that nothing I can say can help them, that they are beyond help, beyond words. Many who had succumbed to alcohol or drugs or just plain despair. Others who'd been divorced or lost their jobs. I remember one man I met in Rochester, New York, whose daughter was raped and murdered on spring break. He had been very successful, but afterward he lost his business, became an alcoholic, and got divorced. But then he went into rehab, became a big supporter of the Adam Walsh Center, and got his life back together. And just when I thought he was doing so great, he killed himself.
People think I'm a strong person, nerves of steel, Mister TV Guy, but in moments like these it's so hard. Not just to open the wounds of Adam's death, but to have to look into the eyes of the family members left behind, and see their pain, and wonder if they are gonna make it. I'm no guru. I'm no leader. I'm just a brokenhearted father who has tried to channel my anger and frustration into something positive. As I walk up the stairs, I'm thinking, I don't have any answers. They're going to want to know, how did you survive? How do we survive?
And what am I going to tell them? They're going to ask, are we going to descend into the darkness of hell, will this haunt us forever? And what will I say? So Mister TV Guy, with a gut filled with self-doubt, walked up the stairs, and knocked on the door.
"Hi, I'm Lisa," said the woman who answered the door.
"Hi, I'm John," I said. "Can I get a hug?" she asked.
And we put our arms around each other. And she began to sob, a little, but then she looked up, and she smiled. And I felt, in that moment, that maybe, just maybe, she would be all right. It would take a long time, but I felt strongly, in my heart, that she would be one of us. The survivors.
So we talked about what had happened, and about what was going to happen. I tried to prepare her for what could be the worst horror, aside from the murders themselves, which was the potential for a trial in which she would have to relive this terrible tragedy. And I told her that I knew, from the time right after Adam's death, that one of the hardest things for everyone around you is just knowing how to talk to you. "I want to ask you something," I said, "because people ask it to me all the time. They ask, how are you dealing with it? And I'm not sure I'm the expert, or that I even know how I'm dealing with it. How are you dealing with it?" "I don't know," said Lisa. "I guess God up above, and my mom and Toni up above, are just helping me get through life. The kids are there, the two little boys and Wendi, are there, and I have to take care of them. They still have a whole life to live. It's day by day. It's not easy, but life does go on."
I noticed that there were no pictures of Toni hanging anywhere. "No, right now, we don't have any pictures of Toni on the wall," Lisa said. "Because we just can't handle it right now." There was such a sadness, such resignation in her voice. "There will come a time," I heard myself saying. "I always say it about Adam. The worst day of my life was the day he went missing. But I had the most wonderful six-and-a-half years. I was lucky to have him. I was lucky. And you were lucky to have that little girl." And Lisa smiled. Through her tears, I saw the brightest, warmest smile, and her gaze was far away.
"Toni was something else," she said. "If you would have known her, you would have been proud of her. She was a good girl." She returned her gaze to me, and told me something she hadn't told anyone before. "Toni came to me," she said. I asked her what she meant. "After Eddie was caught, I felt her present, but she wasn't present. Her spirit, maybe. Before he was caught, I couldn't feel anything from her. But when he was caught I could feel her spirit. It's strange. Toni's got this funny laugh. You know you all have gotten this video, where she's doing like this" -- Lisa wags her finger at me -- "and laughing about it? "When I woke up, I woke up to Toni laughing. I could see her laughing."
A few minutes later, Priscilla Valdez arrived. Lisa went out to greet her. If she had a smile when she was remembering Toni, that smile turned into a giant grin now. "We thank you every day, in our dreams, for what you've done," Lisa said. "I'm just glad I could help," Priscilla said. "How are you doing?" she asked. "Better than we thought we would. We just thank God for what you've done. If it hadn't have been for you he might never have been caught." "I'm just happy," said Priscilla, "that there's a family, and a little girl, who can sleep better at night."
Priscilla Valdez was just what we knew she would be, from having seen her on tape: an outgoing, effervescent person, with an aura about her, an aura of kindness, an aura of self-confidence; a self-assured person, but a calm and gentle person. And what I was so touched by was that she didn't think she had done anything all that special. She didn't think she should receive any accolades or acknowledgment. She felt it was one human being treating another in the right way, with some decency. I loved what she said to me, and I'll never forget it: "If it was me," she said, "if it had happened to my son, to my little boy, I would wish that somebody out there would spot the killer and have the courage to make the call to help me out. And that's all I did."
It's a meeting like this one that helps reaffirm your belief in humanity. As I left that place, I felt energized, proud of what we had done, inspired by the dignity of these two people. I thought, as much sadness as there was here, here are two women, sitting and talking with each other, two women who live three thousand miles apart, from different backgrounds, different lifestyles, talking about their lives, and how their lives had intertwined, and I thought how strong it made us all feel. And I thought, this is how you go on.
Whether you're the father of a murdered child trying to hunt down miserable scum-of-the-earth fugitives, or you're a cop who's processing a crime scene like you've never seen before, whether you're a TV producer watching a tape of a little girl des cribing how she was tied up with a bloody shirt, or whether you're a woman trying to get out of bed and face the unfathomable loss of your mother and daughter at the hands of a madman -- this is how you go on. Every once in a while, you meet someone who reaffirms your beliefs, people who really care about other people's pain, people who put their own safety at risk to ease the path of another. You meet them, and you see how calm they are, how centered, how simple it all seems to them; and you are touched by their grace, by the grace of their being, and in a way you are redeemed. And you can go on.
On May 31, 1995, a very polite-looking man walked into a courtroom, dressed in a nice suit, with a nice trim haircut, wearing neat, conservative glasses, sporting what was by that time a neat, professorial goatee. He had clearly been eating well, sleeping well, and appeared to have been working out. He had a quiet and reserved air about him, no glare in his eye, no swagger in his step. You could no more imagine this man committing murder than you could imagine him, say, gnawing on the bark of a tree, or breathing fire. Eddie James had pleaded guilty to murder. But in a sort of mini-trial, the state would have to present evidence that this case was worthy of the death penalty, and Eddie could try to plead for his life.
I thought about what that cop had told us, right after we interviewed Eddie James, and it hit me.
You sly, devious, son of a bitch.
Eddie James, you're playing this perfectly.
After all that that false bravado about how giving your life would be the only proper price to pay to the family you destroyed -- after all that, you're going to give yourself the best chance you have of saving your own, miserable skin. He was redeemed now, Eddie James was; yes, that was the image he was trying to convey, and that would be the argument that would unfold. He was a righteous man now, here to deliver a message, a message of hope and redemption.
It was enough to make you sick.
Fortunately, the jury didn't buy it.
At the end of the mini-trial, their advisory sentence was read to the judge: "In the case of the state of Florida against Edward Thomas James, case number 933237CFA, advisory sentence of the jury, as to count one: A majority of the jury, by a vote of eleven to one, advise and recommend to the court that it impose the death penalty upon Edward Thomas James for the murder of Toni Neuner. "Advisory sentence of the jury for count two: A majority of the jury, by a vote of eleven to one, advise and recommend to the court that it impose the death penalty upon Edward Thomas James for the murder of Betty Dick."
There was no jubilation among the family members. It was decided that Brenda Dick would speak for the family. "It brings some relief, but it will never be closed," she said. "There is no closing this matter. Eddie says he lives with this every morning. Well, I live with this every day. I'm the one who pays, my kids pay. He didn't just take a life, he took Toni's generation of children. He didn't just kill two people, he killed a whole generation. There's no getting over that in one day." Two months later, on a steamy August 18, judge Alan Dickey handed down the death sentence. "The defendant is hereby committed to the custody of the Department of Corrections of the state of Florida for execution of this sentence," he said. "May God have mercy on his soul."
Betty Dick would have been sixty-three this past spring. Wendi, who adopted Grandma's birthday, is fourteen. Her sister, Toni, never saw her ninth birthday, or her tenth; this past spring she would have been thirteen. The spring before that, if he had lived, I would have attended Adam Walsh's college graduation. Life does go on. The first of James's appeals has been denied; the entire appeals process, however, could take another eight years. The closure and the sense of justice that the sentence offered the family has grown stronger, but remains tempered by the long wait ahead.
And while Eddie James sits in his cell and contemplates his fate, a group of small plastic bags sits in an evidence locker at the police station. It contains most of the jewelry that belonged to Betty Dick. A few of the pieces were melted down by the pawn shop owners, but the rest has been recovered: several rings, a few solid bracelets, and several chain bracelets. Until the appeals process is completed, these items remain as evidence. The family cannot get them back; they cannot even go sort through them to find out exactly what is there. For the most part, Wendi Neuner does not talk about what happened on the morning of September 20, 1993. But she does ask, once in a while, about the chain bracelet that Grandma Betty always promised her. There was supposed to be one for Wendi, one for Toni. Wendi cannot have her bracelet now. Someday perhaps, she will be allowed to wear it.
Wendi's doing very well now. She does great in school -- she's made the honor roll -- and her counselor has advised that, as long as she is not asking questions about the murders, she should not be forced to talk about them. Someday, of course, she will begin to ask questions. And her family will tell her the story, the story of her grandma Betty, and how she gave up her birthday for Wendi; they will help her remember all the fun she had with her little sister, Toni, who used to shadow her everywhere. And, perhaps, Wendi will look down at a chain bracelet on her left wrist, and ask about the man who did this to her grandma, and to her sister. And her family will be able to touch her cheek, look her in the eye, and say what so many victims' families will never be able to say, what so many of us ache to be able to tell our children:
He didn't get away with it.
That's not much, I know.
But it's a start.
Copyright © 1998 by Straight Shooter, Inc.
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