Investigators in a 23 year old Illinois murder mystery are getting help, from an elite team of investigators in Pennsylvania.
Members of the Philadelphia-based Vidocq Society agreed to take a new look at the Tammy Zywicki murder investigation, and the Illinois State Police made a formal presentation to the group two months ago. The 21 year old Zywicki vanished while enroute back to Grinnell College in August of 1992, her car found abandoned on the shoulder of I-80 near LaSalle. Nine days later, the young woman’s body was found, wrapped in a carpet on the shoulder of a highway near Joplin, Missouri. She had been stabbed multiple times.
“Every case that comes before us, we treat it like it’s personal,” said William Fleisher, chief of the Vidocq Society and one of its founders. “Everybody says don’t get personal in these things. We get personal. We want to solve the case. And in the Zywicki case, we took it personal.”
The Society is made up of current and former law enforcement personnel from a variety of specialties, including detectives, medical examiners, forensic experts, and prosecutors. On average, they take on about nine cases a year. All must be unsolved for at least two years, and must involve victims who were not involved in any risky behavior or criminal activity.
“We have to have the concurrence of the police department,” Fleisher says, “that they want to come forward and they want to open their files to us.”
That’s exactly what happened in the Zywicki case. Illinois detectives made an over three hour presentation to the Vidocq experts last November 20th. “They did an outstanding job,” Fleisher said.
He would not reveal what advice or input his group gave to the Illinois Police officials. But, generically speaking, Fleisher said his team has often found that the answers are hiding in plain sight.
“It’s not unusual to find the name of the perpetrator in the case files,” he said. “That the police would have talked to the perpetrator, or received information on the perpetrator within 48 hours of the case.”
So, in many cases, detectives arrive, already believing they know who committed the crime?
“A lot of cases we get are like that, and they’re usually right,” he said.
The Vidocq chief would not say if that circumstance was present in the Zywicki case. One retired detective has argued that he saw plenty of evidence linking an ex-con from Missouri to the murder. But that man was never charged, and he died twelve years ago.
“We consider ourselves a catalyst,” Fleisher says. “We never look to steal the thunder of investigators because in reality, it’s the detectives who are the troops on the front line who solve these cases.”
And how’s their track record?
“We solve about 80 percent of our cases,” he said. “Now let me give you a caveat. Solving a case, and proving it, are two different things.”
In the average case, he said, “you can sit down and figure out who did it real quickly. There’s very few real mysteries out there.”
But, he added, obtaining a conviction is a legal matter, which of course, requires proof.
“How many cases are brought to the bar of justice? I would say that I can recall at least 25 out of hundreds. So maybe ten percent make it to some kind of resolution in the courts.”
The Illinois State Police said the session provided “valuable input”. And Fleisher applauded them for seeking his organization’s help.
“It takes very modern thinking people to say, hey, maybe I don’t have all the answers!”
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Illinois State Police declined a request for an interview.