Cold Case Squad: Modern-Day 'Sherlock Holmes' Team Takes on Oregon Slaying

Photo: Modern-Day Sherlock Holmes Team Takes on Oregon Slaying: Killing of Leah Freeman, 15, Was Cold for 10 Years. Then The Vidocq Society Got Involved.PlayCourtesy Cory Courtright
WATCH What Happened to Leah Freeman?

In the summer of 2000, 15-year-old Leah Freeman went missing in Coquille, Ore. For almost a week, the Coquille Police Department, led by Chief Mike Reeves, treated it as a missing person case, believing that the teen had run away.

Yet on the night the teen disappeared, an ominous discovery was made. A man picked up a shoe by the side of a town road. He thought it belonged to his daughter. It was not until days later, after the town's search for Leah had grown increasingly anxious, that he turned the shoe over to police.

The police identified the shoe as Leah's. On it they discovered blood.

Six weeks passed before Leah's mother, Cory Courtright, got the call from police that would end her hopes that Leah was still alive. Another discovery had been made.

"I still let the denial take over," Courtright said. "I wanted to... I wanted to go back in time. I didn't want, I didn't want to go home. I didn't want to hear the final news. I didn't want to hear it."

A search team had come upon a macabre scene just off an isolated lumber road about five miles outside of town.

Leah Freeman's decomposed body lay on a steep hillside, apparently dumped from the road above.

Case Goes Cold for 10 Years

For 10 years, the case went unsolved. Authorities say circumstantial evidence pointed to Leah's 18-year-old boyfriend. But there was no hard evidence to link him to the crime.

Then a new police chief, Mark Dannels, took an aggressive approach to the case. A room at the police station was devoted to the unsolved mystery.

What Dannels did next would finally open a possible way forward. He called The Vidocq Society.

The Vidocq Society

Known as the heirs of Sherlock Holmes, the Philadelphia-based Vidocq Society gathers ace detectives from around the world to solve the world's most perplexing cold cases. The group -- formed by freewheeling forensic sculptor Frank Bender, FBI and U.S. Customs agent William Fleisher and preeminent forensic psychologist and profiler Richard Walter -- has pledged itself to a grand quest for justice.

"People think of them as wizards who sort of peep and mutter and go into a back room and come out and say, 'He did it,'" said Philadelphia crime writer Michael Capuzzo, who profiles the group in his book, "The Murder Room."

Dannels said he did not hesitate to call for outside help.

"In a cold case, I'll take any resource I can to help solve this case," Dannels said. "And when we have something of that magnitude offer up services, we're all over it. ... And when you bring all this expertise together... it's one stop shopping. You got all the expertise in one room at one time."

Vidocq Society: Famous Cases

The society is named after Eugene Francois Vidocq, Napoleon's chief detective and the father of modern criminology. Vidocq was practicing rudimentary police science 100 years before the FBI or Scotland Yard was even formed.

The Vidocq Society is filled with colorful characters. Fleisher, the customs agent, is a "tough, skeptical Philly guy," Capuzzo said, who specializes in lie detector test analysis. Fleisher explained the society's criteria for taking a case.

"Case has to be over two years old," Fleisher said. "And we have to have police cooperation."

The soul of the group is forensic artist Frank Bender, who molds faces, capturing the look of what cold case suspects should look like years later. And then there is the dark side of the trio, a figure known as "The Thin Man." He's Richard Walter, a piano-playing, chainsmoking, psychological profiler. He spent years as a prison psychologist collecting firsthand the creepy inside details of murder from the killers themselves.

"[Walter's] nickname at ... Scotland Yard is 'Living Sherlock Holmes,' 'cause he sort of looks, talks, acts like Sherlock Holmes," said Capuzzo. "But he's the real deal, as a criminologist, too. And he's devoted his life to it."

The Foot Fetish Case

The Vidocq society has a solid track record of solving the unsolvable.

There was the "Foot Fetish" case at Philadelphia's Drexel University. In November 1984, student Deborah Wilson was found strangled in a stairwell outside a computer lab. There was no sign of rape and her purse wasn't taken. However, the one thing she was missing were her shoes.

For eight years, Philadelphia police were stumped, until they came to the Vidocq Society. Walter focused on the victim's bare feet. In this case, the shoes -- or lack of them -- would be key evidence. Walter described the killer as someone with a foot fetish. He advised police to find a man with a history of stealing women's footwear.

With Walter's guidance, detectives zeroed in on David Dickson, a former military man now working as a campus security guard. He had previously been court-martialed and discharged for stealing women's sneakers.

When police went to Dickson's home, they found a collection of shoes. Dickson was arrested and convicted of murder in 1995.

The John List Case

On a bleak New Jersey day in 1971, John List, a churchgoing accountant, methodically executed his wife, his aging mother, his teenage daughter and his two sons. In a five-page confession letter left at the scene, he claimed he killed his family to send them to heaven.

Then List disappeared, becoming the subject of one of the most frustrating manhunts in the history of law enforcement.

It would take police and the FBI more than 18 years to bring List to justice. List's bizarre crime and mysterious escape made headlines around the world.

In 1989, Frank Bender was asked to do a sculpture of List. He called in his friend Walters to profile the killer. Walters said List would be wearing a suit, remarried, involved with the Lutheran Church and caught no further than 300 miles from where the crime occurred.

With that insight, Bender sculpted a bust of List. Days later, police got a tip that List was using the alias Bob Clark and living in Richmond, Va., with his new wife, Delores.

List was arrested on June 1, 1989, and died in prison in 2008.

Vidocq Society and the Texas Bloodbath

It was a 1991 Lubbock, Texas disappearance -- but there was no body and little physical evidence.

Leisha Hamilton told Det. Tal English that her boyfriend, Scott Dunn, had simply left town. But Dunn had left behind all his clothes. Investigators also noticed a piece of the living room carpet in the home Hamilton and Dunn shared had been crudely replaced.

The police conducted a Luminol examination -- a chemical search of the apartment intended to reveal traces of blood that had been wiped away. The Luminol illuminates when it comes in contact with blood.

When the room was sprayed, the police realized they had uncovered a bloodbath. The walls and ceiling where covered. Police could even see wipe marks where someone had tried to clean up the room.

"Once we started looking around there was splatter on the north wall, there was splatter on the east wall, and up on the ceiling, so we are talking a lot of cast-off blood," said English.

Walter was called in on the case. He explained to the Lubbock police that they had enough circumstantial evidence to go after the girlfriend. Even without a body, Walter explained, there was enough blood spatter to convince a jury that Dunn didn't just leave town.

Walter confronted Hamilton and told her to stop claiming that Scott simply disappeared.

"She was trying to play a game and I decided to call her at her game," Walter said. "And I said, 'Scott was murdered. Absolutely murdered, and I don't want to hear missing again.' And she said, 'Oh,' she said, 'Well, I was the last one to see him.' And I said 'Yes, and so was the killer.'"

Today Leisha Hamilton is in prison, serving a 20-year sentence.

Vidocq Takes Leah Freeman Case

Back in Oregon, Police Chief Dannels was impressed with the Vidocq Society's track record of solving the unsolvable. The society, in turn, thought they could help find out what happened to Leah Freeman. They took the case, with Richard Walter as point man.

Dannels flew to Philadelphia to meet the team.

"I've been in law enforcement 26 years," said Dannels. "But sitting in the room that day with these experts, I felt like it was my first day on the job."

Can they solve the mystery of who killed Leah?

Watch the full story Friday on "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET