Charles Stecker was only 4 years old when he saw his foster mother kill his 2-year-old brother Eddie, but he remembers it like it was yesterday.
“[She] put my brother to bed and he was crying profusely. [Eddie] was probably in pain because he was beat up,” says Stecker, who remembers lying in a bed a few feet away as his foster mother, Lillian Bedford, placed his brother in a crib, walked downstairs and started chatting on the telephone.
Stecker watched his foster mother return to the boys’ room, agitated by what she described as Eddie’s persistent “squalling,” the Philadelphia Inquirer later reported.
“She came in our room. There was a plastic pin in the crib,” recalls Stecker, referring to a bowling pin, a part of a children’s toy bowling kit. “She picked [the bowling pin] up and swung it at him and told him to shut his fucking mouth. When she hit him she caught him in the back of his head.”
Various newspapers reported a second blow. Either way, Eddie toppled out of the crib.
“His head bounced off the floor,” Stecker says. “I jumped out of bed, went over and was holding him … I remember blood coming out of his ears and nose.”
Eddie’s brain hemorrhaged. He was dying.
As Stecker, now 48, relays the life-defining incident, sentences flow like waterfalls, peppered with details culled from a memory bolstered by newspaper clippings, birth and death certificates that he carries around in a folder. Today, he’s also carrying a baby book with locks of Eddie’s hair Scotch-taped to a page.
“It’s horrible,” says Stecker. “Sometimes I wish I never remembered anything.”
Stecker says he held on to his brother even as his foster mom was “beating me to get me off of him.” Finally, she yanked him so forcefully the bones in his left arm broke—he would never straighten his arm again. Doctors suggested re-breaking and re-setting the bones when he was 18, but he refused.
News accounts later revealed that Bedford tidied the floor before tending to the dying baby. Then, Stecker says, “she … carried [Eddie] to the bathroom put him in the tub trying to rinse the blood off. I remember her making a phone call; then the police were there.”
Two-year-old Edward John Stecker was pronounced dead at Germantown Hospital at 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 28, 1967. The death certificate lists the cause of death as “subdural hemorrhage, bilateral.” Under “circumstances of significant injury,” one word is typed in all caps: BEATEN. Eddie’s funeral at St. Leo’s Roman Catholic Church in Tacony was widely reported. He was buried hugging a teddy bear—a gift from his big brother—in a small white casket in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. The city’s Welfare Department paid for the funeral and burial plot.
Decades later, Stecker is still trying to figure out what happened: How did he and his brother end up in the hands of a killer foster mom, and what happened to her after Eddie’s death? “The ultimate goal is for me to be able to answer the question of what happened to the woman who killed my brother,” he says.
“It’s been hidden,” the South Philly resident continues. “Every time I would try [to find out what happened], I’d run into brick walls.”
“I was looking through the police, city records. Everyone said, ‘There’s nothing on this case, it doesn’t exist.’”
But every day, he remembers it. As if by impossibly rapid evolution, Stecker has a talent, maybe even a need, for details. He rattles off full names, spellings, dates and times. The ever-expanding file he carries around with him reveals a one-man detective trying to solve the mystery of his own life.
Stecker, who grew up being called Chuckie, goes by Chahlie now, pronounced and spelled with the H. With a shaved head, beard, tattoos and a gold hoop earring, he looks like a TV actor typecast as either the street-wise, get-the-job-done cop or a corner tough; the loudmouth who starts the bar fight. But he’s none of those things. His brown eyes are kind.
“I can’t get angry,” he shrugs. “I’d like to experience it. I’m a little afraid of it. I get hurt, but … I don’t have anger and rage. I never had those things.” The only time his eyes well up is when he mentions how Frank Rizzo, Philly’s police commissioner in 1967, once picked him up and hugged him, remembering him at the scene of the crime. “We remained friends until the end of his life,” says Stecker, voice cracking.
Over the years, Stecker has made many attempts to dig up records to fill in the blind spots: Did his foster mother get away with murder? Why exactly were he and his siblings entrusted to the City of Philadelphia to begin with? All he knew, and not even for sure, is that “nobody ever served a day in jail” for killing his brother or shattering his bones. There was “no court record, no arrest record, no record of it ever happening,” he says.
PW's Summer Guide 2014