Finding out about his past has become urgent for Stecker because after spending his adult life working a string of jobs—managing a Roy Rogers, truck driving, catering—and raising a daughter in New Jersey, he says he had a spiritual epiphany that led him to move back to Philadelphia, where he wants to spend the rest of his life working as an advocate, as a voice for the voiceless.
“I came back to Philadelphia with the intention, I didn’t have any direction mind you, but the intention and desire to bring attention to child-abuse prevention and awareness.”
Before his spiritual awakening, Stecker vowed never to step foot anywhere near his birthplace. “Philadelphia has no good memories for me,” he says. “When I left in 1981, I swore I’d never come back.” He was 18 when he literally walked over the bridge to New Jersey, then joined the Coast Guard. Then five years ago, he says he was nudged by a divine calling. Then he read the book A Child Named It, the autobiography of a severely abused child, and it inspired him to return to Philly, face his demons and find the truth. Since then, he’s been doing renegade gigs, like helping foster children find their birth mothers. He recently spoke at a Chicago Baby James Foundation event, attends rallies and works with a group called StandUp for Kids. He’s working on creating a nonprofit called Chahlie’s Angel, in honor of his brother Eddie. Currently unemployed, Stecker says he’s spending his $300-a-week benefits check on building a website and applying for non-profit status.
“There’s a reason I walked through all this and I should be using this for a purpose.”
But for Stecker, helping other people begins with sharing his own story. And to share it, he has to know it first.
Three years ago, he started showing up at PPD headquarters (the Roundhouse), City Hall, Family Court, Temple University Library, the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Department of Human Services office and the District Attorney’s Office. He has even met with the Vidocq Society, Philly’s secret cold-case club.
In October 2008, Stecker got a gig as an “ambassador” (“AKA security,” he snorts) at the Union League, an old-school exclusive members-only club on 15th and Moravian streets, where the chic and elite meet up and a piano man plays to an empty hallway. He wanted the job because he realized it was a rolodex of powerful Philadelphians.
“Police chiefs are in there, politicians. I thought, wow, what an opportunity!”
Stecker talked to anyone who would listen, both co-workers and guests about his experiences, his dream of helping others and his search for the missing pieces of his story. Along the way, he met many famous people: controversial former U.S. Marine Corps Officer Oliver North, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden. He asked them all for help.
When he arrived at work one day in March last year, he found a sheet of Union League notepad paper on his desk. Scribbled on it was a court docket number. Stecker still doesn’t know who gave it to him.
“Once I got this, I’m like a pitbull, I dug into this and I wasn’t letting go. I felt like something crazy was going on, like who’s hiding what?”
A buddy in the PPD used the docket number to dig up the arrest record.
“They gave me the arrest record number of the record that the city said didn’t exist.”
“I took this to the city and they said they still couldn’t find the record. I said, ‘I have the arrest record number how could you say it didn’t exist?’”
Another brick wall.
But then Stecker had three chance encounters with former District Attorney Lynne Abraham. Stecker randomly met Abraham at a benefit event for victims of violence and then again at the Union League. He felt he made some progress with Abraham but then he was fired for reasons he says he is formally disputing. “The doors were closing again,” he says.
“[Then] I’m at Borders one day, and who’s standing in front of me but Lynne Abraham?” Stecker says.
She agreed to help. Abraham, who doesn’t remember Stecker—“I meet lots of people lots of places,” she says, adding that she’s “thrilled” if she was “able to help him”—referred Stecker to Ann Ponterio, attorney and chief of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s homicide division. Ponterio referred him to Detective Robert Byrne, who declined to comment for this story through a D.A. spokesperson.
“This was only three months ago,” says Stecker. “Detective Byrne calls me within 24 hours of my phone call to Ann.”
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino