The Medical Examiner’s Office determined it could not prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the boy was murdered. A letter was sent to the Welfare Department clearing the Bedfords. They were re-registered as foster parents. The Stecker boys arrived 10 months later.
“Cleared in ’66 Case, Foster Mother Is Held in Death of 2D Child” was the headline of an Inquirer article reporting that Eddie’s death ignited a fresh look into the death of Garcia. But after that article, like with Don and Lillian Bedford, the public record trail goes cold.
“It’s regrettable,” continued Wise in the article but, he said, it was “difficult to pinpoint where we erred.”
Wise admitted that his department did not see Garcia’s autopsy report and took the medical examiner’s exoneration of the Bedfords, who passed a background check, “at face value.”
Stecker can’t get over the negligence. “What happened to my brother is bad enough,” he says. “But the level of irresponsibility on the part of the city to put two more boys in the care of people who had a questionable record is, at best, mind-boggling.”
Stecker recalls being told about his brother’s death while recovering at the hospital from the broken bones inflicted by his foster mom. His tiny body—he was always a small child for his age, “a peanut” he says—was encased in thick plaster casts.
“My natural father had no bedside manner. He said, ‘your brother’s dead.’ At 4, what dead meant to me, I don’t know.”
After getting out of the hospital and then rehab, four months after Eddie’s death, in June of 1967, Stecker was reunited with his sister Donna at an orphanage in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. That August, they were placed with the Brophy family in Overbrook, where they spent five and a half “awesome” years. “They are part of the reason I am who I am today,” says Stecker. But he had to leave. In the sixth grade, he was sent to live with the Koguts in Mayfair for a year. Then in 1974 he was sent to St. Francis Home for Boys for two years. At the time, the program was run by Father Peter Dunne, who was later diagnosed as an “untreatable pedophile.”
In July 1976, 13-year-old Stecker was returned to his biological mother—a bad decision he says.
“I remember the verbal abuse and threats, ‘You should have died with your brother,’” says Stecker.
Asked about this allegation, Smith loses her cool.
“That I will dispute! … I would never wish any of my kids dead. I’m a very calm person. I’ve got a bad side too that I left in Philadelphia.”
The list of allegations Stecker has against his mother is long: She kicked him in the groin so hard he required surgery; she made him watch pornography with one of her boyfriends; she attacked a friend and broke his ankle. Smith has a response for each episode: Her son had surgery to correct a congenital defect; she doesn’t allow porn in her house and if she did it wouldn’t have been where the kids could see it; if she broke a kid’s ankle, he would’ve sued her, wouldn’t he?
“I don’t want to make my son out to be a liar,” she says. “I wasn’t the perfect parent. At that point my frame of mind was not the way it was supposed to be.”
At 18 years old, pushed to the brink, Stecker left his mother’s house for good. He joined the Coast Guard. As a young adult, he lived a regular-enough life: He met a woman, he fell in love, got married, had a baby, got divorced, got married and divorced again. He lived in New Jersey to be near his daughter, swearing he would never abandon her.
He tried to be a normal person, but he says the burden of his experiences shined through in small, odd ways. “It was [while] watching the news, reading the newspapers and seeing my life experiences still happening around me and feeling incapacitated to do anything,” he says. He wonders if what he witnessed affected him in ways he doesn’t realize. “I always say if I had to kill to eat, I would be a vegetarian … I don’t do dead. Me and dead just don’t work out. Maybe that stems back to what happened to my brother.”
After growing up hop-scotching through houses that were never quite homes, Stecker’s back in Philadelphia living just blocks from the demolished hospital where he was born.
This past Feb. 28, 44 years to the day of Eddie’s death, Stecker returned to the house on Seymour Street. The owner, who knows Stecker from his planting flowers along the fence every year, let him look around inside. The house is being gutted for renovation, but the owner set the bathtub where Bedford washed the blood off Eddie aside for Stecker. He wants to use it as a planter on his lawn in South Philly.
“I felt at peace,” he says about walking through the house. “When I walked out of the house I almost felt energized, like I was 20 feet tall, to find out the ending of that portion, move on.”
Stecker’s excited about the new phase of his life. He’s in the process of getting Chahlie’s Angel up and running, then envisions a book, a movie. He’s not giving up on the paper chase, on finding the puzzle pieces that will allow him to finally view the big picture. “I’m working on getting records released to me,” he says. “I want that file … it’s just the matter of making the right friends, and I will.” Stecker says after all these years, he’s finally ready. He knows better than to expect a tidy resolution like closure or justice. All he wants is information.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4