A local teacher who molested his charges was allowed to take a new job in West Virginia, where a student died in his care.
Jeremy's family, especially the dead child's grandmother, wouldn't let it go. For months the elderly woman discussed the case long distance with her cousin Elsie Deal, a retired English professor at Edinboro University, near Erie, Pa.
A round, gray-haired, practical woman, Deal had never met Jeremy, but she hated the idea that her relatives could be treated as though their lives meant nothing. Through the criminology department at Edinboro, she made contact with private investigator Dan Barber, who had offices in McKean, Pa., about an hour's drive away.
Having never hired a private eye before, Deal had no idea what to expect. But when the gravelly voiced detective opened the door to the little country house that served as his office, she was led into a study that could have been lifted from pulp fiction.
The walls were covered with awards and medals and framed newspaper clippings, memorabilia from his 38-year career in law enforcement. There were dozens of certificates showing completion of surveillance, interrogation and police dog-management classes.
Barber's table and desk were filled with unusual and painstakingly arranged bric-a-brac: arrowheads, animal bones, a police dog collar. Judging from the rows of perfectly sharpened pencils and the collection of books on the criminal brain, Barber was both organized and meticulous.
Deal told him the story of the child's death, and he went to work. He looked at the autopsy report and newspaper clippings the family had collected over the years. All the evidence gathered by the sheriff's office pointed to Friedrichs, and Barber couldn't understand why the principal wasn't, at the very least, arrested on the spot for negligent homicide.
That he was still allowed to teach children was even harder for Barber to comprehend, and he became convinced he was dealing with a top-down cover-up.
He told Deal that her West Virginia relatives were probably right: Friedrichs, for reasons he couldn't explain, was being protected. They could try to contact the feds, but Friedrichs still might never stand trial.
There was one thing he could do, he told her. If Jeremy had been molested the night he died, he most certainly wasn't Friedrichs' first victim.
Barber said he could try to locate others and get them to tell their stories, which might put Friedrichs away.
Was that her goal?
Deal said it was, and Barber made Edgar Friedrichs the focus of his professional life.
To crack the case, Barber knew he'd have to go back in time. How did Friedrichs get to West Virginia in the first place?
By asking around, Barber found out about the nine years Friedrichs had spent teaching at a school called Prospect Park Elementary just outside Philadelphia. He saw that Friedrichs had left his teaching job at Prospect Park to substitute at nearby schools in other districts.
Barber wondered why a married man with a new baby would make such an inexplicable career move. He also wondered why he would later apply for a full-time position in West Virginia.
Marise Stillman poured Dan Barber another soda, and the hard memories flooded back: the day in the kitchen watching her sons role-play; John in his little coat and tie, being led from the magistrate's office in tears; the phone calls from neighbors begging her to forget the whole thing.
Friedrichs had left Prospect Park in '73, so Barber and his apprentice, Kristen Kuharik, pored over high school yearbooks to get the last names of children who could have been in his fifth-grade classes. He then turned to the white pages of the phone book, which is how he found Marise Stillman.
From the hotel suite that he'd turned into a temporary office in Media, Barber and Kuharik traced Friedrichs' early life in painstaking detail. They located the house where Friedrichs grew up and the elementary and high schools he'd attended. They even retraced the route he would have taken on his bike to deliver newspapers.
Although Marise was beginning to wonder if the detective weren't a bit obsessive, she listened with growing horror. The news about Jeremy was devastating. The West Virginia boy had been the same age as her boys had been when Friedrichs frightened and molested them.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4