Sixteen years ago, an 86-year-old woman was murdered in my neighborhood. It's the kind of thing a 12-year-old never forgets.
The sun had finally set on Emerald Avenue's longest afternoon.
Gone were the TV trucks, the gawkers and the body bag. The members of the shocked family retreated home to ready for a tomorrow filled with grief and burial arrangements.
Up and down the block of suburban family houses on postage-stamp lots, parents faced the infinitely difficult task of explaining to their children how a murder had come to visit their town that summer day. After grasping for elusive explanations, they tried to lay their kids down to sleep that night.
Inside a nearby house, two brothers, neither yet in high school, pulled down a blind and peered at the house where the murder had occurred. Behind the drawn shades next door, they could see camera flashes into the night.
For these boys, the facts of what happened that day were becoming shockingly clear: Mrs. Fleming, the 86-year-old kickball-stealing widow the local kids considered the wicked witch of the neighborhood, was dead.
What they didn't know was the extent of the brutality Camden County homicide investigators had discovered. Gertrude Fleming's scalp had been shredded and her nose was among numerous facial bones broken. Many of her teeth--teeth she had meticulously cared for--were scattered about the living room floor. Her blood was splattered on all four walls, staining the furniture and floor.
Oddly, the house hadn't been ransacked, and it didn't look as though anyone had broken in. Everything, including the thousands in cash Fleming kept in her bedroom nightstand, remained undisturbed.
The killer draped a small curtain over Gertrude Fleming's head, which he had placed on a couch pillow before making off unnoticed into the August afternoon.
"This," said one confident investigator strolling through the crime scene as he calculated the odds of justice being served, "is going to be an easy one."
Tales of unsolved murder have become near routine in recent years. Across the river in Camden County alone, roughly one of every five homicides over the past two decades have gone without an arrest. And that's a higher percentage than in many other places.
But the Aug. 5, 1985 death of Gertrude Fleming is one that won't be forgotten. Not only was nobody charged in the brutal death of the frail widow, but the murder took place in Westmont, a sliver of suburban Haddon Township sandwiched between leafy Haddonfield and well-to-do Cherry Hill.
While many cases go unsolved because police can't make a convincing case against a strong suspect, the murder of Gertrude Fleming was a modern-day whodunit that seemed to stump relatives, friends and police. Everybody and nobody could be responsible.
"It's rare for anything to happen there, really," explains Greg Reinert of the county prosecutor's office.
History supports his assertion. Since the '70s, Haddon Township has experienced few big news crimes.
The 1977 rape and murder of eight-year-old Bobby Allmand in a wooded area near the township's busiest thoroughfare left parents petrified. But eight years later, the cops finally caught up with their man, an ex-con from Camden with a history of sexually abusing children.
Thirteen years later, an 84-year-old woman was found stabbed to death just three blocks from the Fleming house. But within days, a 20-year-old roofer who had been working on the victim's house was taken into custody after police caught him drawing a check on the dead woman's bank account.
The Fleming murder, similar in some ways, differed in that no one came forward with information. While continuous media coverage of the other murder cases kept the public's attention focused, Fleming garnered just seven paragraphs in the Philadelphia dailies and a single front-page article in the local paper.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4