Sunday, May 15, 2016

Charles Stecker: Philadelphia Man Seeks Answers 44 Years After Witnessing Brother's Foster -Care Death

Original Philidelphia Weekly Story Link

Philadelphia Man Seeks Answers 44 Years After Witnessing Brother’s Foster-Care Death

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 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.”
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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.
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 Downau­thor 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.”
Bingo.
“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.”
“With­in a week of our ini­tial in­ter­ac­tions, [Byrne] calls me again and has the court re­cords,” Steck­er says. “[Now] all of a sud­den ar­rest re­cords are found, court re­cords found. I’m ex­cited. Fi­nally.”
Steck­er holds up his cell phone to show the re­cord of the call from Byrne. “I lit­er­ally found the out­come of [Bed­ford’s] case out yes­ter­day,” he says. “Tues­day, April 25, 2011, 10:18 a.m.”
Byrne “told me sev­er­al things I didn’t already know,” says Steck­er. “He told me that [Bed­ford] nev­er went be­fore tri­al … which would ex­plain why the court it­self couldn’t find re­cords. [Byrne] only found the in­vest­ig­a­tion re­cords. It was presen­ted be­fore the court, but her at­tor­ney kept hav­ing it post­poned.”
“Every time after that it was that she was men­tally un­fit to stand tri­al. She nev­er ap­peared in court again, he couldn’t find where she was re­manded to psy­chi­at­ric treat­ment by the court.”
One of the last art­icles cov­er­ing the case states that on March 4, 1967, Lil­lian Bed­ford was sent to Nor­ris­town State Hos­pit­al by or­der of Judge Stan­ley M. Green­berg. The hos­pit­al can’t, of course, con­firm pa­tients’ re­cords due to fed­er­al law.
“Charles can’t ob­tain the re­cords,” says D.A. spokes­wo­man Tasha Jamer­son. “I know that De­tect­ive Byrne read him in­form­a­tion over the phone but as for phys­ic­ally ob­tain­ing the re­cords, that’s not something any­body can do.”
Byrne con­firmed for Steck­er that Lil­lian Bed­ford died on Jan. 2, 1998.
About the out­come: “It is what it is,” Steck­er sighs. “All my life I had been told noth­ing ever happened to [Lil­lian Bed­ford], but I nev­er fully be­lieved it. It wasn’t a shock, I don’t have any an­im­os­ity—she’s passed away. It was a bit of clos­ure at least, fi­nally hear­ing it dir­ectly from someone who saw the re­cord. Now I know for sure.”
 Now for the oth­er puzzle piece: find­ing out how he and his broth­er ended up in Bed­ford’s care. Between the bits of doc­u­ment­a­tion he ob­tained and his moth­er’s and fath­er’s ac­counts, Steck­er has tried to piece to­geth­er his past, but his par­ents, who di­vorced shortly after Ed­die’s death, of­fer con­flict­ing ver­sions of many events.
Steck­er was born in now-de­mol­ished Nav­al Hos­pit­al Phil­adelphia in 1962, the first-born son of 21-year-old Mar­ie Steck­er (now Smith). His moth­er had a troubled child­hood: Her par­ents died when she was 9 years old, then her grand­moth­er died when she was 12. She was ad­op­ted by an aunt. “My life went down­hill after that,” says Smith, 70, from her home in Vir­gin­ia. Smith grew up in the Straw­berry Man­sion sec­tion of the city down the street from Steck­er’s fath­er and name­sake, Charles Joseph Steck­er Sr. After run­ning away and spend­ing the bet­ter part of her teen years in a school for troubled girls, she mar­ried Steck­er. He was a cook with the Coast Guard.
Right away they had Charles. Two years later, Ed­ward [Ed­die] John was born, fol­lowed by a baby girl named Donna. Pa­ging through the Steck­er fam­ily baby books, you wouldn’t guess the tra­gic turn their lives would take. The pen­man­ship looks like a teen­ager’s lop­sided scrawl. “Charlie, Jr. loves his broth­er Ed­die very much. He es­pe­cially likes to hold him with my help of course,” wrote a then 23-year-old Smith on a page re­served for her son’s “Year Two” mile­stone. Smith di­li­gently re­cor­ded de­tails such as the child’s fa­vor­ite ve­get­ables and first at­tempts at stand­ing up. The book reads like the re­cord of an at­tent­ive, lov­ing moth­er.
“It seems that way, doesn’t it?” says Steck­er, star­ing at the page. “I don’t know, maybe she was try­ing then.”
But the book, like the rest of the doc­u­ments, doesn’t tell the whole story.
“By the time I was a year old, my [birth] mom had frac­tured my skull. By the time I was 2, she had knocked out a few teeth,” says Steck­er. Un­der a page titled ‘Ill­nesses’ there are three frac­tured skull entries. “Fell out of crib on head” is marked 4/63, “clum­si­ness” is marked 11/65. A third entry in dif­fer­ent ink says “fell.”
Steck­er be­lieves the city in­ter­vened. “DHS got in­volved be­cause the Navy hos­pit­al caught the fact that I was com­ing back [to the hos­pit­al with in­jur­ies] routinely,” he says.
His moth­er in­sists it didn’t hap­pen that way; that he shouldn’t be­lieve what the pa­pers say be­cause they nev­er talked to her. “He thinks the state took him, no they did not,” coun­ters Smith, who says she signed him over vol­un­tar­ily, though she ac­cuses her ex-hus­band of trick­ing her in­to giv­ing up cus­tody of her first-born son.
“They put a pa­per in front of me and my ex-hus­band had already signed it,” says Smith. “I didn’t think to ask, ‘what’s this I’m sign­ing?’ I signed my son over.”
“They said something about ab­use, I said fine,” she adds. “Then it just snow­balled after that.”
Smith denies beat­ing her son. “There was an ac­ci­dent that happened and yes he was hurt,” she says over the phone. “Chuck had fallen and to this day I can­not re­mem­ber what happened.”
While Smith denies spe­cif­ic al­leg­a­tions of ab­use, she will ad­mit to the pos­sib­il­ity of phys­ic­al ab­use in gen­er­al terms—with the caveat that she wasn’t alone.
“What had happened at that time was not done by me alone, it was done by his fath­er too,” she says, mak­ing the point re­peatedly. Smith feels she shoulders too much of the blame from the fam­ily for everything that’s gone wrong.
Mean­while Donna, who lives in New Jer­sey, be­lieves a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of the story. “I was put in foster care when I was two months old be­cause ba­sic­ally my butt looked like raw ham­burger,” she says. She also says her fath­er told her that her moth­er broke her eardrum. “I’ve nev­er been able to hear out of it, and I’m as­sum­ing that’s true,” she says. (“She’s ly­ing,” says Smith.)
The dec­ades-long dis­pute over how the Steck­er chil­dren ended up in foster care—and sub­sequently Ed­die’s death and the fal­lout—has poisoned the Steck­er fam­ily tree.
“There’s a whole big thing go­ing on in the fam­ily here … [It] stems back to Ed­die’s death,” says Smith. “And I can’t get all the pieces to­geth­er.”
Donna re­fuses to speak to Steck­er.
“[She doesn’t] like the fact that I talk about what happened.”
Donna doesn’t speak to either of her par­ents. Steck­er vis­its his bio­lo­gic­al fath­er every few months out of “ob­lig­a­tion,” but says he can’t stand it.
“He wants to tell you about things you did wrong since the day you were born,” says Steck­er. “Here’s a man di­vorced from my moth­er for 46 years and he’s still com­plain­ing about things she did when they were mar­ried. ‘Can you be­lieve she shel­lacked my bon­gos?’ This was a few months ago!”
The fam­ily situ­ation be­came “volat­ile” when Steck­er first star­ted post­ing his story on the In­ter­net in the early days of de­cid­ing to be­come an ad­voc­ate.
“I put the story on MySpace about five years ago and all hell broke loose.”
Steck­er says Donna stopped talk­ing to him “when I told her what I was do­ing with all this stuff … [She] said I was do­ing everything I was do­ing for per­son­al gain.”
“I know this sounds hor­rible but he’s been us­ing my broth­er’s death for years as a means of get­ting at­ten­tion,” says Donna. “It was a tragedy, but he needs to let it rest. He’s de­vot­ing his life to his broth­er Ed­die … I per­son­ally think it’s wrong. If this is his way of deal­ing with it, then he can deal with it but I said, ‘Leave me out of it. My ab­use days are over.’”
Steck­er didn’t see or speak to his moth­er for about 14 years, though they re­cently star­ted com­mu­nic­at­ing via text mes­sage, fre­quently quib­bling over the de­tails of bio­graph­ic­al in­form­a­tion he posts on his page.
“I said, ‘Chuck you’re mak­ing me look like trash on Face­book and I don’t like that, be­cause that’s not he way it happened,’” says Smith.
Still, she says she sup­ports her son and wants to bridge the gap. She says she hopes he finds the re­cords, to settle some scores. She also sup­ports his dream of be­ing a voice for oth­er ab­used kids.
“Chuck is try­ing to do what he couldn’t do for him­self [as a kid],” Smith says.
Phil­adelphia foster and ad­op­tion re­cords from the late 1800s to 1970 are stored in urb­an archives sec­tion of Temple Uni­versitys’s lib­rary. Last week, Steck­er met with rep­res­ent­at­ives of Turn­ing Points for Chil­dren, the agency cre­ated when Chil­dren’s Aid So­ci­ety and Phil­adelphia So­ci­ety for Ser­vices to Chil­dren merged, re­quest­ing per­mis­sion to ob­tain his re­cord. In a few weeks, he’ll have an­oth­er an­swer, but not all the an­swers. They will re­lease his re­cord to him but not Ed­die’s. Donna says she “could care less.”
When Charles, Ed­ward and Donna first ar­rived in foster care, they were placed to­geth­er with tem­por­ary foster par­ents. Press re­ports in­dic­ate that on Feb. 15, 1967, Charles and Ed­die were moved to the home of Don­ald and Lil­lian Bed­ford at 29 E. Sey­mour St. in Ger­man­town. For whatever reas­on, Smith says, the Bed­fords only wanted boys, so baby Donna stayed be­hind.
Don Bed­ford was a 45-year-old house paint­er; Lil­lian was a 42-year-old house­wife. Mar­ried 13 years, they had no chil­dren of their own. The couple re­ceived $24 a week for each child.
“So­cial work­ers … in­tro­duced us to our new mommy and daddy,” re­calls Steck­er. “When we went in, there were toys and a crib ready for us. It seemed like a good place to be to a 4-year-old.”
“Thir­teen days later, my broth­er was murdered and my left arm was shattered,” he says.
Steck­er ex­tends his arm as far as it can go, about 5 inches shy of straight. Thick dark Hebrew script is tat­tooed onto his fore­arm. It means “true ser­vant,” a concept that sum­mar­izes Steck­er’s life call­ing to help oth­ers. Be­neath the tat­tooed skin, steel pins and plates hold the bones to­geth­er.
Steck­er re­calls be­ing ter­ri­fied at the Bed­ford home. “When [Don] was around everything was peace­ful and nice and friendly, but when he wasn’t [home] she would scare us,” he says. “If you cried, you got hit, whatever you did … it was like … Je­kyll and Hyde.”
“She would hide be­hind the stairs and scare us, grabbing our ankles, yelling ‘Boo­gey­man!’” In in­ter­views with po­lice after Ed­die’s death, little Chuck­ie said his foster moth­er held their heads un­der faucets and beat them with sticks.
“You name it,” says Steck­er. “Go to bed [and you’d be] ripped out of your bed. In the tub, the hot wa­ter faucets would be turned on. Evil stuff.”
Dr. Joseph Spel­man, the city’s med­ic­al ex­am­iner at the time, told au­thor­it­ies that the bruises as­so­ci­ated with “par­ent­al pun­ish­ment” on Ed­die’s body sug­ges­ted that he had been “mis­treated phys­ic­ally” for some time lead­ing up to the fatal blow. “The re­port also in­dic­ated he had been struck re­peatedly for a day or so be­fore his death.”
Lil­lian Bed­ford con­fessed, though not right away.
Ac­cord­ing to a pub­lished ac­count of the events, “Mrs. Bed­ford at first had main­tained that Ed­ward had fallen from his crib, but his broth­er, Charles, told them, ‘My new mommy hit him.’”
Bed­ford was ar­res­ted for in­vol­un­tary man­slaughter and as­sault.
Au­thor Joe Mc­Gin­n­iss, then a pop­u­lar In­quirer colum­nist, wrote the only pub­lic nar­rat­ive of Don Bed­ford’s life after his wife’s ar­rest.
In Mc­Gin­n­iss’ por­trait, Don Bed­ford stag­gers through his day swig­ging whis­key and sob­bing, a broken man who loved his wife and al­ways wanted chil­dren of his own.
“Be­lieve it or not,” Bed­ford told Mc­Gin­n­iss, “She’s a damned fine wo­man. And I wish you could have seen how won­der­ful she was with the kids. She had a nurs­ery school class at our church and the things she did with the chil­dren there were just ter­rif­ic.”
Mc­Gin­n­iss sum­mar­ized the hus­band’s di­lemma. “It was not easy for him to de­cide what to do. At first he hated her. He had waited all his life for chil­dren and she had killed them when they came.”
“He could have walked out and said to hell with her and tried to find a new life, but in­stead he hired the best law­yer he could get.”
The Bed­fords hired A. Charles Per­uto Sr. A loc­al courtroom le­gend, the 84-year-old re­tired at­tor­ney still lives in town.
Steck­er says that he peri­od­ic­ally tried to con­tact Per­uto, and his son, Per­uto Jr.—well-known for rep­res­ent­ing re­puted mob boss Joey Mer­lino—for de­tails of the beat­ing death. “I was told he didn’t want any­thing to do with the case,” says Steck­er. Turns out, Per­uto simply doesn’t re­mem­ber.
“You’re not telling me any­thing that strikes a bell,” says Per­uto dur­ing a re­cent tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion. “I tell you I stopped count­ing murder cases that I’ve had when I hit the ma­gic num­ber 333. Oth­er­wise, you see bod­ies in your sleep, for cry­ing out loud.”
Ran­dolph E. Wise, the Wel­fare De­part­ment com­mis­sion­er in 1967, was widely quoted de­scrib­ing Ed­die Steck­er’s death as “the first of its kind in the his­tory of the city’s foster par­ent pro­gram.”
But in April 1966, an­oth­er 2-year-old died while liv­ing with the Bed­fords and though murder was not proven, it should have been a big enough red flag to dis­qual­i­fy the couple from the foster pro­gram.
Press re­ports in­dic­ate that Brent “Chuck” Gar­cia had suffered a “severe bruise” on his scalp but “the autopsy on the Gar­cia boy failed to de­term­ine either the cause of death or how the child died.” Bed­ford claimed Gar­cia’s death was a res­ult of him ac­ci­dent­ally fall­ing off a rock­ing horse.
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.