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.”
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.”
“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.