Anyone familiar with the starfish story knows throwing every starfish stranded on the beach back into the ocean is an impossible task; yet it makes all the difference to each starfish that makes it home.
This is a story that resides deeply in Bensalem Township Detective Chris McMullin’s heart, who has dedicated nearly the past two decades to cold case work. Like all those starfish scattered along the shoreline, identifying cold case victims often appears as an impossible feat in a massive ocean of unsolved cases.
Chris reminds himself often of this story, and how sending one starfish home can make ripples of a difference. “At the end of the day, I just want to do some good,” Chris says.
The most recent cold case Chris dedicated his efforts to resulted in the successful identification of Philadelphia native Lisa Todd this past March, who had been known only as “Bucks County’s Jane Doe” or “The Publicker Jane Doe” for the past 33 years.
She was found at the abandoned Publicker Distillery in Bensalem in 1988, approximately three years after she went missing.
It has taken a little over three decades to identify this particular “starfish,” and just like most cases, Lisa wouldn’t have been identified without the help of a dedicated string of people who gave their time, energy and resources to hunt down her identity.
Among them was Frank Bender, famous for his work as a forensic sculptor, who compiled a sculpture bust of the Jane Doe’s head early on – this became a key in the case; all the police department had to work with to guess what she may have looked like.
The hunt for the Doe’s identity wouldn’t be complete for many years, nearly a decade after Frank Bender passed away.
Frank was also a co-founder of the ViDoQ society, a collective body “think-tank” of homicide investigators, criminal psychologists, medical examiners and people from every discipline who work together on cold cases in Philadelphia and surrounding areas.
Chris became part of the ViDoQ society early on in his career, establishing an avid interest in cold cases and the clever ways the department might go about solving them.
He would turn this passion toward solving the case of the Publicker Jane Doe. “Someone was missing her out there, somewhere,” Chris said.
Chris is one of those detectives you’d root for on a beloved true crime series, characterized by his dogged persistence and refusal to be deterred (fun fact: he has actually appeared on numerous TV shows as an actor, most recently Law & Order SVU).
It wasn’t his plan to become a lead investigator in local cold cases surrounding Bensalem Township, but once Chris stumbled upon it, he was immediately hooked.
A couple years after being promoted to detective in 2000, Chris underwent knee surgery which left him on desk duty. A coworker first suggested he open old cold case files, and Chris looks back at this now as a turning point.
The first case file he opened was that of Barbara Rowan. “I read through [the case] and decided it had to be solved,” he recalls.
Chris spent nearly a decade conducting interviews and researching. Throughout that time, he never alerted the family that he had reopened the case. “I figured why reopen that wound and give them false hope.”
The case continued to go cold but Chris never gave up. His persistence led him and a partner on the force to an ultimate moment: when Chris finally made the call to Barbara’s mother that they had arrested Barbara’s killer.
“Her daughter was killed in 1984, and this was 2015,” Chris said. “It was a very emotional phone call.”
After serving justice to the Rowan family, Chris continued his cold case hunt, becoming consumed with giving a name to “The Publicker Jane Doe”. This task would take a community, and 33 years of intense police work.
“For every unsolved homicide, there’s potentially a killer walking free,” Chris said. This fact details the other motivation behind Chris’s cold case work.
Read our next edition in June for a continuation of this story and to find out who else helped identify Lisa Todd.
PHOTO CAP: Chris McMullin