The Body Snatchers

" ... what kind of person would be savage enough to snatch a 60-year-old man off the North Philly streets, pump his 5-foot frame full of morphine, cut him open "like a frog in biology class" and professionally remove his heart, liver, kidney and cartilage. ... "
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Clueless in Philadelphia

In light of a potential plea in a body-snatching case, a Hunting Park woman wants the cops to re-examine her father's murder.

by Brian Hickey
Philadelphia City Paper
January 23, 2008

Just like it did five years ago, the bad news found Letrese Bryant via the airwaves. In February 2003, the televised image of a police officer holding a blanket that had once been on her couch and a sneaker that had once been on her father's foot was all Letrese needed to confirm that her missing dad had been murdered.

But in the agonizing time since, nobody has been able to tell her what kind of person would be savage enough to snatch a 60-year-old man off the North Philly streets, pump his 5-foot frame full of morphine, cut him open "like a frog in biology class" and professionally remove his heart, liver, kidney and cartilage. Hell, she hasn't even heard from investigators in years. All she's been able to do is relive the horrors alone in unknowing, tearful silence.

Until last week.

Again, it was the TV news. This story was about local funeral homes caught up in a body-snatching ring that saw "cutters" harvest every last usable part of a dead person's body. A grand a corpse was the going rate, according to a New York magazine piece about the so-called Brooklyn-based mastermind, which also stated that cutters targeted poor areas in Philadelphia for their bounty. Turns out they might be cutting a plea deal, Letrese heard after being shaken from a near-sleep. It was another one of those cases that force the masses to wonder where our shared humanity went, but it left Letrese asking a more personal question.

"Could these have been the people who did something to my father?" she asked her husband, Eddie West. "Who's to say that it isn't connected?"

These are logical things to wonder. Once police turned Mr. Willie James "Pete" Kent's body over inside an abandoned shell off North Seventh Street, they had little direction. There wasn't a drop of blood, or any evidence, to be found. A ritualistic murder? Depraved med students? Nobody knew. And still, nobody knows. Could that soon change? Letrese prays so.

"This is the best thing that's happened since his death," she told me Monday.

Perhaps she spoke to soon. Letrese has already seen her optimistic hopes challenged at every turn. When I called the District Attorney's office to ask about a potential tie-in, I was told they didn't think so. The local harvesting didn't start until a year after Kent's discovery, they explained, and that the Philly funeral parlors involved (including one not too far up Hunting Park Avenue from where Kent lived) stood accused of abusing the dead, not turning humans into corpses. "These guys aren't murderers," a prosecutor told me.

From there, I tried the cops. The public affairs office confirmed the case was still open, and that I should feel free to contact the homicide detective upon whose desk the Kent folder resides. While he was so memorable that the spokeswoman knew him only as Det. Baker, she knew he's on the overnight shift, so I made an early-morning call.

While you'd hope that an investigator's ears may perk when reminded of a cold case, all Baker mustered was, "You can call all you want, but that doesn't mean I'm going to give you any information."

Granted, he was a shade more polite when Letrese called Tuesday; he's apparently not that strong of a reader, though, considering he told her that "your father was stabbed to death. What does [the body-snatching ring] have to do anything?"

"It was crushing," says Letrese, realizing that even if it were inclined to do so, the DA's office wouldn't get involved until police actually do their jobs. A job that includes realizing that a body missing its organs is no mere stabbing.

So, here's a summary: A lead that warrants follow-up has been summarily dismissed by someone who swore to serve you and me, thus leaving Letrese and her family no closer to an answer. Well, I don't care how many murders are on Baker's desk. Should our homicide detectives let a heavy workload deter them from even dedicating a moment's thought to potential tips, they're disgraces to their profession.

"I wish people would just think about it, just look at it," says Letrese, who hired an attorney to advocate on her behalf. "I know they're busy. There are plenty of murders, but what about my murder? I mean, does it matter to anybody but me and my family?"

Well, does it?

(hickey@citypaper.net)

http://www.citypaper.net/articles/2008/01/24/clueless-in-philadelphia