by Len Lear
Several folks in Chestnut Hill know Chuck Bentham as a dedicated member of the board of directors of Bird-In-Hand Consignment Shop, a wonderful nonprofit organization whose proceeds, considerably more than $1 million, have been donated to local charities and the community itself since it was founded 44 years ago.
But Bentham, 70, a resident of Wyndmoor, has had a career that could be the stuff of movies and TV dramas. That’s because he was a police officer and detective with the Philadelphia Police Department for 25 years, followed by 16 years as an investigator and instructor with the Camden County Prosecutors Office.
He’s also a volunteer with the Vidocq Society, a group of former prosecutors, retired FBI agents, polygraph experts, homicide detectives, etc., who work with other law enforcement agencies across the country to solve unsolved murder cases. He’s also an investigative consultant in the Philadelphia area.
After eight years as a “line squad” detective in The East Division of the Philadelphia Police Department, Bentham was reassigned to the Homicide Division, working only on cases of murder and questionable sudden death. In 1989, he was involved in the first murder case in Philadelphia where DNA evidence was used at trial, which led to a conviction.
A woman named Beverly Turner was raped and murdered in West Philadelphia, and her killer, Edwin Davis, was convicted with the help of DNA.
“Edwin was seen leaving a neighborhood bar with the victim, but said that he didn’t go into the victim’s apartment,” recalled Bentham, “but his DNA was taken from her body. Today, DNA is so sophisticated that you can get a composite sketch or profile of the person who committed the crime.”
Of the homicide cases assigned to him, he wound up with a solve rate of over 95%.
“Some of those cases definitely stay with you,” he said. “They’re all bad, but some are more horrible than others. I’ve asked medical examiners how they’re able to perform autopsies day in and out. ‘I’m not related [to the victim],’ they say. But each and every one affected me. I don’t know of any homicide detective who doesn’t feel the same way. Each case takes something out of you.
“Although you are not related to the victim, in most cases you meet members of the victim’s family, so you do begin to make some connection. Even if the victim was a drug dealer or offender in life, you put aside your view and opinion and focus on the fact that the victim was somebody’s child. He or she was once a cute little baby. We care about each and every person because he or she was a human life and had a purpose. We gave it 100% for every victim, for every family, no matter what the circumstance. We speak for the dead.
“I’m not Dick Tracy or any superstar and have never solved a homicide alone. People I worked with were all dedicated, intelligent, hard-working detectives, and I had the privilege of working with geniuses. They devote a lifetime of service to families of crime victims.”
At meetings of the Vidocq Society, law enforcement officers from all over the country present cases of unsolved murder to get feedback from experts in the Philadelphia area. In many cases, detectives apply the feedback they receive, and a cold case gets new life or direction that sometimes leads to it being solved, and in many cases, an arrest is made.
“I’ve been a member for seven years,” Bentham said. “Some cases we never give up on, like the ‘Boy in the Box.’”
(Ed. note: The “Boy in the Box” is the name given to an unidentified murder victim, 3 to 7 years old, whose naked, battered body was found in a cardboard box in the Fox Chase section of the city on Feb. 25, 1957. He is also commonly called “America’s Unknown Child.” The case has never been solved.)
Bentham’s grandfather, Eric, was brought to Philadelphia from Yorkshire, England, when he was just 11 years old. When World War I broke out, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 16. After the war, he returned to Philadelphia and joined the Police Department in 1923, serving as a motorcycle cop in the famous Motor-Bandit Squad.
He joined the Army National Guard 103rd Engineer Battalion, which is now on Drexel’s campus, and when World War II broke out, he hung up his police uniform and was in the Normandy Invasion. Eric returned home after the war, and in his 50s, he was called up once again and served in the Korean War. He retired in 1952 from the Philadelphia P .D.
Bentham’s father, a World War II Navy vet (also named Charlie), joined the Philadelphia P .D. in 1953. His dad worked in North Philly and served with the Philly P .D. for over 25 years.
“Dad was my hero and certainly inspired me to take up the career path of him and my grandpop. In the 1950s and ‘60s, he worked a wagon [Emergency Patrol Van], and one of the cool things is that my dad helped deliver 32 babies. He kept count!
“You see, back in those days, people in poorer neighborhoods would often call police when they were about to have a baby. They truly did it all, from hospital cases and gunshot wound victims to transporting prisoners, also bodies to the city morgue. They don’t do that anymore. I did the same thing when I went on the job at age 20, but not like my pop or those cops before me.”
Bentham grew up in Juniata Park. He graduated from North Catholic High School and from La Salle University with a degree in Criminal Justice. With the Philadelphia P .D., he started in Kensington/Port Richmond for eight years as a patrolman. This was followed by three years as a traffic cop as well as responsibility for the diversion of traffic around the scene of explosions, fires and catastrophic occurrences.
For six months, Bentham worked out of the 14th District, covering Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill. In 1981, he was promoted to detective and was assigned to the East Detective Division at Front & Westmoreland, where he worked cases of robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, auto theft and arson.
In January 1989, he was transferred to the Homicide Unit, and in December 1994, after 25 years with the Philly PD, was hired by the Camden County Prosecutors Office at age 46, eventually retiring in 2010. He participated in several hundred homicide investigations.
In 41 years of law enforcement, one thing stood out for Bentham.
“Despite the fact that I’ve been shot at and had a few close calls, I thank God I never had to shoot anyone.”
When asked about the notion, gained from true-crime TV documentaries like “Dateline” and “48 Hours,” that detectives sometimes browbeat suspects for endless hours until they are so weakened and mentally exhausted that they confess, Bentham replied, “Philadelphia has a six-hour rule; which means that from the time a person is spoken to about a crime until the end of the interrogation, it cannot be longer than six hours, otherwise the statement is inadmissible in court.”
People often ask Bentham if he misses being a homicide detective.
“Nope,” he replied, “but I do miss the fabulous people that I worked with. So many of those amazing folks are not with us anymore, and God bless them and their families. My pursuit is now breaking 80 on the golf course.”