The Amateur Sleuth Who Can’t Let One Case Rest

Rich Janzaruk/The Herald-Times via AP

In 1967, Cornell University invited fifty gifted students to earn their Ph.D.s in six years as part of an experimental, accelerated program. Eight of them died in a dorm fire. The ones who survive avoided two subsequent fires, which aroused suspicion that someone was targeting the students. But who? A thorough police investigation produced no suspects.

For The New York Times, N.R. Kleinfield retraces this dead-end case and profiles William Fogle, the retiree in Arizona who has devoted himself to investigating it. Fogle is obsessed. No one understands why. He’s contracted the FBI, the police, the surviving students, Cornell. Many people dislike him. They certainly dislike his methods. Without evidence, he thinks he’s found the culprit. What no one understands is why he cares.

At first Mr. Fogle fixated on finding a killer.

Using the online Cornell alumni directory, he identified everyone living at the Res Club in 1967, some 70 people. He contacted as many as he could to find out where they were during ensuing months.

One student told him that someone who came under suspicion for odd behavior and lying about his whereabouts might have been kicked out. Rooting around the internet, Mr. Fogle discovered that Robert Lewis, a professor of mathematics at Fordham University who was in the second Phud class, had assembled a website about the Phud program. He lived in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., about a mile from where the archives of the Ford Foundation were kept.

Mr. Fogle asked him to examine the Phud files to see if anything suggested a culprit and to find the whereabouts of the members of the first class the next year. Some, he learned, had gone to other colleges. Only one was unaccounted for, the student Mr. Parrish had named. “So I set out to find him,” Mr. Fogle said.

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