<
>

ADAM BRUCKNER WAS A SOCCER JOURNEYMAN SEARCHING FOR A HOME. ALONG THE WAY, HE WOUND UP SOLVING A MURDER

Homicide detective Pat Mangold arrived at the scene just after 8 p.m. In two decades as a cop, he had never seen anything like this. The body, such as it was, hung from a tree in five separate bags that skimmed the water of the Schuylkill River, in a lush thicket of trees a few hundred feet behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After the bloated corpse was laid out on the riverbank, Mangold could see it had probably been in the water for at least three months. The face was decomposed- eyelids sunken, nostrils sealed, mouth gasping and crooked. Two lengths of brown shoelace were wrapped around the neck. There was a large cut below one rib; the stomach had been eviscerated. The body was severed at the biceps and just above the knees. The torso and each limb had been wrapped in plastic tarps, then stuffed into black garbage bags, all tied together with a gallows knot. Attached to the various body parts were a T-shirt, jogging pants, socks and sandals.

Mangold scanned the ground as Fourth of July fireworks lit up the sky above the museum. The area was overgrown with weeds and littered with cans, newspapers and bags full of old clothes. After a fruitless search, the detective walked away shaking his head. He had no clues, no leads, no identity. All he knew was that the body once belonged to an older woman of average height. "This case will be open my entire career," he thought.

Twelve days later, Mangold received a phone call from a man identifying himself as a pro soccer player. Said the eager voice on the other end: "I think I know who the woman is."

One more season. That's what Adam Bruckner is giving himself. He's 30 years old now and making only $7,000 a year as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Kixx of the Major Indoor Soccer League, the club he joined as a player in late 2001. There was a time when he couldn't imagine walking away from the game, when soccer sustained him. But that was before he really found himself, before he found a place to move on with his life. That was before Angie and Red Colt and the summer that seemed to last a lifetime.

Bruckner knew when he came to town that Philly was the last stop. He had played college soccer for Wisconsin-Green Bay, a competitive Division I program, but a pro career was proving much harder. After graduating in 1998, he spent the next three years bouncing from city to city, crashing on couches and hitching rides from one tryout to the next, in any league that would have him: Detroit, Cleveland, Lafayette, Biloxi, Pensacola, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Portland, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Sacramento, Milwaukee again, Cleveland again, Kansas City, St. Louis, Milwaukee a third time, St. Louis again, Harrisburg, Baltimore, St. Louis a third time, Detroit again, and, finally, Philadelphia.

He was a soccer hobo in search of a home, with little to his name but a disarming personality and a genuine curiosity about the world around him. He wasn't particularly close to his divorced parents or two siblings, and on the road he found himself gravitating toward the people he felt were most like him: the homeless. Anyone who asked Bruckner for spare change was likely to get a free meal instead. He offered food and company in exchange for their stories, writing it all down in his journal. What he heard were tales of lost jobs, heartbreak, addiction, mental illness and personal misfortune. Sometimes, it seemed the only thing separating Bruckner from the storytellers was his love and dedication to soccer.

As a kid in Milwaukee, he was obsessed with the game the way kids are before they discover there's a limit to their skill and devotion. But soccer was more than just sport for Bruckner. The field was his temporary refuge from an inner world ruled by rituals and compulsions. He was consumed by "good" and "bad" numbers. He counted how many times he flipped a light switch before leaving a room. "Three for luck, five for keeping my health, eight for keeping Mom safe," he told himself. "Can't stop at four switches or I'll bust my knee, end my soccer career, and Mom might die."

He couldn't walk down the street without touching every tree or telephone pole with both his hands and knees. He felt compelled to clear a sidewalk of pebbles, or to count all the cracks in the pavement. He saved hundreds of empty Gatorade bottles, stacking them along two walls until they reached the ceiling of his bedroom. He was always counting, always repeating his actions, over and over and over, trying to achieve a sense of balance and harmony.

Sports became the socially acceptable outlet for Bruckner's eccentric behavior. College teammates joked about his bizarre rituals, like when he'd jump on his bed and touch the ceiling five times before he could sleep on a road trip. But what athlete doesn't have superstitions? On the field, his mind was free, his intense focus drowning out everything else.

It wasn't until 1999, after watching Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets, that Bruckner realized there was a name for what he had: obsessivecompulsive disorder. But he didn't seek help or discuss it with anyone. He just continued to self-medicate with soccer. The following year, while training with the Baltimore Blast, another MISL club, Bruckner reached his limit. He was walking to a local gym when he found himself transfixed by a streetlight; if he didn't touch it, something bad would happen. "I'll get injured during practice," he worried. "Or I'll be hurt in a car accident and end my career." He was endlessly tortured by thoughts of a career cut short by injury or even death. Now here he was again, experiencing that same tiresome mental itch that he couldn't scratch.

But something different happened that day. During his travels, Bruckner had found himself growing more spiritual as he sought to connect with the strangers around him. Though only vaguely Catholic-he hadn't read the Bible since Sunday school-he couldn't help thinking there was a common thread in his encounters: the woman on the train who talked to him about the power of God; the Christian who picked him up when he was hitchhiking; the pastor who stuck around for hours after Bruckner stopped by an Evangelical revival looking to catch a ride. Now, as he stood there on that Baltimore street, staring at that light pole, he could hear a voice- his voice-rising above the noise in his head. Trust God and you'll be all right. So he walked right by that pole, didn't touch it. And much to his surprise, he felt better, not worse.

He felt free.

For the first time since he was a boy, Bruckner's obsessions abated. As the weeks wore on, and he jumped from Baltimore to St. Louis to Detroit, he felt stronger, more hopeful, as if he'd been given a second chance. He began spending all of his spare time working in shelters and churches, reaching out to the homeless on city streets, determined to dedicate his life to helping others. By the time he arrived in Philly, he was even spending what little money he had organizing weekly food lines and writing checks for destitute men and women to obtain state ID cards so they could plug back into the system.

That's all they needed, he told himself-a chance.

On July 21, 2002, Bruckner stood on a bridge behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art, leading a bedraggled coalition of the city's homeless in a candlelight vigil. After the cops had started asking around about Jane Doe, a few street people told Bruckner they believed the murdered woman was someone they knew. Her name was Angie, and she lived in an apartment somewhere north of downtown. She had dated several men from the street, but no one had seen her in months. Now, a few yards from the river where the body was found, they had gathered to remember her.

Bruckner had met Angie only twice, briefly. He knew next to nothing about her. But standing by the river, surrounded by the city's poorest and most desperate citizens, he lowered his shaved head and offered a prayer: "Dear God, we ask that you find it in your heart to bring peace to Angie. We ask that you guide us and help us find justice for Angie."

A few folks in the crowd spoke up. It ain't fair, they said. It ain't right what happened to her. When Bruckner pointed to the spot where the body was recovered, they grew more agitated. "She didn't die there," said a fellow in ski goggles and knee pads. "Ain't no way she was hangin' around by the river." Angie's friends didn't think she would ever wander to such a desolate section of the city. She was eccentric, but no fool.

When they sang "Amazing Grace," Bruckner felt the hair on his arms stand up. Find justice for Angie justice for Angie. The words began to bounce around his head, taking hold. He imagined her desecrated body in its unnatural resting place. No amount of prayer could shake those images from inside his brain. What if she had family somewhere? He knew from the police that no one had even filed a missing persons report. The emptiness surrounding her death resonated with him. This murder, this body, was his obligation. These people were his people. They didn't trust the cops, but they did trust him. "I'm their bridge to justice," he thought.

Bruckner had already gone to the police several days earlier and was put in touch with Mangold. When the detective took his call, he was understandably skeptical. But the Jane Doe case was cold, so Mangold played along. "If you could help us find out who this woman was," he said, "we'd appreciate it."

For Bruckner, it was practically a job offer. The day after the vigil, he returned to the river and inspected the tree where the body had hung. He rummaged through the trash that the police ignored, the black garbage bags stuffed with newspapers and damp, moldy clothes. He noticed the papers, dozens of them, were neatly arranged in chronological order. He picked up a book, a golf manual, and flipped through the pages, nervously glancing around. Everything about the crime scene felt unnatural, as if he had wandered into The Blair Witch Project. When he spotted a decaying dog's skull, he dropped the book and left.

Bruckner decided that finding Angie's apartment would be a better place to start, so the next day, he began walking the streets of central Philly. He had no photos to show, no last name for the deceased. He just stopped strangers and asked, "Do you know a woman with dark hair and olive-colored skin named Angie?" He walked for hours in the blazing heat, hoping to find anyone who could help. Then he did it again the next day, and the day after that, until he'd been at it more than a week. One of Bruckner's homeless friends, a junkie known as Little T, told him Angie lived somewhere near his dealer's place at 16th and Wallace, in the Fairmont section of town. Bruckner took his word. There was nothing else to rely on.

Finally, one day in late July, after hours spent combing a decrepit collection of streets, Bruckner hit his wall. It was 96*, and he was mentally and physically exhausted. His search had brought him nowhere closer to finding Angie. As he stood there, discouraged, his mind drifted back to soccer. Though the Kixx had won the league championship in May, he knew he risked getting cut at tryouts in September. His career was the product of his obsessive need to train harder and longer than everyone else, to push his limits on the field in an attempt to stay sane off it. He knew it was time to get back to his routine.

But first he wiped the sweat off his brow, closed his eyes and offered up one final prayer: "God, for all reasons it's right to find this lady. Just lead me the way."

Bruckner has a hard time explaining what happened next. As he remembers it, he opened his eyes and spotted a man walking nearby. It was Smitty, one of Angie's ex-boyfriends. Bruckner hadn't seen him in four months. "It ain't her," Smitty said, visibly upset by the idea that Angie might be dead. "She would've never been down by no river."

"Would you please show me where she lives?" Bruckner asked. Smitty peered around the street corner and pointed to a redbrick row house. A bear rug hung from a third-floor window. "I helped her hang it," he said. Bruckner had been circling Angie's block for nearly two weeks.

He rang the bell that Smitty showed him, but no one answered. He tried a neighbor's bell. Sharon Fahnestock, a young woman who lived below Angie's apartment, opened the door. She told Bruckner she'd heard a fight between Angie and a man several months earlier: "I heard her screaming, 'No, no!' and gasping for air." Fahnestock hadn't called the cops-"It was pretty normal to hear fighting"- but she did remember the date, March 28, because it was the day before Good Friday, and no one in the building had seen Angie since. One of her boyfriends, an older man named Red Colt, showed up and told the landlord he was watching the place while Angie was in New York seeking treatment for an illness.

Bruckner's face lit up. Red Colt was his favorite homeless guy! They'd met on a freezing-cold February night earlier in the year. The kindly Colt showed him the dog food he ate and the battered shopping cart he toted it around in, waxing poetic about the calcium needs of a 65-year-old man. With his regal air and careful diction, he sounded like Morgan Freeman reciting Shakespeare. The two men had run into each other several times since-it was through Colt that Bruckner knew Angie-and spent hours discussing everything from the JFK assassination to daily carbohydrate requirements. Colt might be a little crazy, Bruckner thought, but not violent, not like Angie's other boyfriends. If he could find Colt, maybe Colt could help find Angie's killer.

The next day, Bruckner and Mangold met for the first time, outside Angie's building. They climbed the stairs to her apartment and the detective kicked open the door. The heat and stench were overpowering. There was barely any space to walk. The floor had vanished under stacks of newspapers and years of accumulated mail. Old receipts, vitamin containers and empty water bottles climbed the wall like ivy. On top of the bed were two restraining orders that Angie had obtained against Robert "Mo" Mosley and Leroy "Smitty" Smith. Mangold pulled back the bedspread and found hundreds of newspapers, some dating back more than a year, neatly stacked two feet high in chronological order-many published after Angie's death. Bruckner remembered the garbage bags stuffed with newspapers by the riverbank. He could spot a fellow hoarder. "It was the most cluttered, most organized thing I've ever seen," he says.

After digging around the apartment, Mangold tracked down a doctor who had Angie's dental records. Bruckner's homeless pals were right: Jane Doe was Josephine "Angie" Angelo, age 60. The detective also learned that Angie's grandmother had died several years earlier, leaving her an inheritance of $300,000.

Angie was one rich bag lady.

As July became August, Bruckner spent 12 hours a day on the case. While Mangold focused most of his attention on finding Mo, a man with a long rap sheet, Bruckner combed the streets looking for Red Colt. Kixx tryouts were just weeks away, but he had barely been to the gym all summer and he was losing weight. Finding Colt was his new obsession, and he gave himself over to it. He returned to the river and picked through the bags again, searching for any thread of evidence. He found the golf book, the one he had hurriedly dropped on his earlier visit. On closer inspection, he noticed some faint handwriting pressed into the cover. His eyes narrowed as he strained to read the block print, slowly making out these words: "I AM RED COLT."

Bruckner's heart jumped and his mind raced with questions. Was Colt really involved in Angie's death? Was somebody setting him up? Bruckner headed back to Angie's apartment to look for more clues. Over the course of the next week, he inspected each and every receipt, envelope and strip of paper in his path. It was difficult to move around all the piles. As he worked, he burrowed a place to sit, surrounded by hundreds, no, thousands of items dating back as much as 30 years. He didn't know what belonged to Angie or Colt, or anyone else who might have stayed in the apartment, but it was clear that everything had been saved. He found some receipts dated March 28. Someone had bought clear plastic tarps and a box of 39-gallon black garbage bags, the same kind that contained Angie's body parts. A short notation was scrawled on one of the receipts in large block print: "LAST D."

Bruckner called Mangold and told him he was sure that Angie had been killed in her apartment, not by the river. She disappeared in late March, but she'd been found wearing only a T-shirt, sweatpants and sandals. A bag lady normally swathed in multiple layers doesn't wear a T-shirt and sandals to walk two miles to the river on a cold day.

Mangold assigned a few cops to drive Bruckner around in unmarked cars at night, looking for Colt. The detective's partners teased him about relying on a soccer-playing Sherlock. "Adam needs a hobby," they said. "Hell, he needs a girlfriend." But Bruckner had long ago proved his worth to Mangold. In the weeks after Angie's body was found, the veteran cop had taken him under his wing, often inviting him over for dinner. "It was like having another detective out there working the case, shaking the trees," Mangold says.

Bruckner spent his mornings teaching soccer to kids at Kixx clinics, where he captivated his teammates with stories about the case. It was pretty much his only contact with anyone or anything not connected to the investigation. He spent so many hours asking questions around the city that the homeless community began to suspect he was a cop. "Here comes homicide," they'd say whenever he approached.

On another search of Angie's apartment, Bruckner found a note, written in the same block print: "This is Red Colt. Angie is sick. She is in New York." Listed next to it was the landlord's name and number. Was this some kind of script? As Bruckner rustled through the papers and receipts, something fell to the floor. It was a small ad clipped from a newspaper: "Does your child have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Problems with Counting? Repeating? Perfectionism?" Bruckner stared at the ad. It was like gazing into a mirror. He was obsessed with a man obsessed.

"These are the ties that bind," he wrote in his journal. The mounds of receipts revealed a pattern all too familiar. Although Colt traversed the city, he always shopped the same three stores-Rite Aid, True Value and ShopRite-and he always bought the same items: garbage bags, ropes, tarps, shovels, saws, pipe cleaners, cement, stucco and borax bleach. The man who was eating dog food only a few months ago was now spending hundreds of dollars on Tastykakes and smoked salmon. "He had a routine," Bruckner explains. "He's OCD. I was confident he was findable because he wasn't going to digress from the routine. You find comfort in the things you know." And Bruckner knew Colt would stay put. "He can't leave Philly," he told Mangold.

Some nights, Bruckner drove the city alone in his hand-me-down 1991 Mitsubishi Gallant, paying informants for tips. One time, he thought he spotted Colt. "My throat almost dropped out of my ass," he says. "I saw a cart and a man in the alley, so I took off after him. But it wasn't him. I was losing my mind." In his journal he wrote, "It's me against The Colt."

What if he's in there? What if he's nearby? Bruckner knew that Colt couldn't be everywhere at once, and yet he was compelled to look in every store, walk down every street, drive through every neighborhood. He tracked down Colt's latest girlfriend, asking around for "a one-eyed Muslim woman named Janet," who bore a stunning resemblance to Angie. He posed as a cop to interrogate her, showing up on her doorstep in a dress shirt and silver tie, with a tape recorder in his hand and a passport stuffed into his breast pocket like a badge. When Janet denied knowing Colt, Bruckner camped outside her house in his car for three days, hoping Red might surface.

His search opened doors to Colt's past. The homeless man was a paranoid schizophrenic who had spent the better part of the 1990s as a regular at a local psychiatric ward. Bruckner also learned that Colt was wanted for a 1998 arson attempt, under a different identity. He discovered several aliases for Colt: John Red, Fred C. Fulton, Cardel Fulton. They were all dead ends. Colt had no fingerprints on record, no Social Security number, no known date of birth.

Bruckner spent most of August roaming the neighborhoods where Colt was often seen pushing his cart. He took his laundry and his Bible with him, sitting on the stoop of a laundromat in a neglected section of Northern Liberties, reading the Gospel while his clothes flopped around in the dryer. The street looked like a row of broken teeth. Most of the buildings were abandoned; a few were crumbling from within. That's how Bruckner felt, like he was crumbling too. He was chasing a shadow but couldn't let go. "I felt like my brain was in a microwave," he says. "It had exploded."

The day the Kixx preseason opened, Labor Day 2002, Bruckner woke before dawn and went to a McDonald's where Colt had been spotted by some of Bruckner's street friends. He arrived at 6 a.m. After waiting a few hours, he decided to check in with Mangold, who sounded surprised by his call.

"How did you hear so quickly?" Mangold asked.

"Hear what?"

"I just arrested Red Colt."

Mangold credits Bruckner's relentless sleuthing for leading the cops to Red Colt. The detective had spotted Colt just a few blocks from police headquarters, and arrested him on the street. Bruckner's interrogation of Colt's girlfriend had apparently sent him running, forcing him to break the routines he'd developed over the previous five months. "Adam was instrumental in solving the crime," Mangold says.

Colt had more than $4,000 in cash stuffed in his pockets. Inside his trusty bag-filled cart, three boxes of Tastykakes contained another $50,000 in small bills. He also carried a day calendar, which doubled as a journal. He had compulsively scribbled every detail of his daily activities for the first eight months of 2002. The entry on March 28, written in familiar block print: "FINAL PASSAGE 11:15 PM." On April 4, the day Mangold believes Colt hung Angie's body by the river: "FINAL RELOCATION." On July 4, the day the body was found: "BAD DAY. BAD NEWS."

At Colt's new apartment, in a boardinghouse around the corner from the laundromat Bruckner had used as his base, Mangold found more evidence: two hacksaws, several 39-gallon garbage bags, plastic tarps, the same kind of rope that tied Angie's body to the tree. Hundreds of receipts were neatly stacked in the bedroom, and Angie's Bible and other personal belongings were locked in a heavily chained closet.

Mangold thought that Bruckner would be overjoyed, but Bruckner was only disappointed in himself. He never really wanted to believe that Colt was the killer. What would that say about his own ability to see things the way they really are? He thought his work with the homeless and his relationship with God had given him the gift to find the goodness in people. Now he felt his belief system starting to crack.

With the case over, Bruckner had no choice but to channel his obsessions back into soccer, to try to find peace of mind on the pitch. Though he called Mangold frequently for updates, he settled into a new routine. For the next two years, while Colt waited in jail for his trial to start, Bruckner extended his career as an alternate with the Kixx. The salary was less than $15,000, but the club supplied a threadbare apartment for him, so he finally had a place of his own. Meanwhile, his tireless work in the community was beginning to attract attention. He received the 2004 Humanitarian of the Year award from the MISL.

In July 2004, two months before Red Colt went on trial, Bruckner wrote him a letter. "It has been over two years since I have seen you and Angie but you both have been on my mind many times I want you to know that I will do what I can to help you. I will support you no matter what the outcomes [sic] of the trial are "

To Bruckner's surprise, Colt responded. The two struck up a correspondence, and Bruckner started making jailhouse visits several times a week, mostly sitting in silence as Red delivered long soliloquies claiming he'd been framed. It was Mo who killed Angie, he said. Bruckner knew it was a lie, but there was still a part of him that wanted to believe it, because it was easier to believe Colt than to doubt himself. Maybe the evidence he'd collected was wrong. Maybe there was no connection between the tarps, the tools, the money. In his mind, Bruckner began creating alternative versions of how Angie died. Maybe Mo had killed her and Red showed up later and found the money.

Mangold could see that his friend was spinning again, so he sat him down for a heart-to-heart: "You brought this evidence to us, remember? There is evil in the world, and if you're not careful, it can cover you."

On Sept. 28, 2004, Bruckner took the witness stand and helped seal Colt's fate. After an eight day trial, Colt was convicted of first-degree murder, abusing a corpse and possession of stolen goods. He was sentenced to life without parole for killing Josephine Angelo and stealing her inheritance, two-thirds of which was still missing.

For a week after the trial, Bruckner dreamed of Colt every night. In his dreams, Colt was a free man.

Adam Bruckner was always an improbable pro, a bubble player who relied on desire to make up for his lack of talent. But it took a bag lady and her killer to make him see he didn't need soccer as much as he thought. He has already begun the transition to life without the game. Last fall, the Kixx offered Bruckner a coaching job instead of a roster spot. He was too old and too slow to keep playing, but he still had a lot to give.

Now, as he enters what will probably be his last season with the team, he is finally giving more to himself. He has upgraded his wardrobe, which was full of second-hand corduroys and T-shirts, by buying jeans and dress shoes for the first time in 10 years. He talks to his family more often and has even started dating again, something he hadn't done since college. (For a long time, his voice mail greeting was "Hi. You've reached Adam. I'm emotionally unavailable. Leave a message.")

Philly is home now. Bruckner and a close friend, 76ers forward Kyle Korver, are making plans to start a church for people like themselves, young people looking for a place to belong without any judgments. "A church that doesn't feel churchy," as Bruckner puts it.

He still thinks about Angie and Red, of course. In his bedroom (he's now living rent-free in Korver's house), Bruckner has more keepsakes from the case-newspapers, photos, remnants of Colt's hoarding-than his own possessions. One of the most poignant reminders is a photo of Angie as a young girl. The frame is made of old cigarette wrappers carefully folded like origami, but Bruckner holds it as if those tiny paper diamonds are worth a Tiffany fortune. He understands now that his search was about something more than finding justice for Angie. It was about finding peace within himself. "Angie's murder created a valley of unsettledness in my head," he says. "I wanted to stop that feeling."

Inevitably, his mind wanders to the missing $200,000 that Colt claims to have buried in Philadelphia's Fairmont Park. Maybe he should get a shovel and go look for it, he says, allowing himself to muse for a moment.

If anyone could find that treasure, it's Bruckner. But he knows enough not to give in to this urge.

He just smiles and lets it go.