“Whether someone punched him in the face and kicked him in the water we couldn’t tell, because his face was too disfigured through decomposition,” the coroner said, estimating that the teenager’s body had been floating for four days. There was no evidence of skull fracture, gunshot wounds, stab wounds or suffocation. The coroner, obstetrician Frank Minyard, concluded that the cause of death was asphyxia due to drowning.
The boy was a “known hustler by the time he was 13,” making up to $600 a week in the city’s French Quarter, according to a local news item that appeared on Aug. 5, 1982. The district is a center of gay life but also a symbol of the violence that curtails it. In 1973, the UpStairs Lounge went up in flames in an arson attack that took 32 lives, in what was then the largest mass killing of gay people in American history. The 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando has since seized that grisly title.
“Life was short for ‘Eddie Dirt,’” announced the headline in the Times-Picayune, “and one cop suspects foul play.”
That cop was New Orleans police detective Stanley C. Burkhardt, who was convinced that Eddie had been murdered, even though the autopsy revealed no evidence of foul play. The death was classified as neither a homicide nor a suicide, according to the local news.
Thirty-six years later, that classification has not changed. What has changed is Burkhardt’s profile, raising fresh questions about his knowledge of the case, which police are again probing as they weigh the accounts of at least two men who knew Burkhardt when he was a city detective. They say he may have been right that Eddie was murdered. But they’re pointing their fingers at him.
Burkhardt, who joined the force in 1972 and is credited with starting the department’s first pedophile unit, insisted the death was a homicide, citing several factors. He pointed to a phone call received by the victim’s mother shortly after Eddie had disappeared, in which an anonymous male informed her, “You’ll never see your son alive again.” Burkhardt pointed to “the dangerous lifestyle Wells maintained by ‘hustling’ older men for money,” as the Times-Picayune put it. And he pointed to the disappearance of a wallet and a list of names of the older men with whom the teenager interacted — items that Eddie kept with him, but which were not discovered with his body.
Finally, the writer for the Times-Picayune observed, "Burkhardt has another reason for pursuing this case."
"He knew Eddie Wells,” the story noted.
The detective had once stopped the teenager for questioning, and had deposited Eddie back at his mother’s home near St. Claude Avenue, in what was then a gritty, downriver neighborhood that has been gentrifying since Hurricane Katrina. Burkhardt told the New Orleans newspaper that he had tried to persuade the boy to leave the hustling scene. His mother also took precautions, moving out of the urban center to a leafy town called Covington, across Lake Pontchartrain from the Crescent City.
But two months before his death, Eddie reappeared on the streets of the French Quarter. “He slipped back into it like a moth to the flame,” Burkhardt said at the time. Several days before his death, Eddie took his last known actions, catching a bus into town and arriving at his brother’s house with some spare clothes. Then he disappeared.
Burkhardt said this evidence suggested that Eddie had been murdered, though he didn’t name a suspect. “Boy’s death a mystery,” the local newspaper declared.
Investigators are trying to figure out if Burkhardt, now 67, was right. And one of the people they’re newly examining, according to two individuals who have been interviewed by police, appears to be the former sex-crimes detective himself.
Circumstances arising over the past three decades have cast the events of 1982 in a new light. The detective who speculated that the young hustler had been murdered by one of his clients has been unmasked as a child molester. And two of his alleged victims told The Washington Post this week that Burkhardt had shown them a photo that appeared to be of Eddie’s corpse.
Burkhardt didn’t respond to a request for comment made through a public defender, Suzanne Little, who represented him in a 2011 civil proceeding in North Carolina. Little said she wasn’t familiar with the details of the drowning case and declined to comment further.
"Investigators are methodically gathering available evidence to determine whether any allegations are credible and can be substantiated,” said Gary S. Scheets, a spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department. He added, however, that the case hadn’t been reclassified as a homicide, a statement at odds with the way the two men who have recently come forward claiming to be victims of Burkhardt’s abuse described the police’s questioning.
“I believe that Stanley Burkhardt is a person of interest to them right now,” said Vic “V.J.” Groomer, who was interviewed by police on Monday. “They don’t believe it’s a drowning, or a simple drowning.”
The Advocate, which first reported the story, revealed last week that a specialist in cold cases is revisiting the episode.
Five years after Eddie’s death, a startling secret emerged. The onetime head of the police department’s pedophile unit was hounding predators on the streets while amassing child pornography at home. In 1987, Burkhardt pleaded guilty to five counts of trafficking in child pornography. He would later say in federal court that one of the aspects of his job that he found attractive was that it gave him access to explicit material, according to a transcript of a subsequent civil proceeding.
He faced a maximum of 50 years in prison but was sentenced to only 10, serving a little more than five. Upon his release in 1992, he pleaded guilty to molesting his 9-year-old niece a decade earlier — a crime to which he had confessed while undergoing therapy in prison. He was sentenced to time served and found work as a truck driver and stagehand, among other jobs. He would later admit to molesting a second niece, as well as a nephew, according to court records.
In 1998, Burkhardt again pleaded guilty to child pornography charges after he accepted a video from a postal inspector posing as an unassuming mail carrier, prompting officers to search his home. They found a 12-year-old boy inside, according to trial transcripts. He left prison in 2006, but a federal judge revoked the terms of his supervised release several months later, finding that Burkhardt had violated numerous requirements. In 2011, a federal judge said there was sufficient evidence to consider Burkhardt a “sexually dangerous person,” a classification that kept him behind bars even after his sentence had expired, under a federal statute that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2015.
It was also in 2015, coincidentally, that Burkhardt was finally released from federal prison in Butner, N.C., at age 64.
Now, three years later, two men who say they were abused by Burkhardt when they were children have complained to the local police department — and have offered testimony that they believe implicates the convicted sex offender in the teenager’s 1982 death. The two men said they hadn’t previously known each other.
Groomer, 54, told The Post he had met Burkhardt when the detective moved into an apartment complex managed by his parents, proceeding to abuse him “hundreds of times.”
Burkhardt brought Eddie to pickup football games, Groomer said, and described the teenager as “a street kid he was gonna save.” In 1983, the year after Eddie died, Burkhardt showed Groomer a picture of the teenager’s corpse, Groomer alleged. He was 19 at the time and had gone to the police department to get a signature for a background check. He remembers the exact date — June 10, 1983 — because he still has the signed document, he said.
Another officer, who happened to be Burkhardt’s wife, went to process the paperwork, Groomer recalled, when the detective opened his desk drawer and pulled out photos of crime scenes. One photo was of Eddie’s decomposing body, Groomer maintained.
“I think he showed me the photo to let me know to keep my mouth shut,” he said.
Groomer, who works in soft-drink manufacturing in New Orleans, said he was moved to come forward after another man, Richard Windmann, went public with his story several weeks ago. Windmann, 53, filed a complaint against Burkhardt with New Orleans police and identified himself to the Advocate this month as a witness for prosecutors in Burkhardt’s 2011 civil trial, where he testified that Burkhardt had initiated sexual contact with him about 40 times beginning when he was 13 — “At the police station, in cars, hotel, my house, his house.”
Burkhardt denied abusing Windmann during the 2011 trial. “No, sir,” he told the judge, according to a transcript. But the court affirmed “that the testimony of Mr. Windmann is credible.”
Windmann, who works with computers in Fort Worth, said he had come into Burkhardt’s care after the exposure of an infamous 1970s Boy Scouts pedophile ring, of which he was a victim. He observed ironically, “Who better to look after me than the head of the pedophile unit in the New Orleans Police Department?”
When he resisted the detective’s requests, Windmann alleged, Burkhardt would pull out a picture of the teenager’s corpse and taunt him, “Do you want to end up like Eddie? Do you, Richard?”
In addition to Windmann and Groomer, the author of the 1982 Times-Picayune story has been contacted by authorities with questions about Burkhardt, according to the Advocate.
Certain “weird” details in his notebook never made it into the newspaper, the journalist said. But there was nothing in his scribblings, he added, that led him to conclude that Burkhardt was responsible for the death of the boy who washed up on Desire Street.