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Noted ex-FBI specialist takes reins in Brown's murder case
By Sandra Del Re | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 5/29/2008 4:33 PM

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First published: April 27, 1995

He studied serial killer Ted Bundy after his reign of terror ended in Florida. He also played a part in the "Green River Killer" murder investigation, in which 49 prostitutes were slain in Washington state, and in other high-profile murder cases in the West.

And now, almost 28 months after the Brown's Chicken & Pasta murders in Palatine shocked the suburbs, James F. Bell, a former FBI major case specialist, is coordinating the investigation into the baffling case.

"If this case is solvable, they will solve it," Palatine Trustee Jack Wagner said of the Brown's investigators. "I would say (Bell) is the Charlie Chan of investigators. He'll help lead us down a different road."

Brought on board by Palatine Police Chief Jerry Bratcher, Bell will help oversee operations of the seven-man task force investigating the unsolved Jan. 8, 1993, murders.

Seven employees were slain in a what police believe was a robbery gone awry at the fast-food restaurant at 168 W. Northwest Hwy.

Bratcher said his investigators are excellent. But he said he had the unique opportunity to bring Bell onto the team, so he took advantage of it.

Bell, 42, originally was brought in as an adviser to the case right after the murders happened. He said he left the FBI in March because he was wary of constant travel.

"Jim Bell has worked some major, difficult cases," said FBI Special Agent Greg Cooper, Bell's former boss in what Cooper calls "the real-life 'Silence of the Lambs'ae" unit.

"If resolution of the Brown's case is contingent on organization, Jim will get it done," Cooper said.

Bell's expertise was developed from interviewing more than 100 investigators who worked the most well-known serial killer, rape and arsonist cases worldwide.

Bell says he is constantly looking at new ways to handle major cases.

"What got me interested was having my back to the wall in cases I've handled," Bell said. "I just look for ways to do things better. ... I don't solve the cases. I just tell (investigators) what has and hasn't worked in other task forces."

Palatine police say they are glad to have Bell, particularly because he offers a new angle and a fresh perspective.

"He's a shot in the arm," Investigations Section Cmdr. John Koziol said.

Bell is joining the task force in the laborious job of re-examining the case point by point, analyzing every interview, lead and piece of evidence that has filtered into the police department since the murders.

Clearly modest, Bell stresses that his contribution is part of teamwork and that those already working the challenging case are top-notch.

"I've been here two months, they have been here two years," Bell said. "They are the ones (who deserve recognition). I'm learning from them."

But Cooper said Bell has been blessed with special investigative talents.

"He's got an excellent reputation and is an expert in major case management," he said. "He has an ability to organize task forces in a way that simplifies the process."

Can it be solved?

Bell won't comment on whether the Brown's case can be solved, saying that is not his job.

But he said any case can be difficult to solve when considering how quickly suspects can hop on a plane, bus or train and go anywhere in a matter of hours.

"When the whole population of the world is a suspect, that's tough stuff," Bell explained. "We are looking at two people in the whole world. A serial killer can start in Australia and kill all over. He can go to the U.S. and kill and then back to Australia."

Having viewed task forces worldwide, Bell said the Palatine operation impressed him from the start.

"This task force is one of the best I've seen," Bell said. "They did things in 24 hours that other task forces didn't have done in six or seven days."

For example, both Bell and Koziol and authorities all over the country said Bratcher had the foresight to call in help, while some agencies refuse to do so because of egos. But Bratcher said all that matters is getting the case solved.

With the help of the FBI, the task force was organized quickly, Bell said.

"Computers help tremendously," said Bell, who worked in the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or VICAP, which served as a computer databank comparing killings all over the country to identify similarities and patterns that may help catch killers. "Volumes of information come in from the public."

But the public doesn't realize the difficulties police are contending with and are quick to criticize and speculate on reasons why the case has not been solved.

"In the Green River Killer situation (where 49 prostitutes were slain in a case still unsolved) a tremendous amount of things were done," Bell said. "People said the police didn't investigate it right. That's not necessarily so."

Famous cases

Aside from working the Green River case, Bell once spent nine months compiling a time line detailing the habits and whereabouts of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy.

Bell was given the job in order to help clear unsolved homicides throughout the country after Bundy was executed in 1989.

Bell said he read everything written about Bundy including police reports and traffic tickets.

The result was a inch-thick book that documents cars Bundy drove, jobs he held and other clues which could help investigators close the books on unsolved cases.

Bell also put together a similar time line of suspected serial killer Charles Strain, a Utah trucker. Bell tracked his whereabouts by tracing truck logs, credit cards and checking accounts.

"Jim worked doggedly and we clicked on it," said Rudy Riet, chief investigator for the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office, where Bell once served in the same position.

"A year and a half later, we found Strain's old truck. It was searched. There was a human molar under the seat. We were satisfied he was responsible for more killings."

In addition, Bell worked on the Paul Keller case. One of the most prolific arsonists ever, Keller terrorized Washington state in 1992, burning down buildings and causing millions of dollars in damage.

A loner who had an obsession with fire equipment, Keller eventually was caught and convicted based on the help of his parents.

Riet said Bell also worked on a complex bombing case. Mark Hoffmann discredited the Mormon church through forged documents and later began bombing houses of those involved.

"The bulk of the people in the investigation were Mormon," Riet said. "That made it a very difficult environment."

But Bell worked morning, noon and night, Riet said.

Inside a task force

Bell is best known, however, for his ability to organize major-case task forces, Bratcher said.

He denies it, but others say Bell is "an expert" at organization, knowing just how to set up phone and computer systems.

He also tells police what they can expect in terms of media coverage, public comment and investigators' personal reactions to working a high-profile case.

"Everything (Bell) told us that would happen in the Brown's investigation did," Palatine Cmdr. Koziol said, recalling how Bell advised them early on in the Brown's case. "That includes what he said about what investigators would go through personally and what he said would happen with the media."

Bell frowns on publicly revealing how task forces are organized to help protect investigations and not tip off killers.

By keeping details secret, police say they can confirm whether they have the right suspect.

Meanwhile, Riet said task forces can be "crazy things."

"They take on a life of their own," he said. "You can investigate until the cows come home. Sometimes administrators get discouraged, cutting back manpower and bucks. But Palatine is committed."

The commitment is clear despite the tremendous amount of pressure investigators have been under, Bell said.

"A big case can become the most important thing in your life," he said. "Nothing in your life is the same until it is resolved. The public wants armchair decisions without having facts. (Investigators) are under an incredible amount of pressure. They put it on themselves."

But the law enforcement agents who still work on the Brown's task force full time are more committed than ever to seeing it solved, partly because they want to provide closure to the heart-wrenching tragedy that still pains victims' families.

"It's been two years and they haven't given up," Bell said. "It's always good to go to places where investigators aren't worn out. There's not a lot of task forces where after two years they have the same enthusiasm as the night they were called in."

Facing his new challenge with the same enthusiasm, Bell is asking anyone who can help in the Brown's case to call. There is a $120,000 cash reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the murders.

"We would like anyone who knows anything to call," Bell said. "Call us if you just drove by that night but didn't stop in."