The New Orleans Police Department is intensifying its scrutiny of a man who oversaw the force's child-abuse investigations before he was unmasked as a pedophile.

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Stanley Carl Burkhardt

Stanley Carl Burkhardt

Police confirmed Thursday that a detective specializing in cold homicide cases is revisiting the mysterious death of a 17-year-old boy named Edward Wells, whose corpse was discovered in the Mississippi River in 1982.

At the time, the case was handled by child-abuse investigator Stanley Carl Burkhardt, who publicly theorized that the teen had been murdered while selling sex to a man.

Years after Wells' death, Burkhardt was exposed as a child molester, and two of his alleged victims now say that Burkhardt showed a photo to them that they believe was the teen's body.

Both victims, now adults, have contacted police in recent weeks to file formal abuse complaints — kicking off an investigation into Burkhardt by the NOPD that appears to be expanding in its scope even as it remains unclear what, in particular, investigators may be probing.

Vic “V.J.” Groomer, 54, one of the two alleged victims of Burkhardt, has now also decided for the first time to publicly tell his story of being sexually abused at the hands of the former police detective when Groomer was about 8.

In the early 1970s, he said, Burkhardt moved into an apartment complex managed by Groomer's parents, and the abuse began shortly afterward.

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Vic Groomer 

Groomer opted to share his story shortly after another man, Richard Windmann, told The Advocate that he had been sexually abused by Burkhardt in his adolescence. Windmann also has filed a complaint with the NOPD about the abuse.

In a series of conversations, Groomer — who said he doesn’t know Windmann — told The Advocate that police expressed concern that statutes of limitations may prevent them from pursuing charges based on his allegations.

But, Groomer said, police told him aspects of his account could be used to corroborate parts of the complaint they received from Windmann.

Eerie recollections

Windmann has declined to discuss the particulars of his complaint to the NOPD with The Advocate, saying he doesn’t want to interfere with the investigation. But he and Groomer shared one eerily similar recollection: Both said they were shown photos of the dead bodies of children Burkhardt claimed were murdered.

In one email to The Advocate, Windmann described Burkhardt showing him a photo specifically of a decomposed corpse that the police officer said was of a French Quarter “hustler” named “Eddie” who had been “fished out … of the Mississippi River” — a description that fits Wells' case.

Whenever Windmann said he was reluctant to do a favor that Burkhardt wanted, the cop would threateningly ask him, “Do you want to end up like Eddie?”

At one point, Windmann said, Burkhardt claimed responsibility for Wells' death. Windmann conceded the possibility that was just an empty boast, but he said he was frightened.  

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Richard Windmann at his home in Burleson, TX, on Sep. 19, 2018. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)

Groomer described being shown a similar photo by Burkhardt — the body of a boy decomposing on the edge of water — when Groomer needed a background check done as part of a job application. Burkhardt by then had stopped abusing him, Groomer said.

Groomer has long believed that Burkhardt, now 67, showed him that photo — and others similar — for one reason only. “To me, he was telling me to keep my mouth shut about what he’d done,” Groomer said.

Police on Thursday said the initial classification of Wells’ death as a drowning is unchanged, and therefore no one is suspected of being culpable for it. But they confirmed that cold-case investigator Winston Harbin is “methodically gathering available evidence to determine whether any allegations are credible and can be substantiated.”

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Burkhardt couldn’t be reached for comment. He has previously denied sexually abusing Windmann.

The Advocate doesn’t typically name victims of sex crimes, but both Groomer and Windmann have permitted the newspaper to identify them.

Drowning or murder?

Wells’ body was recovered on May 9, 1982, and Coroner Dr. Frank Minyard’s office determined he had “probably drowned” after an autopsy revealed no signs of foul play, according to a Times-Picayune article published months later.

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Edward Wells photo

Undated photo of Edward Wells

But Burkhardt — a sex crimes detective at the time — had his own theory about what happened, reporter Walt Philbin wrote in a story published on Aug. 5 of that year. Burkhardt believed Wells had been murdered.

Two reasons he cited to Philbin: the “dangerous lifestyle Wells maintained,” exchanging sex for money from older men in the French Quarter, and the fact that the teen didn’t have a list of his clients’ names on him when his body was recovered.

“Maybe Eddie got into the wrong car with the wrong guy,” Philbin quoted Burkhardt as saying. The cop also described trying to convince Wells to leave hustling behind when their paths crossed while Burkhardt was on the job. 

This week, Philbin told The Advocate he didn’t publish all of the information he gathered reporting on Wells.

Philbin recalled Burkhardt was eager to say he believed he had identified Wells’ murderer. But, before Burkhardt gave a name, Philbin said he wouldn't be able to finger anyone as a suspect in print without an arrest warrant or booking documents. Philbin recalls Burkhardt then dropping the issue. 

Additionally, Philbin remembered being shown a photo of what Burkhardt described as Wells’ corpse. Philbin's description of the picture is similar to Groomer’s and Windmann’s.

Philbin said Harbin, the detective, called him this week and asked him questions about Wells, the boy’s family and Burkhardt.

Burkhardt never found a killer in the Wells case. He was arrested in 1987, ousted from the department and imprisoned after being convicted of unwittingly mailing sexually explicit images of underage boys to undercover agents.

He later pleaded guilty to molesting a 9-year-old relative as well as receiving child pornography, and he landed in federal prison.

Philbin acknowledged some of the tidbits he left in his notebook while reporting on Wells are “weird” to him now that a more complete portrait of Burkhardt has emerged. But Philbin said he had no reason to think Wells may have died at the hands of Burkhardt.

'Sexually dangerous'

Groomer said he was relieved when he first learned Burkhardt had been imprisoned for his transgressions. 

His relief vanished when he read that Burkhardt had been released in 2015 from the involuntary civil commitment ordered a few years earlier by a federal judge in North Carolina, who deemed the ex-cop a “sexually dangerous person.”

Windmann had testified during that 2011 proceeding, stating that he met Burkhardt after he had been a victim and witness in a case that sent several New Orleans Boy Scout troop leaders to prison in 1977 for sexually abusing the children they were supposed to mentor.

Windmann alleged Burkhardt raped him repeatedly over a few years. But New Orleans police didn’t begin probing those claims until a few weeks ago, when Windmann first reported them to the department after he publicly discussed a $450,000 financial settlement he received in a sexual abuse case involving Jesuit High School. 

Windmann's willingness to call out Burkhardt led Groomer to decide it was time for him to speak up.

Groomer said his parents had managed an apartment complex on the edge of City Park, and they offered discounted rent to police officers who provided security at the building. Burkhardt, then new on the force, moved in when Groomer was 8 or 9, Groomer said.

Groomer said Burkhardt approached him while he played at a playground across the street or in the complex’s game room.

They became fast friends, as Burkhardt dazzled the boy with stories about his on-the-job exploits. Groomer said his dad struggled with alcohol and wasn't around much, and Burkhardt seemed like he would fill the void.

Within months, Burkhardt began engaging in oral sex and other lewd acts with the boy, Groomer said. That continued for at least three years, Groomer said, with Burkhardt going so far as to take him on vacations.

Occasionally, Burkhardt would bring other children around for pick-up football games Groomer would participate in, he said.

A 'horrible way' to live

Groomer on Thursday gasped when he saw the portrait of an expressionless, living Wells that ran with Philbin’s article — saying he vividly recalled the teenager being among Burkhardt’s companions.

Groomer said he tried telling a couple of people close to Burkhardt about the abuse. But they brushed him off — one of various similarities his account shares with Windmann’s.

As he grew older, Groomer said he began fighting off Burkhardt's advances. Groomer said he was roughly 12 when Burkhardt finally stopped, though they maintained contact through the years, including when Groomer needed help with his background check.

Groomer said he struggled with alcoholism and drugs after he realized that what Burkhardt had done was abuse — problems he blames for his divorce. He’s been in therapy for years. After learning of Windmann, he consulted with his therapist and loved ones before deciding to come forward.

Police didn't comment on Groomer, who showed The Advocate recent correspondence between him and a detective which suggested he had turned over a journal as evidence. 

Groomer said his primary drive to speak out is a fear that others who have been victimized by Burkhardt will remain silent.

“It’s a (expletive) horrible way to go through life,” Groomer said. “There may be another person who needs to tell their story from when they were a kid. If I can get someone out … I want to be a part of that.”

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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