Blood on Tulip Street

Date Published 07.08.07
William Fowler inherited the row house from his mother. It wasn’t fancy -- four of the eight neighboring row houses aren’t even occupied anymore. The neighborhood, a pocket of northeast Philadelphia called Port Richmond, has changed over the years, with people moving out and commercial and industrial interests taking over. But William, 53, and his family remained. The row house on Tulip Street was theirs, a familiar and comforting absolute for a family who’d seen their share of hard knocks over the years.

William’s wife, Estella, 50, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis sometime in the 1990s. She became legally blind in one eye and could barely walk. More recently, she was diagnosed with cancer.

But it was their youngest son, John, 20, who needed the most care. When John was 17 a drunken driver hit him as he drove home from work. John was left a quadriplegic and dependent on a ventilator 24/7.

William left his job as a security guard to take care of his family. By all accounts William and Estella’s lives centered around John. They put his hospital bed in the living room while they slept on an air mattress to watch him during the night. A series of home-health nurses helped out.

William and Estella Fowler

The Fowler’s lives became small and centered around simple pleasures, like a weekly trip to the Franklin Mills Mall. Their eldest son, William Jr., would recall to the Philadelphia Daily News that his Dad was “just a stand-up guy” and his parents “would do anything for all three of their sons.”

The only hint of trouble lay in their relationship with their middle son. Neighbors noticed he moved in and out of the row house, and William mentioned to a neighbor that he was thinking of calling the police about him, though he didn’t share specifics.

It was an uneventful, if bad luck-strewn life, until the early morning of May 21, 2006. A neighbor who shared a wall with the Fowlers was up watching Batman Begins and heard banging noises coming from inside their house around 1 a.m. He thought he was playing his television too loud, and turned it down.

A short time later, a 911 dispatcher took a call from a dying William Fowler. He reported that all three members of his family had been shot.

Police arrived at 1:04 a.m. to an almost unimaginably brutal scene, the violence compounded by the helplessness of the victims. Someone had shot John in the left side of the head in his hospital bed. He was pronounced dead at the scene, as was Estella, who was shot in the face on the air mattress. William lived for almost an hour, and was able to talk somewhat with the responding officers.

The story was initially big news. Much was made of William’ s comments to the 911 dispatcher and police, but no one in the media could get investigators to say what William had revealed. Sources honed in on the lack of forced entry, and that nothing was taken. Follow-up stories mentioned the problems with the estranged son. The angle became obvious -- the son was the main suspect, and the police were quietly amassing evidence against him.

Then the story died. No news. No follow-ups. How could such a brutal crime -- a quadriplegic shot in the head while he was sleeping in his hospital bed -- sputter out and go cold?

A little over a year after the murders, I called one of the lead investigators on the case, Detective Patrick Mangold, to ask why. I wasn’t expecting Mangold to be particularly forthcoming, as I’d exchanged emails with several Philadelphia-area reporters who informed me the case had “gone dark.”

I was pleasantly surprised to find Mangold friendly, accessible and candid. What he told me spun the case in a completely unexpected direction, and made it clear that however violent I thought the Fowler murders had been, previously undisclosed details made it much worse.

Mangold began by telling me that they believe Estella was shot first, most likely as she rose in fear from the air mattress. John would have witnessed his mother’s murder, and then an attack on his father, whom investigators believe was pistol-whipped and shot as he tried to protect his son. The killer then yanked the ventilator tube out of John’s mouth, suffocating him; the breathing machine has a monitor that records disturbances, so investigators know the exact moment it happened. Suffocating John apparently wasn’t enough, so the killer shot him in the head.

I asked Mangold about the lack of forced entry. I’d read that the Fowlers always locked their doors. Didn’t that imply that they let in someone they knew well?

Not exactly, Mangold told me. A passerby reported that about an hour and a half before the murders they saw the Fowler’s screen door closed but the inside door open. William often went out to the front stoop to smoke, and investigators believe as he was readying his wife and son for bed he periodically stepped outside for a cigarette. The killer likely used this lapse in security to get inside.

“Most of the news articles seemed to imply you’re looking at the middle son,” I said.

“I don’t believe it was the son.”

I was shocked. “What did William Fowler say on the phone?”

“The 911 dispatcher asked who shot them. And William said, ‘my nurse.’”

Mangold went on to tell me that more than 50 nurses had worked in the Fowler home at some point over the years, and weeding through them had proved complicated. He was frustrated that the dispatcher didn’t get a name from William. Still, investigators had made progress -- they knew of three nurses who’d had some sort of altercation with the Fowlers. One of the nurses has even done time for attempted murder. Another was fired from their agency after a falling out with the Fowlers.

“One of them struck me as a complete nut-job, frankly,” Mangold said.

We talked about how frightening it is that someone could sit and stew over a personal slight to such a degree that he breaks in and annihilates an entire, helpless family.

Even scarier, I said, was the fact that William said “my nurse” rather than a name, as if the person hadn’t made a big enough impression to warrant remembering his name. Maybe it was one of the smaller altercations, or someone who hadn’t had a falling out with them at all?

“We’re going down every road,” Mangold said.

A grand jury has been convened to subpoena testimony from the mostly reluctant nurses.

Though he believes the answer lies with the home-health care professionals, Mangold revealed that they have two other angles they’re pursuing.

Estella had recently discovered that a family member had stolen her identity, and she was contemplating calling the police about it. Mangold thinks it's possible an associate of the family member could be involved in the murders.

And the car accident that left John a quadriplegic? News reports said he was struck by a drunken driver. The truth, Mangold said, was more complex. John was drag racing that night. People were killed. Investigators wonder if one of the victims' family members decided to exact revenge.

From every angle motive seemed to be the slow burn of an intense personal grudge.

Mangold agreed, citing the severity of William's beating and the act of pulling the ventilator tube from John's mouth.

"What makes people snap?" he asked. Recalling the crime scene, he had only one word.


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RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.