It’s back. The never-ending story of the March 1, 1932, kidnapping of the son of famed early 20th-century century aviator Charles Lindbergh from his Hopewell home is again in the news — thanks to a recent request by a researcher looking to examine the evidence held by the State of New Jersey.
As a quick review for those who may just be catching up, the case involves the disappearance of 20-month-old Charlie, a high-profile police search, the discovery of the boy’s body in a shallow grave, and an investigation that involved a series of strange ransom notes, a meeting in a graveyard, and a courtroom drama that sent German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann to the electric chair at Trenton State Prison.
However, for many, the verdict seemed rushed and provided more questions than evidence could answer.
The result has been a parade of books, screen dramatizations, and stage plays, including a courtroom drama re-enacted in the Hunterdon Court House where the original trial took place.
And it has also produced a variety of conspiracy-laced questions: Did Hauptmann really do it? Was he alone? Or did someone else commit the crime — perhaps Lindbergh himself?
Speculation was also fueled by the periodic appearance of someone claiming to be the Lindbergh baby.
As Lindbergh’s daughter once noted, five men in the U.S. and several others in Europe claimed to be her brother. And let’s not forget the Trenton woman who said that thanks to a tip from a CIA agent she was dating, she learned she was born with both sex organs, sent away for an operation that made her female, and was medically changed to look like an African American — potentially to save the eugenics-supporting Lindbergh embarrassment over his own child’s imperfections.
Lindbergh fever got hot in 1981 when New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne signed an October 6 executive order releasing the state’s case files to the public.
As the New York Times reported, “Governor Byrne said today that he would issue an executive order making 90,000 documents and pieces of evidence in the kidnapping murder of the infant son of Charles A. Lindbergh available to scholars and other ‘interested parties.’
“The move came after the widow of Bruno Richard Hauptmann filed suit for the material with the idea of proving that her husband was not guilty of the crime 49 years ago. Hauptmann was convicted after a sensational trial four years later and electrocuted.
“Mr. Byrne said he was not concerned that his order would give Hauptmann’s widow, Anna, an opportunity to prove her husband’s innocence and that if she was successful, to sue the state for damages. He said the state would ‘have a moral responsibility to respond’ to Mrs. Hauptmann’s suit if she succeeded.
“However, he expressed confidence that any objective review of the material would confirm that state’s actions in the case were correct and that the jury verdict was just.
“He also said he hoped the opening of the file would insure that the questions surrounding the case ‘will not be kicked around for years and years to come.’”
But as of January 31, 2023, as a New Jersey Spotlight article shows, Byrne was wrong.
After calling the Lindbergh case “one of the largest and most complex in New Jersey history,” Spotlight describes it as “the first major criminal prosecution that relied on evidence gathered by scientists who used what was then state-of-the-art forensic technology to analyze crime scene evidence found at Lindbergh’s home in the woods outside Hopewell. Microscopic analysis of ransom notes and a homemade ladder used to snatch Charles Jr. from his second-floor nursery delivered convincing evidence that linked Hauptmann to the kidnapping.”
The article says renewed interest happened in fall 2022 when “a researcher who said she was working with a documentary filmmaker, sued the state for access to evidence that would be subjected to minimally invasive DNA testing.”
In January, 2023, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy dismissed the public record lawsuit and “ruled that the researcher, Princeton resident Margaret Sudhakar, did not have standing to do forensic tests that could partially destroy historic evidence.”
The judge ruled that the state’s open public records law “is not the vehicle by which a citizen can march up to a museum and demand that the custodians of historical artifacts and documents surrender the state’s treasures for analysis, alteration and destruction.”
As NJ Spotlight notes, “the lawsuit raises questions about the state’s control of the publicly owned evidence and policies, if any, regarding scientific analysis. Experts on the Lindbergh kidnapping point out that there has been no state forensic exam of the evidence since the late 1970s.”
And “Sudhakar said she was working with a documentary film producer and had assembled a team of 30 forensic pathologists, medical examiners, DNA experts and pediatric neurosurgeons who would use the best modern techniques to reexamine the evidence.”
In the article, the reviewer says “she had been a volunteer for 10 years at the New Jersey State Police Museum in Ewing, which has a permanent Lindbergh exhibit and had worked closely with state archivists in charge of the Lindbergh material. She said she had discussed details of her plans to examine only tiny samples of the evidence under supervision of state experts, looking specifically for saliva remnants on envelopes and postage stamps that could show whether someone besides Hauptmann was involved.
“Sudhakar also told the court that state police officials, including Lt. Adam Grossman, agreed with her that a thorough analysis of the Lindbergh evidence using modern DNA techniques was ‘long overdue.’”
The article reports that Sudhakar’s lawyer, Kurt W. Perhach, declined to comment on the ruling. And while his client was unavailable for comment, Perhach said she was considering an appeal.
As Sudhaker wrote in a letter to the court, “The time for speculation about the New Jersey State Police’s most famous case is over. The answers to the most basic questions of this case including who sealed the envelopes, who licked the stamps and who made the ladder can all be obtained with modern day forensics at no cost to the state of New Jersey.”
Stay tuned, because all the above evidence is showing that the “Crime of the (20th) Century” is getting an extended run into the current century.
For the full NJ Spotlight story, visit www.njspotlightnews.org.