Hal's message is uncharacteristically breathless.
is absolutely imperative that you call me as soon as you hear this," he
says. "Unless, of course, you already know."
I finally get forensic pathologist Dr. Halbert Fillinger on the phone, he
swears me to secrecy. Not "off the record." Not "deep
there really such a thing as a secret anymore? Secrecy usually just means, "When you see it in the paper tomorrow, remember who told
you first." But I give him my word.
Then he takes a deep breath.
confessed," he says. He sounds as amazed to utter the
words as I am to hear them. "Marie Noe confessed, can you believe
25th, the day after the Philadelphia Magazine article "Cradle
to Grave" was released, Arthur and Marie Noe had just finished dinner,
which they typically eat around 4:30, when they heard a knock on their
front door. It was Sergeant Larry Nodiff and two detectives from the
Special Investigations Unit of the Philadelphia Police Homicide Division.
Nodiff asked the elderly couple if they would come in for questioning.
The Noes had the right to refuse the request but instead calmly decided
to cooperate, asking only for a moment to tend to their pets.
Noe turned and called to his wife, "Will you put Asshole downstairs?" Noticing
the cops' puzzled faces, he explained that "Asshole" was the
name of one of the cats.
The Noes were taken to the Roundhouse and led to separate interrogation
rooms. It was the first time in 30 years that they'd been questioned
by authorities about the deaths of their 10 babies, eight of whom had
died of mysterious causes between 1949 and 1968. Mr. Noe was in Interrogation
Room C with Detective Jack McDermott. Mrs. Noe was put in Room D with
Detective Stephen Vivarina, who is known for having an especially amiable
manner with suspects.
Mr. Noe's interview turned out to be a waste of time, and he wasn't
asked to make a formal statement. He was offered a ride home but said
he would prefer to wait for his wife. He was still waiting - chain-smoking
and watching the television that sits atop the battered file cabinets
lining the homicide division offices - when the clock hits 5 a.m.
During Marie Noe's remarkable 11-hour interview, she apparently told
the secret she had been keeping for decades. She had smothered her babies,
she said. She had used a pillow. She could recall the deaths of only
four of the children specifically: the first three, Richard in 1949,
Elizabeth in 1951 and Jacqueline in 1952, and the fifth, Constance, in
1958. She said she did not remember what she had done in 1955 to Arthur
Jr., the baby born exactly nine months to the day after she claimed to
have been raped by a stranger and left bound with her husband's ties
in the bedroom closet. Nor did she remember what she had done to the
babies whose deaths received so much national media attention in the
1960s: Mary Lee in 1962, Cathy in 1966 and Little Artie in 1968. But
she did not deny causing those later deaths.
After her confession was typed up, Marie read it over and signed it.
She seemed relieved. But as she left the interrogation room with the
three officers, she became skittish.
tell my husband what I told youse," she
The Marie Noe confession remained secret for almost a week, which seemed
an eternity for those in the know but wasn't nearly as long as the D.A.'s
office had hoped to keep the case to itself. A few shards of information
leaked out to the Inquirer late Tuesday night, March 31st, and an unconfirmed
report of the confession ran the next morning.
A media feeding frenzy ensued, with camera crews camped out on the Noes'
block in West Kensington, waiting for a glimpse of the spent, slow-moving
couple: a tiny red-faced man with a habitual cigarette and his broad-shouldered
wife, who appeared blank until provoked. Their story made national nightly
news, the New York Times, the Washington Post and all the morning shows.
Several days later, it led the TV magazine show Dateline NBC. At the
height of the coverage, a local defense attorney named David Rudenstein
announced that he had been retained by the couple and that Marie Noe's
so-called confession was inadmissible because she had been interrogated
for 11 hours without a lawyer present.
contended that her mental condition that evening did not allow her to
make an admissible confession. Seeing Rudenstein on TV in his cream-colored
three-piece suit did not thrill some involved with the case. Rudenstein
is considered smart, but he's known for over-the-top courtroom antics,
often involving props. He once produced a Pinocchio doll to drive home
his point about a witness's alleged lies, and he has also done bits
with a plastic shovel, a toy Liberty Bell and a scarf. Rudenstein did
make one other provocative point about Marie Noe. "I've never
seen anyone confess to five murders and be released from police custody," he
told reporters. And as weeks, then months passed without word from authorities,
observers began to wonder what had happened to the case.
The police and the D.A.'s office were lying low because they knew it
would take a great deal of investigation to make a case against Marie
Noe, even with her signed confession. Except for what she had told them,
much of what they knew about the case came from the magazine article,
which included current interviews with experts and an analysis of the
ancient investigative files, some going back to 1949. But investigators
understood that many of the accusatory statements in those old files
might not be available to prosecutors if the case went to trial. Unless
those who had been interviewed back then were still alive and could come
into court to corroborate what they had said, some powerful past statements
might not be admissible as evidence. Many of the statements had been
taken by the medical examiner's lead investigator, Joe McGillen, who
was still very much alive. But McGillen's testimony about what he'd been
told could be considered hearsay.
This was ironic because the cause might never have been reopened, and
the confession never obtained, if not for McGillen. It was because of
the retired investigator's memory and files that the magazine and later
the police could re-examine the case. The investigative file itself was
extraordinarily detailed: McGillen and his partner had gone so far as
to create a wall-size chart of three generations of the Noes' families,
showing what happened to every kid born to any of them. But as impressive
as McGillen's enterprise had been in the 1960s, what mattered most in
the 1990s was that he knew where to find his files.
When McGillen left the M.E.'s office in 1984 to live quietly with his
wife in the Northeast, distracted only by his grandchildren and his job
scouting high school and college prospects for Major League Baseball,
he elected to retain his personal copies of the case files. He kept them
in a box in his garage until his youngest daughter moved away and her
room was turned into a den. The box sat on the den floor for years.
That's where it was when I first contacted McGillen in November 1997,
at the suggestion of a former member of the M.E.'s staff. By that point,
I was frustrated with the Noe case, which I had been investigating for
several months. My interest began when my editor at Bantam gave me a
new book on sudden infant death syndrome that the house had published,
The Death of Innocents. It explained the new science of SIDS and called
for the reinvestigation of past multiple child deaths, focusing on the
landmark case of Waneta Hoyt, a Syracuse woman who killed her five babies
between 1964 and 1971. (Hoyt died in prison four days after Marie Noe's
arrest.) The Noe babies are mentioned several times in the book, but
the family is referred to by a pseudonym.
I first asked the husband-and-wife authors, Richard Firstman and Jamie
Talan, to cover the Noe case for Philadelphia Magazine. They declined
but encouraged me to pursue it, sharing some materials and recounting
their attempts to get Philadelphia authorities interested in the case
back when they were researching the book. Talan remembered calling D.A.
Lynne Abraham several times about the Noes in 1995 but never getting
a call back. She did get through to the D.A.'s homicide chief at the
time; she recalls him dismissing her plea that he look into the deaths.
(This as not current chief Charles Gallagher, who has aggressively pursued
the case since March.) Talan, who had nightmares about Marie Noe's babies,
wished me better luck.
I contacted Dr. Molly Dapena, the SIDS expert who had worked on several
of the Noe baby autopsies, and she expressed her suspicions about the
deaths, I enlisted the help of two members of the Vidocq Society, the
Philadelphia-based sleuthing club that delves into old, unsolved crimes.
Dr. James Lewis brought me to a pathologists' meeting where I was able
to buttonhole Dr. Fillinger and secure his crucial support. Private
investigator William Fleisher introduced me to Sergeant Larry Nodiff,
who supervises the Philadelphia Homicide detectives who look into the "cold" cases.
I later learned that Nodiff had quietly reactivated the long-dormant
Noe case, after I asked him about the babies.
But it was still difficult to get even basic information about the case.
I was unable to make a complete list of all the children's names and
dates of birth and death until after my first meeting with the Noes,
in the late fall. They told me that most of the papers pertaining to
their children were destroyed when their basement flooded. A friend had
made them a new set of birth and death certificates, which they let me
borrow, along with their photo album.
goal was to gather everything that had ever been known about the deaths
and let the experts come to their own conclusions, based on current
advances in pediatric pathology. The Noes themselves told me they had
always wanted to know more about what had happened, and they also understood
that some old SIDS cases were being reopened as murders. Both repeatedly
denied having anything to do with their children's deaths. However,
Mrs. Noe did give an interesting answer to a query about the sodium
amytral or "truth serum" interview she underwent in 1949 to treat her
hysterical blindness after the death of her first child. I asked if she
recalled being afraid of saying something under the "truth serum" that
she didn't even know herself relating to her son's death. She said, "I
think that… whatever came out of that session, no matter what
was said, I think I would have been relieved… When I asked the
young doctor [who conducted the interview], he said, 'Don't you worry
about itI; you said nothing wrong.'"
asked again, "You
were willing to accept anything you would have said?"
"I'da been glad to get it over with," she replied. "I
would have been glad to know, because when you lose something as precious
as a child, you lose half your life."
Even with the information from the birth and death certificates, attempts
by police to locate copies of their Noe files so they could respond to
my questions proved fruitless. The medical examiner's office was unable
to produce its files or the autopsy reports on most of the children until
the original case file numbers were provided to me by McGillen.
It turned out that McGillen was the only one who could locate a full
copy of the police and M.E. reports, which also included crucial medical
information. As Marie Noe's obstetric surgeon, Dr. Salvatore Cucinotta,
found when he tried to request his own records from St. Joseph's Hospital,
healthcare facilities now are only required to keep records going back
seven years. The M.E. had subpoenaed all the hospital records back in
the '60s, and McGillen's files contained abstracts of many medical records
important to the case.
confession in late March was the news McGillen and his family had been
waiting for since 1968. It almost came too late. When McGillen and
I began talking, his wife, Elaine, had just found out that the cancer
she had been fighting since 1993 was spreading. The quiet reopening of
the Noe case was one of the couple's only distractions from the pain
and the cycles of radiation treatments. In March, when the news of the
confession broke, Elaine was still well enough to enjoy the fact that
her husband finally felt he had been vindicated. In May, she died at
the age of 69.
On Wednesday, August 5th, a black, unmarked Ford Explorer pulls up in
front of Arthur and Marie Noe's West Kensington home at 6:05 a.m. Sergeant
Larry Nodiff hops out, along with the two detectives who have been working
the case with him.
Steve Vivarina, who led the interrogation with Marie Noe, chews nervously
on his plastic coffee stirrer as he knocks on the door. There's no answer.
He rings the bell. Still no answer. He looks up: An air-conditioner is
running loudly in the second-floor bedroom window.
An older Hispanic man sitting on a nearby stoop says something in Spanish,
poking the air repeatedly with his finger. They realize he is trying
to tell them to ring the bell repeatedly, so Vivarina does.
After nearly 10 minutes of ringing and knocking, Arthur Noe peers through.
"We have an arrest warrant for Marie," Nodiff
replies. She is being charged with eight counts of murder.
The couple gets dressed and puts the dogs and cats in the basement. Marie's
face is blank. Art is cooperative but crabby, especially after he tries
to call his lawyer on a phone with oversize buttons and gets a wrong
The couple sits together in the backseat of the Ford Explorer
as they are driven to the Roundhouse. Marie is not handcuffed, but the
doors are safety-locked. Everyone is quiet. The only sound is Detective
Vivarina chomping on that coffee stirrer.
"Will you please stop that?" Art snaps. Then he criticizes
the other detective's driving: "Keep your eyes on the road, Jack."
has been characteristically quiet. Art turns to her. "I guess
you won't be home for your birthday," he says.
In three weeks, she'll be 70. If her children had lived, the oldest,
Richard, would be 49 and the youngest, Little Artie, would be 31. The
Explorer pulls into a parking bay below the Roundhouse, and Marie is
taken away to be processed. Her husband is escorted up to Homicide to
use the phone and wait for the lawyer. After calling, he lowers himself
into a chair just outside Interrogation Room D, where Marie gave the
statement she didn't want him to hear.
Noe lights another cigarette and looks up at a detective leaning against
a desk. "Do you think she did it?" he
But he already knows the answer.
All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 1998 by Stephen Fried