5 years later, still no ‘dots’ to connect in Eric Birnbaum's slaying
Eric Birnbaum stayed late at his Bucks County office on Feb. 10, 2009. As usual, he was one of the last out the door, leaving with law partner Terry Goldberg about 8:30 p.m. The two childhood friends were used to working late into the night together.
Divorced with college-age daughters, Birnbaum walked into the dark on the mild winter night, climbed into his car and drove five miles to the Northeast Philadelphia home he shared with his long-haired dachshund, Oscar. He planned to walk and feed Oscar, then eat his own dinner, his normal evening routine.
In short, it was a typical night for Eric Birnbaum. And it was the last night of his life.
The next morning, Birnbaum returned to the parking lot of Terry D. Goldberg & Associates on Buck Road in Northampton Township. He pulled his Acura TL into the lot around 9 a.m., parking a spot or two away from a secretary for the law firm who had arrived moments earlier. Birnbaum climbed out of the sedan, and stopped to exchange morning pleasantries with the secretary. The two chatted near the rear of their vehicles.
Within a minute or two, a white male wearing a knit cap and sunglasses approached Birnbaum from behind, from the north end of the parking lot. The man was walking normally, the secretary told investigators, and she didn’t really register his presence - until he slipped behind Birnbaum and fired a single .40-caliber bullet into the back of the lawyer’s head.
The attorney collapsed to the ground as the woman dove for cover behind a vehicle, obscuring her view of the killer.
Birnbaum died five hours later at St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne.
Five years later, Birnbaum’s killing during daylight and off a busy road remains one of the most puzzling -- and frustrating -- unsolved cases in Bucks County.
No new clues. No motive. No suspects.
How did his killer simply disappear without a trace?
Before they parted ways in the parking lot the night before the murder, Goldberg tried to get his colleague to make a quick stop at a bar and restaurant in the strip mall where the firm was located. Birnbaum declined, saying he had to care for Oscar.
“He was his same, usual self,” Goldberg said. “When he left here that night, he was the same, happy Eric.”
The case is striking for the number of promising angles investigators pursued -- and for how all of them have failed to lead to the killer. Early suspects were ruled out. A man seen near the scene has never been identified. No one at the strip mall or driving along Buck Road saw the gunman or a getaway vehicle. Nothing in Birnbaum’s personal life or case files pointed police toward the killer.
Investigators still aren’t even sure whether Birnbaum was the gunman’s intended victim.
Solving a murder is like working a connect-the-dots puzzle, said Matt Weintraub, the chief deputy district attorney in Bucks County. But in the Birnbaum case, he said, “we don’t even have all the dots.”
The case is the only unsolved homicide in the history of Northampton Township, a municipality of about 40,000 where violent crime is rare.
Northampton is a quiet community. Birnbaum’s death was one of 19 violent crimes reported in 2009. FBI data show Northampton recorded just 16 violent offenses in 2012. In the past 15 years, just one other murder -- a 2002 incident in which a man pleaded guilty but mentally ill to fatally stabbing his mother -- occurred in the township, FBI data shows.
The day Birnbaum was slain, no one else at the shopping center, including the secretary, was hurt or threatened.
“The actor then ignored the other employee and appeared to have simply vanished” into the morning traffic, Barry Pilla, Northampton Township’s police chief at the time, wrote in an email in late January.
“There are so many possibilities of what happened,” said Philadelphia attorney A. Harold Datz, a friend who had known Birnbaum for more than two decades.
Two potential suspects surfaced early.
Witnesses described a man who sat outside the Famous Deli in the same strip mall where the law office was located and disappeared around the time of the killing. Investigators still don’t know who that person is, or whether he had anything to do with Birnbaum’s death.
He remains a “strong person of interest,” said Northampton Township Detective Charles Pinkerton, the lead investigator on the case since the beginning.
No video footage exists of the man. He sat under a surveillance camera outside the deli, but the device only provided a live feed, not a recording. No other businesses had surveillance that captured the man and no witnesses got a good look at him.
The secretary in the parking lot with Birnbaum glimpsed the shooter just briefly before ducking for cover, leaving her able to only describe his cap and sunglasses. Attempts by a reporter to discuss the case with the secretary were unsuccessful.
After preliminary information indicated a blue minivan may have been involved, police detained a van driver in Northeast Philadelphia shortly after the shooting. That man was cleared within hours.
Since then, solid leads have been non-existent. Both investigators and those close to Birnbaum are flummoxed that the case remains not only unsolved, but so wide open.
Investigators aren’t sure what to make of Birnbaum’s apparent lack of enemies.
“Nice guys don’t often get killed execution-style in a parking lot,” said Pinkerton, 49, who grew up in Philadelphia’s Burholme section and has spent almost all of his 25 years in law enforcement on the Northampton force.
‘None of them had an axe to grind’
Birnbaum’s personal life has yielded no motive for murder.
The lawyer attended Central High School, Temple University and John Marshall Law School, then worked at the Willow Grove firm Slifkin & Axe for 20 years before joining Goldberg’s practice in June 2008.
Goldberg had lobbied Birnbaum for years to come work for him, and said he finally convinced the attorney that working together wouldn’t interfere with the pair’s long friendship.
Birnbaum’s life outside work was devoted to family and friends. He had regular brunches with his daughters and phone conversations with his out-of-state sister and parents. Though he was in his 50s, he remained close to grade-school friends, said Dona Birnbaum, his sister. To relax, he rode his motorcycle and watched old movies.
He was survived by his two daughters, a girlfriend and an ex-wife.
Dona Birnbaum said her brother was always excited about his job, and their parents instilled a strong work ethic in the siblings.
“We were both taught that you had to work hard,” she said. “He always wanted to do the best for his clients.”
Birnbaum’s sister said she doesn’t have high hopes that the case will be resolved.
“It’s been all these years and nothing’s happened,” Dona Birnbaum said. Other family members could not be reached.
His relatives and close associates -- among the first people investigated in any homicide case -- were ruled out relatively quickly, said David Zellis, who was the Bucks County first assistant district attorney at the time. Their whereabouts checked out, Zellis said, and “none of them had an axe to grind.”
In the days and weeks after the shooting, rumors arose: Was Birnbaum involved in drugs? Gambling? Having an affair?
Authorities even asked Goldberg if the firm had “ever been shaken down by the Russian mob” as they tried to figure out why Birnbaum was shot.
None of the rumors proved to be true.
Birnbaum had debt from two mortgages that totaled $200,000, the purchase of cars for his daughters and personal shopping. But his friends had no inclination he was having trouble making payments, and investigators say there’s no evidence those debts contributed to his death.
The attorney’s relationships with his Northeast Philadelphia neighbors also failed to produce leads. Birnbaum had been in a dispute with a neighbor over a parking space, though police say nothing came out of that.
Virtually no one has anything bad to say about Birnbaum.
“He was honest. He was conscientious. He was loyal,” said Neil Axe, who hired Birnbaum at Slifkin & Axe in the late 1980s and worked with him for the next two decades. “You can just put down a whole list of adjectives that would describe what a good man is, and just about all of them would apply to Eric.”
Other attorneys describe him as a skilled lawyer, devoted father and eager to help others. He was known for his frequent responses on an email listserv where Pennsylvania trial attorneys sought and gave advice.
After his death, the listserv was flooded with messages, many from lawyers who had never met Birnbaum. A Pittsburgh lawyer wrote that Birnbaum’s “‘two cents’ was always helpful,” a nod to the attorney’s habit of including the caveat “that’s just my two cents” in his responses.
20 years of cases
As his personal relationships failed to produce clues, police turned to Birnbaum’s case files. At the time of his death, Birnbaum was working on a variety of cases -- including personal injury, car accident, slip-and-fall and police brutality suits -- but nothing particularly high-profile.
Police went through his emails, phone and computer. Goldberg gave investigators names of people involved in the firm’s cases who he thought might be “capable of that kind of anger.”
Detectives examined old cases and combed through files from Birnbaum’s work at Slifkin & Axe multiple times.
As a veteran attorney, with 20 years of litigation behind him, Birnbaum’s case files left behind a slew of possible suspects. Each of the hundreds of cases he handled involved clients, clients’ families, witnesses, defendants and defendants’ relatives, among others -- any of whom could have been unhappy with Birnbaum.
“It just mushrooms into this overwhelming potential list of suspects,” Zellis, the former prosecutor, said.
If there was such a dispute, it may not have been a recent one.
Multiple people involved in the Birnbaum case pointed to the unrelated slaying of William Berkeyheiser as an example of how old perceived slights and grudges can come back to haunt victims. Berkeyheiser was shot to death at his Upper Makefield home in March 2005 by a former coworker who was offended by racial slur. The comment had been made seven years prior.
Investigators said Birnbaum’s killing could have been sparked by some kind of anniversary -- a death, a court ruling -- from a years-old case. But police say they need tips to know what they’re looking for as they comb through Birnbaum’s documents.
Over the years, with no apparent motive or enemies, the question has often come up: Was that bullet meant for Birnbaum at all?
Current investigators say they continue to explore the possibility that Birnbaum wasn’t meant to be the victim, but there’s also no evidence to conclude the shooting was a case of mistaken identity.
That, in some ways, would be easier for his family and friends to accept.
“In my wildest dreams, as creative as I can be, I cannot think of any reason in the universe why someone would hurt my brother,” Dona Birnbaum said.
Where the case stands
Police and prosecutors remain resolved to solving the case, and meet regularly about it. They continue working to solicit tips. Through national databases, physical evidence could also point to a suspect.
“We still have areas to investigate,” said Weintraub, the Bucks deputy district attorney.
Goldberg and the Citizens Crime Commission of Delaware Valley are offering a reward of $20,500. Bucks County authorities worked with the FBI to put up digital billboards last fall on major roadways, including Interstate 95. Fliers are posted in grocery and convenience stores around the township.
The passage of time can sometimes spur a reluctant informant to come forward, said Kenneth Mains, a detective with the Lycoming County District Attorney’s Office and president of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases, which offers assistance to law enforcement on unsolved crimes. It’s also useful to have a new investigator take a fresh look at a case, and awareness campaigns can encourage tips, said Mains, who is not involved in the Birnbaum investigation.“Anything like that to keep the cold case in the public eye is good,” he said.
Northampton Township police say they have consulted with other agencies about the case. And since the fall, a few tips have come in from people who have seen the new billboards. Investigators are also holding out hope of connecting with people who left anonymous tips through the website of America’s Most Wanted, which has a page about the case.
The investigation could get a big boost if police could ask those people just a few questions, said Pinkerton, the lead detective. He wouldn’t describe the tips, but said the information provided “gives you a theory, but it doesn’t give you a whole lot of substance to move forward.”
It’s also possible physical evidence could lead to the killer. Ballistics evidence, which authorities would not describe beyond saying they believe a .40-caliber weapon was used, is routinely checked against national samples through the Integrated Ballistics Identification System database, known as IBIS. The .40-caliber cartridge was originally developed for law enforcement in the late 1980s; it’s now the most common cartridge for police use in the United States and popular among civilians as well, said Emanuel Kapelson, a Lehigh County-based firearms expert. The round, which is primarily used in semi-automatic handguns, is a bit larger and heavier than 9mm bullets.
Other evidence has been put into the Combined DNA Index System, called CODIS, which could lead to a match if the forensic evidence matches samples submitted from another crime.
Officials wouldn’t elaborate on the exact materials submitted to those databases, but Pinkerton said there is “enough physical evidence to make a positive identification.”
Additionally, the homicide is listed in the FBI’s violent crimes database, and investigators periodically receive alerts when elements of the slaying -- such as victim characteristics, the time of day or type of location -- are similar to another offense elsewhere in the country.
Authorities say they believe there are people with information about the slaying who haven’t come forward yet.
Unless they do, or unless forensic evidence yields a suspect, the speculation about what could have led to Birnbaum’s death will continue.
When Birnbaum and Goldberg reached their vehicles in the parking lot that warm February night before the killing, the temperature near 50 degrees, Goldberg zipped off. The more meticulous Birnbaum usually let his car warm up for a few minutes before driving. Bar patrons filled up strip mall parking lot at night, and Goldberg said he’s pondered if that’s when Birnbaum encountered his killer.
“I even wonder, did something happen in those five minutes?” he said.
It’s just one more guess about who gunned down a man in a strip mall parking lot, during rush hour, off a major road -- and vanished without leaving any trace of his identity behind.
Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the Citizens Crime Commission of Delaware Valley tip line at 215-546-8477 (TIPS) or Northampton Township police at 215-322-6111.