By Cheryl McCall
Updated February 26, 1979 12:00 PM
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It was July when Eric Wilson called his parents for the last time. His Volkswagen camper had broken down in Nebraska as he was driving from his home in Ottawa to summer courses in Boulder, Colo. Alarmingly, he never called back. His anxious family appealed for help to the Canadian Mounties, the FBI and Ontario police, but all to no avail. Then Eric’s van turned up in Brunswick, Maine, driven by two young toughs who claimed it was given to them. Local police refused to let Mrs. Wilson question the pair and suggested that her missing son had run off with the Moonies. Desperate, the Wilsons looked for professional help. Enter Jim Conway, private eye.

First Conway tracked down the older suspect, who had been jailed on a previous stolen-car charge. “The guy was a real badass dude,” he recalls. “He says he don’t know nothing, but I think, ‘Baby, you know something.’ ” The detective scoured California, Colorado, Nebraska and Utah, then Arizona and Nevada, checking every gas station where Wilson’s credit cards had been used. Finally, he found a camera shop owner who remembered that one suspect had cashed one of Wilson’s traveler’s checks.

Ten days later the two were charged with robbery, kidnapping and first-degree murder. Both signed confessions (though one is currently fighting extradition) and, when the snow melts in Colorado next spring, the search for Eric’s body will begin. “This story was unreal,” says Conway with a snort of disgust. “A state’s attorney tells Mrs. Wilson there’s nothing he can do, and that her son probably sold them the van. But the guy sitting in the van couldn’t buy a pair of socks. He never had six bucks to his name.”

As an investigator, Conway’s style is classic gumshoe. His office is a kitchen table and assorted bureau drawers scattered about his home in Vernon, Conn. At 60 years of age and 220 pounds, he is too old to be Robin and too fat to be Batman. (“Exercise? Just look at the shape I’m in,” he moans. “I don’t even walk the dog—I just throw him outside and hope he gets lost.”)

Thirteen years as a cop in the Bronx have left a residue of the streets in his speech, and his $34 Goodwill-store sports coat rounds out the image of an aging Irish Columbo. But Conway is nobody’s patsy. And though he asks $100 a day on a criminal case, his hard guy’s shell doesn’t cover a cynic. “He is a man who is devoted to justice,” says playwright Arthur Miller, a close friend. “That’s such an old-fashioned idea that it’s incredible to people who don’t know him. But that belief is what motivates him.”

It was four years ago that Miller’s lawyer brought Conway into the cause célèbre case of Peter Reilly, a Connecticut teenager convicted of brutally stabbing his mother to death. Miller was convinced of Reilly’s innocence, and Conway proceeded to prove it—beginning, as he always does, with the assumption that his client was guilty. He discarded the assumption almost at once. Reilly’s mother, a bisexual alcoholic, was beefy and aggressive; Peter was a fey 121-pounder. Yet the murderer had broken her thigh bones, three ribs, elbow and nose. “If Peter ever went after his mother,” Conway quickly concluded, “she’d have kicked him in the ass and thrown him down the stairs.”

Over the next three years Conway worked tirelessly to back up his instinct with evidence. Police said no blood had been found on Reilly because he had changed his clothes after the killing. Conway found three witnesses who swore Peter was wearing the same clothes before the murder as after—and another who confirmed that Reilly had called to report his mother’s death a few minutes after he had left a church-sponsored teen center. “I worked out the time frame on a blackboard,” the detective remembers, “and it turned out to be impossible. It would have given Peter four minutes to commit the murder, run down the road and hide the clothes, run back and make three phone calls.”

Conway also obtained a fingerprint found at the scene that police, who refused to let him see it for more than a year, had inexplicably left unidentified. In two days Conway identified it as belonging to a neighbor of Reilly’s, who was said by two witnesses to have admitted to the killing. The suspect has not been indicted, but charges against Reilly were dropped.

“Without Jim Conway the case never would have been turned around,” says Miller. “He just wore his shoes off.” Conway agrees. “I’m no smarter than the police,” he says. “I just work harder—10, 12 hours a day, no games. It’s not like TV where they crack the case in an hour with four commercials. It’s frustrating, draggy work. I watch Mannix knock on a door and a beautiful woman with a dress cut down to here opens it and hands him a cocktail. I end up drinking tea with little old ladies.”

Sometimes, of course, the gray panthers can play rough. State police harassed Conway during the Reilly case, and he received a threatening phone call. For the first time in his 10 years as a private eye, he began carrying a .38 when he was told someone was gunning for him with a .357 Magnum. “I figured if that son of a bitch was gonna get me, I was gonna get him,” says Conway. “He knew he was dead if I could help it. Of course, I was dead too, with his .357. Hits you at that range, it blows you apart.”

The son of a bus driver and a cook, Conway grew up in Manhattan—”in one of those places where two families share the John.” After high school and service in the Pacific during World War II, Jim returned to begin his career as a cop. One of his first assignments: the squalid Bronx precinct the police called Fort Apache. “Every damn cop you talk to now says he worked in the South Bronx,” growls Conway. “Just like every guy who served in the Pacific helped raise the flag at Iwo. I’ve never seen so many goddamn heroes. Over there I saw a lot of scared guys, me included, but I didn’t see no heroes.”

After 13 years with the NYPD, Conway moved himself, his wife, Olga, and their four children to Ellington, outside Hartford. The transition was painless, and he hasn’t looked back. Today he dotes on long drives in the country, reads ravenously, goes antiquing and cooks for diversion, and remains, as always, a teetotaler. “I learned as a cop,” he says, “that three things will make you go bad—booze, broads and gambling.” His family’s only complaint is a cavil. “It’s really hard to find him,” says son Jimmy, 27, a criminologist with the Connecticut Department of Corrections. “He’s always working on six cases at once.”

When Conway can be found, he may mask his shrewdness with a pose of Columbo-esque innocence. “When I was a cop,” he says, “I’d charge into a room, flash a badge and say, ‘I got some questions.’ Now I’ll knock and say, ‘Look, you mind if an old guy from Connecticut asks you a couple of dopey questions?’ That makes them relaxed, and they think, ‘Hey, this guy is harmless.’ ” But unless his conscience is fully aroused, he says, criminal work doesn’t pay. “I worked for three years on the Reilly case for $3,000, and Reilly never even said thanks,” he recalls. “We didn’t do it for Reilly per se, of course. Arthur Miller needs Peter Reilly like I need a shot of gonorrhea. It just became a case of ‘Can this happen to a 17-year-old here?’ ”

For the moment, Conway is content to spend most of his time as an insurance investigator, until the next case that stokes the fires of his outrage. Even then, he says, he will do his best to stay on the sidelines. “I just can’t do the criminal work anymore,” he insists. “You only have one Reilly case in you. I don’t care who killed you or your uncle or anybody else. Hell with you. I’d never get involved again.” But on that score, if no other, Jim Conway’s word may be less than his bond.