Haunted House

The discovery of three dead babies opens up a mystery with little chance of solution

This is a story without beginning or end, only a middle where there is horror and confusion, tragedy and a haunting evil that cries out for understanding. Stephen King, not I, should be telling it. It takes place in the shadows of rural church spires, in an isolated part of the Texas heartland populated by God-fearing, hardworking people.

And at least one faceless monster from long ago.

On the final Thursday of October, Stephen and Deena Roberts stood in the vacant upstairs of the large A-frame home they'd moved into three years earlier, contemplating a major remodeling project. Their two young children were fast reaching a time in their lives when they would be demanding more privacy, and the parents, in their 30s, had decided to oblige them by converting the unused upstairs space into two small bedrooms.

Craig Larotonda
Craig Larotonda

Comfortable in the downstairs portion of the house that sits on 30 heavily wooded acres off Brown County Road 153, a half-dozen miles southeast of the community of Bangs, 180 miles southwest of Dallas, the Robertses had paid what they referred to as "the attic" little mind since purchasing the home in July 2000. Then the need for additional room arose.

And now the husband and wife, an auto repair shop owner and a day-care worker, were surveying it, assessing the structural changes to be made and the electrical wiring to be done. In the far corner of the room was a closet built out from the wall. When Deena Roberts opened it, she noticed a small door in back that obviously led to a crawl space behind it.

It was there--for how long, no one knows--that lay a bundle which would change their lives and drive them to seek counseling, place a No Trespassing sign on their gate and refuse all interview requests from the media. A planned holiday vacation has been canceled. They are, friends say, now seriously considering moving from their home.

Opening the door and peering into the dull grayness of the crawl space, Deena saw a single plastic trash bag just an arm's reach away. Most likely, she initially assumed, some old clothes left behind by the previous owner. Only when she retrieved the bag and began to examine its contents did she turn to her husband, unable to speak.

Inside the trash bag was a paper sack. Inside the paper sack, a small sheet. And wrapped inside the sheet was something neither of the Robertses was willing at first to believe. Initially, they thought--hoped--that perhaps it might be the remains of a small animal. It was, in truth, only wishful thinking. The reality was too horrifying to comprehend. What they had found was a tiny mummified human corpse.

Shaken, they hurried downstairs and placed a call to the Brown County Sheriff's Department in nearby Brownwood. It was the dispatcher to whom Stephen Roberts was finally able to voice their worst fear.

"He told us," recalls Chief Deputy Mike McCoy, "that he thought they had found the remains of a dead baby."

Over the course of two and a half decades of law enforcement work, McCoy has responded to more scenes of violence than he can recall--the blood and tangled metal of traffic accidents, murder victims' bodies unceremoniously dumped in barrow ditches and hidden in shallow graves, the aftermath of drunken domestic arguments turned deadly--but nothing like what he saw that afternoon after driving through the gate leading to the isolated Roberts home.

During the 20 minutes it had taken to make the trip, he'd passed fields where goats, cattle and horses leisurely grazed, sped by brimming stock ponds, manicured grain fields and well-kept farmhouses. It was not unlike racing through a two-lane Andrew Wyeth painting, until he reached his destination.

The homeowners had already carried the large plastic bag from the house and placed it in the front yard. Next to it was the paper sack and sheet in which the tiny body lay. McCoy needed only a quick glance to determine that the darkened, leathery form was, in fact, human. Fellow Brown County Deputy Scott Martin, who arrived just minutes later, agreed.

Nearby, Deena Roberts silently stood near her husband, badly shaken.

For the veteran deputies, numerous questions quickly arose. Had they, in fact, arrived at the scene of a long past homicide, or had the baby died of natural causes and just been cruelly hidden away? Who was this tiny person who had likely lived no more than a few days or weeks? Was it possible the people who had called them to the scene could somehow be responsible? Had there been other residents of the house sometime in the past? Would a check of old police and hospital records yield information on a missing infant from years ago?

McCoy immediately contacted Texas Ranger Nick Hanna, just recently assigned to the Brownwood office, asking that he join them at the Roberts residence. Sworn in as a Ranger only two months earlier, Hanna was soon driving toward what he would later call "a puzzle in which none of the pieces seem to fit."

The three lawmen quickly agreed that the body should be immediately taken to the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office in Austin. Rather than search the larger bag it had come from, the decision was made that it should not be disturbed in case it might provide badly needed evidence. It, too, would be sent to Austin. The Davis-Morris Funeral Home in Brownwood was summoned to deliver the body and the bag; Martin, his right arm still in a sling as a result of recent shoulder surgery, was assigned to follow and witness the examination.

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