Haunted House

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

In Austin, neither he nor Dr. Elizabeth Peacock, deputy chief medical examiner of Travis County, had any reason to expect that the already bizarre case might take on an even more bizarre twist.

Inside the brightly lit examining room, everything delivered by the funeral home was placed on a gurney. Gently pulling back the sheet and looking down at the tiny mummified form, Dr. Peacock determined immediately that the science she practices was unlikely to provide satisfactory answers. The absence of internal organs, decomposed by the passage of time, eliminated the possibility of their yielding the traditional clues an autopsy might reveal. There was nothing on the small body to indicate a cause of death; no crushed skull or bullet wound. She could not, in fact, even determine the gender of the corpse, only that it was a newborn and had been dead for a minimum of six months, the length of time necessary for a body to completely mummify.

"While I was standing there observing," Martin says, "I saw one of the technicians look into a plastic sack still inside the large bag and lift the corner of what appeared to be a towel. He quickly turned to Dr. Peacock and called her attention to a small bone that was barely visible."

Craig Larotonda
Craig Larotonda

The medical examiner immediately instructed her assistant to search no further. Instead, they would first X-ray the bag in an effort to determine its contents. What the X-ray ultimately would reveal were two additional bodies in smaller plastic sacks. Also newborns, Dr. Peacock surmised.

Martin immediately phoned McCoy, who was anxiously awaiting a report in Brownwood. "We've got two more," the investigator said.

Three tiny bodies. Triplets? Unlikely since one of the bodies appeared to be a bit larger than the others. Dead for how long? Hidden away by whom? What manner of evil had been played out in the house on County Road 153?

The investigation--and the local talk--began immediately. In the small community of nearby Bangs, where word of the discovery spread, the reaction was what one might anticipate: Things like this just don't happen here. Down at the Shell station, owner Mike Stephens called it "disgusting." At the Allsup's Grocery, one of the stories being circulated was that the bodies were not actually infants, as reported, but rather older children who had been severely malnourished. The case was even the topic of discussion in chemistry class at the local high school. A few of the more imaginative residents voiced concern that some manner of satanic baby-sacrifice ritual might have been carried out, and there has been coffee-shop speculation about an illegal abortion clinic hidden away in the countryside.

Wire service reports of the discovery soon spread the story nationwide. Then came the queries from network television shows such as 20/20, 48 Hours and even Oprah. All were disappointed to learn that beyond the fact the bodies had been found, there was little story to be told. No beginning, no end. No place to direct blame. No identity to assign the victims.

Dallas true-crime author Patricia Springer, whose recent Blood Stains chronicles a 1993 Brown County child murder committed by Ricky McGuinn, says the case may interest nonfiction book writers eventually, but only if and when it is solved. "More likely," she says, "it is going to remain a mystery and become one of those horror stories that grows over the years into local folklore."

"The whole thing makes my stomach turn," says veteran Abilene Reporter-News journalist Celinda Emison, the mother of two teenage boys, who was assigned to the story. "I've covered murders, McGuinn's execution, seen awful crime-scene pictures, but nothing as upsetting as this. As a reporter, I find the mystery aspect of it quite interesting, but the fact there are children--babies--involved makes it all so sad, so tragic. And, wherever the story finally goes, the ending can only be ugly."

"It's the strangest thing I've ever heard," says Bangs police Chief Bill Copeland, hired to his position only 60 days before the discovery. He candidly admits that he is relieved the bodies were not found within his jurisdiction. "If there's anything I can do to help," he says, "I'll certainly do so. But, I've got to say, I'm glad this isn't my case."

Those to whom it did belong, the Brown County Sheriff's Department and Ranger Hanna, have never before worked such a strange "cold case." "Our first priority," Hanna says, "has been to try and determine the identity of the children, then establish a timeline that would provide us a history of the residence where their bodies were found." From the get-go, they have approached the case as a multiple homicide investigation.

A search of old law enforcement records revealed no reports of missing children. Hospital records were nonproductive. At the Brown County courthouse, however, investigators located a building permit that had been issued to a local electrical engineer named James Bowling in 1987. He'd built the country house and lived there with his wife, Doris, daughters Traci Ann and Constance, and son Eddie. Shortly after the elder Bowlings died--James in 1999, his wife in 2000--the siblings put the house up for sale and moved from the area.

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