The Icebox Revisited

Houston had one of its most shocking race murders 45 years ago. But exactly whose tragedy was it?

The next morning, as Doris waited by the phone, Frank took Elaine and continued searching. At some point, the pair drove past a vacant lot on a busy thoroughfare several blocks away. It had lately been used for a dirt-selling business; the kids would ride their bikes down the mounds of dirt, and Billy would catch specimens for his bug collection. Other teens played pickup football there. Near the back was a small tin shack, used as the office for the dirt business. Frank decided to search the lot. As they approached the shack, Elaine noticed Billy's red-and-white bicycle lying in the grass nearby.

Doris arrived soon afterward with her brother, Hal Baughn, and his wife. They searched the area and called Billy's name. Doris walked to a nearby cleaners to call police and tell them the bike had been found. After she left, Baughn peered through a window in the shack and noticed clothes on the floor. Frank tried the door. Unlocked. He looked inside. Billy's swimming trunks and blue jeans lay next to an old icebox refrigerator. With Baughn behind him, he walked to the refrigerator and slowly opened it.

Doris was still on the phone at the cleaners when Frank ran in. He's here, he said, and I think he's dead. Doris stumbled out of the cleaners and toward the shack. Other people's children drown; other people's children die. At that moment, she would recall years later, "I lost any remnants of a belief in an anthropomorphic God."

Ira Lee Sadler hasn't stopped protesting his innocence since the ink dried on his confession.
Daniel Kramer
Ira Lee Sadler hasn't stopped protesting his innocence since the ink dried on his confession.

Forensic pathologist Joseph A. Jachimczyk, who would go on to serve 35 years as Harris County medical examiner, arrived about an hour later. He found the body of William Merrill Bodenheimer III, age 12, crumpled inside the broken icebox, naked. Based on non-bleeding cuts left by the refrigerator's shelf hooks, Jachimczyk guessed that Bodenheimer was already dead when placed inside. His first idea was that the boy had been murdered elsewhere and brought to the shack in a "clumsy attempt to simulate an accident." He removed the body and began his autopsy at noon. The results: There were bruises on the boy's arms and buttocks. There was a bite mark on his left hand. His neck was swollen and bruised. His stomach and diaphragm were ruptured; his rectum was stretched and torn. He'd been stripped, raped, suffocated and accordioned into the icebox.

Detectives scoured the neighborhood; by that evening, newspapers were reporting "promising early leads." Two weeks earlier, a 45-year-old man had picked up a 12-year-old boy and sodomized him. The man, still at large, had at least one previous attempted rape charge. A week before that, a 10-year-old girl was found in a public park, similarly raped, strangled and bitten. And between 11:15 a.m. and 2:10 p.m. on the same afternoon that Billy disappeared, a brown-haired male in his early 20s--he drove a black sedan with the bumper sticker "Made in Texas by Midgets"--had, within several blocks of the shack, attempted to lure three separate preteen girls into his car.

But the following afternoon, homicide Captain Weldon Waycott made a startling announcement: None of those leads would be pursued. Police had the murderers in custody. Five black teenagers, already under suspicion for robbing several street-corner newsboys the previous Saturday night, had signed detailed written confessions admitting responsibility for Billy's death. They were Joe Edward Smith, 17; his half-brother Ira Lee Sadler, 13; Adrian Johnson, 17; his cousin David Arthur Clemons, 15; and Charles Archer, 15. Waycott declared himself "satisfied" that the killers had been caught.

Almost immediately, police assurances appeared to give way to public confusion. Each confession told a vaguely similar story--sometime on Monday, the gang came across Billy riding his bicycle, threw him off, chased him into the shack, raped him repeatedly while the others held him down, and stuffed him into the refrigerator. But details differed significantly. One confession said it happened at 7 p.m., another at 4. One claimed they raped him three times; another 14; two of the earliest confessions mentioned nothing about rape. One had the crime lasting half an hour; another four hours. One named five assailants, another 11. Each had different boys raping, holding and stuffing. The confessions said that Billy was kicking and screaming when they placed him in the icebox, statements that contradicted Jachimczyk's determination that Billy had been "at least unconscious" when locked inside.

Other developments amplified the apparent confusion. All the boys recanted their confessions to reporters the next day, saying that they were signed after police had threatened and beat them. Each said he'd been boxing at the time of the murder. In news accounts and later legal proceedings, nearly a dozen witnesses corroborated the boxing alibi. Beverly Giesenschlag, a 23-year-old mother, came forward to say she'd heard muffled screams coming from the shack at 3:30 p.m., well before any of the confessed times. The last person to have seen Billy alive, gas station attendant John Wiley Garrett, saw him riding north toward the shack between 3 and 3:15 p.m.

Beyond the conflicting claims, concrete physical evidence seemed virtually nonexistent.

The shack itself showed no signs of struggle and contained no fingerprints, blood or hairs, except those of the victim. (The bite on the victim's hand was not imprinted; bite-mark identification did not become standard law enforcement practice until the 1970s.) On Wednesday, detectives announced the discovery of a belt buckle in Archer's bedroom that matched the description of one that, according to Clemons' confession, had been stolen from Billy. That evidence proved false when Doris Field said her son owned no such belt. When detectives suggested he might have bought it after she left that day, Field added that he'd left his wallet and money at home.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help