Haunted House

Craig Larotonda

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.

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.

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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.

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."

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.

The tree-shaded A-frame, according to Brown County Appraisal District records, was in probate when the Robertses purchased it in July 2000. From February until the new owners moved in, the house had been vacant.

"At this point," McCoy says, "we've got to treat everyone who ever lived in the house as a suspect." There is, however, little optimism in his voice to suggest a quick resolution of the mystery. "Everyone we've spoken with is being very cooperative."

The distraught Robertses immediately agreed to give DNA samples to prove they are not related to the infants. The two Bowling daughters, now living in small towns in the Panhandle, expressed disbelief when investigators told them of the discovery and have also volunteered to provide DNA samples to be matched to those the medical examiner hopes will eventually be extracted from the bodies. The women, now in their 40s, have been very helpful, McCoy and Martin say. "One is a physical therapist," Deputy Martin says, "and the other is a housewife with five children."

They, too, have refused to speak with the media.

Only the Bowling son, a hairdresser reportedly living in the Corpus Christi area, has yet to be located and interviewed. "We aren't even sure he knows about what's happened," McCoy says. "Neither of his sisters had read or heard anything about it before we interviewed them." The last time either of the women had spoken with their brother, they told investigators, was "at least a year ago."

McCoy all but dismisses the Robertses as suspects. "If they'd had anything to do with this," he reasons, "why, after such a long period of time, suddenly report what they found to the authorities? That makes no sense at all."

And what of the three surviving Bowling family members, each separated in age by six years and "not particularly close to each other," who sold the house and moved away following their parents' deaths? "If you're trying to sell a house, it doesn't make much sense to leave three dead bodies hidden inside."

As Ranger Hanna says, a grim puzzle with no fitting pieces.

What, then, of the five months in 2000 during which the house was vacant? Is it possible a trespasser--perhaps someone familiar with the house, even a stranger--might have used it as a place to hide some crime? "We're certainly not dismissing that possibility," McCoy says.

Sitting behind his desk recently, he admits frustration. "You feel like there are things you should be doing," he says, "but what? We've gone through the house with a fine-tooth comb twice. We've dug through records and conducted interviews. Now, we're at a point where we're at the mercy of the scientists."

Specifically, Denton's Dr. Harrell Gill-King, director of the University of North Texas' Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology, one of only two licensed forensic anthropologists in Texas.

"This investigation," admits Deputy Martin, "hinges on what Dr. Gill-King can determine and pass along to us and the medical examiner."

Earlier this month Dr. Gill-King traveled to Austin and picked up the tender cargo he would bring back to his laboratory for study. Good-natured and quick to laughter, he has spent the past two decades examining skeletal remains, testifying in grisly and celebrated court trials and teaching his craft to the next generation of forensic scientists. In the aftermath of the 9-11 disaster in New York, he was among those called in to help identify the remains of victims.  

And while he tells the Dallas Observer that it is his policy not to discuss any case on which he's still working, he does explain that he will conduct what is called a necropsy, rather than an autopsy. In layman's language: His examination will be conducted with a variety of high-tech X-raying, measurements and photography. His goal: to determine when the infants died, their gender, if they are related and, if possible, how they met their deaths.

The latter, experts say, is unlikely. Still, DNA material can be extracted from bones, ultimately providing the authorities with comparisons to make with the DNA of each body and any suspects developed in the course of the investigation. "When we get some DNA evidence to work with," Ranger Hanna says, "then I believe we'll be able to move the case forward."

Dr. Gill-King's initial report after viewing the remains stated that one of the infants was a boy, according to The Associated Press. While one of the bodies was, in fact, mummified, the other two were only skeletal remains. One, he reported to the Travis County medical examiner, appeared to be younger than the other two. And he has told investigators that it might be as long as six to eight weeks before his examination of the bodies is completed.

Meanwhile, scientists at the Texas Department of Public Safety laboratory in Austin recently began examining the bags and wrappings in which the infants' bodies were found, searching for fingerprints and trace evidence like hair and fibers that might have been left behind by whoever hid the bodies.

Martin, however, agrees that chances of ever determining the cause of death of the babies are "slim to none" unless someone eventually confesses. "Right now," he says, "we're more focused on learning who the victims are and who they might be connected to."

Meanwhile, everyone waits on Dr. Gill-King. And only after the anthropologist has extracted DNA from the corpses will samples be officially requested of those on the investigators' "persons of interest" list.

For McCoy, things are moving too slow. As he waits, he trolls law enforcement databases searching for similar cases, solved or unsolved, that might somehow be linked to his investigation. And while he's found nothing that appears to tie in, he's learned that the mysterious event that now commands his every waking thought is not as unique as he assumed.

"Just the other day," he says, "I was reading about a case of a woman who gave birth to triplets in New York back in the '80s, then apparently murdered all three. For years, she moved here and there, always taking their bodies with her in a box. Finally, she evidently put it in a storage building out in Arizona." Eventually, she'd stopped rental payments, and the contents of her storage space were removed and her crime discovered.

"She was living somewhere in Pennsylvania when they finally arrested her last year."

Additionally, he says, he's received calls and e-mails from fellow law enforcement officials across the nation who have worked similar cases over the years.

Dallas forensic pathologist Dr. Linda Norton, a highly regarded expert on infant deaths, says such cases are not that unusual. "And," she says, "neither is the killing and discarding of newborn infants. If the truth were known, there are probably far more instances than we'd ever want to imagine. A baby is so easy to hide. Put it in a Dumpster and most likely it winds up in a landfill the next day, never to be seen again. Bury it and in no time the body decomposes to a point where there is virtually nothing left. It sounds horrible, but when you talk about the things supposedly civilized people do, it too often becomes stranger than any fiction you'll ever read."

Only recently, a headline in the local papers told of a just-born child found discarded in a strip-mall trash bin in Hurst. Sad, horrifying, but hardly front-page news these days.

After a review of the facts of the Brown County case, Dr. Norton agrees with investigators that their most likely suspects are those who have resided in the house. "Or," she adds, "someone connected to someone who lived in the house.

"I'll bet you this: The person who hid the bodies away in the crawl space also made the door they found in the back of that closet. They cut the small door to be able to get access to the crawl space to hide the bag. Then, in an effort to keep the door from being conspicuous, they built the closet in front of it."  

It is, she acknowledges, only speculation that flames the imagination and passes the time as everyone waits for real answers.

In a more perfect marriage of criminal investigation and journalism, there would, at this point in the story, be some degree of resolution; some insight into the behavior and motive that led to the horrifying deaths and disposal of three innocents. Whoever responsible would have been arrested, charged and arraigned, and a trial date would be set. His or her--or their--troubled life history would have been thoroughly investigated and made public in print and on Action News at 10. There would have been congratulatory news conferences and some sense of relief on the part of those wrongly branded suspects.

And, most important, we would be able to identify the victims as something more personal than "mummified and skeletal remains of newborns."

Realistically, no such occurrences are likely anytime soon.

At the end of County Road 153 and in the offices of Brownwood's newly built Law Enforcement Center, the questions continue to far outnumber the answers. Despite the talent and techniques of the forensic scientists and law enforcement officials, there is an unspoken but real fear that closure might never come to a case that is too old and too cold. Too strange. Even those working long hours to see that it is solved privately wonder at the long odds of their success.

And that, along with the lost and disrupted lives, community fear and anger, confusion and frustration, only compounds the tragedy, adding another shade of darkness to the mystery.

"It is for all those reasons," says Ranger Hanna, "that we're going to solve this case. We have to." Lest it eventually fade into the realm of macabre folklore, a chilling haunted-house story to be told each October, as author Springer suggests.

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