The Icebox Revisited

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

Wednesday, July 22, 1959: As near as he can remember it, Robert LeRoy Miller was just sitting on the porch of his parents' home. He was 13, about to enter the seventh grade, and he'd been idling away his summer in a languid blur of marbles, neighborhood boxing matches and ill-advised crushes; all dusk-light adventure and sepia tones.

He saw a spider crawling near the porch light. Robert found a stick and began poking it. He was so preoccupied that he didn't notice the police car pull up, didn't see the two officers get out, didn't hear their footsteps. It wasn't until one of them grabbed the stick from his hand that he turned around. Miller would spend the next 45 years trying to forget what happened next.

One of the officers asked him if he had a brother named Ray. "Roy," he replied. Without further explanation, the pair walked inside and woke his parents and 16-year-old brother.

Billy and his sister, Elaine, were inseparable.
Photo courtesy of Elaine Flowers
Billy and his sister, Elaine, were inseparable.
Billy's last school picture, taken in 1958 -- the year before he disappeared.
Photo courtesy of Elaine Flowers
Billy's last school picture, taken in 1958 -- the year before he disappeared.

"Do you want to tell them," one of the policemen asked Robert, "or do you want me to?"

"Tell them what?"

The policeman shook his head and took Robert's parents aside. His mother began sobbing. She asked her sons if they'd done anything wrong. No, ma'am, they said. The police arrested the boys and placed them in the car; Ira Lee Sadler, another 13-year-old, was already in the backseat. Like the Millers, Sadler was a black teen who lived in a small segregated neighborhood then called Green Pond -- several square blocks of cheap shotgun shacks sandwiched between the Montrose area and River Oaks. He'd led police to the Millers' rented house at 1013 Gross Street.

Officers would later testify that the boys were immediately taken to the police station and interrogated. According to the Millers, there was a stop along the way: 1427 West Gray, an overgrown lot with a dusty shack near the back. Police ordered the boys out of the car and into the shack, which contained a desk, an air conditioner and an old icebox. An officer, neither boy remembers which, ordered Roy to get inside the icebox. He did. The Millers say the policeman told them he wanted these niggers to see the ghost of that white boy. He asked if they wanted to die in the electric chair. Dead charcoal niggers. Did they want that?

By now, Robert knew what they'd been arrested for.

Doris B. Field lives in a small well-appointed condominium near Rice University. She's 77 but looks ageless -- a Norman Rockwell portrait with a pulse, alive and well and living in southwest Houston. Silver wire-rimmed glasses, dress buttoned modestly around the neck, short gray hair, hooked nose. When she sees the female postal carrier, they hug. In conversation she's eloquent and self-deprecating, which combination gives her speech an undercurrent of brutal honesty that you immediately like. A certain quiet dignity.

Forty-four years ago, Doris B. Field was Doris B. Bodenheimer, registered nurse, Unitarian, single mother. At age 17 she had emerged from the pine forests of East Texas reciting Latin and smoking cigarettes, determined to be the last in a long line of what she calls "illiterate rednecks" and to accrue several fewer divorces than her mother, who held some sort of record with five. The results were mixed. She graduated from nursing school in Dallas, but her first marriage, to a navy veteran named William Bodenheimer, never quite threatened longevity. The end, three years in, involved a Christmas gift to another woman and a butcher knife. Doris left with the only happy remnants of her short marriage: Billy Bodenheimer, born in March 1947, and his sister, Elaine, born 14 months later.

By 1959, the family had relocated to Houston and settled into a life of mildly undernourished happiness. They lived in a small white house (rent: $75) off West Gray. Doris worked in the maternity ward at Jefferson Davis Hospital. In January, she began dating a young research chemist named Frank Field; by that summer, they were engaged. Field's profession suited his manner: aloof and analytical. Of their mother's boyfriends, he was neither child's favorite, but no matter; Billy and Elaine had each other, and they were inseparable. They rode their bikes everywhere: the downtown library, school, parks, pools. Billy developed an interest in science. He collected bugs; he could tell you impossible details about the bones of dinosaurs; he could name planetary moons and show them to you through his telescope.

And on Monday, July 20, 1959, he disappeared.

Doris last saw him that afternoon. She hadn't gone to work; slight cold. Earlier that day, he'd been swimming at the Dunlavy Park pool, a mile and a half to the south; when a thunderstorm approached, Doris went to the park and told him to come home. As she left to take Elaine to a 3 p.m. violin lesson, Billy stood in the driveway waving, wearing only jeans over his swimming trunks.

When his mother and sister returned around 5 p.m., the house was empty. At about 5:45, Frank Field arrived from his job at Humble Oil, 45 minutes away in Baytown. Dinnertime was at six. When Jack Webb of Houston's Big Brothers program came by at seven to pick up the boy for their scheduled outing to a Houston Buffs baseball game, Billy hadn't come home and Doris was angry. By eight, she was worried. She called the police, who told her they couldn't do anything until he'd been missing for 24 hours. She made Frank drive the neighborhood. She sent him to the Dunlavy pool and Buffalo Bayou. Nothing.

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