The Icebox Revisited

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

Newspapers reported that, in order to "clarify" the confessions, police took Archer, Sadler and Clemons to the murder scene to "reenact the crime." New statements were taken. Repudiations were repudiated. Recanted repudiations were affirmed, then repudiated, revised and reaffirmed. Sadler alone gave at least three different confessions.

"I didn't care whether I lived or died," he says now. "Seriously. It didn't matter. I'd sign anything they put in front of me, say anything, fight anyone. I didn't give a damn." The circuslike atmosphere ended on Thursday, when police reported that a single human hair found in Sadler's right back pocket had "identical characteristics" to Billy's, although police equipment could not determine with certainty whether the hair belonged to the victim.

Finally, police announced that two more suspects, belatedly named by Johnson, had confessed and provided the last bit of physical evidence needed to secure indictments. The suspects: Robert LeRoy Miller and his brother, Roy.

Ira Lee Sadler was 13 when he signed a confession.
Daniel Kramer
Ira Lee Sadler was 13 when he signed a confession.
Robert Miller maintains his innocence, 44 years later.
Robert Miller maintains his innocence, 44 years later.

Talk to some of those who lived in Green Pond about that era, and they'll tell you: Certain things people just knew. Like: There are towns you don't stop in. Humble, Conroe, Jasper, Cut and Shoot. ("That's what they do there. Cut and shoot niggers.") Never, ever go to Vidor. If you get a flat, you ride that flat out of town. Better yet, detour around these towns altogether. Doesn't matter if it takes all day.

Or: If you get picked up by the police, stay quiet. No matter what. Don't talk back, don't argue, don't fight. If possible, don't say anything. You could get hurt, forgotten, shot "escaping."

Willie Mae Miller did a good job with her sons. She ran a catering business and didn't abide much trouble. Green Pond was a friendly, insular community; even amid poverty and segregation, it had a scent of the idyllic. People looked out for each other, and no one had a bad thing to say about the Miller boys. They delivered newspapers, went to church, wore nice clothes, never had any scrapes. They'd run around with troublemakers, but Robert and Roy knew enough that when they found themselves in the backseat of a police car late at night, it probably wouldn't do to argue that they hadn't done anything. Not yet, anyway.

Robert had heard about the Bodenheimer case on the news. The Icebox Murder. Even by the standards of Houston, which had lately been dubbed murder capital of the nation, it was the most shocking crime anyone could remember. Especially in Green Pond. The body had been found five blocks away, just off a busy street that kids from the Pond wandered every day. A friendly man people called Big Lee ran his dirt business out of the very shack where they found that boy.

It became even bigger news when a bunch of Robert and Roy's friends were arrested for the murder. Everyone in the Pond assumed that police had the wrong people. Some of them were bad boys, but back then that meant stealing bikes, skipping school, fighting. Nothing like this. No way. Plus that boxing match -- 20 or 30 people, including those boys, standing in front of the Canteen, then moving under a streetlight when it got dark. While the murder was happening. Hard to be killing someone when 30 people are watching you box, neighbors insisted. Victims of circumstance is what they were.

The Miller brothers say that, even today, certain things remain vivid. Getting to the station after midnight. Detectives questioning them together at first. We know what happened. We know you were there. Your friends told us everything. Just tell us the truth and you can see your mother. The Millers denied it all. The police separated them. They told Robert that Roy had already confessed, that he'd be sending his brother to the electric chair if he didn't talk. Down the hall, police pressed Roy: This is what happened. This is what happened. This is what happened. Young and scared, he started to panic. He began to think he heard his brother screaming for help. He still can't tell exactly when or why he signed the confession. Robert either. But by the following morning, the case had two more defendants.

Detectives later sent them to the police chemist. He stripped them and examined their penises. They were paraded in front of reporters, to whom they repudiated their confessions and denied any part in the crime. Two pairs of blue jeans, which had been taken the night before from the Millers' laundry room, were brought in and examined.

The police had found several blood stains on a leg of Robert's jeans and a spot of human waste on the front of Roy's. They were put under arrest for the rape and murder of William Merrill Bodenheimer. They would be tried in juvenile court, and their clothes would be used as evidence in capital murder cases against Smith and Johnson, the only two suspects who could be tried as adults under Texas law.

The mail to Doris Field came slowly at first. Condolences and well-wishers, mostly. A few days later, volume increased and sentiment changed: The niggers will get what's coming to them. We'll make sure of it. One friend promised to get a bat and kill "every one" he saw. By mid-August it got to the point that Doris wrote a letter to The Houston Post: "Since my son's death I have been largely sustained by the sincere sympathy of the whole community," she wrote, "but the attitude on the part of some has alarmed me. As long as we foster the sickness of the slums and segregation we shall all be infected by it. This is not to say that I am convinced of the guilt of current suspects, but merely that the anger directed against them would be put to better use if turned toward those conditions which breed crime." After the letter was printed, it got really bad. Bundles and bundles of the stuff. Now she would get what was coming to her, too. She said that, finally, she stopped opening the mail altogether.

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