The Icebox Revisited

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


Frank Briscoe can tell you all about it. Just mention the name "Bodenheimer" and, sitting comfortably in his Fort Bend County home, he'll start talking. Briscoe has been called many things -- genius, troglodyte, wizard, even racist -- but in 1959, the word was prodigy. He was, at age 33, already a nine-year veteran of the Harris County District Attorney's office, the first assistant D.A. and first in line for most big criminal cases. He graduated from high school at 16, spent six years shuttling between college and the marine corps, and finished law school at the ripe age of 24.

Briscoe was a certain stripe of antebellum Southern conservative that had not yet begun its long, slow lumber toward obsolescence, and like those of so many other Southern politicians, his early career was defined to some extent by his position on race. As district attorney, he ordered the prosecution of the freedom riders and, in a 1961 speech to a Houston engineers association, he blamed "disinterested white juries" for not handing out more death penalties to blacks who murdered blacks. In 1966, he ran for Congress against George H.W. Bush, whom he derided as a hopeless liberal who was too busy courting the black vote to notice that Texas congressmen were all voting against civil rights legislation. (Bush won easily with 58 percent of the vote.) A final campaign loss, in the 1977 race for mayor, prompted his observation that "either Houston's too liberal or I'm too conservative."

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.

Neither was much of a problem in September 1959. The first trial in the Icebox Murder -- front-page news for two months now and the most racially charged case to yet cross his desk -- would be his last capital case before stepping down to campaign for his boss's seat.

The evidence against Adrian Johnson was generally considered the weakest of any defendant -- the alibi, no direct physical evidence linking him to the scene or to Bodenheimer, no eyewitnesses and no motive. Briscoe hinted during jury selection at some surprise physical evidence, but it was clear that the prosecution's case would hinge on the confession: "Ira Lee told the boy to bend over and the boy did bend over and Joe took his dick out and spit on it and jugged it into the boy's ass. The boy was just standing there and no one was holding him. I mean Ira Lee was in front of him holding him with a head lock and the boy was begging him not to do that. Joe jugged him for about three minutes and then I did the same thing to the boy for about three minutes but I didn't get but about a third of my dick in and I didn't shoot off in him." If Briscoe could set this defendant in front of a jury and make its members listen to these one and a half pages, the confession would be where the shoe pinched.

The prosecution's story was simple. On his way home from swimming at Dunlavy Park, at around 6:15, Bodenheimer came across the seven black teenagers "fatally bent on mischief," one of whom said "let's molesterate him." They chased him into a nearby shack, raped and suffocated him, then put him in the icebox. The defendant confessed and we have his confession right here.

Briscoe painted a vivid picture of the crime scene. Photos, autopsy results, maps. Frank Field and Hal Baughn testified about finding the body. Local merchants testified about having seen various defendants in the vicinity at various times that day.

When Officer J.W. Kindred took the stand to testify about the interrogation of Johnson, Briscoe turned to the judge with state's Exhibit 16: the confession. Defense attorney Bernard Golding objected lamely that it was "evidence of offenses not mentioned in the indictment" and "inflammatory and prejudicial." State District Judge Edmund B. Duggan quickly overruled him. And that was it. Briscoe reduced a "usually buzzing courtroom" to shocked silence as he, according to a newspaper account, read the confession sentence by sentence.

As physical evidence, the prosecution offered the hair in Sadler's pocket, the spots of blood on Robert Miller's pants, and the "fecal material" on Roy Miller's. Later questioning revealed that the blood on the pants was type O -- Miller's own -- and that police had simply taken two pairs of jeans from the Millers' home, giving no clear indication of when they'd been worn.

The surprise evidence mentioned before the trial: photographs that showed a "discoloration or bruise" on the penises of Johnson, Smith and Robert Miller. Johnson claimed he'd had that discolored spot since he was a boy. Inexplicably, Golding declined to call an independent medical witness, opting instead to have Johnson drop his pants in front of the jury. The spot was there. Briscoe then had the police chemist, who was not a doctor, re-examine Johnson and testify that this was a different mark, and that remnants of the original bruise remained. The defense never contested this testimony.

Indeed, Golding's struggle for justice could be best described as puzzling. According to available court records, he never mentioned other strong leads abandoned by police. He contested nothing about the physical evidence -- its haphazard gathering, its circumstantial link to Bodenheimer, its failure to provide direct proof against Johnson. When Captain Waycott admitted that he found "some prints," but none of Johnson's, in the shack, Golding never asked whose. He never pressed the basic fact that these boys could be seen in the area almost any day -- their families lived there, they worked and played there. He never mentioned that the other confessions (including one from Archer, a suspect who was deaf and had a speech impediment) contradicted each other. (Not only did he not mention them, but he declined to call the other defendants as witnesses because he was afraid of introducing the other confessions.)

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