The Icebox Revisited

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

Despite Briscoe's bluster, jurors were left to consider a case with significant holes -- holes often ignored by Golding. For example: Johnson's confession contained supposed facts -- "he was screaming when we put him in" -- disproved by the prosecution's own evidence. Or: In addition to the seven defendants, the confession vividly described the actions of four other boys (Billy Joe Bufferin and brothers Johnnie, Clarence and Clyde Robbins) who were never arrested, tried or charged, and thus the confession further constituted some sort of fiction. "Billy Joe couldn't get anything but the head of his dick in so he just quit. Johnnie was next and he got his dick in the boy and jugged him about three minutes and then said he didn't shoot off either."

Or further, in order to find Adrian Johnson guilty, jurors would need to believe that at some time around rush hour on a Monday afternoon, on a busy street, in a segregated city, at least two hours before dark, that no one would notice seven black teenagers knock a white boy off his bicycle, chase him across the street, through a vacant lot and into a shack. That seven teenagers could gang-rape a 12-year-old boy between three and 14 times in a small (eight- by ten-foot) shack without leaving any blood, hairs, fingerprints or signs of struggle. That all of the witnesses who saw Johnson boxing at the purported time of the murder were lying. That Beverly Giesenschlag, who heard screams coming from the shack at around 3:30 p.m., was also lying or mistaken. That -- disregarding claims of physical abuse -- the continually revised confessions, the repeated parading of suspects around the murder scene and unexplained absences from jail did not constitute a pattern of coercion. That any physical evidence on Sadler, Clemons and Archer could be considered admissible, since by the officers' own admission, they had been taken to the scene before the refrigerator and other tainted items had been removed. In sum, that one of the most ultimately improbable explanations of Bodenheimer's death was in fact the correct one.

A jury of 12 white men, considering that same evidence, took four and a half hours to determine that Johnson was guilty of murder with malice and sentence him to death. He was executed on April 19, 1962.

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.

An hour before his death, he told a reporter, "I had no participation in this crime whatsoever." In his final moments, he knelt beside the electric chair. "I want to pray," he said, giving blessings to his mother. Then he offered his last words: "I pray that this will be the last time something like this will happen."

Late summer 1980: East 33rd Street in Independence Heights, a neighborhood just northwest of North Loop 610 and I-45. Robert Miller, 36, stepped out of his car, covered in dust from a day of laying Sheetrock. He'd been doing it pretty much since he got out. He tried other things; the day he got home, he took the bus downtown, got his registration card and went to an employment office to get a job. The woman looked at his card. "Robert Miller, Robert Miller," she said. "Oh, yeah." He knew what that meant.

In an interview, he recalled that when he finally landed the gig as a Sheetrock man -- some family friends owned the company -- he'd long since resolved never to talk about the incident. People knew, but he wouldn't talk about it. Except when he'd get attached to a particular lady. Then he'd get to that moment. I've got something to tell you. He felt she deserved that much -- to hear it, and to hear it from him. After the mess, the whole long, ugly, sad, stammering mess, came pouring out of him, he'd look up expectantly. No one ever walked out.

Tonight he'd be talking about it again, but for different reasons. Joe Edward was out. Everybody was stopping by his mother's place to welcome him home.

Smith was the last of them. He'd gone to trial in April 1960, by which time everybody else was locked up. Sadler, already on parole (for theft) from the Gatesville School for Boys outside Waco, was returned there without a trial. He remained at Mountain View, Gatesville's maximum-security subsidiary and an institution of predictably medieval grimness, until his 21st birthday. A juvenile court convicted David Arthur Clemons and Charles Archer of sodomy in November 1959. Clemons was sent to Gatesville; Archer ended up at Rusk State Hospital for the mentally ill. The same court convicted Robert and Roy Miller on sodomy charges in December 1959. Robert was sentenced to an indefinite term at Mountain View; he, too, got out when he became 21. Roy was at Gatesville until he turned 17 on January 12, 1960, when the D.A.'s office arrested him to be tried as an adult for the murder. He was convicted, sentenced to 15 years and released in 1971.

With five co-defendants found guilty and the shocking particulars beginning to fade, Smith's weeklong trial in April received only cursory news coverage. His attorney, Ed Winfree, mounted a more spirited defense than Golding. He extensively cross-examined Frank Field. He wondered why pathologist Jachimczyk -- who had originally guessed that the body had been brought to the scene after the murder -- had changed his story. He objected to any testimony pertaining to the other boys. He had defense witnesses testify that they had been intimidated by the district attorney's office. But in the end, none of it mattered. After five days in court, Smith was sentenced to die.

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