The Icebox Revisited

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

A recent February morning. Robert LeRoy Miller sits in the living room of his mother's house. It's before noon. Robert, soft-spoken and friendly, looks tired. Tall and gaunt and a little bit gray. He still lives here. Roy, too. They've got kids, families, ex-wives, but they always end up back at home. Willie Mae, now 77, cooks fried chicken in the kitchen.

Everybody from Green Pond is dead, dying or on crack. The neighborhood itself is gone. A few houses off Dallas and Clay still stand, awaiting encroachment from nearby urban-renewal condo projects. But no one from the old neighborhood lives there anymore. Smith died 11 months after his welcome-home party in 1980. Twenty years on death row, then he gets out, falls out of a tree doing some yard work and breaks his neck. Sadler has been in and out of jail for selling crack. Archer lives in a subsidized apartment in far east Houston. He can't communicate clearly and invariably tells visitors to call his mother, who died last year. Roy does Sheetrock, hasn't seen a hint of trouble since he got out. Robert works every now and then. Drywall, still. Most days he's around the neighborhood, looking for a game of dominoes, talking to the guys, having a drink. A few years ago he was shooting dice and drinking, and got picked up for crack. Served 25 months and got off parole in December.

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.

The Icebox Murder, for a time considered Houston's most infamous race crime, has been quietly forgotten, erased from public consciousness. Briscoe, semi-retired after recent stints as a Fort Bend County prosecutor and assistant state attorney general, still considers it an open-and-shut case -- they confessed, they had bruises on their penises. "No wiggle room." So do the police officers, those still alive. Arresting officer A.C. Hopper, now retired from the FBI, denies the abuse allegations with the same vehemence he did 45 years ago.

"I wouldn't even honor the thing," he says. "That's ridiculous. All the officers from that far back are dead; I'm one of the only ones left, and my memory is about as long as yesterday. Hopper says some officers in some departments "might pull that, but I was not one of them. Officers get blamed for [brutality] all the time, but it's just a bunch of crap."

As for Robert and Roy and Ira Lee, they haven't stopped protesting their innocence since the ink dried on those confessions.

"The Houston Police Department cleaned its books on some little black kids," Robert says. "That's all it was. Tuesday I'll be 57. That was 44 years ago. I could admit it now, if I did it. But I'll go to my grave telling the truth: I didn't."

You like to think the truth will be someone's version of simple. Racist cops pin murders on troubled black kids. Angry black communities blame police for their own crimes. Every prisoner protests his guilt; every prosecutor is sure he has the right man.

And maybe it was. Simple. But somewhere between the dueling fictions of history sit Doris B. Field and Robert LeRoy Miller, alone, never quite able to imagine a past before the sweeping sense of loss, and never quite able to fashion a present that provides comfort from memory.

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