The Icebox Revisited
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.
"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.
The next morning, as Doris waited by the phone, Frank took Elaine and continued searching. At some point, the pair drove past a vacant lot on a busy thoroughfare several blocks away. It had lately been used for a dirt-selling business; the kids would ride their bikes down the mounds of dirt, and Billy would catch specimens for his bug collection. Other teens played pickup football there. Near the back was a small tin shack, used as the office for the dirt business. Frank decided to search the lot. As they approached the shack, Elaine noticed Billy's red-and-white bicycle lying in the grass nearby.
Doris arrived soon afterward with her brother, Hal Baughn, and his wife. They searched the area and called Billy's name. Doris walked to a nearby cleaners to call police and tell them the bike had been found. After she left, Baughn peered through a window in the shack and noticed clothes on the floor. Frank tried the door. Unlocked. He looked inside. Billy's swimming trunks and blue jeans lay next to an old icebox refrigerator. With Baughn behind him, he walked to the refrigerator and slowly opened it.
Doris was still on the phone at the cleaners when Frank ran in. He's here, he said, and I think he's dead. Doris stumbled out of the cleaners and toward the shack. Other people's children drown, other people's children die. At that moment, she would recall years later, "I lost any remnants of a belief in an anthropomorphic God."
Forensic pathologist Joseph A. Jachimczyk, who would go on to serve 35 years as Harris County medical examiner, arrived about an hour later. He found the body of William Merrill Bodenheimer III, age 12, crumpled inside the broken icebox, naked. Based on non-bleeding cuts left by the refrigerator's shelf hooks, Jachimczyk guessed that Billy was already dead when placed inside. His first idea was that the boy had been murdered elsewhere and brought to the shack in a "clumsy attempt to simulate an accident." He removed the body and began his autopsy at noon. The results: There were bruises on the boy's arms and buttocks. There was a bite mark on his left hand. His neck was swollen and bruised. His stomach and diaphragm were ruptured; his rectum was stretched and torn. He'd been stripped, raped, suffocated and accordioned into the icebox.
Detectives scoured the neighborhood. By that evening, newspapers were reporting "promising early leads." Two weeks earlier, a 45-year-old man had picked up a 12-year-old boy and sodomized him. The man, still at large, had at least one previous attempted rape charge. A week before that, a ten-year-old black girl was found in a public park, similarly raped, strangled and bitten. And between 11:15 a.m. and 2:10 p.m. on the same afternoon that Billy disappeared, a brown-haired male in his early twenties -- he drove a black sedan with the bumper sticker "Made in Texas by Midgets" -- had, within several blocks of the shack, attempted to lure three separate preteen girls into his car.
But the following afternoon, homicide captain Weldon Waycott made a startling announcement: None of those leads would be pursued. Police had the murderers in custody. Five black teenagers, already under suspicion for robbing several street-corner newsboys the previous Saturday night, had signed detailed written confessions admitting responsibility for Billy's death. They were Joe Edward Smith, 17; his half-brother Ira Lee Sadler, 13; Adrian Johnson, 17; his cousin David Arthur Clemons, 15; and Charles Archer, 15. Waycott declared himself "satisfied" that the killers had been caught.
Almost immediately, police assurances appeared to give way to public confusion. Each confession told a vaguely similar story: Sometime on Monday, the gang came across Billy riding his bicycle, threw him off, chased him into the shack, raped him repeatedly while the others held him down, and stuffed him into the refrigerator. But details differed significantly. One confession said it happened at 7 p.m., another, at four. One claimed they raped him three times; another, 14; two of the earliest confessions mentioned nothing about rape. One had the crime lasting half an hour; another, four hours. One named five assailants; another, 11. Each had different boys raping, holding and stuffing. The confessions said that Billy was kicking and screaming when they placed him in the icebox, statements that contradicted Jachimczyk's determination that he had been "at least unconscious" when locked inside.
Other developments amplified the apparent confusion. All the boys recanted their confessions to reporters the next day, saying that they were signed after police had threatened and beat them. Each said he had been boxing at the time of the murder. In news accounts and later legal proceedings, nearly a dozen witnesses corroborated the boxing alibi. Beverly Giesenschlag, a 23-year-old mother, came forward to say she'd heard muffled screams coming from the shack at 3:30 p.m., well before any of the confessed times. The last person to have seen Billy alive, gas station attendant John Wiley Garrett, saw him riding north toward the shack between 3 p.m. and 3:15 p.m.
Beyond the conflicting claims, concrete physical evidence seemed virtually nonexistent.
The shack itself showed no signs of struggle and contained no fingerprints, blood or hairs, except those of the victim. (The bite on the victim's hand was not imprinted; bite-mark identification did not become standard law enforcement practice until the 1970s.) On Wednesday, detectives announced the discovery of a belt buckle in Archer's bedroom that matched the description of one that, according to Clemons's confession, had been stolen from Billy. That evidence proved false when Doris Field said her son owned no such belt. When detectives suggested he might have bought it after she left that day, Field added that he'd left his wallet and money at home.
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.
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.
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."
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.)
His seven alibi witnesses often appeared confused and inarticulate. He had Johnson confess to the newsboy robberies, for which the defendant was not on trial. He badgered a crying woman on the stand -- a defense witness, no less. Golding essentially wagered his client's life on a single gambit: convincing the jury that the confession had been coerced through police brutality. Proving the argument entailed two huge risks: placing a defendant on the stand and pitting the word of one 17-year-old against that of more than a dozen law enforcement officials. Both would backfire.
The tense defendant testified that he spent the afternoon of the murder playing dominoes, eating cinnamon rolls and sitting with friends. Between 5:30 and six he walked to the canteen, borrowed some gloves and boxed until 10:30. (Various defense witnesses would corroborate these claims, though the exact time frame remained vague.) The following night at 1:30 a.m., six policemen showed up at the house of Johnson's "play-uncle" to arrest him for the newsboy robberies.
His testimony of what happened next:
HPD officers A.C. Hopper and LeRoy Mouser took Johnson briefly to the station, then made him get on the floorboard as they drove to a deserted roadside. Tell us about the shack. You don't know nothing about no shack? Get out of the car, nigger. You're going to tell us what we want to hear. Johnson got out. Mouser grabbed his arm. Hopper beat him in the head and chest. He fell. They kicked him in the testicles. Hopper aimed a shotgun point-blank at his temple. I ought to kill this nigger black son of a bitch right here. No. Don't. The boy's gonna come through. He's gonna tell us the truth. Right? Now get up and stand in front of the car.
They drove at him, he said. He jumped on the hood to avoid getting hit. Get your ass off my car. I don't want your blood on it. Hopper got out and hit him with the butt end of the shotgun. Now then. If you sign a statement, we can end this. You can see your mother and a lawyer. He told them he would sign.
Hopper and Mouser took him back to the police station. They placed him in a room with officers Kindred and H.C. Mackey. Kindred started typing and asking questions. Where do you work? What's your phone number? You don't sign, we're going on another ride. Killing will be too good for you, boy. We'll hook you up to a coil and electrocute your dick. When did you quit school? What are some of your friends' names? Kindred typed and typed. At 6:30 a.m., the statement was placed before Johnson. He signed without reading it.
Johnson ended this testimony with a forceful protest. He had never seen Bodenheimer, never been in the shack, never raped or killed anyone.
The jury and gallery listened to the story as they would have any other fairy tale, then watched Briscoe launch his response. Every officer involved testified that no such beating and no such threats had occurred. We don't do things like that in Houston, Texas. Hopper and Mouser vigorously denied Johnson's account. Briscoe mocked the defendant: "Did they beat you first and then bring you coffee, or did they bring you coffee and then beat you?" Photos of a naked Johnson, purportedly taken the day after his arrest, showed no bruises or swelling. Briscoe established that the time of arrest was 2:30 a.m. and that newspaper reporters had seen him at the station by three. (Johnson set the time at 1:30; later, two policemen would testify that the arrest had in fact occurred then.)
Duggan, who had replaced Briscoe's uncle on the bench, was known for the latitude he'd give the state. He refused to allow into evidence certain facts that might have bolstered defense claims of coercion -- for example, police had removed Johnson from his county jail cell seven times in August, including one 14-hour period on August 15, during which police reportedly tried to extract yet another confession from him.
Finally, Briscoe asked the defendant if he'd ever "molested anyone else." Johnson said no. During rebuttal, the prosecutor introduced a surprise witness: Johnnie Routte, Johnson's "play-uncle." Routte was a 39-year-old bachelor whose house was a common destination for young black males. He gave them gifts like gold teeth, let them skip school and drink and smoke and watch TV.
Briscoe asked Routte point-blank if he'd ever had anal sex with Johnson. "I couldn't answer that," the witness replied before defense attorneys thundered the obvious objection -- Johnson was being accused of a crime for which he wasn't on trial. Duggan instructed the jury to disregard the question, but he allowed in Routte's signed statement that he was a homosexual and he and Johnson had engaged in anal sex on several occasions. It cemented Briscoe's case: Here was a man seen in the area, who confessed to the crime, who has a bruise on his penis, who has a bunch of friends with blood and hairs on them, who has committed sodomy before and just lied about it on the stand. "If children are going to be secure as they ride down the streets on their bicycles, you are going to have to return the death penalty," he told the jury. "Do this thing."
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.
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.
Johnson's appeals, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, had failed; but Smith got stay after stay. He recalls going to bed countless times thinking he'd be dead the next day, but he was never executed. (A torture, he would later say, almost worse than death.) He languished on death row until the 1972 Supreme Court decision that temporarily abolished the death penalty. His sentence commuted to life, he remained in prison until 1980, when he somehow managed to get paroled.
Now, tonight, Robert would be seeing him for the first time. He drove to Smith's house in the Acres Homes section of north Houston. The whole family was there. David Arthur had died of bone cancer several years earlier and Adrian had been executed. No one knew where Charles was. But Roy and Ira Lee both came.
"It was strange," Robert says. "We'd last been together when we were kids. The last time Joe saw me I was 13 years old, an average young kid. But it was different now. We were hard."
Footsteps. She was conscious, vaguely, of approaching footsteps. Just outside her window maybe. She opened her eyes and looked around. Right: Houston. She was back in Houston. London to New Jersey to Manhattan, and now back in Houston. Morning. She was alone.
The footsteps paused. So they were. (Just outside her window.) A gate creaked. The footsteps and the gate and the creak ended in a crash. Somehow the sound of that gate closing was, without a doubt, the loudest crash she'd heard. Somehow, if she were the kind of person to describe anything as the loudest crash ever, she would have found this an appropriate time to do so, but she wouldn't say something like that, you understand.
And then she got out of bed and realized that 29 years had passed since her son's death.
Doris had, simply, never quite recovered. "There was a numbness," she says now. She had refused to attend the trials, except when required to testify. Her testimony was willfully emotionless; tears would mean defeat. Later, she had brief communions with the murder. In 1964, she sent a letter to the board of pardons, asking that Joe Edward Smith's life be spared; capital punishment, she wrote, is an immoral form of collective revenge. She saved the certified mail stubs. Proof that something, however small, could be done so that her son's murder might not be, as she wrote, "so very meaningless." She never received a reply.
Mostly, though, she retreated. Frank came and went. They had married in October 1959. She pinpoints the beginning of the end, with some precision, as the day she says she stabbed him through the heart with a knitting needle. New Jersey, August 1970: a hot Sunday. They were sitting on the back porch drinking sherry and arguing about Vietnam. Her political discussions with Frank tended to end poorly. He had an extensive vocabulary and a Ph.D. She'd never been to college, was insecure about her own intelligence. During this particular argument, he wouldn't look up from his paper, told her dismissively that she didn't know what she was talking about. She rose angrily, went inside, slammed and locked the door. Frank began knocking. She gave him the finger. She said he punched through the glass and unlocked the door. She ran into another room and saw a pair of No. 1 knitting needles. Lately she'd been knitting clothes for her grandchild. (Who had, at this point, not yet been conceived. Elaine was not even married. But regardless -- she'd been knitting.) She grabbed the needles, about the length of an ice pick, and ran to the stairs.
Frank approached. She swung. The needle in her left hand went through his chest and punctured his aorta. He fell, pulled off his shirt and passed out. She called an ambulance and returned to beg, with some insistence, that he please not die. The ambulance arrived and wheeled him out. Massive internal bleeding. Neighbors came to see what had happened. "Well," Doris told them.
Long story short: He lived, forgave her unconditionally, no charges were brought, and she "felt so damn guilty" that she stayed with him another five years. When she finally left, the anger and sadness became more just flat-out fear. She was scared. Fifty years old and never had lived completely on her own. She'd spend the morning looking forward to lunch, which was after all basically the early afternoon, which was itself very close to the early evening, which would be time for the first glass of wine. Then she'd drink until she passed out. Ten years it went on.
Finally that very real crash. In the end, it was only a gate closing. But somehow that crash became the thing that told her it's time. Why that particular gate or that particular morning or that particular moment, no one could really say. She went to a noon AA meeting and here she is now, 16 years later. The grief still comes, still seems as raw as when it first happened, but she copes differently. Her social life revolves around the church. Unitarian, still. She tried some other things. Zen meditation. Detective stories. Sitting in her apartment among her books and Shakespearean plays and classical LPs, sipping tea, there's a quiet calmness about her. Yet one cannot entirely shake the feeling that true serenity will visit her again only once.
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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- Texas Threatens To Sue Resettlement Groups For Helping Syrian Refugees
- Rice Owls Win the Finale and Defeat Cynicism
- Ted Cruz and the Radical Anti-Abortion Movement