Houston Babylon: The Sad, Murky Demise of Lois Marie Gilbert

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Houston Babylon, the feature that came out yesterday, dissects a few of the creepiest and most chilling events in Houston history. In coming up with four of those tales, we stumbled over many more -- too many to fit the print edition.

All this week we'll bring you some extra, online-only stories. Check out Part 1 about Avenging Angels: A Failed Revenge and Part II: Early Victorian Houston and Texas: Suicide City for the Elite. Part III: Dean Goss: Jackie Gleason or Blue Beard or Both? . And here is the fourth...

T.C. Jester Park's Olympic-sized swimming pool was packed on that scorching June Sunday in 1987. An estimated 350 people frolicked in the 400-capacity pool, many leaping off the high-dives into the chilly waters of the 14-and-a-half-foot deep end as five lifeguards stood watch.

Among the swimmers was Lois Marie Gilbert. The 13-year-old lived in White Castle, Louisiana, with her grandmother and had come to Houston a week earlier to visit her parents and other relatives. She accompanied a group of cousins and friends to the pool that fateful Sunday. One of her cousins would later tell police that he saw her last in the shallow end, 15 minutes before the seven p.m. closing time.

Gilbert was not among the group that walked out of the gates at seven. After noticing that Gilbert's clothes were still in the locker room, her alarmed father asked a lifeguard to see if she was in the pool. The lifeguard walked the perimeter of the huge pool twice and said, nope, Lois was not in the pool.

The family filed a missing persons report. Hours later, a Houston cop went to the pool and checked it out. He agreed with the lifeguard. Lois was not in the pool.

Where had she gone?

Around 9:30 that night, Lois's father returned to the pool and found two men, fence-jumpers, diving off the high-dives after closing time. They didn't say anything about Lois.

The next morning, a Red Cross class reported to the pool and commenced swimming laps. Back and forth they went from ten to eleven. A whole hour in the pool and nobody noticed anything amiss.

Meanwhile, Lois's mother led a posse of searchers as they sought Lois farther afield -- perhaps she had wandered off to nearby White Oak Bayou or even all the way to the apartment complex on the opposite bank.

She was in the area when a lifeguard finally found Lois, dead on a bed of pine needles 14 and a half feet beneath the surface of T.C. Jester Park pool. She'd been down there a full 16 hours.

Police later re-created how Lois Gilbert's body could remain invisible to all for so long. They dressed a dummy in the same color bathing suit Lois had been wearing and sank it in the deep end at the same time of day Lois had drowned. All anyone could see was the faintest of shadows -- the pine needles and the slant of the light obscured all other details.

A city Parks and Recreation official later said that lifeguards performed hourly snorkel checks at that pool, but perhaps neglected to do the last one because it had been closing time.

After staff cleaned out the pine needles, the pool was open for business as usual the next day.

In 2010, the high-dives were removed, replaced by water-slides. It remains one of the most popular public pools in town, even as it stands near another grim reminder of Houston's dark side.

In a shady grove yards away from the pool, there stands the memorial to Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena, the two Waltrip High School students who stumbled on a gang initiation rite and were raped, tortured and brutally murdered by six neighborhood teenagers in 1993, some of whom, as children, may well have been in the pool with Lois Marie Gilbert seven years previously.

The murders shamed and shocked the city of Houston to its core and led directly to the executions of three of the killers, and also for city law enforcement to belatedly acknowledge that Houston did, in fact, have a gang problem. The families of Pena and Ertman also won the right for the families of murder victims to attend the executions of their killers.

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