It's a sunny autumn afternoon at Floyd's Cajun Kitchen, where laughter and chatter from neighboring tables mingle with the warm smell of gumbo and spicy crawfish. A mild-mannered little man in oversize spectacles and a neat dark suit spoons rice into his gumbo.
"It was complete and absolute overkill for the father," he says, sampling a mouthful. "His eyes were gouged out and he was emasculated." Hugh E. Gardenier III, CPA, sips his iced tea and nonchalantly inquires: "Do you mind talking about this over lunch? Some people do."
But then some people's hobbies aren't murder.
Gardenier and the former Martha Hughes, a sweet-faced, middle-aged woman in a dark suit fit for a church social, are talking about their book The Ice Box Murders, set for release next year by Redbud Publishing. For years they worked together as forensic accountants, then Hughes convinced Gardenier to move beyond his tax newsletter and write a book.
"He's a terrific writer," she says smiling and touching his hand. She is a woman whose speech is dotted with "My, yes" and "Heaven, no."
Gardenier not only wrote the story of the most horrendous murder in Houston's history -- he claims to have solved the mysteries surrounding it. And somewhere along the way, during all the hours and hours spent in dusty courthouses and graveyards in little Texas counties, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and researching blood splatters, love bloomed. The couple married last December, after finishing the manuscript.
For Gardenier, the story began in 1971. As a summer intern, he walked from his aunt's home past the boarded-up ramshackle house at 1815 Driscoll Street. He heard the stories of the heinous crime, the butchered old couple and the missing engineer-geologist son. For most of Houston, the story began six years earlier when two HPD cops opened a rusty Cold Spot icebox in the home where family members had reported Fred and Edwina Rogers missing.
"I always thought that cop was just looking for a cold beer," says the venerable Jane Ely, longtime Houston Chronicle columnist and, in 1965, a bobby-socked reporter for The Houston Post. "The body parts were stacked in trays, stacked in the vegetable crisper, with Edwina's head staring out," Ely says. "Nobody had ever covered a story like this one You don't get a lot of people cut up in iceboxes."
The Gardeniers turned their forensic skills to researching massive amounts of documents, interviewing remaining witnesses and piecing together the story of a dysfunctional family. They believe the elderly parents' abuse and illegal activities -- everything from gambling, bookmaking, land swindles and lying on loan applications -- laid the groundwork for a son's lethal transgressions. Then Hugh Gardenier loosed his imagination and his unique writing style to fill in the gory details:
Fred the lie-maker, the man who could turn the beautiful into the ugly and perverse. The man who could beat any dream out of you with his hands and tongue. So many times, through all the separations, all the absences from their home, all he had wished for was the old man to be found dead in a gutter, face down in his own vomit. Uncharacteristically, Charles prayed to God as he reached inside the toolbox for the ancient claw hammer that would smash more than whiskey bottles tonight.
Later in the book, Gardenier writes, "The city was going bananas, and a five-foot five-inch geophysicist was the closest thing to Jack the Ripper that Houston had ever known."
Maybe that's not Pulitzer Prize- winning prose, but it is a frightening look into the psyche of the son, the man presumed to have committed the murders. Gardenier goes on to describe the murders in graphic, if pulp fiction, detail. The chapter wherein the son dismembers his father is titled "Severed Relations."
After the Gardeniers had been around the block a few times shopping their manuscript to New York publishers, a friend introduced them to Sylvia Tomlinson. With her husband, the Victoria, Texas, woman started Redbud Publishing to print her book The Meat Goats of Caston Creek and a few other later titles.
She rejected the notion of publishing the Gardeniers' work. "I thought, 'There's no way, we're an agricultural niche, we can't publish true crime.' " But their manuscript lay on her bedside table until her husband and son read it and gave enthusiastic reviews.
"This is a Texas story," says Gardenier, "and this publisher understands that."
Tomlinson plans to do several smaller printings of the book. "I would be surprised if we couldn't sell 10,000 copies pretty quick," she says. The Ice Box Murders already has a Web site (www.iceboxmurders.com) designed by Gardenier, complete with music composed by his wife, who is also an attorney.
Other authors have tried to unravel the mysteries of the reclusive Rogers son, who was fluent in Spanish and had worked overseas for oil companies. Private investigators Phil Rogers and John Craig wrote a 1991 book claiming that Charles Rogers was a CIA operative who was at Dealey Plaza in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. They believed that Rogers killed his parents when they became suspicious of his activities, and then he fled to a new life in Guatemala.
The Gardeniers, after their extensive research into such documents as plane registration numbers and pilot's licenses, concluded that Rogers, who'd worked as an engineer and geophysicist in Latin America, fled Houston. They insist he went to Mexico and later Honduras, where he was "pickaxed by campesino miners over a wage dispute."
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A fitting end for a butcher, but not necessarily an end that would stand up in court or in a true crime book. The Ice Box Murders is written as fact-based fiction and supposition. There are many unnamed characters in the book: various politicians and attorneys as well as the eyewitness who said he saw Rogers in Honduras after 1965.
"There are still people out there alive who knew Charles Rogers," says Gardenier. "I hope when the book comes out they'll start talking." It's hard to say they are not obsessed with this case; they talk about the people involved as though they knew them, as though they were still alive.
"We'd like to do some more crime," says Gardenier. His wife makes a gagging sound. "Well, you heard that." They both laugh. Actually, this crime-sleuthing duo has already begun a second book for Redbud Publishing.
It's about personal finances.