Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Missing Sodder Children Mystery. (1945)

Mary Ann's account

This is an account written in 1968 by the oldest sister of the missing children, Mary Ann:

The following is the story of the tragedy which occurred twenty three years ago.  The injustice and unfairness of this crime remains to this day.  Please be kind enough to read the following account of the events concerning this tragedy.

On Christmas Eve night during the year of 1945, our home was set afire.  There were nine children in the house at the time, four escaped from the burning building.  My parents also escaped.  I ran to a neighbour's house to have her call the fire department.  She said the operator did not answer when she tried to put the call through to the fire department.  A passing motorist called the Fayetteville Fire Department.  Fayetteville is the nearest small town to our former residence.  The Fire Chief answered the telephone.  When he was told that our house was burning, he said, "We know it."  This was at two o'clock A.M.  He and the rest of the fire department arrived at the scene of the fire at 8 o'clock A.M., that same morning.  The fire dept in the town of Fayetteville is located only two and one half miles away.

That same morning the Fire Chief and eight other men searched the ashes remaining.  The fire had burned out completely hours before.  We asked the Fire Chief if there were any traces left of the bodies of the children presumably still in the remains of the burned house.  He said, "We searched as if with a fine tooth comb and we could not find a thing."  However a few days later he produced a piece of flesh saying that it was a part of a human body.  We could not understand how this soft piece of flesh could have survived the fire, yet there was no trace of bones or teeth.  Another thing that puzzled us was that there was no scent of burning flesh during the time the house was burning, nor was there any scent in the ashes afterward.  I was there and all I could smell was the scent of burning wood.

We had the spot where the house had been, covered over with soil thinking that since it was impossible to find any trace of the bodies, we would make it into a burial spot.  In this place, the Fire Chief buried the piece of flesh he claimed was part of a human body.  Later when we recovered enough from the shock to be more rational, we began to doubt the Fire Chief and became suspicious of all the circumstances concerning the fire.  The Fire Chief had never shown this piece of flesh to the Coroner.  --Why?  We decided to check this item out with the local Mortician.  We had this object removed (from the place where it had been buried), by excavation.  The Mortician swears on an affidavit that this object was a large piece of beef liver and had never been touched by fire.  There was nothing of this kind in our home at the time of the fire.

We asked the Prosecuting Attorney to call in some people who were considered suspects in this case.  He said he could not question these people because they were personal friends of his.  At another time he said, "Today they burned your house, but tomorrow they may burn mine and I have children too."

The telephone wires had been cut during the fire.  The person who cut the wires had stolen during the time the house was burning, a pair of chain blocks.  These are used to hoist automobiles or motors, etc. to be repaired.  They were attached to the ceiling of the garage.  To steal them and carry them away would have required advance planning.  Since they had to be taken down from the celiing of the garage it would have to started (the process of removing them) either before or during the fire.  Also the person who stole them had a taxi cab waiting to haul them away.  Evidently this person either set the house afire himself or knew someone else was supposed to do so.  He was supposed to appear in court.  He never appeared.  They fined him a small amount of money and forgot the whole thing.

I, being the oldest daughter, usually saw that the children went upstairs to bed, before going to sleep myself.  The night of the fire I fell asleep downstairs and the last time I saw the children they were still up playing.  It is our belief that they were kidnapped before the fire or possibly at the beginning of the fire.

Mrs Ida Crutchfield of Charleston, West Virginia, owner of the Alderson Hotel, claims to have seen four of the children at her hotel three or four nights after the fire.  She has signed an affidavit to this fact.

We asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation for help.  They said they would step in if they could get the permission of the county authorities to investigate the case.  The local authorities refused to sign anything giving their permission.  They certainly did not do anything themselves to solve this crime, why then do they refuse help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation?  Is it because some of them may be involved in this crime?
We have written to each president in turn.  Each one refers the case to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (The Justice Dept), then the Federal Bureau requires the permission of the local authorities.  They refuse permission, so it has become a useless cycle, leaving this crime unsolved for the last twenty-three years.

My father has hired private detectives and they have turned up some very good evidence that this whole thing was planned.  But what is the use?  They are warned by certain people to stay off the case.  Even some of the state police have admitted that "their hands are tied."

If this had not happened to my family, I would have said that such a heinous crime as this, could not have been committed in the United States of America, without some justice being done.  But here it is and it almost seems fantastic.

If you wish to print this, you have my parents' permission.  If you wish to communicate with them, their address is (Mr and Mrs George Sodder, Route 2, Fayetteville, West Virginia).  Their telephone number is 1-304-574-1678.

Perhaps publicity on this case would cause some interest in someone who would try to help solve this crime.

Yours sincerely

The Sodder Children - many people believe the Sodder children did not die in the fire that night and that the fire was set as a distraction. There seems to have been a cover up by the fire department.

Christmas Eve in 1945, the Sodders and nine of their ten children settled in for the evening. Maurice, and four of his siblings - Betty, Jennie, Louis and Martha Lee pleaded to be allowed to stay up and play with their new toys. Mrs. Sodder relented after the children promised to take care of their chores before coming to bed.

Shortly after midnight Mrs. Sodder was awakened by the phone ringing. A female caller asked for a man whose name Mrs. Sodder didn't recognize. The caller gave a weird laugh before hanging up. Dismissing the call as a prank, Mrs. Sodder went to return back to bed but noticed the lights were still on, the shades weren’t drawn and the doors hadn’t been locked. Believing the children forgot to do these things before going to bed, she went back to sleep. She was awakened again by a noise on the roof that sounded "like a rubber ball."

About a half-hour later, smoke began pouring into the bedroom. She yelled for her husband and children. Once outside, Mr. Sodder noticed that Betty, Jennie, Louis, Martha Lee, and Maurice were nowhere to be found. He went to grab the ladder, which was kept near the house, to reach the windows of the room where the children slept. The ladder was missing. Less than forty-five minutes after the fire started, the house was consumed. Firefighters and state police arrived later that morning and placed the cause of the fire on faulty wiring. State police later withdrew their statement. The fire chief and state fire marshal sifted through the ashes and told the Sodders that they couldn’t find any remains.

Another report states that the firefighters found a few bones and pieces of internal organs in the ashes, but the family was never told of these findings.

Some time after the fire, the fire chief informed the Sodders that he had recovered a body part, probably an organ, from the ashes and buried it in a box on the site.

The box was dug up and its contents taken to the funeral home for examination, while a small piece was sent elsewhere for examination. The piece sent off elsewhere was deemed to be beef liver. When the detective went back to the funeral home to find the results of their analysis on the contents he left in their care he was told that they couldn’t be located

The acting coroner impaneled a jury of six local citizens who returned a verdict that the five children had died due to suffocation and flames.

Within a few months, the Sodders became convinced that their children did not die in the fire. Information began to surface to support their beliefs. An investigation revealed that the telephone line had been cut shortly before or during the fire. A late-night bus driver reported seeing "balls of fire" being tossed upon the roof of the Sodder home. An operator of a motel located halfway between Fayetteville and Charleston reported seeing the children Christmas morning.

A Charleston hotel owner reported seeing four of the children in the company of four Italian speaking adults a week later.

Three months after the fire, the youngest child found a hard rubber object that was hollow with a twist-off cap. It was identified by Army authorities as an incendiary or napalm bomb called a "pine-apple." It was later discovered that the fire had started on the roof. During the fire, a man was seen stealing a block and chain from the Sodder's garage. He admitted to cutting the "electric line" to the Sodder home.

The ladder, which couldn't be found during the fire, was found down an embankment away from the house.

A couple of years after the tragedy, Mr. Sodder saw a photo of school children in New York and was certain that Betty was one of the children in the photograph.

He drove to Manhattan to see for himself but was never allowed to see the child.

Sightings of the children came in from all over the country.

Every lead proved fruitless.

In 1952, the Sodders purchased a billboard displaying photos of their missing children and offering a reward for the recovery of any or all of the children.

The publicity fed rumors that the children had been sold to an orphanage or taken to Italy.

The Sodders tried in vain to get their case re-opened, even writing to the FBI.

State police and local authorities wouldn’t reactivate the investigation without any evidence of a kidnapping or murder.

The investigating fire marshal admitted years later that he did not search through the ashes as thoroughly as he would have liked. Mr. Sodder, initially believing his children had died, bulldozed the site and covered it with four to five feet of dirt, planting flowers in memory of the children.

In 1949, Mr. Sodder decided to excavate the site in order to search for human remains.

The assistant chief of Naval Ordinance in Charleston and a noted pathologist from Washington, D.C. were among those helping.

Four pieces of vertebrae and two small bones that could have come from a child’s hand were located.

The pathologist noted that he was amazed at the scarcity of bones recovered after the thorough search, claiming it was unusual that no skulls or pelvic bones were found in a fire that was quick burning and not so intense as to destroy cloth, flooring and other debris found.

Back in Washington, D.C., the pathologist determined the bones to be human, having come from a person 14 to 15 years of age.

Due to the location where the bones were found within the floor plan of the house, Mr. Sodder didn’t believe the remains to be of his 14-year-old son, Maurice.

 Another analysis of the bones conducted years later by the Smithsonian Institute determined that the bones came from someone 16 to 22 years of age.

 It was also noted that the bones bore no evidence of having been subjected to fire.

A letter would arrive on a detective’s desk claiming that the bones had been removed from a nearby cemetery and planted at the scene.

Many believe the children died that night in the fire and the family was never able to accept the loss.

Others believe the children were taken and are still alive somewhere, believing the fire killed their parents and siblings.

Mr. Sodder died in 1969, his wife twenty years later.

The billboard no longer stands.

The youngest of the Sodder children keeps her parents’ quest alive to find out what really happened that night.

In 1968, over 20 years adter the tragedy, the Sodders received yet another mysterious reminder.

 An envelope arrived addressed to Mrs. Sodder with no return address. Inside she found only a photograph of a young man, 24-28 years old, wearing white pants and a shirt, and sitting in front of a window. On the back of the photograph were these words: "Louis Sodder" "I love brother Frankie." "ilil Boys" "A90132 or 35" Mrs. Sodder was convinced that the photograph was of her son Louis Sodder, who was supposed to have died in the fire at the age of nine.

The Sodders took the photograph to Charleston in an effort to convince Attorney General Donald Robertson to reopen the case.

But the Attorney General was not convinced of the identity of the young man. Determined to follow this lead just as they had so many others, the Sodders again employed a private detective.

They paid him in advance and sent him to the town which was listed on the postmark of the letter.

They never heard from him again.

Mrs. Sodder was afraid that if the letter or the name of the town was published it could bring harm to her son.

 She had no choice but to admit defeat.

The photograph was enlarged and placed in a frame in front of her fireplace. She took comfort in the belief that although her children were out of her reach, they were still alive.