THE CHILDREN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE
WHAT WAS THEIR FATE ? KIDNAPPED, MURDERED? OR ARE THEY STILL ALIVE?
THE CHILDREN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE
The Sodder Children case : what happened to them?
A CHRISTMAS EVE TRAGEDY By Stuart Jones
henever we think of horrifying, unsolved instances of children disappearing, the one that probably comes to mind first for most of us is the story of the Beaumont children. But although the Beaumont children are one of the most famous cases, they’re far from the only one — and some of them are even more perplexing. Like, for example, the case of the five missing Sodder children. Other than music that plays from a loudspeaker mounted on a storefront in the center of town, the streets of Fayetteville, W.V., are quiet as Christmas Eve approaches. Inside, they talk of presents and parties, and inevitably, what really happened to the Sodder family on Christmas morning. Everyone has an opinion about the fire. These are the facts: When George and Jennie Sodder went to sleep on Christmas Eve, nine of their 10 children were with them. One son was away in the military. George Bragg, a local writer, tells the story of that night’s events: “Jennie woke up. She heard a noise. Somebody had thrown something on the roof. She got up and checked that out, and went back to bed. She woke up about a half-hour later, and she smelled smoke. She got up and realized one of the rooms where their office was [located] was on fire. She screamed for her husband and woke him up, and they both hollered upstairs where two of the boys were.” Neighbors reached Chief F. J. Morris at the Fayetteville Fire Department a little after 1 a.m. By then, it was already Christmas. Firefighters were told that children were trapped inside, but no fire truck was sent until 8 a.m. — seven hours later. Chief Morris is long dead. But another retired fire chief, Steve Cruikshank, tried to explain the delay. He says the fire department didn’t even have a siren back then. When somebody called to report an incident, an operator would take the call and rouse a firefighter, who would then have to reach fellow firefighters one by one.
By Elisabeth Northwood
n Christmas Eve of 1945 in Fayetteville, West Virginia, George and Jennie Sodder had been celebrating the Christmas season with nine of their ten children.
Their son, Joe, was away in the Army. As the night grew later George retired for the night to bed followed shortly after by his sons John (23) and George Jr. (16). When Jennie decided it was time for the rest of the children to go to bed, they pleaded with her to stay up and play with their toys that their older sister, Marian (17), had gotten for them. After her children promised her that they would get a few chores done before bed, Jennie agreed to let them continue playing and then took her youngest child, Sylvia (3) to bed with her. The phone ringing awoke Jennie a little past midnight. Jennie answered the phone and a woman asked to speak to someone Jennie didn’t know. When Jennie told her she had the wrong number the woman laughed and hung up. Jennie thought this was just a prank call and didn’t give it much thought. She then noticed that the lights were still on in the house and the doors were unlocked. She found this unusual because her kids were normally very good about attending to these things before bed. She turned off the lights, locked the doors and went back to sleep. Jennie had barely fallen back asleep when she heard a thump on the roof followed by the sound of something rolling. She realized the house was on fire around 1:30 AM. She screamed for her husband and children to get out. The oldest boys, John and George Jr. made it out of the house as well as the oldest girl, Marian who ran out with baby Sylvia. Jennie and George also made it out. When George was outside and saw that five of his children were still inside he tried everything possible to re-enter the home and save them. He first broke a window and in doing that cut his arm. Through all the smoke he saw that flames covered the entire first
The Sodder parents and four of their children escaped. But five of the Sodder children, ages 5, 8, 9, 12 and 14, were never seen again.
The murdered house
floor of the house. He then ran to a rain barrel to get buckets of water to try to extinguish the fire, but to his dismay found the water to be frozen solid in the cold winter. Thinking quickly, he ran to where he always kept his ladder, but it had mysteriously vanished. He attempted and failed to climb the house by hand. In one last attempt he and his sons thought to pull their work trucks up to the house to climb on them to get inside the top floor. Their terrible luck continued when they found that the trucks would not start due to the frigid weather. In the meantime, Marian had run to a neighbor’s house to call the fire department. At first the operator could not be reached to place the call and when finally they did reach the operator each of the town’s firemen had to be called, woken up, and dispatched to the scene. The fire station was less than three miles from the Sodder home, but the firemen didn’t get there until 8 AM. and it was far to late because the house burned to the ground in less than 45 minutes of the fire starting. The police arrived on the scene in the morning and after only a two hour investigation, concluded that the fire was started by faulty wiring. George argued that that couldn’t be because he had just gotten the wiring redone and the lights had stayed on for a time after the fire started. The reports at the time claimed that there had been no remains whatsoever found in the ash and rubble. It was ruled by the coroner’s jury that the missing Sodder children had died in the fire. A few days after the fire George Sodder plowed over what was left of his home and planted flowers there in memory of his children though the Fire Marshall advised against doing so. George and Jennie believed that their children had been kidnapped and that the fire was intentionally set to cover the crime scene.
UNRESOLVED MYSTERY By Joseph Foster
ire consumed the twostory house quickly. By all reports, the house was reduced to a smoldering pile of debris within 30 minutes of Jennie detecting the fire. By the time the Fayetteville Fire Department arrived on the scene around 8 a.m. the next morning, the Dec 26, 1945, edition of The State Sentinel newspaper in Fayetteville reports, “... the entire structure, with the burned bodies of the victims, was a heap of rubbish in the basement.” The same article states, “Tin roofing and other material was removed and part of one body was found.” An investigation into the fire came to the conclusion that it had been caused by faulty wiring in the Christmas lights the family had set up. Strangely, when the burned remains of the house were inspected, no human remains were found amongst the charred rubble, and a coroner and the fire chief both stated that the house had burned down far too breathtakingly quickly to have completely reduced the bodies completely to ash, as corpses take around 2 hours of burning at 2,000 degrees in order to do this and the house had been totally razed to the ground in less than an hour. By all accounts, there should have been skeletons there amongst the ashes and incinerated debris, but there was nothing at all. Nevertheless, the missing children were officially considered dead and issued death certificates, despite any real concrete physical evidence to the effect that
they had in fact died, and the Sodders covered the basement with dirt in order to plant flowers there as a memorial to the tragic loss of their children.
Reports claimed that pieces of bone and possible human organs had been found. The organ found was tested in a lab and found to be a relatively fresh beef liver.
year old child, which would match Maurice’s age. George did not believe these bones belonged to his son because of the location that they were found.
These facts, as well as the tardiness of the first responders, would soon be drawn into question. But in the aftermath of those first few heartwrenching days, George and Jennie Sodder sought only to ease their grief, never considering the possibility their children had not been in the fire.
Some say that it was planted there in an attempt to cover shoddy police work. It was reported that four pieces of vertebrae and two small bones, possibly belonging to a child’s hand had been found. A medical expert involved in the case stated that it would be very unlikely for all the other remains to be destroyed in such a quick burning fire. This expert believed the remains came from a 14 or 15
Years later after more testing on the bones, another expert stated that the remains belonged to a person between 16 to 22 years of age and that the bones showed no signs of being damaged in a fire. Some think that the bones were placed there from a nearby graveyard as a cover-up, but there is nothing that supports these theories.
According to a first-hand account of the funeral, published Jan. 2, 1946, in The State Sentinel, a makeshift graveyard had been erected on the house site. After the largest parts of the fire debris were removed, George Sodder filled the basement with dirt to bury what he believed to be the bodies of five of his children. Jennie did her own research using chicken bones in the stove and could never get them completely destroyed be the fire. Her and George’s belief was strengthened more when another local home was burned to the ground and seven skeletons were found in the debris. With all of these possible leads, the Sodder’s went to the authorities to have their case re-opened, but the police refused because they believed no crime had taken place. In 1949 George, with the help of others, dug up the site of his former home looking for any remains that may have been overlooked.
Excavators of the Sodder house fire site
THE CHILDREN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE
Twenty years later : Louis’ letter By Peter Willis
ore than 20 years after the fire, Jennie went to get the mail and found an envelope addressed only to her. It was postmarked in Kentucky but had no return address. Inside was a photo of a man in his mid-20s. On its flip side a cryptic handwritten note read: “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.”
« It came in the mail about seven years ago. » said Mrs Sodder, a graying woman who lives alone with her dog in a house that is encircled by a six-foot-high chain link fence with an electric gate. « The postmark was Central City, Kentucky. A message on the back of the picture said it was Louis. » She paused a moment and squinted back in time. « My husband went down there but couldn’t find out anything. Nobody had ever heard of the man in the picture. He couldn’t find out a thing..» She and George couldn’t deny the resemblance to their Louis, who was 9 at the time of the fire. Beyond the obvious similarities—dark curly hair, dark brown eyes—they had the same straight, strong nose, the same upward tilt of the left eyebrow. Once again they hired a private detective and sent him to Kentucky. They never heard from him again.The Sodders feared that if they published the letter or the name of the town on the postmark they might harm their son.
investigation and came up with theories of their own: The local mafia had tried to recruit him and he declined. They tried to extort money from him and he refused. The children were kidnapped by someone they knew—someone who burst into the unlocked front door, told them about the fire, and offered to take them someplace safe. They might not have survived the night. If they had, and if they lived for decades—if it really was Louis in that photograph—they failed to contact their parents only because they wanted to protect them.The youngest and last surviving Sodder child, Sylvia, is now 69, and doesn’t believe her siblings perished in the fire. When time permits, she visits crime sleuthing websites and engages with people still interested in her family’s mystery. Her very first memories are of that night in 1945, when she was 2 years old. She will never forget the sight of her father bleeding or the terrible symphony of everyone’s screams, and she is no closer now to understanding why.
“I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.”
Instead, they amended the billboard to include the updated image of Louis and hung an enlarged version over the fireplace. “Time is running out for us,” George said in an interview. “But we only want to know. If they did die in the fire, we want to be convinced. Otherwise, we want to know what happened to them.” He died a year later, still hoping for a break in the case. Jennie erected a fence around her property and began adding rooms to her home, building layer after layer between her and the outside. Since the fire she had worn black exclusively, as a sign of mourning, and continued to do so until her own death. The billboard finally came down. Her children and grandchildren continued the
Louis’ letter envelope
WITNESSES CLAIM TO HAVE SEEN THEM By Elaine Morganson
s far as authorities were concerned, the case was closed, but for the family it was a different story. Despite the official reports they’d been given, the Sodders began to find the lack of any remains found in the smoking ruins of the house to be highly suspicious, as well as the fact that no one had seen or heard the children at the windows screaming or trying to get out, and they began to wonder if their children might actually have made it out somehow and were alive somewhere. They launched their own investigation and began to uncover some odd details that quickly cast the case in a more sinister light. George recalled that a few months before the fire broke out, a man
had come to the house asking about work hauling coal for his business, and the stranger had made an offhand comment about how the house’s two fuse boxes were bound to cause a fire someday. At the time George had thought nothing of it, but it became rather ominous and disturbingly prescient in retrospect. Adding to this were claims made by the older Sodder children that they had recently been seeing a van on several occasions parked along nearby U.S. Highway 21, whose driver had appeared to be intently watching the younger children come home from school. Another witness claimed to have seen a man enter the house garage during the actual fire itself and steal the ladder, which he had then reportedly
Patty Wilson, who claims to have seen the children in a campervan and her husband
used to get up and cut the phone line and then proceeded to steal other items from the garage. One bus driver later claimed to have seen someone throwing “fireballs” at the house, and the subsequent discovery of an odd green rubber casing that later was revealed to have come from some sort of incendiary device led them to speculate that this was the cause of the bang and rolling noises Jennie had heard on the night of the fire. Additionally, a telephone repairman told them that the
power lines seemed to have been cut rather than burned, further casting doubt on the idea that mere faulty wiring had produced the fire. Even more chilling were the reports that came trickling in after photos of the children were distributed from people who claimed to have seen the missing children alive and well in the days after the fire. One woman claimed to have seen the children in a campervan driving away as the blaze was in progress.
Motel in Russelville where the children were seen
In Russelville, fifty miles east of Fayetteville, four of the five children were allegedly seen at a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina a week after the fire. The witness would later say of the incident: “ The children were accompanied by two women and two men, all of Italian extraction. I do not remember the exact date. However, the entire party did register at the hotel and stayed in a large room with several beds. They registered about midnight. I tried to talk to the children in a friendly manner, but the men appeared hostile and refused to allow me to talk to these children…. One of the men looked at me in a hostile manner; he turned around and began talking rapidly in Italian. Immediately, the whole party stopped talking to me. I sensed that I was being frozen out and so I said nothing more. They left early the next morning.”
few days later, a waitress at a diner also reported seeing the kids on the morning of the accident, claiming to have actually served breakfast to them at her establishment, one hour by driving from Russelville. She also said that there had been a suspicious campervan with Florida license plates in the diner’s parking area.
“ Two women entered in the diner around 11pm. They were with five children, and ordered fries and burger. The little girl wanted a cola but one the women said she couldn’t have it. While they were eating, one of the women went to the phonebooth. I was at the counter so I couldn’t hear the whole conversation but she was talking fast and low. She hanged up and told the others they’s had to go. The children didn’t have finish their plates but they followed her without making any problem. One of the boy smiled at me before they were out.” Holly Slawn, the waitress who saw the kids
THE CHILDREN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE
Police tracking campervan Two days after the children’s disappearance, a woman said to the police that they have been kidnapped by someone in a camper. She claims to have seen two couples, aged 60 to 70 years old, with five children near the Lake Weddington (in the Ozark National Forest, located about 40 minutes drive from Fayetteville).
The description the witness gave of one of two of the adults fits perfectly with the neighbors of the Sodder family: Gillian and Robert Mason, age 59 and 64. Jennie and George Sodder were good friends with the childless couple who used to babysit the children. Gillian was a cleaning woman and Robert was unemployed after the Fayetteville’s Factory closed down. The Mason were away for vacations since a few days before the tragedy. They went to a trip in their campervan. The vehicle matches with the one noticed at Lake Weddington. Immediatly suspected to have kidnapped the kids, the neighbors were actively sought by the police, without any result. They came back a week after and seemed to know nothing about the horror that befell the Sodder family. They were immediatly rrested and questioned for several hours by police in an attempt to find the victim. A trial took place, lots of people were convinced that the Mason were guilty. But without enough evidence to lay charges, the couple was finally acquitted.
The Mason’s campervan
THE CHILDREN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE
An unacceptable truth ? By Stacy Horn
Box of matches collected at the crime scene
Crunched up soda can found in front of the burned house
ll the newspaper stories in the past seem to be weighted towards the conclusion that the children did not die in the fire. But I found just as much information to indicate that they did. I can see how that happened, though. When I put this story together, after meeting the family, every piece of evidence I found that pointed towards the children’s deaths felt like a betrayal. Who wants to insist the children are dead? I hate saying anything that might remove hope. If 60 years later I am having trouble pointing out anything that might indicate that the children died that night, I can imagine the reluctance of people who had to look George Sodder in the face. However, even though I think they died in the fire, there is enough genuine weirdness about this whole thing, and a couple of things that were not adequately investigated, that if someday it is learned that the children did not die in the fire I won’t be shocked. But weirdness does not necessarily equal murder, and I don’t think that’s what happened. I found out all sorts of things, like the fact that some remains were found on Christmas morning (although the family says they were never told this) and also that the oldest son John said he went in and shook his brothers and sisters. The family says he said that out of guilt, because he felt that’s what he should have done, which absolutely could be true. But it could also be true that he did exactly what he said he did. Here are some sections that were cut from my piece. I talked to a number of fire professionals in Fayettevile (and I talked to a friend in the FDNY before I interviewed them). They all felt it was likely the children died first.
STERLING LEWIS: If it got in the walls, it could literally have traveled straight up, what we call chimney and go straight into the top floor and not even burn the 1st floor. Start in the basement and go to the 3rd floor. Cause fire will jump like that. Very few individuals burn to death, they’re always dead prior to the fire getting there due to smoke inhalation. HORN: Why did the two oldest boys make it downstairs and none of the others? Is it possible that some of the children succumbed to smoke inhalation but two didn’t? STERLING LEWIS: Absolutely. We get that all the time. We’ll find individuals laying in bed, dead, and then we’ll find another individual that’s laying a foot from the door. I mean they were going to get out. HORN: The family also bring up the fact that they never smelled burning flesh. But Lewis explains that no one would have been standing downwind from a fully involved fire.
HORN: Finally, the one fact that everyone comes back to: little remains were found the next day. And what little was found was internal organs and that just seems, well, weird. [The family was never told that any remains were found, but the State Fire Marshall interviewed everyone who was on site the next morning and four people reported seeing remains, including one of Jennie Sodder’s brothers and a local priest. Whether or not they were being truthful, I cannot say.] STERLING LEWIS: In a fire, when the rest of the body is absolutely almost destroyed, whatever would be left of entrails a lot of times will turn just a beautiful shade of red. And that’s what we look for because then your black and your grays of all the char and everything, this red it jumps out at you.
HORN: It wouldn’t have mattered even if they had arrived. Sterling Lewis, West Virginia State Fire Marshall.
HORN: All the experts the family consulted agree that more remains would have been found from a fire that only burned for 45 minutes before the roof fell into the basement. But the fire didn’t burn for 45 minutes. It burned all night long and into the next morning. When the fire department did finally appear it was still hot and they had to water the site down before conducting their search. Further, two hours is not even close to a thorough search. Today the search would take days and possibly weeks.
STERLING LEWIS: Let’s just say it takes a ten minute drive from the firehouse to the fire, there were no such things as our self contained breathing apparatus, there would have been no entry into that house by a firefighter. So therefore there would have been no rescue. [However, every fire professional I spoke to said they still would have shown up, regardless. Not one of them were trying to excuse Morris. I want to be clear about that.]
[It wasn’t that the remains were not there, necessarily, but they might have been missed by people who weren’t professionals, and who didn’t search for very long. The search that took place in 1949 sounded even less methodical. At this point, any remains would have been buried under four or five feet of dirt for four years, and a real search would need to be even more painstaking and would take even longer, now we’re talking months.]
[And according to witnesses, it was a very windy night.] [About the Fire Department not arriving until the next morning.]
9 Those are the cuts I thought people who follow the case might be interested in. There were all sorts of things I was able to find out that I didn’t use because I knew in the end that the piece had to be 8 minutes.. I’m trying to remember now. The caller who made the wrong number was found by the police and questioned. She was just a neighbor who made a wrong number. The guy who stole the block and tackle was arrested and paid a fine.
The father owned an automobile repair shop in Fayetteville
The scene was not roped off and guarded, while they weren’t searching. That would never happen today. And because George Sodder bulldozed dirt into it, the scene is was contaminated. SGT. MIKE SPRADLIN: … the authorities had know way of knowing if it had been dug and bones planted or bones taken out. [The family says George filled in the basement because he felt no one was ever coming back. I can totally see him doing this out of grief and frustration. It is understandable.] HORN: The family held onto a statement made by Ida Crutchfield, who ran a small hotel in Charleston, West Virginia. In 1952, seven years after the fire, she claimed she saw the children a week after the fire. She’d never met the Sodder children, she had only seen their pictures in the paper two years after the fire. Not a credible witness. SGT. SPRADLIN: For them to be carried out of that house and held against their will for that many years is implausible, because they could have easily escaped their captors. They’ve grown up, had children of their own, and for them never to try to contact the family is just... this i crazy. I mean, it’s impossible, I just don’t buy that. From my reviewing of the report there was really no stone left unturned, they really tried to find those children, to know if they existed and it was just those children were never located.
BRAGG: There was a guy that committed a theft while the house was burning, he was stealing from one of their out buildings while they were trying to save their children. Now what kind of person would do that? That is just absolutely … that adds to the mystery of this story 100 percent. It’s just crazy to me. HORN: But it’s not likely that someone would kidnap the children and then come back and steal some block and tackle, the objects that he confessed to taking. He also said he cut the phone wires, that were indeed cut that night. No one believed him because the phone wires were cut at the top of the phone pole. But that might explain why on the night of the fire, George Sodder never found the ladder that was always leaning at the side of the house. It was used to cut the wires. HORN: The police also never adequately investigated a man who made threats to the Sodder family before the fire, and who stood to gain financially, from the fire. [This points to possible arson, not kidnapping, and that’s one area I still have to investigate. From what I was told about him, he was not in need of money, was liked and respected in the community.] HORN: But even George Bragg, who researched this case and who doesn’t believe the children died in the fire, concedes that some parts of the story indicates that they did. In the police report, the Sodder’s oldest son said he woke the children.
BRAGG: It has been my experience when dealing with police reports and interviews after something like this happens, the first response by the person you are talking to is usually the most truthful, and that was his very first response. He told the state police that he walked into the room and shook the children and told them to come on downstairs, and to me that’s the one thing that I cannot understand. That would indicate that those children were in that bedroom. HORN: The family believes John said that because he felt that was what he should have done. Perhaps he was not the only questioning his actions. SPRADLIN: Survivor guilt plays into it. The adults get out of the house and the children don’t … I’d always be second guessing myself, maybe I could have done more and more and more … I’d want to believe that someone else was responsible and those children were alive and being held somewhere … STEVE CROOKSHANKS: I’ve rarely seen a family that had a tragedy like that that did not want to believe, it’s a psychological thing, you want to believe that something caused this to happen. This just couldn’t have been a natural event. SPRADLIN: It’s similar to suicides … it’s a suicide until the family’s way of looking at it it turns unto a murder … even though they may agree with it at firt, all of sudden it hard for them to accept those type of situations.
About John Sodder shaking his brothers and sisters. It’s perhaps meaningful that John was the one child who never wanted to talk about the fire, and thought they should just let it die. The fire wasn’t aggressively investigated at first because everyone was satisfied that they died in the fire. Once it became clear that the family thought the children were still alive, the State Police and the Fire Marshall did investigate. Every theory that was brought forth that could be investigated was investigated, as was every lead, except at this point I can’t tell if they thoroughly investigated Janutolo. They may have, but I haven’t confirmed it yet. But the Sodder family didn’t make a lot of noise about Janutolo, and since they didn’t hesitate to make their objections known, that seems to indicate they too were satisfied that either Janutolo was not involved or that he was satisfactorily investigated. But still, he was the one person who had a motive (for arson, not kidnapping) and his name should have been all over the files and it wasn’t. The cut phone wires were never adequately explained. It’s not that they didn’t try, but short of an eye witness, there was no way to know what happened. But it’s another fact that points to a possible crime. I also found that according to the police and FBI records, at one point the Sodders thought one of Jennie’s brothers had the children in Florida and her own relatives were investigated, and they had to prove their children were their own. (Given that
law enforcement professionals agree that if the children were removed from the house that night, either family or friends or relatives of the family were involved, it makes some sense.) Fire Chief Morris was the one who was told to take care of the remains that were found on Christmas morning. I question the judgement of the fire marshall about leaving something so important in the hands of a volunteer, but I think Morris’s story about reverently burying the remains was possibly a story he made up to cover up the fact that he threw the remains away or just left them there. Then, when George Sodder asked him to show him where he buried them, Morris buried the beef liver so that there’d be something to dig up. No physical evidence survives to this day, and the scene of the fire was contaminated (as dramatically demonstrated at the 1949 dig) when Mr. Sodder bulldozed the site, so I’m not sure what an excavation would accomplish today, although it couldn’t hurt, I guess. But, as Spradlin points out, since anyone could have removed the bones, or put bones in, it’s not likely to resolve anything one way or another. If the family wants to pursue this option, Spradlin explained, they would need to speak to the prosecutor’s office, although it might be hard to convince them to proceed since the site is contaminated. Again, I personally understand Mr. Sodder’s actions, I do not mean to sound critical, but nonetheless, it did contaminate the scene. (A lawyer could advise them here.) Most of the people I wanted to talk to did not wanted to answer my questions, so there is still no way to definitively say what happened that night. People can and probably will going on believing whatever they want.
THE CHILDREN WHO WENT UP IN SMOKE
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL By Stacy Horn
Family picture of George Sodder surrounded by his children (detail)
The trial of Robert Mason (detail)
fter the tragedy, parts of the Sodder’s house remained intact. Martha’s and Maurice’s bedrooms appear as bruised ghosts of a happy time. Flames did not only destroy their home, they also ruined their lives. The youngest child who survived the fire, Sylvia Sodder Praxton, still speaks of her siblings in the present tense: “I am the youngest, but Betty is only 2 years and a day older than me. I hope she’s still alive.” Paxton and her husband and their daughter firmly believe the siblings were kidnapped. They speculate endlessly about the mechanics of how it was carried out and why. They also speculate on the fate of the children, especially the older boys, after their kidnapping. But at the end of the day, the three agree it is only speculation and there is no way to determine the children’s fate without new evidence. Paxton feels that time is running short to get answers. Evidences have been lost or destroyed and firsthand accounts get scarcer by the day. She said she would like to see the case resolved, and would like to finally find closure. She would like to give her parents’ unending nightmare a final, concrete conclusion. “I was the last one of the kids to leave home. At night my dad would be up pacing the floor and we would talk. He’d share stories of the children and we’d talk about what might have happened. I experienced their grief for a long time.” Her husband, Grover Paxton, recalled a particularly poignant vignette of just how George and Jennie continued to search, continued to hope for their children’s return and continued to be disappointed: In 1967 the Sodders received a letter from a woman in Houston. She said that one of the missing boys, Louis, had too much to drink one night and spilled an intriguing story of his true identity. “She said the two oldest boys were living in Texas, so Mr. Sodder wanted to go,” recalled Grover Paxton. “He [George Sodder] was really excited to get down there. We drove straight down.” But the trip turned into another effort in futility for the still grieving man. The woman who had written the letter was unavailable to speak with Mr. Sodder and his son-in-law. They spoke to local authorities who pointed them in the direction of the men in question, but they would never know her motive for writing the letter. « I took him down there. We found the men and the oldest one especially looked like the family. They were the right age. The one that would have been Maurice’s age was friendly, but said “I wish I could help you but you have the wrong people.” » The two men went on to insist to Mr. Paxton and Mr. Sodder that their families lived nearby. Grover Paxton spoke of his father-in-law’s disappointment in the fruitless trip: « I think there was always some doubt in his mind. He died shortly thereafter and I think he always wondered if those were his boys and if he’d made a mistake, leaving so quickly. » Every Christmas, the people of Fayetteville go over what happened that night, repeating the same reasons for believing their version of the story. Without physical evidence, they can’t say for sure, but fire professionals are convinced the blaze probably cost the Sodder children their lives. For some, the children died on this terrible night. For the family and many of their neighbors who grew up looking into the faces of the Sodder children, and who firmly believe the children are still out there, this could be the Christmas they finally come home.
If you have any information concerning this case, please contact: Fayetteville Police Department 304-574-0255