Friday, October 30, 2009

Here's My Plan, Stan

[Note: This is a series of posts that is an investigation of 5 murders.  The first post was "He Had Me At 'Detective,'" and this post is my plan of attack, so to speak.]

Here's the Problem:
If the fire that killed my grandmother's brother, Roscoe Benton Martin, and his four children in 1957 was ruled as arson, then who killed them?  Whether the arson investigation was solved or not, who set the fire and why?

So, What Do I Know?
  • Roscoe Benton Martin was born on 19 Mar 1911 in Bloomfield, Johnson County, Illinois to Joel Arthur Martin and Lillie May (Alley) Martin. He was the second of four children in total and the first of three children surviving to adulthood.
  • His mother, Lillie May died 6 Jun 1918 when Roscoe was 7yo.
  • Roscoe is found with his father and two sisters in Stonefort, Williamson County, Illinois in the 1920 population census.
  • Roscoe was in the United States Army [as per 2 photographs of my grandmother's now in my possession].
  • Roscoe was living with his two sisters, Rettie Maye and Mabel Irene in Precinct 8, Fort Bend County, Texas in the 1930 population census.
  • Roscoe married Norma Ethel Conroy sometime before 1942 in Johnson County, Illinois.
  • Roscoe and Norma had four children: Jack, Bill, Jerry, and Cheryl Maye [exact dates need verification].
  • Norma Ethel Conroy was born abt. 1922 in Johnson County, Illinois to Emmett Cecil Conroy and Frieda A. Hall. Her siblings were William N. Conroy and Raymond Lester Conroy.
  • According to my grandmother, Roscoe died in a house fire trying to save his children in Illinois.
  • Information found in two newspaper articles (The Hammond Times 16 Jul 1957 and 17 Jul 1957 accessed on is as follows:

    1. Roscoe (46yo), John (14yo), William (12yo), Jerry (10yo), and Cheryl (3yo) were all killed Sunday, 14 Jul 1957 in a house fire approximately 6 miles north of Vienna, Illinois.
    2. Don Pender (a guest in the home), Roscoe, and a Billy McCuan (from nearby Tunnell Hill) were all “in the home prior to the fire”.
    3. Norma Martin, Roscoe's wife, escaped from the fire “uninjured”.
    4. The fire was reported by Don Pender, who also escaped the fire.
    5. Billy McCuan was found sleeping in his car near the home.”
    6. An empty 5-gallon gasoline can was found outside the home and two rooms in the home were found to have gasoline in them, leading investigators to suspect arson.
    7. The bodies were retrieved from under a portion of the tin roof.”
    8. Firemen were hindered due to a lack of water near the residence and had to draw water from a nearby pond.”
    9. Three state investigators, armed with a lie detector, launched an arson investigation.”
    10. Norma Martin (Roscoe's wife), Don Pender, and Billy McCuan were all “given a lie detector test and were completely cleared from any connection to the fire.”
    11. The Johnson County, Illinois sheriff at the time was Orlan Cox.
    12. The police chief (of Vienna?) was Bill Barnett.
    13. After the lie detector test, Sheriff Cox still felt that it was arson, but “had no leads.”
      What Do Others Know?
      Online memorials were found on findagrave:
      • A wife of a distant cousin created online memorials on Findagrave for Roscoe, John, William, Jerry, and Cheryl. She mentions the fire, and that they were all killed in it.
      • Also states the full names of Roscoe and his children: Roscoe Benton, John Winston, William Lester, Jerry Ray, and Cheryl Maye.
      • States all of their ages at death, full birth dates [John b.14 Sep 1942; William b. 26 Apr 1945; Jerry b. 18 Sep 1948; Cheryl b. 2 Oct 1953] and their death date.
      • The birthdate that is listed on the online memorial for Roscoe Benton Martin is the same birthdate that my Paw Paw listed on the back of his Army headshot photo.
      • States that Roscoe had been in the United States Army from 1929-1939.
      • States they are all buried in Taylor Cemetery in Vienna, Johnson County, Illinois.
        So, I Think I Have A Few Questions...

      • Was Roscoe employed at the time of the fire? If so, what was his occupation? Had Norma been employed outside of the home?
      • How was Roscoe's and Norma's relationship? Were they “getting along”?
      • Who were Billy McCuan and Don Pender, and how well did Roscoe and Norma know them?
      • According to the newspaper article, the bodies were retrieved from under a portion of the tin roof. How were the bodies laying, exactly, and where? Were they all together?
      • How big was the house? Did each child have their own room, or did they share?
      • Was Don Pender going to stay the night? Where was he from?
      • Why was Billy McCuan sleeping in his car? Had he or any of the others been drinking alcoholic beverages?
      • What time did the fire start, and when was it reported?
      • How did Don Pender report the fire? Did he make the phone call before he exited the house?
      • Were there other houses nearby? Had they been living in a neighborhood or in the country?
      • What 2 rooms in the house had been doused with gasoline?
      • How can a lie detector test be used to clear 3 people in an arson case in 1957 when in 2009 the results of a lie detector test aren't usually admissable in court?
      • How accurate was a lie detector test in 1957? What is the timeline & history of the lie detector test?
      • Where was Roscoe's father, Joel Arthur Martin living at the time of the fire? What other relatives lived in the area?
      • Did Norma's family live nearby?
      • If 2 rooms in the house had been doused with gasoline [obviously before the fire] and the house had been occupied by Roscoe, Norma, Billy McCuan, and Don Pender before the fire, why didn't they smell the gasoline? The fumes would have been quite noticeable.
      • Previous to their guests coming over, had they left the house unoccupied on the day of the fire, Sunday? When and for how long?
      • Where had the children been? Was the fire before “bedtime” or after?
      • Has this arson case ever been solved? Where would this investigation paperwork be located now?
      • If 3 state investigators gave the lie detector test, would there be any state-level investigation paperwork, and where would that be located?
      • What happened to Norma after the fire? Where did she go?
      So, Where To Look?
      What To Do First?
      I will outline my strategy in the next post/update as well as any research I've completed at the time. My plan involves using genealogical skills combined with some “creativity”. It's also going to take some ingenuity because I have no budgetary plans to travel to Johnson County, Illinois [unfortunately]. The first thing I'll need to do is give you the “lay of the land,” so to speak. I've never been there, but all of my grandmother's lines come from there, and I've had the opportunity to “meet” some researchers from this area online as well as research the area. Hopefully, this will help. It was a close-knit community then, and it's a close-knit community now. Moreover, it's an area where “outsiders” aren't really welcome, but I'm getting ahead of myself. More on this community and the time period in which this crime took place will be in my next post. So, that's my plan, Stan. Have I forgotten anything? [I'm sure I have...] Or do you have any additional questions that you think I should be asking?  Let me know.  Please, post your comments below.


      1. Well you had me at "Stan" - it is my father's name.

        One place to check that I didn't see mentioned is the county coroner's office. Those deaths are a matter of public record and the M.E.'s report on the deaths might have some clues - some interesting reading at the very least!

        Sheri Fenley

      2. Thanks, Sheri! I didn't even think about that. I appreciate the input.


      3. Wow, very interesting. This cold case needs to be re-openedy! With our modern day technology alot of your questions may get answered. My first thought on the lie detector test was that it was bogus, your are correct on your thoughts about that being any sort of proof. Even today it is not. My first thought, maybe a "love" triangle was going on. Sounds like arson to me! This story is very captivating, I will be waiting for your next post anxiously!

      4. I'm very interested in the outcome and your process! Keep it going!

      5. Very interesting. Sounds like a cover up to me and sounds like one or more of the escapees were involved.

        As far as the polygraph, knowing the way we think / progress, I can imagine that in earlier times, when certain technologies first became available that more stock was put into them than warranted. Think of how many innocent folks have been and continue to be convicted based on one person's testimony when it's been shown that eyewitness testimony can be some of the most shaky evidence around for various reasons.

        Can't wait to find out where the leads go and how the story ends.

      6. Gini, I definitely have some opinions and reactions to the information that is revealed in the newspaper articles. I'll state those in my next post so that I can have y'all keep me in line, so to speak. I do want to know what really happened & I'm willing to follow the trail wherever it leads, but I'm human...

        Craig, thank you. I'm quite motivated to find out the truth.

        Mavis, I've already done some preliminary research into lie detector tests, & I've found some interesting information that I can't wait to share. And I agree with you [and the character Marcellus from Shakespeare's "Hamlet"], "something is rotten in the state of Denmark!"


      7. hmmmmmm. I think the case should be re-opened. Hope you find some facts.
        We also have an unsolved murder in the family back in the 30's.
        I think about it some times.


      8. Caroline,
        I have just read through all your blog posts and must say that I really enjoy reading your blog!

        This story captivates me, as my great-grandfather's sister lost two children in a house fire in the 1950s due to a faulty heater (I think that was the cause).

        I checked this website

        and found that the Vienna Times is available from 1915 onward at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. I'm just wondering if the Vienna Times would have even more details than the Hammond newspaper did, since the event did occur closer to Vienna. There may be an RAOGK volunteer who could look it up for you if you can't travel there yourself.


      Inappropriate comments will be deleted. So keep it clean and be nice.


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