On Christmas Eve, 1945, the Sodder family home in Fayetteville, West Virginia, caught fire as the family slept. In less than an hour, the house was burned to the ground. Mom Jennie and dad George, both Italian immigrants, survived, as did five of their ten children: John, 23; Marion, 17; George Jr., 16; and Sylvia, 2. Their eldest son, Joe, was not home; he was serving in the Army. The other five children — Maurice, 14; Martha, 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; and Betty, 5 — were not accounted for. The official report said that they died in the fire, and death certificates were issued for each of the five children. But their bones were never found among the ashes, and a series of strange occurrences led the Sodders to believe their children are (or were) alive.
Fire broke out at the Sodder home at 1 am. The youngest, Sylvia, slept in her parents room, and the elder children made it out on their own. George tried to get back in to rescue the other five children, but the staircase was engulfed in flames. He ran for the ladder, which he kept propped up against the house, but it was inexplicably missing. Next he thought to drive one of his two coal trucks beneath the window and climb into the children’s rooms, but neither truck was working, despite the fact that they were both operational the day before.
Both daughter Marion and a neighbor tried calling the town’s fire department, but neither could get an operator. The neighbor eventually drove into town to track down the fire chief, who then instituted a “phone tree” to get the small-town fire department into gear. It was 8am by the time the fire truck rolled up to the Sodder home, which was now reduced to ashes.
Initially, the Sodders believed their children had died in the fire. The fire chief said that the fire burned hot enough to destroy the children’s bones, and investigators attributed the fire to faulty wiring. The death certificates for the five children listed cause of death as “fire or suffocation.” George covered the basement — all that was left of the house — with dirt and planted flowers as a memorial.
But the more George thought about the fire, and the circumstances leading up to the fire, the more George realized that something wasn’t right. A few months before the fire, a stranger appeared at the house, looking to pick up some work. He wandered around the grounds, and pointed to two separate fuse boxes, commenting that they would “cause a fire someday.” George had recently had the power company check the wiring, and deemed it fine. Around the same time, another man showed up at the house selling life insurance. George declined, and the salesman warned that “your goddamn house is going up in smoke and your children are going to be destroyed. You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini.”
George had immigrated to the United States from Sardinia in 1908, at age 13, and though he did not hide his dislike for the Italian dictator, he never spoke of his childhood in Italy, or what made him leave his home for a life alone in a new country. In addition, the older Sodder boys recalled that, just before Christmas, a man was parked on the highway, watching the younger children on their way home from school.
About a half-hour before the fire broke out, the phone rang. It was a wrong number. On her way back to bed, Jennie noticed that all the downstairs lights were still on, the curtains were opened, and the front door was unlocked. Marion was asleep on the couch. Jennie left her there, shut off the lights and locked up, and went back to bed. Just as she was falling asleep, there was a loud BANG on the roof, followed by a rolling noise. If it was Santa Claus, he left a terrible gift.
All of these events led Jennie and George to be suspicious. Jennie started to research cremation and was told by a crematorium employee that bones remain when burned at 2,000 degrees for two hours. A telephone repair man said that the phone lines appeared to have been cut, not burned. A witness reported to seeing a man leaving the scene of the fire with instruments used for removing car engines. A few days after the fire, Sylvia found a hard rubber object in the yard, which Jennie assumed was the noise she heard on the roof. George identified it as a napalm “pineapple bomb.”
Sightings of the Sodder children came flooding in, including a woman at a Charleston hotel who said four of the five missing kids were staying at the hotel with two women and two men of Italian descent. The adults were hostile to anyone who tried to interact with the kids, and they only stayed at the hotel for one night. The Sodders were now convinced their children were alive, or at least had escaped the fire, and they turned to the FBI for help. The FBI could only come in if the local authorities invited them in, and they declined. Instead, the Sodders hired a private investigator, C.C. Tinsley.
Tinsley learned that the insurance salesman was one of the men who would later deem the Sodder fire “accidental.” He also followed up on a rumor that the fire chief, F.J. Morris, had discovered a heart in the ashes of the fire and buried it in a box at the site of the blaze. It turned out to be true, but a local funeral director concluded it was not a heart, but a beef liver, untouched by the fire. Apparently, the chief buried it there hoping that any remains would calm the Sodders and allow them to close the case for good. Clearly, this did not help, as the Sodders continued their search for the truth, fueled by a steady stream of tips. After another excavation of the property yielded nothing helpful, the State Police Superintendent said their search was “hopeless.” By the end of the decade, the local police had closed the case.
Still, the Sodders did not stop searching. They passed out fliers and offered a reward for information leading to the recovery of the children. They even erected a billboard on Route 16 begging for information about the disappearance. That billboard stood for nearly forty years.
In 1968, Jennie received an envelope with no return address, but a postmark from Kentucky. Inside was a photo of a man in his 20s, with a note written on the back: “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.” Jennie and George were convinced that this could be their son, and they sent Tinsley to Kentucky to investigate. They never heard from him again.
George died a year later, no closer to an answer as to what happened to his children. Jennie died in 1989, and the billboard finally came down, but the surviving Sodder children, and their children, continued the investigation.
Sylvia is the last surviving Sodder child, and she still maintains her siblings did not die in that fire. A couple of theories have been floated. One is that the children were kidnapped by someone running an illegal “adoption” agency; another suggests that the Mafia was involved. The fates of Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty remain unknown to this day.