It’s still a mystery. Can anything be done about it today? That’s the bottom line question. Get a copy of the book and make up your own mind.
I bought my copy Thursday, January 12, 2017, at the HPROA meeting from Larry and Carolyn. They autographed my copy – the first signed copy. I think the best way to order yours is from Larry’s website.
I read this book in one sitting. That’s a rare thing for me. It took the afternoon and a little of the early evening but I didn’t notice too much. I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing until I was through. That pretty well tells you how good I think the book is. Trying to sort out exactly what I think and feel about what happened is totally different.
The fiction part of this book is pretty much in how the story is told. It’s not in the basic discoverable facts of what happened. See the website for more of the “back story”.
I joined HPD in 1968 as part of Class 38 and retired in January of 1991. I was a street cop for almost seven years before going to the Vice Division for a year then promoting to Detective in the Robbery Division in 1975 where I spent the rest of my HPD career. I suffer from no illusions at all about police officers or police procedures.
Over the years I had heard a few comments about this killing and those were from very senior officers and detectives who were loath to talk about it. Now I understand why.
A fundamental truth: Times change. It is a very grave error, in my not so humble opinion, and one of utmost unfairness – to apply another era’s standards to any given incident. You have to judge the “rightness or wrongness” of past events in the social context in which they happened. That does NOT mean you don’t learn and change things.
To try to understand or judge past events using current social conditions, mores and morals is a mistake. What today are totally unacceptable actions were then considered to be the proper and right things to do given the specific circumstances in which they occurred.
“Best practices” in the 1950’s worked well then but certainly are not acceptable now.
For instance, to condemn the practice outlined in the story of using captured contraband in order to make the absolutely necessary informant system work is wrong. In a social, political and administrative situation where there was no way to pay informants, officers were faced with choosing whether or not to fight the narcotics trade at all. There was only the one solution available to officers all across the nation and they used it. Almost all of them did it following the unofficial but “correct” guidelines established. They did the best they could with what they had to work with at the time. The few that “abused the system” – as usual – screwed it up for everybody else.
Having said that – murder, especially for profit, is dead wrong [pun intended] – in any time or situation. The killing of a police officer in the police station raises it to a whole new level.
At first glance, it would appear that Det. Martin Billnitzer was murdered in his office on the second floor of the main police station at 61 Riesner Street and that the declaration of the killing was a suicide seems a blatant cover-up.
Almost all of the folks that ever mentioned it around me talked of it as a suicide involving a federal narcotics investigation. That was the “public” version.
However, a couple mentioned that he was shot twice. They didn’t think a suicidal person could shoot themselves twice. It’s extremely rare but it’s possible. There are at least two multiple shot suicide cases that have occurred in Harris County. The key, I think, is in exactly where the wounds in the chest/heart area were.
Many years after I retired a good friend of mine [now deceased] mentioned to me something that happened at the time of the killing. A friend of his [who was deceased at the time he was telling me the story] had been nearby when the shots were heard and had seen another officer [now deceased] heading down the back stairs just around the corner from where the killing took place.
There is still some kind of a case file somewhere. Chief Breashears had it reviewed when he was chief and decided that there was nothing that could be done then about changing the status at that time.
Forensics change every day.
So, we’re back around to the bottom line question: Can anything be done about it today after all of this time? If Billnitzer was murdered he certainly deserves to be included in the Line of Duty roster, I think.
But there’s a whole lot more to the story.
Get a copy of the book and see what you think!
were vague, some involved a captain of police being shot, others of the captain shooting another officer. As a rookie cop, I didn’t ask questions, but I never forgot the stories. The book I found in Galveston years later, prompted Carolyn and me to take a journey of research and writing, the end result of which is our latest book, Dishonored and Forgotten.
Our digging eventually led to a treasure trove of information on the case which was housed at Stanford University in California. The lead federal investigator on the Houston case had archived and retained records related to his work, including the Houston scandal. The file contained personal letters from officers involved in the case, documents generated by federal government employees, and even a crime scene photo of Detective Martin Billnitzer, lying dead on the floor of the Houston police station. When that investigator, George White, died, his widow had donated his papers to the university.
This book has been the most interesting adventure in writing I have undertaken, in no small part because it is the first time Carolyn and I have worked together on a book. We are scheduled to present and discuss the book on January 12 at the monthly meeting of the Houston Police Retired Officers Association. It is now available here and wherever good books are sold. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we have enjoyed making it available.
Buy the paperback – Dishonored and Forgotten
Buy the Kindle book – Dishonored and Forgotten
Houston Police Detective Martin Billnitzer’s family never believed he committed suicide at the police station in 1954. Even the most gullible observer would have likely questioned the ruling of suicide. He was shot twice in the heart and was believed to have been cooperating with Federal agents in the investigation of corruption within the highest echelons of the Houston Police Department.
Detective Martin Billnitzer lay dying on the floor of an office at the Houston Police Department. In the adjoining office, officer George LaRue heard two gunshots and when he tried to open the door, believed it was locked. He left to get a key.
In the Forward to the book, Fallen Heroes of the Bayou City, written by Nelson Zoch, retired Police Chief Harry Caldwell wrote “Houston Police Officers vow to never forget the ultimate sacrifices made by their fellow men and women in blue in the 166 year history of the mighty law enforcement organization known as the Houston Police Department.”
But in the death of Detective Martin A. Billnitzer on June 3, 1954, was a line-of-duty death falsely or mistakenly ruled a suicide? On that June day, Detective Billnitzer had just completed a meeting with Houston Police Chief L.D. Morrison, Sr., regarding his interview by federal agents. The subject of the interview was heroin missing from the H.P.D. As he left the Chief’s office, Billnitzer told reporters waiting in the hallway that he would return in a few minutes to answer questions. Moments later, two gunshots rang out in the halls of 61 Riesner Street, the home of the Houston Police Department.
Martin Billnitzer lay dead in his office with two bullet wounds in his heart and a nasty gash to his head, blood oozing onto the floor around him. With whirlwind speed, the death was ruled a suicide by the Police Chief and a Justice of the Peace, acting as coroner.
In this blog story we’ll get to know more about Detective Martin Billnitzer. Born in 1909, he was just forty-five years old the day that life abandoned him on the floor of an office in the police station. He had been a police officer for twelve years, having joined the Department in 1942.
Born in Cave Creek, Texas, a community north of Gatesville in central Texas, his family soon moved to Jourdanton, Texas. There Martin played baseball, enjoying the role of pitcher on his team. As an adult, he married Marie and they moved to Houston. They had no children.
On the 1940 census, Martin was listed as a salesman for Home Electric Refrigerators. Family member say that he managed a business in Houston just prior to joining the police department. Others reported that his wife Marie was a school teacher, though that was not reported on the same census.
There are three contradictory records of Martin Billnitzer’s educational achievements. In an article published in 2005 in the World News Daily, written by H.P. Albarelli, Jr., he is reported to have had a ‘college education’ at the time he joined the Houston P.D. The article noted that this was unusual for police applicants at the time. Some family members recalled that he had attended Draughon’s Business School. But the 1940 census records indicate that he had a seventh grade education. These stories are not necessarily in conflict. After the census, he may have attended the business school and it could have been referred to by those who knew him as a ‘college education.’
The Billnitzers were active in their community, particularly the Lutheran Church they attended in Houston. The couple was involved in helping with the Youth Choir. The night of his death, Martin and Marie had scheduled a backyard party at their home for the members of that Choir.
I interviewed W.M. “Bill” Elkin, retired detective and current Executive Director of the Houston Police Retired Officers Association as part of my research on this story. Bill joined HPD shortly after this story broke in 1954 and recalls only vague details. He does remember, however, that his father, Joe. B. Elkin, who was also a Houston officer and retired in 1969, knew Martin Billnitzer. He recalls conversations with his Dad about the narcotics investigation and death of Billnitzer. Joe told his son that he questioned how Billnitzer died. He said that Martin Billnitzer just wasn’t the kind of guy who would commit suicide.
In 2004, family members of Detective Billnitzer made a request to the Houston Police Chief that the death of their brother and uncle be re-examined. Through the Federal Freedom of Information Act, they had found documents from the 1950’s investigation by Federal investigators that referred to Billnitzer’s death as a murder, not a suicide. As you might expect concerning a case that occurred fifty years prior to the request, the Chief declined to re-open the case.
My next blog will explore more about Detective Billnitzer’s death, some of the unusual reports about a man running from the office where he was shot, and forensics speculation all these years after his death.
My book, Dishonored and Forgotten, scheduled for publication on October 15th, is a fictional account of the infamous 1953 narcotics scandal and the toll it took on lives and reputations within the Houston Police Department.
But the Chief, City Attorney Will Sears and Captain Foy Melton said it was not more than $2,000 worth of dope. Morrison admitted that a single detective, acting alone, sold some of the dope back on the streets. But that detective, Sidney Smith, didn’t work in the Vice Squad and the Chief never explained how Smith obtained the dope that was reported to be in Assistant Chief George Seber’s office. It smelled like a cover-up and it was! Eventually the top cops would turn over more dope to the feds, but not all of it.
Detective Sidney Smith was fired and charged with selling heroin. He was eventually convicted and sent to prison. When interviewed in prison by federal investigators, he said that Detective Billnitzer was murdered and that the pistol used had been stolen from a store and used to kill the detective. Houston Police records indicated it was Billnitzer’s personal weapon.
Captain Foy Melton and a local doctor, Julius McBride, were indicted on June 25th. The doctor was charged with supplyng Chief Morrison with codeine for purposes other than medical use. He was eventually sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Morrison was not charged, but testimony at McBride’s trial indicated he was addicted to codeine. He resigned as Chief of Police, but remained on the department.
On one note was written “Medical Examiner: When you finish, call Heights.” This apparently referred to the Heights Funeral Home in Houston. The second note said “Homicide: Let R.O. Biggs have this .45 automatic. God Bless You All. Foy D. Melton.”Melton had succeeded where all others had failed. He had finally been removed from the ranks of law enforcement.
My new book, Dishonored and Forgotten will be available by late October. It is the story of Houston’s first narcotics corruption case which led to the events told above.
But Officer Pool refused to take the advice given him by the D.A. Instead he contacted a federal agent he was acquainted with in Houston. It wasn’t long before an investigation began, headed by Federal Bureau of Narcotics supervisor George White. He came with solid credentials. He had been the chief investigator for the Kefaufer Committee on Crime in America. White did not initially inform Houston’s police chief of the investigation. He was to become a controversial figure in the matter. It wasn’t long before Police Chief Morrison and City Attorney Will Sears demanded of the Feds that he be removed from the investigation. In addition to other complaints, they alleged that he was responsible for Billnitzer’s death because he “browbeat” him during questioning. White called the charges ridiculous and stayed on the case, suggesting that the pressure was getting to Morrison.
Soon officers were being subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury which was meeting in Galveston. One of the officers who testified was J.O. Brannon, who had been in the Vice Squad previously. I’ve found little about Brannon’s involvement, but interestingly, not long after testifying, his car was vandalized while he was working. The convertible top was slashed, a tire was cut, three windows were shattered, and sugar was poured in the gas tank. When asked by the media about the incident, Brannon would only say that he had been working on something special in the Houston underworld and that he believed it was a warning to lay off.
I’ve interviewed officers who knew J.O. Brannon. Some recall talk of him having been blackballed by fellow officers at one time during his career. His name was on the list of officers subpoenaed to appear at the federal gran jury and it is quite likely that he too gave testimony against the crooked cops.
(1954) The Feds were in Houston investigating local police for selling heroin to dope dealers. Detective M.A. Billnitzer, shot twice in the heart at the police station, was dead. It was ruled a suicide.
The Police Chief, L.D. Morrison, Sr., by his own admission, didn’t hear of the seizure of a large amount of heroin that occurred in August of 1953 until June of 1954, although he ordinarily was told of any narcotics seizure. Illegal narcotics trade was becoming a major police problem, but Morrison apparently didn’t learn of the scandal brewing in HPD until the Federal investigation was about to become public.
After the death of Detective Billnitzer, Morrison relieved Captain Melton of duty and fired Detective Sidney Smith. He seems to have discounted any scandal beyond the actions of Smith. Morrison later testified on behalf of Melton who was tried twice but not convicted. There will be more on Melton in future blogs.
In addition to the corruption that was taking place in his police department, Chief Morrison must have been uneasy when the Feds started snooping around for personal reasons. He had chronic back pain and had found a doctor, Julius McBride, who supplied him with codeine which the doctor recorded as going to a patient who had cancer. When McBride was indicted, the charge was that he supplied the dope to Chief Morrison for ‘non-medicinal’ purposes. Medical experts from Baylor University testified that Morrison was caught up in the grip of the drug habit and well on his way to becoming an ‘addict’ from the frequent administration of codeine.
Chief Morrison resigned as Chief when the narcotics scandal became public. His reputation with the police department, even with the revelation of his improper use of codeine, seems to have survived the scandal. The current Houston Police Academy building is named in his honor. In the book, Houston Blue, authors Tom Kennedy and Michael P. Roth write that “Morrison is known as the father of HPD academic training…” That honor was for his work prior to becoming police chief when he was a captain who initiated the first formal training in an academy class for Houston police. His son, L.D. Morrison, Jr., also became a Houston officer and retired as a captain.
In the next blog episode of If The Walls Could Talk you’ll learn more about officers W.C. Pool and Federal Agent George White. There’ll also be an interesting note about another Houston officer, J.O. Brannon who was subpoened to testify at the federal gran jury.
Coming later this year, my new novel, Dishonored and Forgotten, a fictional account of this scandal that begs the question, why isn’t Martin Billnitzer’s name on the memorial wall?
A Burglary Detective by the name of Sidney Smith approached Voice about a week after the heroin was recovered from the backyard. He proposed selling the dope back to Voice and the two made a deal. Soon, the heroin made its way back onto the streets of Houston. Voice later said, everything I got, I got from the police station. He even alleged that the dope was sold to him originally by Smith and then resold to him after it was confiscated.
My novel based on these events, Dishonored and Forgotten, will be available later this year.