A few years ago, while browsing through shops with my wife, Carolyn, in Galveston’s Strand District, I found a book of short stories about several Texas crimes and criminals. One account was of a Houston police narcotics scandal that occurred in 1953.
As a young officer in 1967 I had heard anecdotal accounts of these events, including stories of an officer being murdered at the central police station and the death being ruled a suicide. The stories 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.
My previous books have all been fiction and required little research. This book was much different. With Carolyn’s advice (her writing background includes such research) I spent days in Houston’s library system, reviewing old newspaper articles and searching the internet where I made contact with a family member of the officer who was killed. 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.
Before my wife and I decided to write the novel, I began posting blog stories of the incident on my website. I interviewed the daughter-in-law of the then police chief, relatives of officers who were involved or were working at the Houston Police Department at the time, and others. As a result of these blog stories, we were eventually contacted by a great-niece of the drug dealer and pimp who played a major role in the downfall of a police chief, sending a police officer and a doctor to prison, and pulling the curtain back on real problems within the police department.
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
NOTE: My new novel, Dishonored and Forgotten, about this incident, will be available in January. I am scheduled to speak about the book at the January meeting of the Houston Police Retired Officers Association on January 12th. 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.
Today when an officer is killed, the department has a Family Assistance Unit available to guide the family through this difficult time. In 1954 no such unit existed. Some Billnitzer family members felt at the time that the Houston Police Department was more a threat than a band of brother officers. One relative described the funeral as “scary,” saying she believed the killer was a policeman and that he might be at the funeral. Martin’s brother, Harold, was reported as having been afraid to go near the casket that day.
But Harold held a life-long hope that the report of Martin Billnitzer’s death would someday be investigated again and proven a murder. He remembered Martin telling him that another officer had suggested if Martin wanted it, he could live more luxuriously than most officers did at the time. The implication was that more money could be made while he worked narcotics cases. In his memoir, published in 1976 or later, Harold wrote, I pray that someone will come forward to clear Martin’s name before I die. I would like to be able to forgive him (the responsible person) so that God can forgive me.
Harold’s son, Michael, took up the effort to clear his uncle’s name. He knew it was important to his father. Documents were gathered, including those from the Federal Government in which agents referred to the Billnitzer death as a murder. A reporter for an internet news outlet wrote about the death, writing that Michael sought out forensics experts around the country to review the previous autopsy and other reports. One, forensics psychologist Katherine Ramsland, agreed to look at the case. Some of her findings were surprising. According to her review, the reports made at the time indicated no fingerprints were found on the murder weapon; it was highly unlikely that Billnitzer could have accomplished shooting himself twice in the heart; and that the death-scene investigation appears, at the very least, to have involved tunnel vision: an assumption that Billnitzer had reason to commit suicide, so the death event is therefore a suicide.
Finally, believing he had gathered enough information to warrant another look at his uncle’s death, Michael Billnitzer wrote a letter, in January of 2004, to Acting Houston Police Chief Joe L. Breshears. He requested the investigation be re-opened and he forwarded the information he had gathered with the request. On March 3, less than two months later, he received a response. The letter read, in part,…the Homicide Division conducted considerable research into the matter and learned that Detective Billnitzer’s death was thoroughly investigated at the time….. Our research in this matter uncovered no information that would contradict this finding or warrant reopening the case…In fairness to the department, maybe Michael Billnitzer’s request was a difficult one to accommodate. Re-opening a fifty-year old case is sometimes impractical.
Approaching the various memorial organizations that recognize officers who sacrifice their lives in the line of duty might have been more successful. We honor our officers who give their lives in the line of duty. We have memorial walls for their names. Families are honored at the state capitol and survivors have formed groups to help family members cope with the tragic loss. But in the case of Martin Billnitzer, we may have left a comrade behind. Could a definitive conclusion be reached at this late date, sixty years after the fact? Probably not, but a part of me wants to believe that when an officer takes the oath, pins on the badge and straps on the gun, in a case like this, we should err on the side of the deceased officer.
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 meantime, a secretary, also hearing the shots, ran into the office and opened the door, which was partially blocked by Billnitzer’s body, but not locked. Soon rumors were circulating that a man was observed running from the office. Never substantiated, and dismissed as being a janitor who ran after hearing the shots, those rumors became nothing more than anecdotal history. Billnitzer had been shot twice in the heart and had a serious gash to the head.
The detective had met the day before with federal authorities who were investigating missing heroin from the Houston P.D. He was involved with other officers in the initial seizure of the dope. In his first interview, Billnitzer’s account of how much dope was recovered conflicted with that of the other officers. He returned later in the day to meet again with the agents and clarify the differing accounts. Some later speculated that he, as most narcotics detectives of the time did, retained small amounts of narcotics seizures to give to informants in payment for information. This practice was not uncommon as late as the early 1970’s.
The day after meeting with the feds, he met with the police chief, who was sticking to the story that the amount of heroin seized was much less than the other detectives claimed. Detective Billnitzer left that meeting and walked to his office. He was dead within minutes.
Chief Morrison told the news media that Billnitzer was not suspected of being involved in the missing heroin. George White, the chief investigator in the federal investigation, confirmed that he was not a subject of the federal investigation. The chief hinted that the detective might have failed to properly log some narcotics in the past, but said it was not so serious as to warrant a suicide.
Some officers had been concerned since the night of the seizure, when Captain Melton took the dope and told them not to make a report. Their fear was that rank and file officers would be blamed for the missing heroin. They may have believed those comments by the chief confirmed their suspicions that the high-ranking officers would be protected at their expense.
There are differing accounts and opinions about whether Detective Billnitzer committed suicide. At the time of his death, Federal Agent George White told the media, “I think the man was murdered. If he killed himself, he is probably the first man who ever killed himself twice,” referring to the fact that Billnitzer was shot twice in the heart. Years later, White said, “I still think it was murder. It just is not possible for a man to shoot himself in the head or heart, stumble against a cabinet, causing a head injury, and after falling on the floor shoot himself in the heart. It could not be done.” Unfortunately for the Billnitzer family, federal authorities had no jurisdiction to investigate the death; that responsibility fell to the local police.
Detective W.C. Pool, the officer who reported the missing heroin to federal authorities commented, when referring to Billnitzer’s death, “I don’t believe for a second that he committed suicide. There is a lot that hasn’t come out. I don’t know if it ever will.”
The minister who conducted the funeral service said, “If Bill committed suicide, it was not the Bill we knew.”
But others, not directly involved, although familiar with the investigation, had a different opinion. A friend of well-respected Lieutenant F.C. Crittenden, who was on the department at the time, told me that Crittenden expressed to him that, “I will go to my grave convinced that Billnitzer’s death was suicide.” It has also been related to me that an investigator who was assigned to review the case fifty years after the death has strong feelings that the case was properly classified a suicide.
It’s been just over sixty years since Martin A. Billnitzer’s death. It is unlikely there will ever be a definitive decision about whether he was murdered or committed suicide for those who refuse to accept the results of the investigation by the police department. The next episode will be about information the family learned through open records requests to the federal government. If there is any chance that Billnitzer was murdered because he refused to go along with a cover-up by others, it is tragic that his name is not included on the various memorial walls that honor police officers killed in the line of duty.
My book, Dishonored and Forgotten, which details a fictional account of this narcotics scandal, will be released on January 2, 2017. I am scheduled to make a short presentation about the book at the Houston Police Retired Officers Association meeting on January 12, 2017 and will have copies available there.
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.
(June 1954) A month earlier the media and Houston Police Chief L.D. Morrison learned that the federal government had sent agents to Houston to investigate allegations of missing heroin from the police department. The officers who recovered the dope and the dealer who bought it back told the feds there was about $75,000 worth of heroin, nearly ¾ of a million in today’s dollars.
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.
On Thursday, June 3rd Detective Martin Billnitzer was found shot to death in an office at the police station. He had two bullets in his heart and a nasty gash on his head. Chief Morrison, the City Attorney, and a local justice of the peace declared it to be a suicide. Many others, including the officers who worked with him, the federal investigators, and his family believed that he had been murdered. The following Saturday, Morrison issued an order to all police officers that they were prohibited from talking to anyone, including federal agents, about the heroin or death of Detective Billnitzer. He declared he would answer all questions.
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.
Captain Melton was tried twice on the federal charges. First in Brownsville, then in Corpus Christi, juries could not reach a verdict. L.D. Morrison testified on his behalf. Melton appealed his suspension to the civil service commission and was promptly returned to duty.
Melton was charged a few years later with tampering with a witness and bribery on an unrelated case. He was found innocent of those charges, but his firing was upheld by the Houston Civil Service Commission. Melton appealed that decision and eventually the Texas Supreme Court reversed the decision and he was authorized to return to work as a Houston police officer. He opted instead to retire and began receiving his $187.42 per month pension. He was soon hired by District Attorney Frank Briscoe as an investigator.
On February 2, 1967, Melton pulled into the parking lot of the Harris County Courthouse and shot himself while sitting in his car. He left two notes which were found in his pocket. A .45 caliber automatic pistol lay on the seat beside his body. 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.
(1954)A large haul of heroin had been recovered. The three officers who brought it in were told by Captain Foy Melton that he was taking possession of the dope because it was part of a much larger narcotics investigation. The officers became suspicious that there was no such investigation and that the heroin seizure was not going to be reported. They decided to tell fellow officer W.C. Pool about the case.
There’s a belief among those critical of law enforcement that a Blue Code of Silence exists among officers, meaning that there is an unwritten rule that officers will not report on another officer’s errors, misconduct, or crimes. While this may be true regarding errors and minor misconduct, there is abundant evidence that officers often come forward to report the criminal acts of fellow law enforcement officers.
Such was the case regarding the missing dope. At least two Houston officers reported their suspicions to the Harris County District Attorney. W.C. Pool was first. The D.A. told him to forget about the dope and if he couldn’t forget, he should look for another job. Soon after, Captain Joe Clark also took the case to the D.A. Clark reported that dope dealer Earl Voice told him officers were selling the heroin they had confiscated previously. The D.A. said there was not enough evidence and did nothing. Later, when questioned by reporters as to why he went to the D.A. instead of his superiors in the Department, Clark said he thought his superiors might have been involved in the criminal activity, all the way to the Chief.
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 workingon something special in the Houston underworldand that he believed it was a warning tolay off.
Though I’ve found no evidence that ties this incident to Brannon’s testimony, the newspaper story about his car being vandalized garnered the attention of news outlets throughout Texas and was published as an AP story in several other cities. This might suggest that reporters knew what was behind the vandalism, but couldn’t get confirmation to put it in print.
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.
This string of stories began because of the shooting death of Officer M.A. Billnitzer. My next blog story is about Sidney Smith, the only officer involved in the scandal to go to jail, and Captain Foy Melton. The Captain was fired, charged with taking the heroin, put on trial twice, not convicted, and got his job back. Melton was later fired on another corruption charge, but remained in law enforcement until his death by suicide several years later. I will conclude this series with two or three stories about Officer Billnitzer, who may have been killed in the line-of-duty when he decided to talk to the Feds.
Coming later this year, my fictional account of the events surrounding Detective Billnitzer’s death, in my book, Dishonored and Forgotten.
(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?
(1953) The dope dealer’s name was Earl Voice. His girlfriend’s sister called police when she saw someone bury two jars of heroin in her backyard during the darkness of night. It was Earl’s dope.
Eight months later, after being arrested, Voice asked to speak to Captain Joe Clark, who was in charge of the Vice Division. Clark said in an interview that he had no idea why the dope dealer asked for him. But the story Earl Voice told was intriguing. 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.
Sidney Smith and Captain Foy Melton were indicted. Smith was sent to prison, not for his dealings with Earl Voice, but with other dealers he was doing business with. Later, Smith would be interviewed in prison by an investigator from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He had interesting comments to make about the death of Detective Martin Billnitzer, but none of his revelations were ever confirmed.
Before the arrests of Melton and Smith, officers Conley and Bennett, who, along with Billnitzer, recovered the dope, began to worry they were being set up to take the fall if it was discovered the heroin was missing from the police department. They heard nothing of the “important investigation” Captain Melton told them about when he took the heroin. In an effort to protect themselves from false allegations, they confided in a fellow officer, William C. Pool, about what had occurred the night they brought the heroin to the police station.
Officer Pool was concerned when he learned that Captain Melton had taken the heroin and later that Detective Smith was selling it to the dope dealer, Earl Voice. He decided to take his suspicion of missing dope to the district attorney. The reception he received was less than enthusiastic. According to press reports of an interview with Pool, he was told “It wasn’t enough to go before the grand jury.” He also reported that Assistant District Attorney Ben Morris told him, “Forget about the whole thing. If you can’t forget about it, you’d better quit the police department.”
Officer Pool decided if the local authorities wouldn’t take action, he’d seek help from the feds. He turned to a Houston Federal Customs agent by the name of Al Scharff and told him the story.
Pool’s actions would cause a federal investigation to be initiated. When Chief Morrison learned of the federal investigation, he may have had concerns beyond that of the missing heroin. He had a personal issue with the use of prescription drugs that might be discovered by the inquiry. It would be embarrassing at best and criminal at worst.
Next episode; Chief Morrison’s delimna as the investigation by Federal Narcotics began. My novel based on these events, Dishonored and Forgotten, will be available later this year.
My book, Dishonored and Forgotten, a fictional account of this scandal, will be released later this year. The call came in on the night of August 11, 1953 from Vivian Timms. She lived at 3306 Bacchus in Houston, Texas. Her home was about five miles north of the new Houston Police Department building at 61 Riesner Street. Billed as the most modern police facility in the South, it had opened three years earlier.
Officers M. A. Billnitzer, J.T. Conley and E.H. Bennett, who worked in the Vice Squad, made the call. Vivian told the officers she saw two men come into her backyard, dig a hole, and bury a garbage can. Once they left, she dug it up and found that it contained two jars filled with a white powder. Vivian Timms was no stranger to narcotics. Her sister was dating and probably whoring for a man known in Houston as the Kingfish of drug pushers. His name was Earl Voice. He would play a major role in the police scandal that unfolded.
Billnitzer, Conley and Bennett, after interviewing Ms. Timms, took the narcotics to the police station where they inventoried it and opened some of the packets for testing. Their field test indicated the substance was heroin. They knew the street value of their discovery was many thousands of dollars. The confiscation of such a large amount of dope was likely to have major implications in the drug culture on the streets. As they inventoried the dope, Captain Foy ‘Junior’ Melton strolled into the room. As reported in T. Lindsey Baker’s book Gangster Tour of Texas, J.T. Conley later recalled, “Melton came in and asked where we got the stuff.” The captain left for a few minutes, taking the dope with him, after informing the three officers he would secure the drugs. He emphatically told them that only he and the three of them knew about the haul and said he wanted them to stay quiet about the discovery because otherwise it might blow an important investigation.After thirty minutes, the Captain returned, telling Conley that he had put the stuff in the chief’s safe. And that’s how the intrigue began! It would last nearly a year, but that night, neither Conley, Bennett, nor Billnitzer could have imagined that in just a few months one of them would be dead, the police chief would resign, others would be accused of corruption and federal agents would be investigating. So began the first narcotics scandal in the Houston police department. In the next episode of IF THE WALLS COULD TALK – A Houston Police Scandal readers will be introduced to Earl Voice, the drug dealer and pimp who bought his own dope twice — from a cop. You’ll also meet William Pool, a cop who refused to ignore corruption in the H.P.D.
In anticipation of the release later this year of my book, Dishonored and Forgotten, I am re-posting a series of stories relating to the 1953 narcotics scandal in the Houston police department. My book is a fictional account of the events. In 1967, after joining the Houston Police Department, I heard stories of a narcotics scandal that occurred several years earlier. Those who talked about it usually related that a Captain had been involved and a detective died of gunshot wounds on the third floor of the old headquarters at 61 Riesner Street. His death was ruled a suicide, but most seemed to presume, often with a nod and a wink, that he had been shot by someone else. I never learned the details and regret that I didn’t ask more questions. Most of the officers involved were still on the department then. If only those walls could talk at the old police headquarters, I’m sure there are some things many wouldn’t want to hear. But might they tell of the murder of a hero who has been judged a suicide victim for more than fifty years?
Fast forward to a recent trip I took to Galveston with my wife. We strolled along The Strand shopping and exploring. In one shop, I found a book titled Gangster Tour of Texas written by T. Lindsay Baker. As I thumbed through the book I found a chapter with the heading The Houston Police Dope Scandal: Selling Heroin Back to the Dealers. I couldn’t resist! Sale made! Even at the thirty-four dollar price.
After reading that story and completing some initial research I recognized several of the officers involved. Most were “old heads” when I first met them. I decided to dedicate a few of my blog stories to events surrounding the scandal.
The following summarizes some of the details I’ll explore here in the weeks to come. Heroin was taken in as evidence, but went missing. A police chief, L.D. Morrison, resigned as an indirect result of the scandal. Assistant Chief George Seber kept some of the suspected stolen heroin in his office. Officers J.T. Conley and E.H. Bennett were caught up in the scandal simply because they answered a call where the dope was recovered. Detective Martin Albert Billnitzer was not suspected of being involved, but allegedly committed suicide after talking to federal investigators about the missing heroin. He supposedly shot himself in the heart…twice! Captain Foy Melton was charged and tried twice on charges related to the missing heroin, but was not convicted. A few years later he too was reported to have committed suicide. Officer William C. Pool learned of the scandal from his two friends, Conley and Bennett. He reported the wrongdoing to the District Attorney and the Feds. Detective Sidney Smith was the only officer to go to jail.
Fifty years after his death, the family of Officer Billnitzer asked the Houston Police Department to reopen the investigation. In part, their request was made because of documents they had discovered in Federal Government archives through freedom of information requests.
It’s a fascinating story. If the family is correct, was Detective Martin Albert Billnitzer killed in the line of duty? And, if so, should his name be on the City, State, and National Memorial Walls. I’ll explore the possibility in a future blog.