A DEAD DETECTIVE – If the Walls Could Talk – Episode 8
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.