DID WE FORGET A HERO? IF THE WALLS COULD TALK – EPISODE 7
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.