Blood money

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Two accountants took up one of Texas’ most notorious unsolved murder cases. What they found out turned the case – and their practice – upside down.

For Houston police officer Charles Bullock, it was a routine call. He was simply checking on 79-year-old Edwina Rogers and her husband Fred, 81, on behalf of a concerned relative, who hadn’t heard from them for days. On the evening of 23 June 1965, Bullock and his partner, LM Barta, arrived at the couple’s house, 1850 Driscoll Street, in the Montrose area of Houston.

After getting no answer at the front of the house, they entered via the back door. They searched the house but found nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Then they made their way to the kitchen, and Bullock opened the fridge in search of a cold drink. That’s when he found the bodies. Fred and Edwina were murdered on Father’s Day, three days previously.

The lead detective on the case, James Paulk, quickly established a prime suspect: the couple’s 43-year-old son, Charles. Neighbours described Charles Rogers as a recluse. He lived in a room in his parents’ house, and rarely left it.

His mother communicated with him by passing notes under his door. Many neighbours didn’t even know he lived there. A nationwide manhunt began. Houston detectives scoured the city to find a trail that would lead them to Charles. They found nothing. He’d disappeared off the face of the earth.

The next chapter

Six years later, 20-year-old Hugh Gardenier went to visit his favourite aunt, Audrey, one Saturday morning. Hugh was doing a summer internship for the City of Houston Planning Department. The two of them chatted about his work and the city’s history.

During the visit, the conversation turned to Charles Rogers. Hugh’s aunt had a book of newspaper clippings about the case. Audrey was scared to death of Charles. “She thought that there was the prospect that he could come up, climb into her window and murder her,” Hugh recalls. “I never knew my aunt Audrey to be scared of anyone or anything.”

Hugh realised that the murder had occurred just down the road from where he lived. He made a point of walking past the Rogers house on his way to work. “I would repeatedly go by the house, look at the frame and think: ‘This is incredible.’” Hugh was still thinking about the case, dubbed ‘the icebox murders’, 26 years later.

He had become a certified accountant and was running his own practice with his partner, Martha Hughes (now Gardenier). The practice did the usual tax and audits work, but Hugh and Martha were also forensic accountants, investigating the occasional fraud case.

In October 1997, Martha was attending night classes at the local law school. Five years earlier, Charles Rogers’ name had hit headlines once more, with the publication of a book about the John F Kennedy assassination, The Man on the Grassy Knoll, which, perhaps incredibly, suggested Charles was a CIA assassin who’d taken part in a plot against JFK. The case remained open.

Hugh decided he wanted to find out what had actually happened, so he started going to law school with Martha and trawling through its library. “I thought he was looney tunes,” says Martha. “But I was swamped, so I didn’t pay too much mind to it.”

It wasn’t long, however, before the case became a joint obsession. The pair applied their forensic accounting skills to it, digging through business reports, and real-estate and genealogy documents, to build a better picture of who Charles, Fred and Edwina were.

Their forensic-accounting skills helped them to uncover important data that others had missed. For example, a trail of financial documents led them to a cathodic-protection company that Charles worked for at the time of the murders – his employment status had remained a mystery before then. This opened up new avenues in the investigation, including a group of people who knew Charles well.

Some elements of the investigation sat outside of Hugh and Martha’s comfort zone, however. For one thing, they had to learn how to do criminal profiling. This process also starts with forensic-accounting methods.

“If you spend enough time in courthouse archives, going through dusty records, you can piece together business transactions and partnerships,” Hugh explains. “Once you have copies of those records, you can track those people down.” Tracking down Charles’ associates often culminated in the couple – polite, friendly, harmless-looking and middle-aged – doorstepping people and interrogating them until they owned up to their part in the story. Sometimes this would take years.

“They would deny they knew Charles, and you show them the piece of paper and say: ‘Well why is your signature on this piece of paper with his?’ Then they slowly come around and start talking about him and maybe give you other names,” says Martha.

Martha and Hugh put their interrogation technique down to the various BBC detective shows they watched: “You’ve always got these police detectives and inspectors and they’re going out confronting people and they never have pistols. It’s always this situation where they’re doing things by their wits,” says Hugh. “I would say this: we were crazier than we are now.”

Thankfully, time had softened a lot of their targets. “They were nearing the end of their lives and they wanted to bare their souls to a certain extent,” says Martha. “They might not have done it easily, and we did meet some really scary people, but it’s been nothing like some of the fraud cases we’ve worked. Dealing with other people’s money is far moredangerous than dealing with a murder. Working a fraud case in the oil patch was far scarier than working on a 35-year-old cold-case murder.”

What the Gardeniers started to uncover flipped much of the story on its head. Charles Rogers, far from the shut-in described in 1965, had a lot of powerful friends.

The real Charles Rogers

After serving in the US Navy as an intelligence officer, Charles became a sought-after seismologist, with a talent for finding gas, oil and precious mineral reserves. He spoke seven languages, and talked with friends across the world via ham radio. He also owned a portfolio of properties, including the house he lived in with his parents. Fred and Edwina had moved in and claimed it as their own.

Indeed, Fred and Edwina were far from the sweet old couple that the photographs in the paper suggested. Fred was a bookie and petty criminal, and Edwina was scamming money from her son, taking loans out on the house and selling his properties without his permission. They’d also been abusive to Charles when he was growing up.

“Even the relatives of Edwina thought she had it coming,” says Martha. “It was absolutely astounding. We’d sit in the living room with some of her relatives and they’d tell us they didn’t necessarily blame Charles for it. They blamed Fred.”

Charles also owned a pilot’s licence and a Cessna 140 aeroplane. This discovery led the Gardeniers to Anthony Pitts, a “dangerous sociopath” and a close associate of Charles. They discovered Charles and Pitts had ended up working for a man called John Mackie, who operated mines in Mexico and Honduras for a number of wealthy Texans. He’d needed a talented seismologist.

“Charles Rogers was the golden goose,” says Hugh. “He made a lot of money for a lot of people, and nobody was going to benefit from putting him behind bars. It just wasn’t going to happen.”

“In Houston, most of the movers and shakers have an investment in either oil or some form of mining in Mexico,” adds Martha. “Charles was their go-to guy.”

The final pieces of the puzzle came from three sources: Mackie’s widow, his associate Dan J O’Connor and a lawyer who confirmed Charles’ fate. C

harles had made his way to Honduras to head up a mining operation. He was murdered in a dispute by a group of miners and thrown in a river. “Before we found that out, I always had this vision of this poker game in a bar in San Pedro Sula, with Anthony Pitts, Charles Rogers, John Mackie and a few of their cohorts laughing and drinking and playing poker,” says Martha.

“Alas, it didn’t work out quite like that. It’s that old adage of what goes around comes around.”

Charles was declared legally dead in 1975, so there was no chance of closing the case, but the Gardeniers wrote a book about it, The Ice Box Murders, which was recently reissued. The story was also covered by the popular Criminal podcast earlier this year.

Life after the murders

The case changed the focus of the Gardeniers’ practice. Indeed, rather than chasing all their clients away, it brought in more forensic accounting cases and also saw them move into providing litigation support. “We work on one to three cases every year. And it’s all large stuff, you know. You’re talking hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of hours of work,” says Hugh. “It’s been a real practice-development tool”.

Audio: Voice of Nicholas Farrell who is an English stage, film and television actor.

Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.

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