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Published 2021-12-03
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5 Children Missing! Accident, Work Of The Mafia Or Insurance Man's Revenge?

It was the early morning on Christmas Day 1945 when a tragedy struck in the Sodder family house and as a result of it, for nearly four decades, anyone who drove down route 16 near Fayetteville, West Virginia, would be able to see a billboard bearing the images of five children, their names below as well as speculations about what happened to them. While the official report stated that the children perished in the fire that engulfed their house, the parents did not believe that. What exactly happened? What happened prior to the tragedy that made the parents think their children were still alive? What did the fire chief do that was so strange? And could the Mafia have been behind it? Read on until the very end to find out what happened to the Sodder children.

Who Were The Sodders?

George Sodder was born Giorgio Soddu in Tula, Sardinia in 1895, and immigrated to the United States in 1908. He came with his older brother to Ellis Island however he immediately returned to Italy, leaving the then 13-year-old George alone. From then on, the youngster found work on the Pennsylvania railroads, before relocating to West Virginia, where he worked as a driver before launching his own trucking company, hauling dirt for construction and later freight and coal. Later he met Jennie Cipriani, who also came from Italy when she was 3. The couple married and between 1923 and 1943 had 10 children. They had settled in Fayetville, West Virginia, which was an Appalachian town with a small but active Italian immigrant community. The Sodders was called “one of the most respected middle-class families around” however George was known for his strong opinions on different topics, especially politics and his dislike for the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Though opinions and the fact that he never explained what happened in Italy that made him leave, had made some suspect he was involved in some unsavory business. But could that have led to the tragedy that struck the family in 1945? Read on to find out.

Christmas Fire

On the night before Christmas 1945, George and Jennie Sodder and nine of their 10 children (one son was away in the army) went to sleep and around 1 a.m a fire broke out. The couple and four of their children Sylvia (2), Marion (17), John (23), and George Jr. (16) had managed to escape but the remaining five children were up in their two shared bedrooms upstairs. George went back into the house in an attempt to save them but he couldn’t see anything through the smoke and fire which had engulfed the downstairs rooms, however, he was unable to get up to them as the staircase was covered in flames. Heading outside, hoping to reach them through the upstairs windows he went to grab his ladder, which was strangely missing. Not thinking much of it he decided to drive one of his two coal trucks up to the house to climb on top of them and then inside, but despite both functioning, perfectly the day before neither would start.

No Response From Fire Department

While George was frantically trying to save his children, his daughter Marion had sprinted to a nearby neighbor’s home to call the Fayetteville Fire Department but couldn’t get any operator’s response. According to reports, another neighbor who saw the blaze made a call from a nearby tavern, but again no operators responded. Frustrated, they drove into town and tracked down the Fire Chief, F.J Morris who initiated Fayetteville’s version of a fire alarm. Despite being only two and a half miles away the crew didn’t arrive at the house until 8 a.m. By that time, the Sodder’s home had been reduced to a smoking pile of ash. The Sodder’s assumed that five of their children had died however, a brief search of the grounds on Christmas Day had turned up no traces of remains. Chief Morris suggested that the blaze had been hot enough to completely cremate the bodies. As for the fire, a state police inspector who combed the rubble had attributed it to faulty wiring. The family received five death certificates for Maurice (14), Martha (12), Louis (9), Jennie (8), and Betty (5), and the cause of death was listed as “fire or suffocation”. However, for George and his wife, some things that happened prior to the fire, did not add up and they wondered whether their children were alive. What happened? Read on to find out.

Odd Happenings Prior To The Fire

With the missing ladder, and the cars not working, and no operators picking up the emergency calls, the family found it suspicious, and after the tragedy struck them they began to stitch together a series of odd moments leading up to the fire. One of the things that stuck out to them was a stranger who appeared at their home a few months earlier, asking about hauling work. The family recalled that he meandered to the back of the house, pointed to two separate fuse boxes, and said, “This is going to cause a fire someday”. This seemed odd as George had the wiring checked by a local power company who said it was in fine condition. Around that same time, another man tried to sell the family life insurance and when they declined he got angry and started yelling, “Your goddamn house is going up in smoke. And your children are going to be destroyed. You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you have been making about Mussolini”, however, George never took the threats seriously. The older Sodder sons had also recalled something odd: Just before Christmas, they had noticed a man parked along U.S Highway 21, who was carefully watching his younger siblings as they came from school.

Odd Happenings On Christmas Eve

But there had also been weird things happening on the evening before the fire broke out. At around 12:30 in the morning, a phone rang and Jennie rushed to answer it. An unfamiliar female voice asked for an unfamiliar name and Mrs. Sodder simply replied that they had the wrong number. But as she was going back to bed she had made a discovery, once she noticed that the downstairs lights were still on and the curtains were open, as well as the front door was unlocked. Her daughter Marion was asleep on the sofa and so the woman assumed the other children were upstairs in bed and so she turned off the lights, closed the curtains, and locked the door before going to bed. She was just beginning to doze off when she heard a sharp and loud bang on the roof, and then a rolling noise. An hour later, she was once again woken up, but this time, by the smoke reaching into her room. But as time went on, fewer things began to make sense. Read on to find out why the family was convinced the children were kidnapped.

Things Don’t Add Up

The official version was that the fire was the result of faulty wiring and that the five children had perished in the fire, yet Jennie couldn’t understand how they all could have died without leaving a trace such as bones. She conducted her own experiments burning animal bones and each time she was left with charred bones, further proving her suspicions that the children were alive. Seeking a second opinion she spoke with a crematorium employee, who told her that bones remain after bodies are burned for two hours at 2,000 degrees. The Sodder house was destroyed in 45 minutes. But that wasn’t the end. A telephone repairman told the family that it seemed that their lines were cut and not burned, adding that if the fire was electrical then the power would have been dead and that it didn’t explain how the lights seen by Jennie were on. A witness had also come forward, claiming that he saw a man at the fire scene taking equipment used for removing car engines, which could have been the reason why the trucks refused to work. When the family visited the site of the tragedy one day, their youngest daughter Sylvia found a hard rubber object in the yard, and with Mrs. Sodder recalling the noise on the roof and the rolling sound, her husband concluded that it was a napalm “pineapple bomb” of the type they were using during the war.

Request For The FBI & Fire Chief’s Suspicious Actions

All these things that did not add up, had led the parents that their children were kidnapped and the fire was a means to either kill the rest of the family or used as a diversion. In 1947, George and Jennie had sent a letter about the case to the FBI asking for help. They received a reply from J. Edgar Hoover which read, “Although I would like to be of service, the matter related appears to be of local character and does not come within the investigative jurisdiction of this bureau.” Despite his words, his agents said they would assist if they could get permission from the local authorities but the Fayetteville police and fire department declined the offer. Desperate for answers, the family hired a private investigator named C.C. Tinsley who made a few discoveries. One was that the insurance salesman was a member of the coroner’s jury that deemed the fire accidental. On top of that, he heard a rumor that the Fire chief that despite there not being any remains, he found a heart in the ashes and hid it in a box, and buried it at the scene. Once the box was dug up, it was discovered the heart was actually a beef liver, untouched by the fire and the reason Morris buried it there was because he hoped it would make the family stop the investigation. For the family, this was further proof their children were still alive. But were the children ever sighted? Find out on the next page.

Sightings Of The Children

Over the next few years after the tragedy, there were plenty of tips and leads coming in, especially after the sighting of the children. Not long after the fire, a woman operating a tourist stop between Fayetteville and Charleston said she saw the children the morning after the fire. At one point George saw a newspaper photo of schoolchildren in New York City and was convinced that one of them was his daughter Betty. But when he arrived in Manhattan in search of the child, the parents refused to speak to him. After investigating some bones that were found near the place where the home once stood, that turned out to not belong to the children, the Smithsonian reports on it, who investigated the remains, prompted two hears at the Capitol in Charleston who told the Sodders their search was hopeless and declared their case closed. Undeterred the family put up a billboard along Route 16 and flyers were given out offering a $5,000 reward for information. A letter arrived from a woman in St. Louis saying the oldest girl, Martha, was in a convent there. Another tip came from Florida claiming the children were staying with a distant relative of Jennie’s. George traveled the country to investigate each lead, always returning home without any answers.

What exactly happened?

In 1968, more than 20 years after the fire, Jennie received a letter that was postmarked from Kentucky, and inside was a photo of a man in his mid-20s, and on the back was written, “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.” She and her husband couldn’t deny the resemblance to their son. They hired a private detective and sent him to Kentucky but they never heard from him again. What happened to the Sodder children was never solved. Some believed the official version, that they died, while others speculated that maybe the Sicilian mafia was involved, given that George had heavily and openly criticized Mussolini or maybe the local mafia tried to recruit him and he refused. The family and their children kept investigating what happened all their lives. The oldest remaining family member, who passed away in early 2021, was the then-2-year-old Sylvia who did not believe her siblings were killed in the fire and that they must have been out there somewhere. Though besides the tip-offs and the letter, there was no other evidence that was the case.

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