Son-in-law Grover Paxton now believes that in their anxiety to rescue the children, the men flooded the engines of the vehicles. But interviews with George shortly before his death indicate that he believed the vehicles had been tampered with.
When the fire department was finally reached from a neighbor's phone, they did not respond to the scene until the next morning. Later, in subsequent interviews, Fire Chief Morris stated he was unable to drive the fire truck and had to wait for someone who could.
That was not the only bit of odd behavior from the fire chief. Rumors had begun to arise in the town that the fire chief had found an unidentified body part among the ashes and that he had secretly buried it at the site.
All of these strange events and reports of alleged sightings of the children from around the county plagued the Sodders over the next few years.
In February 1949, the Charleston Gazette reported that national interest had been roused in the case, and by August of that year an excavation of the site was underway. Outside investigators and experts were brought in to search for and analyze evidence.
Despite the fact that the house was consumed in roughly 30 minutes, only four small segments of vertebrae were recovered in the excavation. These fragments were sent for analysis to the Smithsonian Institution.
According to the National Funeral Directors website, the ideal conditions for cremation are a temperature between 1,400 and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for two to two and a half hours, but bone fragments will remain. Based on the other debris found at the fire site, the blaze never reached those temperatures nor did the house burn for the length of time needed to consume five bodies.
A copy of the correspondence and final report of the findings regarding the bone fragments were provided by the Smithsonian Institute Archives. In the specimen report made by Marshall T. Newman in September 1949, it states, "The vertebrae show no evidence that they had been exposed to fire. In view of this, it is very strange that no other bones were found in the allegedly careful excavation of the basement of the house."
Newman goes on to speculate that if five children did indeed burn to death in such a short period of time, whole skeletons should have been unearthed. He also states that although the bone fragments could possibly belong to an extremely physically mature 14-year-old (the age of Maurice, the oldest child to disappear in the fire) that it was "not probable."
The Smithsonian also provided a copy of the shipping invoice, signed by George Sodder on Sept. 20, 1949, transferring custody of the bones back to him. What became of those fragments is still a mystery.
'I wish I could help you'
Paxton is now 71 and quick to point out her next closest sibling, Betty, would only be 73. She still speaks of her siblings in the present tense: "I am the youngest, but Betty is only 2 years and a day older than me. I hope she's still alive."
Paxton and her husband and their daughter firmly believe the siblings were kidnapped. They speculate endlessly about the mechanics of how it was carried out and why. They also speculate on the fate of the children, especially the older boys, after their kidnapping. But at the end of the day, the three agree it is only speculation and there is no way to determine the children's fate without new evidence.
Paxton feels that time is running short to get answers. Most of the people involved in the case have since passed on, evidence has been lost or destroyed and firsthand accounts get scarcer by the day.
She said she would like to see the case resolved, and would like to finally find closure for the six decades of heartache she's lived through. She would like to give her parents' unending nightmare a final, concrete conclusion.
"I was the last one of the kids to leave home. At night my dad would be up pacing the floor and we would talk. He'd share stories of the children and we'd talk about what might have happened. I experienced their grief for a long time."
Her husband, Grover Paxton, recalled a particularly poignant vignette of just how George and Jennie continued to search, continued to hope for their children's return and continued to be disappointed:
In 1967 the Sodders received a letter from a woman in Houston. She said that one of the missing boys, Louis, had too much to drink one night and spilled an intriguing story of his true identity.
"She said the two oldest boys were living in Texas, so Mr. Sodder wanted to go," recalled Grover Paxton. "He [George Sodder] was really excited to get down there. We drove straight down."
But the trip turned into another effort in futility for the still grieving man. The woman who had written the letter was unavailable to speak with Mr. Sodder and his son-in-law. They spoke to local authorities who pointed them in the direction of the men in question, but they would never know her motive for writing the letter.
"I took him down there. We found the men and the oldest one especially looked like the family. They were the right age. The one that would have been Maurice's age was friendly, but said 'I wish I could help you but you have the wrong people.'"
The two men went on to insist to Mr. Paxton and Mr. Sodder that their families lived nearby.
Grover Paxton spoke of his father-in-law's disappointment in the fruitless trip: "I think there was always some doubt in his mind. He died shortly thereafter, in 1969, and I think he always wondered if those were his boys and if he'd made a mistake, leaving so quickly."
Retelling and false memory
George Bragg has a different opinion of the fate of the Sodder children. "It is still a mystery. We will probably never know exactly what happened. Logic tells you they probably did burn up in the fire, but you can't always go by logic."
Bragg bases that logic on the initial police report taken from older brother John, where he claimed to have entered the other bedroom and shook the children. Bragg believes a person's first testimony is usually the most accurate and becomes clouded based on retelling and false memory.
He thinks John probably did see the children in their beds and assumed they would get up and follow him out of the house. At that point they may have already succumbed to smoke inhalation. But Bragg cannot speculate as to what became of the children's remains.
One thing that both the Paxtons and Bragg agree on is, if the fragments of bone sent to the Smithsonian in 1949 could be located, at least one piece of the puzzle could be solved and possibly the entire mystery. A DNA test of the bone could at least confirm if it belonged to a relative of Sylvia's, or if it came in with the dirt used to make the Sodders' unofficial cemetery.
Reach Autumn D.F. Hopkins at autumn.hopk...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.