It was just after midnight when the fire reached the upstairs bedroom. As George Sodder raced through his Fayetteville, West Virginia home...

5 Children Disappear In A Housefire, 20 Years Later Their Family Receives A Cryptic Letter 5 Children Disappear In A Housefire, 20 Years Later Their Family Receives A Cryptic Letter

5 Children Disappear In A Housefire, 20 Years Later Their Family Receives A Cryptic Letter

5 Children Disappear In A Housefire, 20 Years Later Their Family Receives A Cryptic Letter


It was just after midnight when the fire reached the upstairs bedroom. As George Sodder raced through his Fayetteville, West Virginia home, all he could think about was getting his wife Jennie and their nine children to safety. But when the fire department finally arrived, five of their children had perished in the fire. Still, the Sodders were convinced something else had happened that night, and after decades of dead ends, a cryptic letter proved they may have been right after all.

An Unimaginable Loss

When George and Jennie stood over the charred remains of their home on Christmas morning, 1945, there were just five things on their mind: Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie, and Betty. But even in their intense grief, they knew that the facts just didn't add up.

Not So Faulty After All

For starters, the cause of the fire — deemed "faulty wiring" — was suspect, as shortly before the blaze broke out Jennie had come downstairs to find all of the lights on. If the fire had been electrical, the power would've been dead.

I Smell Sabotage

Another red flag arose when a repairman came to asses the damages to their telephone lines. To the family's shock, the handyman relayed that their lines hadn't been burned like the fire report had stated. Instead, they'd been cut.

A Little Too Inconvenient

More inconsistencies only continued to pop up. The ladder that George always kept behind the house had been mysteriously absent the night of the fire, and when he'd tried to move his trucks as a means of climbing to the upstairs windows, they wouldn't start despite working fine the day prior.

The Threat is Real

Even Jennie recalled hearing something rolling on the roof shortly before the fire started, and George later found a small rubber object in the yard that looked suspiciously like a napalm grenade. But had someone really intended to harm the Sodders? George had made his fair share of enemies over the years.

Not a Fan

A native of Sardinia, George was an outspoken opponent of Benito Mussolini, a stance that sometimes ruffled a few feathers in his Italian community. He'd gotten into plenty of heated arguments over the years, though as he looked out over the charred ruins of his home, one particular exchange returned to him.

Shape of Things to Come

A few months prior, a salesman had threatened George after he refused to buy insurance. At the time, his words seemed silly — now, they were eerily spot-on: "Your 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."

No Trace

Foul play clearly wasn't out of the question, though George's concerns were quickly overshadowed by another discovery — or lack thereof — at the site. Despite all five children supposedly having died in the fire, no remains were found.

Doesn't Add Up

Fayetteville fire chief F.J. Morris attributed this fact to the intense heat of the blaze, though, strangely, none of the home's appliances were burned beyond recognition. Doubting the authorities, Jennie went elsewhere for answers.

The Crematorium's Answers

Jennie consulted a local crematorium, learning that bones typically remain even after bodies are alight for two hours at 2,000 degrees — the Sodder home had burned in just 45 minutes.

A Flicker of Hope

With evidence mounting, George and Jennie resolved that until the bodies were recovered, there was still a chance that their children were alive. They began canvassing nearby towns, soon discovering that there had been a handful of "sightings" of the missing five in the days after the fire.

Was It Really Them?

One woman claimed to have seen the children peering from a passing car while the fire was still in progress, and another said she actually served them breakfast at a rest stop some 50 miles west of Fayetteville. The most convincing account came from a guest at a hotel in nearby Charleston.

A Potential Lead

According to the woman, she spotted four of the children alongside two men and two women of "Italian extraction" as they checked into the hotel around midnight. She'd tried to approach the children in a friendly manner, though the four adults refused to let them speak. Early the next morning, they were gone.

Blocked At Every Turn

George and Jennie decided to contact J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI for help with the investigation, though when the bureau offered to send agents, the local authorities refused. There seemed to be a strangely dismissive pattern among Fayetteville's law enforcement — was there a conspiracy afoot?

Can't Trust Anyone

Suspicions grew after a private eye informed the couple that the insurance salesman who had threatened George had also been a member of the coroner's jury that deemed the fire accidental. They also learned chief Morris had hidden fake remains in the rubble in the hope of placating the Sodders into calling the investigation off.

Hitting the Road

The prospect of the supposed conspiracy only seemed to confirm that the children were alive, spurring George onward as he traveled across the country chasing one lead after the next. But each time he arrived in a new city on a new tip, the missing Sodders were nowhere to be found.

Years Later, A Breakthrough

Yet George and Jennie remained undeterred, erecting a billboard and offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of their children. The Sodders sifted through countless dead ends for years, though in 1968 — more than 20 years after the fire — they received a letter that changed everything.

Could it Be?

The envelope, postmarked in Kentucky and bearing no return address, contained a photo of a young man and a cryptic note: "Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35." His resemblance to Louis — who was nine when he disappeared — was uncanny, though upon sending an investigator to track the man down, he never returned.

Needing Closure

"Time is running out for us," George said in an interview. "But we only want to know. If they did die in the fire, we want to be convinced. Otherwise, we want to know what happened to them."

An Unfulfilling End

But George died a year later, and after two more decades of fruitless leads, Jennie passed as well. The surviving Sodder children took up the search in their stead, devising their own theories for what happened to their siblings on that fateful night.

Sleeping With The Fishes

Trouble with the Mafia was floated as a plausible motivation behind a possible abduction, as George very well could've provoked the mob with his outspoken nature. If their siblings were still alive, there's a chance they never reached out in order to protect the family.

Hope Lives On

Yet death ended this new wave of inquiry, as Sylvia Sodder — who was just two years old the night of the fire — is now the only surviving child of George and Jennie. She still continues to tell the story of that tragic Christmas Eve in 1945, hopeful that even 75 years later, her brothers and sisters may still be alive.

New Technology

And Sylvia is not hopeless in her search. With advances in investigation technologies, authorities are now regularly solving centuries'-old crimes. Even missing persons cases that have been cold for years are finally being reopened in the hope of finding answers.

Nowhere to be Found

Such is the case of Natalee Holloway. In May 2005, Alabama's Mountain Brook High School discovered one of its own was missing while on a senior graduation trip in Aruba. On the day her class was to return home, they made a grim discovery: Natalee Holloway's hotel room was empty, save for her suitcase and passport.

End of the Line

From May 30 to June 1, search teams were sent out to locate any sign of Holloway. News that a young, blonde, affluent student had gone missing in Aruba became international news. When no signs of the high school senior were found, the police doubled down on their search for a suspect.

Narrowing the List

Various men who had encountered Holloway were detained, but with no hard evidence to make them clear suspects, they were soon released — all but one guy, that is. One guy who kept popping up on the investigators' radar was Joran Van der Sloot, a 17-year old Dutch citizen who'd been with Natalee during her final hours alive.

A Suspect's Story

At first, Van der Sloot's version of events matched those who had been with Natalee that night: After drinking heavily at a local bar, she'd gotten into a car with Van der Sloot around 1 AM. In the car were two of Van der Sloot's friends, Deepak and Satish Kalpoe. From there, however, Van der Sloot's story gets fuzzy.

Story #1

Initially, Van der Sloot told authorities that he and Holloway had driven to a lighthouse with the Kalpoe brothers before driving back to the Holiday Inn, where Holloway was staying. She stumbled getting out of the car, he said, but when he saw a man who looked like a security guard helping her into the hotel, he and the Kalpoes drove away.

Suspicious Activity

But on June 9, the Kalpoe brothers changed their story completely. Instead of dropping Holloway off at her hotel after a night of partying, they claimed that they'd dropped her and Van der Sloot off at a nearby beach. With the spotlight now back on Van der Sloot, he was detained for sixty days but eventually released for lack of evidence.

Coming Soon

By early 2006, Van der Sloot had long since been released yet remained a person of interest. The investigation into the disappearance of Natalee Holloway had gone cold, but a new development gave the media a scoop. Joran Van der Sloot had agreed to an interview with Fox News, and it became a huge TV event.

His Words

Spread over three nights, Greta Van Susteren interviewed Van der Sloot about the night Holloway disappeared. It was during this explosive interview that Van der Sloot's story changed once again: He asserted that he and Holloway had been dropped off at the beach by the Kalpoes, but that he'd eventually gone home, leaving Natalee alone on the sand.

Top Suspect

Along with these new details, Van der Sloot also revealed what it was like being a murder suspect in Aruba. "Oh, everyone here has always treated me well," he said. "I mean, everybody knows what's going on, probably more than the people in the States do." While Van der Sloot became a media sensation, Natalee's family kept searching.

Crime Critics

Frustrated over the lack of success, Natalee's family even criticized how the Aruban officials handled the case. They also attempted to boycott the island, a popular one with American tourists, though this effort wasn't very successful. Then in 2008, a morbid revelation was revealed.

Suspect One

Dutch reporter Peter R. de Vries believed Van der Sloot was guilty. To prove it, he organized a sting operation that involved a man infiltrating Van der Sloot's friend group. Hidden camera footage was taken and was broadcast to a massive audience. Among everything else Van der Sloot talked about, he also stated, "She'll never be found."

Candid Truth

In a Range Rover with three hidden cameras, Van der Sloot, high on marijuana and apparently feeling chatty, once again changed his story. It was his darkest one yet: He claimed that Holloway, drunk and perhaps on drugs, had a seizure while they were on the beach together. In his panic, Van der Sloot made the situation even worse.


"I would never murder a girl," Van der Sloot added at this point in the story. When he realized that Holloway was unresponsive, he'd called a friend, who helped him pick up Holloway's body, put it on a boat, and drop it far out into the ocean. The friend promised Van der Sloot the chances of finding her were slim...

Losing Strategy

This broadcast footage seemed like everything the police needed in order to make Van der Sloot's arrest, but he was quicker than the justice system: Prior to the footage being shown, Van der Sloot had agreed to an interview in which he recanted everything he was heard saying on the recordings.

Cold Case

Aruban prosecutors attempted to reopen Holloway's case due to the camera footage, but it didn't lead to another investigation into Van der Sloot. A judge even denied the merits for an arrest warrant, claiming that the footage was not enough, possibly due to the young man's recant and the way his story was recorded.

Catching a Lead

Natalee's mother, Beth Twitty, was given access to the footage by the reporter, De Vries. "They could have just dumped her alive in the ocean, unconscious," she had said in horror. Hope for answers was as elusive as ever...until 2010, when Natalee's family was contacted by none other than Joran Van der Sloot.

Fake Hope

But Van der Sloot wasn't contacting them out of guilt. Instead, he promised he would reveal where Natalee was in exchange for $25,000. With five years of grief, fruitless searches, and false hopes behind them, Natalee's family held on to the first real hope they'd had in years.

Too Late

But after Twitty transferred the money to Van der Sloot's bank account, he admitted he had lied again. In his mind, the Holloway family owed him after five years of abuse from the police and press. Van der Sloot was once again arrested, but not for extortion. In 2010, he was arrested for murder...just not the murder of Natalee Holloway.

Undeniable Murder

In June 2010, Van der Sloot was arrested for the murder of 21-year-old Stephany Flores Ramirez. In a shocking move, his defense team initially blamed Holloway's family for Van der Sloot's actions. Van der Sloot claimed that his past several years in the spotlight had led to a breakdown, resulting in Ramirez's murder.

One Question

While the jury deliberated, Van der Sloot's suspicious connection to Holloway's disappearance, though unproven, no doubt ran through their minds. While deliberating the murder of Stephany Ramirez, they had to ask themselves a question — one that was famously proposed at the trial of another high-profile murder case at the time.

Guilty People

"What do guilty people do?" prosecutor Linda Drane Burdick asked in her closing statements to Casey Anthony's jury in 2011. "They lie, they avoid, they run, they mislead... they divert attention away from themselves and they act like nothing is wrong." This, she said, was exactly what Anthony was doing — and it's also what Van der Sloot had been doing for years.

Who's to Blame?

In the end, Van der Sloot's "breakdown" defense went nowhere, and in 2012, the jury made their decision. Van der Sloot was sentenced to 28 years in prison for the murder of Stephany Ramirez. While the Holloway family hoped he would be given additional years for extortion, the charges went nowhere. The Holloways were left wondering: What happened to Natalee?

Unsolved Tragedy

Beth Twitty still has hope that her daughter is alive. Though she doesn't know where Natalee is, she at least knows one thing: Joran Van der Sloot most likely does. Just as Casey Anthony's prosecutor said at her trial in 2011, guilty people "lie, they avoid, they run, they mislead," and no one knows that better than Joran Van der Sloot and Casey Anthony.

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