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Clarence and Geneva Roberts

Real Names: Clarence Joseph and Geneva Faye Roberts
Case: Unexplained Deaths
Location: Nashville, Indiana
Date: November 18, 1970 and November 29, 1980

Case[]

Details: Nashville, Indiana, population 700, is located in the American heartland. It has been described as a "Norman Rockwell painting brought to life." Everyone knows one another there, so there are few street addresses and even fewer secrets. It is a community in the best sense of the word. Two of its most illustrious citizens were fifty-two-year-old Clarence Roberts and his wife Geneva. But in fall 1970, the couple became embroiled in a firestorm of controversy, betrayal, and murder.
On the night of November 18, 1970, a fire raged out of control behind the Roberts' fashionable home. When the ashes had cooled, a body was discovered and identified as Clarence. Ten years later, on November 29, 1980, another fire blazed. Two more bodies were discovered. One was Geneva, and the other was again identified as Clarence. But how could a man die twice? Today, the people of Nashville still wonder what really happened to him.
Detective Sergeant Don Kuster of the Indiana State Police talked to both detectives that investigated the second fire. Based on what they told him, he believes that Clarence died in the second fire. Clarence's nephew, Bob White, believes that he died in the first fire. Clarence's sister-in-law, Elberta Roberts, believes that he is still alive.
The mystery of Clarence's death still haunts those who knew him. In the 1960s, he embodied the American dream. A former sheriff and a board member of the Nashville State Bank, he seemed to have it all. But something went wrong for him. His dreams became twisted into a nightmarish saga that has gone on for decades and still continues today.
In the 1960s, Clarence owned a prosperous hardware store along with his brother Carson. He was well-respected and seemed to be friends with everyone. He and Carson worked together for about twenty-two years. Carson recalled that he always seemed happy, enjoyed working, was friendly, and always got along with people. He was a hard worker who put a lot of hours in at the store. Bob recalled that he was very helpful and would help anyone in need.
Clarence and Geneva had been married since 1941. She came from a poor family. But together, they rose in Nashville society. With four sons and a successful family business, they seemed to be the perfect couple. He soon reached the thirty-third degree of the Masons, a rank commemorated by a ring, which he wore proudly. However, his appetite for the good life soon began to consume him. He purchased three luxury cars and an expensive and fashionable home. Behind this façade of wealth were heavy debts. Elberta recalled that his personality changed greatly around this time. She described it as, "turning a light on and turning a light off."
To finance his extravagant lifestyle, Clarence sold his hardware business and gambled everything on two property investments: an apartment building and several grain elevators. These investments failed. He also submitted altered and/or fictitious bills to an insurance company regarding the apartment. By fall 1970, he knew that he was in serious trouble. In October, one month before the first fire, Sheriff Warren Roberts, Clarence's own brother, repossessed two of his vehicles. Clarence and Geneva were left desolate and desperate. Bob recalled that Clarence had become depressed and possibly suicidal around this time.
At 6:20pm on the night of November 18, 1970, firemen arrived to find the garage barn of the Roberts home ablaze. The heat was so intense that they stood helplessly by as the structure burned to the ground. When the fire had cooled, they made a grisly discovery. A body, burned beyond recognition, laid beneath the rubble. A half-melted shotgun was by its side. The body was so badly burned, it was difficult to identify it as human.
Jack Bond, the county coroner, feared that Clarence had finally paid his debts by taking his own life. When the body was found, Jack assumed that he had shot himself. He figured that he had too many worries in his life, so he decided to commit suicide. When they arrived at the funeral home, they started looking for gunshot wounds. They were surprised to not find any. The police wondered how Clarence's suicide could have been accomplished without a gunshot wound. An autopsy later determined that the cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning, which occurred prior to the fire.
Detective Don Kuster sifted through the debris. Hidden in the ashes, he found Clarence's Masonic ring. Despite the intense heat, it was virtually undamaged. It was still in excellent shape and did not appear to have been melted. He did not believe that the ring could have withstood the heat of the fire without having any damage to it. He believed that it was planted. This was only the first of a series of unusual discoveries.
Investigators learned that only months before the fire, Clarence had purchased several insurance policies on his life, totaling close to $1 million. The policies named Geneva as the beneficiary. He also told a friend that he had more than $100,000 in a Swiss bank account; he even showed the friend his card for the account. In addition, a test showed that the body found in the blaze had type AB blood. Clarence's blood type was B, based on records from the US Army. If it was not the body of Clarence, then who died in the fire?
On November 17, two days before the blaze, Clarence was spotted in a bar in the nearby community of Morgantown (also in Brown County), befriending a vagrant. The man was described as about 5'7" to 5'9" and was about the same age as Clarence. The two were together, but Clarence apparently did not know his name. He told the man that he had some odd jobs at his house that needed done. The man agreed to go with him. As they were leaving, the man collapsed from some unknown cause. Clarence said that he would take the man to the hospital. Detective Kuster later checked all of the hospitals within a 300-mile radius and found that the man had not been admitted to any of them.
Two theories divided Nashville: one that Clarence had killed himself, and another, that he murdered the vagrant in order to collect the insurance money. It is even claimed he watched from the woods as the flames destroyed the evidence of his crime. Bob believes that Clarence was suicidal; however, he does not believe that he was homicidal. Elberta, on the other hand, believes that he was definitely capable of murder.
Clarence was either dead or missing; as a result, Geneva was left alone. Her fortune changed dramatically from riches back to rags. She was forced to move to an old home on Roberts family property on the outskirts of town. Her claims to the insurance money were repeatedly denied. She also tried to have Clarence declared dead; however, the judge denied the request, citing insufficient evidence. She was not alone in maintaining that Clarence had died in the first fire. Dr. John Pless, a prominent pathologist, agreed with her. In 1978, attorneys came to him to review the reports of the experts who had examined the evidence. Through this process, he proved to himself and several others that the body found in the garage belonged to Clarence.
Dr. Pless testified at the civil trial against the insurance companies that he felt that it was highly probable that the body was Clarence's. Despite his testimony, Geneva lost all of her appeals. Dr. Pless felt that those on Geneva's side were decimated emotionally by the judge's ruling. Dr. Pless could not understand why the judge had made the ruling. The denials took their toll on Geneva. Withdrawing from her friends and neighbors, she became the subject of local gossip.
In order to make ends' meet, Geneva had to take a job in the kitchen of the local Howard Johnson's restaurant. Then, the rumors began. Local shopkeepers said that they had sold her large quantities of beer. This was surprising, considering she was diabetic and seldom drank beer. Some said she was not alone, and neighbors began to report seeing someone on the grounds of her home. Detective Dave Anderson developed information that a man had been seen behind her residence. The man acted very strangely and never let anyone get close to him. He would always duck away from them and head back toward the home immediately.
Detective Anderson and several other officers set up surveillance of the home. They were there for approximately three days and nights. They photographed everyone who came and went in and around the home. However, they never saw the man. Despite this, they believed that the man was Clarence. They speculated that he had run out of places to go and decided to come back and stay with Geneva.
A local reporter, Helen Ayers, had grown friendly with Geneva. Helen felt that she was hiding something, or someone. Helen visited the home on four different occasions. Geneva always met her on the back porch and never invited her inside. This was especially strange because it was a common courtesy in Nashville to invite someone inside when they came to visit. Helen suspected that a man was living there with her.
Helen interviewed Clarence's sister who lived in the adjacent yard. She said that she could hear Geneva talking to a man. Surprisingly, she said that it was not Clarence's voice. Nobody knows for certain what Geneva was trying to hide, or whom. Her reclusive life went on uneventfully until the night of November 29, 1980, when her house caught on fire. Detective Anderson arrived at the scene soon after. The fire was still burning very intensely at that time. After the fire was extinguished, he stayed behind, curious as to what would be found.
The house had been totally demolished. Sifting through the ashes, searchers found Geneva's body. They removed it and sent it to the funeral home. Hours later, they made another shocking discovery: a second body in another part of the house. When Dr. Pless reviewed the chest x-ray of the body, he immediately recognized it as belonging to Clarence. The body was soon positively identified as his. Dr. Pless and detectives had the difficult task of telling everyone that Clarence was dead for the second time.
The second fire was a clear-cut case of arson. Detectives could clearly follow the burn patterns from Geneva's bed into the adjacent room where Clarence's body was located and then down a hallway and out the back door of the house. Based on the evidence, they determined that Geneva had been murdered. They are certain that turpentine was used to ignite the fire. However, they do not know who started it: Clarence or a third party. Detective Anderson believes that a third party was responsible.
Investigators had no clue as to who set the second fire. But they believe they have identified the victim. Detective Anderson is convinced that the second victim in the second fire was Clarence. Dr. Pless is also convinced of that, based on the medical evidence. He now believes that a vagrant died in the first fire. Bob, however, does not believe that the victim in the second fire was Clarence. He and Carson believe that the victim was the unknown man that had been seen at Geneva's house.
Today, in Greenlawn Cemetery, the mystery of Clarence Roberts lies buried, still defying explanation after decades. Who was the man in the first fire? Who set the second fire and why? Who was the mysterious figure seen at Geneva's house, and why did she hide his identity? And the key question, where is Clarence? Is he in the grave of the 1980 victim? Some family members are doubtful, and they protested when a headstone with his name was put in place. Whoever it is that rests beneath this Midwestern Earth will never tell his tale.
Suspects: Regarding the first fire, it was believed that Clarence either committed suicide or killed a vagrant and set him on fire in the garage barn. He had been seen with a vagrant in another town shortly before the fire. His masonic ring, found in the ashes of the garage, did not appear to have been damaged by the fire. Furthermore, blood tests indicated that the body had type AB blood while Clarence had type B.
Other evidence indicated that Clarence was not the one killed in the first fire. A tooth discovered near the body was identified as a lower right second molar. Clarence's lower right second molar had been removed several years prior to the fire. His cousin Charles reported seeing him less than half an hour prior to the fire. He was wearing a solid blue shirt at the time. The body was later found with a brown plaid shirt. Witnesses reported that the vagrant was wearing a brown plaid shirt. Witnesses also said they saw Clarence and the man together on two occasions before the fire and the day of the fire.
An autopsy determined that the first victim died of carbon monoxide prior to the start of the fire. The bank later repossessed Clarence's truck. They discovered holes in the exhaust system, apparently made by a hammer or similar instrument.
Evidence also indicated that Clarence was still alive following the first fire. Several witnesses reported seeing a mysterious man at Geneva's home throughout the 1970s. Insurance investigator William Mitchell received reports of Clarence living in New Mexico, Mexico, and West Germany. Robert Hillenburg, a former Nashville resident who moved to New Mexico, reported seeing him in Las Palmas, Mexico, in 1975. Other acquaintances reported seeing him in various locations in 1972, 1974, and 1975.
Regarding the second fire, there are several possible theories. One is that Clarence murdered Geneva and an unknown man before setting the house on fire and fleeing. Another theory is that Clarence and Geneva committed suicide together so that their children could cash in on their life insurance. Yet another theory is that Clarence killed Geneva and then committed suicide (or died accidentally). One final theory is that Clarence and Geneva were killed by an unknown third party.
Investigators looked into the possibility that Clarence had help either with his apparent murderous schemes or while he was on the run. However, in 1983, a Brown County grand jury declined to charge anyone with helping him.
Extra Notes:

  • The original airdate of the segment is December 14, 1988.
  • The segment mistakenly states that the second fire occurred on November 18, 1980.
  • The judge shown in the segment was an actual Brown County magistrate, who adjudicated the lawsuit between the insurance company and the real Geneva Roberts. He reprised his ruling in the re-enacted court case, telling the actress playing Geneva Roberts that she has lost her case and recommending appellate action.

Results: Unresolved. Authorities are certain that the second body found in the second fire belonged to Clarence. X-rays and dental records from Clarence matched the body. In regards to the 1980 fire, a grand jury determined that Geneva was either murdered or passed out (from alcohol consumption or a diabetic coma) and that Clarence died accidentally while setting the fire. They believed that he passed out either from alcohol consumption or from the fire's fumes. His blood alcohol level was .2 while hers was .3.
Authorities are also certain that Clarence was responsible for the murder of the first victim. In fact, a grand jury indicted him for kidnapping and murder in 1975. However, the victim's identity remains a mystery. Authorities looked into the possibility that the first victim was a thirty-eight-year-old drifter from Kentucky named James Woodrow Hatcher, who vanished in 1968. However, X-rays of James' body were not a match to the victim.
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