Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series about the tragic 1969 fire that claimed 12 members of the same family in south Parkersburg. The series began Sunday and will conclude Tuesday.
PARKERSBURG - Parkersburg attorney R. Bruce White had been Wood County's prosecuting attorney for less than a year when the Bailey fire was dropped into his lap.
White, who described himself as a young, inexperienced prosecutor, was trying to convict two kids, 15-year-old Susie Bailey and her 13-year-old brother Roger, of setting a fire June 8, 1969, that killed their parents and 10 siblings.
The contents of the Parkersburg Police Department file on the Bailey fire includes pictures of the fire’s aftermath and the mugshots of alleged perpetrators, Roger and Susie Bailey. The two children confessed to taking gas from their father’s county vehicle, spreading it throughout the house and setting it on fire. The fire killed the remaining 12 members of their family. Only their grandfather, Obie Bailey, survived.
Former Wood County Prosecuting Attorney R. Bruce White discusses the Bailey fire at his law office on Emerson Avenue in Parkersburg. The case drew international attention and thrust White into the spotlight.
White had been practicing law for about a half-dozen years when he was elected prosecuting attorney in 1968. While he had done some court-appointed defense work, his trial experience on the prosecutorial side of the law was nil.
During his first year-and-a-half in office, White said the city of Parkersburg had close to 20 murders - more than half of those were linked to the Bailey fire.
"I thought what in the world did I do to deserve this," he said recently.
With the Bailey case White was about to earn his prosecutorial merit in a literal baptism by fire. And he would do so on a national stage; as news of the fire and its two young suspects spread, news media from around the country descended on Wood County. Television networks from all over the country interviewed White. He was inundated with calls from newspapers from Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Australia. The fire even made Time magazine.
"It attracted a lot of national attention," he said.
White said officials initially thought the fire was a terrible accident. When it became clear the fire had been intentionally set, the investigation moved at a rapid pace.
"It was quick, and we had to make some quick decisions on things," he said.
Little more than 24 hours after the fire, Susie and Roger Bailey were charged with capital murder. They would be tried as adults.
"My research at the time indicated if it was a capital crime, they had to be tried as adults," White said.
The Bailey children were assigned court-appointed attorneys. Bob Black, a former prosecutor, was appointed to represent Susie Bailey. Tom Munchmeyer, only a few years out of law school, was appointed to represent Roger Bailey.
The case appeared to be airtight. In addition to finding evidence of arson, E.L. Roush, an assistant state fire marshal, had secured confessions from the two suspects, which he presented to White in the early hours of June 10.
According to Roush, Susie and Roger Bailey admitted sloshing gasoline about the house and throwing a lit piece of paper through a broken window. Roush said Susie Bailey was angry with her father over her 19-year-old boyfriend, John Bumgarner, who was also her first cousin.
According to White and Wood County Sheriff Lee Bechtold, Roger Bailey's only motive was following his sister's lead. Bechtold said the two were very close.
"He was totally under the control of his older sister," White said.
The case appeared to be open and shut for the prosecution: motive, opportunity, evidence and a confession. It wasn't long before it all fell apart.
When the Bailey attorneys saw the confession, or more importantly, the manner it in which it was produced, White found himself with his back to the wall.
"They thought they had it cinched up because they had a confession." Munchmeyer said. "They had the so-called confession. ... They relied on that, not on the rules."
Munchmeyer said Roush, a former state trooper, had taken it upon himself to investigate and interview the suspects.
The defense claimed the interrogations that yielded the damning confessions were conducted under less-than-honorable circumstances. Black claimed Susie Bailey was deprived of sleep and food, was not advised of her rights and was interrogated without an attorney present.
According to affidavits, both Bailey children were questioned by Roush in front a relative, Helen Enoch. Both children, in the presence of Enoch, were explained their rights by Roush, including the right to request an attorney. Roush secured a signed confession from each child, again in the presence of Enoch.
But Black and Munchmeyer claimed the defendants had a limited mental capacity. Susie Bailey, though 15, was a seventh-grade student. The defense claimed their clients each had an IQ of 70.
"If you looked at her and talked to her, in three minutes you knew she was slow," Munchmeyer said.
"She had just a blank stare," Black said. "They were extremely slow."
The defense argued Susie and Roger were held for 24 hours without food or sleep. Black said Susie was awakened at 4 a.m. and told she was being taken to get something to eat. Instead, she was taken to Roush for an interview that resulted in her confession.
Wood County Circuit Court Judge Donald F. Black agreed with the defense. In October 1969, he issued a ruling to dismiss the indictments against Susie Bailey and suppress the confession. He cited Bailey's low IQ and lack of sleep.
Judge Black said the 15-year-old girl had the ability to understand "equivalent to that of a 10-and-one-half-year-old, normal child."
White said Roush had advised the kids of their rights, but it was questionable as to whether they had the capacity to understand what was going on. The prosecution appealed the matter to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which upheld Judge Black's ruling in 1970.
"He might have been able to determine the cause of a fire," White said of Roush. "But when it gets to investigating whether or not it was murder, it needs to be done by the police."
When the matter reached police investigators, it was too late. City detectives Larry Gibson and Dale Eaton said when they were handed the investigation there was nothing left.
"Once they poisoned the testimony of the kids, anything they acquired, which included the evidence and all kinds of goodies, was inadmissible," Bob Black said.
Officers conducted interviews with several relatives and witnesses, but nothing of substance turned up to revive the case.
"We did all we could," White said. "The police and everybody else associated with the case said without the confessions we didn't have a case.
"They got off, and we felt horrible about it."
No one would answer for the fire and the 12 deaths.
The remains of the 12 Bailey family members are buried in a mass grave at the Bethel Cemetery in Wirt County. The grave markers are simple, metal 2-inch by 4-inch placards, only a handful of which are readable today.
White maintains he wasn't out for punishment, simply justice.
"Not that I wanted the kids to be mistreated," White said. "I just wanted an answer for the deaths.
"If they were treated or (ruled) mentally incompetent and released, I didn't care about that. I just wanted an answer for the deaths."