Five West Virginia children died in a fire. Or did they? The mystery of the Sodder family's disappearance.

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Jun. 3 2021, Published 12:43 p.m. ET

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The Sodders, George and Jennie, were a respectable, successful couple who raised 10 children together in Fayetteville, West Virginia. George ran a small trucking company and the family lived in a small two-story home a couple of miles from the town center.

On Christmas Eve, 1945, just a few weeks after World War II peace was declared across the globe, an inexplicable and violent tragedy tore their lives apart.

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Jenine — who went by Jennie — Cipriani grew up in Smithers, West Virginia, and worked at her father’s store in town. George routinely came by the shop on his trucking route and met Jennie when he was in his mid-20s. They were both born in Italy and immigrated as children, he at 13 and she as a toddler. They married in 1923.

Over the next 20 years, they would have 10 children. George went from hauling jobs to owning a successful trucking company by the time he was middle-aged.

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On the night tragedy struck, the Sodder family was preparing for Christmas. One of their sons, 21-year-old Joe, joined the fight in World War II and although the war had ended a few weeks before, he was still on active duty. The house was full, with nine kids and two adults sheltering on an unusually cold and windy midwinter night.

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There is little doubt the Sodder home was set aflame that night, but the bigger mystery is what happened to five of the Sodder children. Local authorities wanted George and Jennie to let the matter go, concluding they’d died in the fire.

But the Sodders knew better.

All their worldly goods were left in the ashes, but evidence that should have been there that wasn’t — bones. Jennie and George spent the rest of their lives trying to find Maurice, Martha, LouisJennie and Betty.

The children ranged in age from 5 to 14 and although there were sightings, the Sodders never got answers.

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THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE

The younger children had stayed up later than usual on Christmas Eve. One child, Marion, bought toys for Betty, 5, Jennie, 8, and Martha, 12. Their mom reminded Louis, 9, and Maurice, 14, to be sure to put the chickens away and feed the cows before they went to bed. The baby, 3-year-old Sylvia, slept in her parents’ room and Jennie and George went to bed around 10:30 p.m., but allowed the younger kids to stay up late.

Jennie was jolted awake by a phone call, a wrong number, about 12:30 a.m. The phone was downstairs, and she noticed the curtains weren’t closed and lights were still on — a job usually done by one of the children. She made sure the house was shut and turned off the lights.

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Marion was asleep on the couch downstairs and the others were in bed, Jennie believed, in their attic rooms. She crept back to her bedroom and dozed, hearing an odd sound on the roof. Whatever it was rolled off and hit the ground, but she paid it no attention. 

Thirty minutes later, she hadn’t quite fallen asleep when she smelled smoke.

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According to historicmysteries.com, Jennie ran to the bottom of the attic stairs, calling for her children. JohnGeorge Jr. came down, their hair slightly burned by flames. Jennie described calling for the rest of the kids up in the attic but never got a response. When the smoke and flames overwhelmed her, she was forced to flee outside.

Teenager Marion was already downstairs and had Sylvia in her arms. Two adults and four children had exited the house.

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In the yard, George first turned to the ladder that always rested against the side of the house, for quick access to any repairs. It was gone. Marion tried the phone before she exited. It didn’t work. George wanted to drive one of his work trucks next to the building so he could get to the upper floor. Neither truck would start.

Marion ran to a neighbor’s place to make the emergency call, but no operator would answer. The neighbor drove directly to the Fire Chief’s house.

The fire burned for anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, destroying most of the house. The Sodders never saw five of their children again.

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THE FAULTY INVESTIGATION

The fire was a major event in a small town and was barely investigated. To this day, debates about whether the fire department was grossly incompetent or whether the blaze involved in a conspiracy cannot be settled.

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Local authorities did not believe it was arson and weren’t interested in finding out what happened, despite the Sodder family’s pleas. Their lack of motivation to investigate may have been simple indifference, but given the gravity of the crime — five children dead or missing — it’s telling that neither the fire department nor local police saw a reason to get to the truth.

West Virginia State Police initially ruled the fire was caused by “faulty wiring.”

If someone wanted to punish, threaten or intimidate a man, going after his family was the most direct and effective way. The villains in this story were not content with burning down the home, however. If they existed, they concocted a plan to make sure the children would be abducted.

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It’s likely they entered the house before the fire and took as many as they could, but possibly the individual or individuals set the fire, then posed as rescuers — taking five children out the front door and shuttling them off in the darkness inside a vehicle.

If the authorities were unconcerned or lazy, they weren’t willing to change when George and Jennie Sodder brought them evidence that their children’s bodies were unaccounted. No bones were found in the ashes of their former home. Inconsolable, George bulldozed new dirt into the basement to cover up the scene.

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The fire inspector stuck by the faulty wiring story, but a telephone repairman informed George the wires to the house were cut, not burned. A man was later arrested for cutting them, telling police he meant to cut the electrical wires but made a mistake. No follow-up about the man’s motive ever occurred.

The crashing noise on the roof is the most likely explanation for the fire. George Sodder concluded whatever made the noise was probably a “pineapple bomb,” common enough because they were used in warfare.

George and Jennie began to reflect on events before the fire and George realized there was a motive to go after him, although he’d brushed off several encounters without tying them together.

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Fayetteville, West Virginia, had a large and vibrant Italian-American community, and opinions about what was happening in the mother country during the war sometimes caused heated arguments. You were either pro-Mussolini or hated him, there was no middle ground. George Sodder despised the fascist dictator and wasn’t shy about sharing his opinion. It may have been the reason his family was targeted.

His strong views about Mussolini may have been the reason for the arson. Within the prior month, the fascists had been utterly defeated: the Italian dictator was assassinated, and the Allies declared victory. George’s opponents in the Italian community of Fayetteville were bitter, so the timing for retribution made sense.

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ODD EVENTS AND CONVERSATIONS

The first unusual event happened two months before the fire, when a man came to the Sodder home, inquiring about work. Told there was none, the stranger walked to the back of the house and pointed at two fuse boxes, saying, “This is going to cause a fire someday.”

But the Sodders took care of their property, and George had the power company come out to inspect the fuse boxes. He was told they were in excellent condition and not a safety concern.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, another conversation was even more ominous and happened just a few weeks before the fire. Another man showed up at the house, wanting to sell George and Jennie life insurance.

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When they said no, he made a strangely threatening remark, saying the house would “go up in smoke” and “your children will be destroyed.” The man told George, “You are going to be paid for the dirty remarks you’ve been making about Mussolini.”

The final conversation, just minutes before the fire started, could have been a coincidence but it may have saved the six of them. It happened when the phone rang in the Sodder home just after midnight on Christmas, and Jennie answered.

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She heard a voice she didn’t recognize ask for a woman who didn’t live there. Jennie caught the sounds of a party in the background and told the lady she had the wrong number, then went to bed.

Half an hour later, as she began to fall asleep, she heard a sound on the roof.

WHERE WAS THE HELP?

The Sodder sons saw a man in a car watching their younger siblings from U.S. Highway 21 as they filed home from school one afternoon, a few days before Christmas. At the time, they took note but it wasn’t until after the fire, when the family sat down to talk about how to solve the crime, that they spoke up about it.

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George and Jennie, and the other surviving children—John, 23, Marion, 17, George, 16, and Sylvia, 3, would spend the rest of their lives conducting their own sleuthing.

The most bizarre aspect of the arson was the lack of response by authorities, especially the fire department. Although the Fire Chief had an inefficient way of raising the alarm—basically, all the men called each other to show up, starting with the Chief—the fire began at 1 a.m. and the fire department didn’t show up till 8 a.m.

They were located 2.5 miles away from the Sodder home.

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Chief F.J. Morris reported the reason for the delay in reaching the Sodder family was he didn’t know how to drive the fire truck. He’d been Fire Chief for eight years.

The ladder George normally kept against his house was found in a ditch across the road the next day.

A few days after the fire, the medical examiner arranged an official inquest. George observed that one of the jurors on the panel was the same man who’d told him, “your children will be destroyed.”

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The biggest false lead was the “faulty wiring” explanation. Jennie observed all lights on and in working order before she went to sleep. The family found their way through the house and outside to safety because the lights worked. George had replaced the old wiring to install a new stove. There was no indication that anything was wrong with the electrical system.

Within a few days of the dying embers, just as the New Year of 1946 arrived, the local coroner issued death certificates for five children.

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IF THEY LIVED

Evidence suggests the children who disappeared might have lived through the fire, because the fire went out within 45 minutes, and no bone fragments or teeth were recovered. But what could have become of them?

Had they survived, what prevented them from getting in touch with their parents over the next quarter of a century? The only reasonable answer is they didn’t know how or were too frightened to act.

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If the children were stolen, the kidnappers may have told Betty, Jenny, Martha, Louis and Maurice that their parents and siblings were dead, their home a pile of ashes. Given the violent nature of the crime, the perpetrators would use every means of intimidation available to keep the children away from their parents, likely transporting them far away and splitting them apart by adopting them to separate families.

After the fire, multiple people reported having seen the Sodder children. They wouldn’t be hard to miss — five children with dark hair and dark eyes being transported in a group. Credible sightings were reported by a hotel concierge who said she checked them in, along with two men and two women of Italian heritage, at her hotel that same night. Five different reports came from people who saw the children in Cortez, Florida.

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In 1968, Jennie received a photograph in the mail from Kentucky. She still lived in Fayetteville and still wore black as she had since 1945. She still planted flowers across the street from her home in memory of her five lost children. She and George never stopped the search, putting out reward money and spending the equivalent of $250,000 over the years.

Jennie’s envelope contained a photograph of a handsome man with dark hair and dark eyes. On the reverse side of the photo were the handwritten words: “Louis Sodder. I love brother Frankie. Ilil Boys. A90132 or 35.”

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The message wasn’t helpful, but they hired a detective to track down the lead in Kentucky. They never heard from the man again. Another lead, another mystery, a last tantalizing clue that many believed was a cruel prank. Nonetheless, they added the updated photo to a billboard they’d created and maintained for more than 20 years.

In 1969, George Sodder died, no closer to solving the mystery than the night it happened nearly 25 years before. Jennie lived another 20 years.

Jennie put the matter plainly: “You can’t tell me five children could burn up in a little old house like that and something wouldn’t be left. No, I’ll never believe it.”

On April 21, 2021, Sylvia Sodder, 79, passed away after a long illness. She lived in West Virginia and raised her own family, while searching for her lost siblings her entire life. A search that might never have an answer, even 80 years later.

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