A Digital Reconstruction Reveals the Face of Famed Murder Victim 'Bella in the Wych Elm'

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For people obsessed with the very specific sub-category of grotesque murder mysteries in wartime England, there’s no better story than that of Bella in the Wych Elm. On April 18, 1943, four teenage boys playing soccer decided to go for a walk in Hagley Woods, a forested area in Worcestershire. There, one of them wandered up to a witch hazel tree, a looming, storybook-sinister growth that was sometimes referred to as a wych elm. The boy, 15-year-old Bob Farmer, caught sight of a white protrusion from its hollow trunk that he thought was a bird’s nest. Peering closer, he realized it was a human skull.

Terrified, the boys backed away from their discovery, figuring the best course of action was to say nothing. By nightfall, however, 13-year-old Tommy Willetts broke down, telling his parents what he and his friends had stumbled across. They duly alerted police, and the next morning, detectives from the Worcestershire County Police and the nearby Birmingham force were on the scene, along with forensic expert James Webster. The team retrieved the skull, most of the skeleton, some decomposing clothing, a wedding ring, and a shoe. A right hand was found 100 yards away, with the other matching shoe nearby.

Webster quickly concluded the remains were the work of foul play, a scenario supported by eerie graffiti that began to spring up near the Hagley site. The scrawls gave a name to the victim by asking, “Who put Bella down the wych elm?”

For the next 75 years, no one could say how or why the woman was struck down before being stuffed in the tree. That may soon change, if someone is able to recognize the first reconstructed image of what Bella in the Wych Elm may have looked like.

A digital reconstruction of the victim known as 'Bella of the Wych Elm'
Courtesy of Pete Merrill/APS Books

Before it became a cold case, the story of “Bella” titillated true-crime aficionados of the era. Webster estimated the woman’s age to be between 35 and 40, and her height about 5 feet. Her murder might have taken place between 18 and 36 months prior to being found; he considered it likely she had been deposited into the tree immediately after death, since any delay would have allowed for limb-stiffening rigor mortis that would have made the task impossible. A wadded piece of taffeta had been found in her throat, leading Webster to suspect asphyxiation.

Attempts to identify the woman proved fruitless. Her large, protuberant teeth were circulated among dentists, but none could confirm ever seeing anyone with the same bite. Files of missing persons within 1000 square miles of Hagley Woods revealed no comparable profiles. One man reported hearing screams coming from the woods in July 1941, but no further evidence was forthcoming. Only the graffiti appearing in and around the crime scene—later dismissed as the result of a prankster—gave her any semblance of an identity. Both police and newspaper readers reluctantly filed it away as a morbid story with no apparent end.

In 2017, forensic anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson was approached by father-son authors Alex and Pete Merrill to see if she might be able to reconstruct a digital depiction of the victim’s face using photographs of her skull. Wilkinson, who has performed similar tasks on both recent criminal cases as well as archival reconstructions like Richard III, agreed. With colleagues at the Face Lab of Liverpool John Moores University, she was able to extrapolate facial features based on the available images. (It was necessary to use photographs because the real skull, having been moved around in storage over the decades, could not be located by authorities.)

“When reconstructing using a 2-D photo, rather than a 3-D model of the skull, we may only be provided with one, or sometimes a few, views,” Sarah Shrimpton, a research assistant and Ph.D. researcher at the Face Lab, tells Mental Floss. “However, there is still a lot of information within a photograph that allows us to make an assessment of shape, but as with all photographs, the planes of the image are flattened, which results in some slight loss of perspective.”

The flattened shape can omit key details—like how deep the eye orbits are, for example. Still, the photos of the remains provided valuable clues. “We were lucky to also have a profile view of the skull," Shrimpton says. "This proved useful when trying to estimate the shape of her nose.” A bony protrusion called the nasal spine indicated how and where the nose pointed; the alveolar bone, which supports the teeth, indicated the mouth size and the thickness of the lips as well as the general shape of the jawline. Since part of the victim's scalp was still attached to the skull, her hair length and possible style was available for interpretation. Bella’s unique feature—her protruding teeth—was also on clear display.

“Normally we depict faces with their mouths closed and a neutral expression. However, if the teeth are interesting, as in Bella’s case, then we depict the mouth open. It is also likely that her protruding upper teeth would have resulted in her mouth being slightly open at rest.”

Graffitti referencing the Bella Wych elm murder appears on an obelisk in Worcestershire, England
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Upon receiving the image from the Face Lab, the Merrills used the reconstruction as part of their examination of the crime. Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?: Volume One: The Crime Scene Revisited examines the early attempts to solve the mystery as well as some of the more sensational theories to arrive long after the case had grown stale.

The fact that Bella’s hand was found some distance from the tree led one observer, folklorist Margaret Murray, to speculate in 1945 that Bella had been the victim of a black magic ritual in which her hand was said to have occult powers. Putting her in a tree, Murray said, was one arcane way of imprisoning a witch. Webster, the more pragmatic forensic scientist, asserted that it was far more likely that animals had run off with her hand.

Another story—that Bella was in fact a German cabaret singer and secret agent named Clara Bauerle—seemed to lose steam when Bauerle was found to be around 6 feet tall, almost a foot taller than the skeleton found in the tree.

It’s possible that the depiction of Bella commissioned by the Merrills will open up new leads. Until then, she remains defined by the circumstances of her discovery—the woman found, and still lost, in the hollow of a tree.

Cold Case: Revisiting Houston's Infamous Ice Box Murders

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lisa_I/iStock via Getty Images

The first thing Houston police captain Charles Bullock noticed as he entered 1815 Driscoll Street on the evening of June 23, 1965, was that someone didn’t want him using the back door. Flower pots had been stacked against the entrance, forcing Bullock and his partner, L.M. Barta, to push their way inside. While Barta moved through the rest of the home, Bullock headed for the kitchen.

The two were there to perform a welfare check on the house's occupants, an elderly couple named Fred and Edwina Rogers. Their nephew, Marvin Martin, had grown concerned when he failed to reach them by telephone, and became further alarmed after knocking on their door with no answer. So he had called the police.

As he walked into the kitchen, something nagged at Bullock. He would later recall that the scene “just didn’t feel right.” There are contradictory accounts of what happened next. Some say he saw food stacked on top of—rather than inside—the refrigerator, prompting his curiosity. Others say he was thirsty for a beer on a hot summer evening and wanted to see if there was anything to drink. Bullock himself would say he peered inside the fridge for no particular reason. “I don’t know why I looked in the refrigerator,” he said. “For some reason I just opened it.”

He took a quick inventory of its contents, which appeared to be nothing but shelf after shelf of hog meat. He concluded the Rogers family must have been to the butcher recently. But with the house empty, it looked like it would spoil.

This is a shame, Bullock thought. Someone is letting a whole bunch of good meat go to waste.

He started to close the door when something caught his attention. Inside the vegetable drawer was what appeared to be a woman’s head, her eyes fixed in Bullock’s direction. Bullock froze, then slammed the door shut. When he opened it, the head was still there.

The hog meat would turn out to be flesh of a different sort—the dismembered remains of Fred and Edwina Rogers, drained of blood and missing their entrails. Fred’s head was in the other crisper. His eyes had been gouged out.

The gruesomeness of the crime scene would have been disturbing no matter what. Making it slightly worse was the fact that the autopsies showed the murders had been committed on Father’s Day, and the person most likely to know something about the horrific act was the elderly couple's son, Charles.

Charles, unfortunately, was nowhere to be found.

 

Fred Rogers, 81, was a retired real estate salesman. His wife, Edwina, 79, was a sales representative. Their Houston home and their activities appeared unremarkable to neighbors. But there was an element to their lives that came as something of a surprise to local residents who would later be questioned by police. The surprise was that Charles lived with them. In fact, he owned the house.

A vintage refrigerator is pictured
bizoo_n/iStock via Getty Images

Charles was 43 and a veteran of World War II. After getting a bachelor’s degree in nuclear physics from the University of Houston, he had enlisted in the Navy and learned to fly planes. He became a seismologist and later spent nine years working for the Shell Oil Company. At the time of his parents’ death, it was not clear whether he was employed.

What was clear was that Charles was a peculiar individual. He would rise before dawn, leaving the house to tend to unknown business before his parents woke up, and then come back after dark, after they went to bed. His travels were so subtle that the next door neighbor was not even aware he lived there.

When he was home, he went out of his way to avoid his parents, purportedly slipping notes under doors when he needed to communicate with them. The family maid would later state that it was possible Edwina had not even seen Charles face-to-face for roughly five years prior to her death.

No one was sure what led to this unusually frigid living arrangement. It’s possible Charles wanted to provide for his elderly parents in spite of either not getting along with them or wishing not to be disturbed by the outside world. Either way, it was now imperative that he answer questions about their gruesome fates.

When Bullock discovered the corpses, he and his partner Barta practically sprinted out of the house, calling investigators to the scene. They found the house had mostly been scrubbed clean, save for some blood in the bathroom—where they believed the bodies had been cut up—and Charles’s attic bedroom, where there were trace amounts of blood as well as a hand saw they believed had been used to perform the dismemberment. The heads, torsos, and limbs were in the refrigerator; the entrails were found in the sewer system, apparently having been flushed down the toilet. Other body parts were missing and never found.

Owing to the labor involved in draining the bodies, carving up the corpses, and cleaning the home, police believed the killer had taken his or her time and had a working knowledge of human anatomy. Autopsies revealed that Edwina had died as a result of a single gunshot to the head, though that weapon was never found. Fred had gotten the worst of it. He had been beaten to death with a claw hammer, his eyes plucked out and his genitals severed from his torso in what was seemingly a vindictive mutilation. The claw hammer was found on the premises, though police would not confirm whether any fingerprints were retrieved.

If there was evidence, authorities wanted to discuss it with Charles. They issued an all-points bulletin and launched a nationwide search. As the only presumably-living member of the household, his insight—if not his confession—would prove invaluable. Because he knew how to fly, authorities checked nearby airfields to see if anyone matching his description had left the area by plane. Nothing turned up. In being so reclusive, Charles left virtually no trail for them to follow.

A man in silhouette is pictured
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“The habits and manners of the missing son are major mysteries,” Captain L.D. Morrison, head of the local homicide bureau, told reporters a few days after the bodies had been found.

It was an understatement. Police never located Charles—not in the weeks, months, or years that followed. In 1975, in an effort to probate the Rogers estate, he was declared legally dead.

 

One of Houston’s goriest murders would become one of its most notorious unsolved cases. But that hasn’t stopped others from stepping forward and offering their theories about what may have transpired.

Some are outlandish, using the blank canvas of the crime scene to try and attach deeper meaning to Charles’s life. The 1992 book The Man on the Grassy Knoll, by authors John R. Craig and Philip A. Rogers, offered that Charles was actually a CIA operative involved in the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. When his parents discovered incriminating diary entries, Charles killed them.

The Ice Box Murders, a 2003 book written by forensic accountants and amateur sleuths Hugh and Martha Gardenier, made an attempt to present a more plausible theory. They agreed Charles was indeed the killer, but his motive was not the result of any CIA involvement. Instead, the Gardeniers argued that Fred and Edwina were abusive and manipulative parents, doing everything from taking loans out against their son’s home to forging his signature on deeds to other property he owned. After years of being browbeaten and financially ripped off, Charles lashed out in an orgy of violence, smashing his father’s head in. (That his mother got a comparatively compassionate execution-style killing may point to most of the abuse coming from Fred.)

The Gardeniers asserted that a few days after the murders, someone matching Charles’s physical description was overheard asking about a job overseas, using an alias. They claimed that Charles utilized his contacts in the oil and mining industries to land in Mexico. The book also asserts that Charles met a violent end of his own, when a wage dispute involving some miners in Honduras ended with a pickaxe lodged in his head.

The Houston Press labeled the Gardeniers’ book a work of “fact-based fiction and supposition,” leaving its conclusions up in the air. No concrete evidence appears to point to Charles winding up in Central America, though he did at one point own his own plane. Fleeing Houston via aircraft seems plausible, and with the Shell Oil job taking him to Canada and Alaska, it’s also possible he had contacts in another country that could have made setting up a new life easier.

Decades later, it's unlikely the case will ever find resolution. If Charles Rogers did not commit the crime, his disappearance is inexplicable. No one else appeared to have motive to kill his parents. If he was killed by an unknown third party, the perpetrator did an excellent job removing all trace of him. Whether he ended up in Central America or somewhere else, the most likely explanation is that he spent the rest of his days doing what he'd so often practiced at 1815 Driscoll—disappearing into the shadows, unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Wizard Rock, a One-Ton Boulder, Disappears From Prescott National Forest in Arizona

Like any public place, national parks deal with their share of vandalism. Normally it's limited to littering, graffiti, or the disturbance of important structures. A recent crime that took place in Prescott National Forest in Arizona is more unusual. As Newsweek reports, a one-ton boulder known as "Wizard Rock" has been missing from the site for about two weeks.

Forest officials suspect that a thief—or thieves—must be responsible for the rock's disappearance. Heavy machinery such as a backhoe was likely used to lift the boulder and transport it away from its home beside State Route 89. Due to its roadside location, the criminals had a high chance of being spotted, but officials say they may have passed for park employees if they were using special equipment.

Wizard Rock is a Prescott National Forest landmark. In addition to being huge, it's also visually striking with veins of white quartz streaking the black stone. Passing drivers often stopped to snap pictures with the rock.

If the thieves succeed in selling Wizard Rock, they may only get $100 to $200 for their haul. The consequences facing them if they get caught are a maximum fine of $5000, six months of jail time, or both.

It wouldn't be the first time a person has been punished for bringing harm to a National Park's natural resources. In 2016, a graffiti artist pled guilty to tagging rock formations in seven national parks; she was sentenced to 200 community service hours and two years of probation.

If anyone has information about Wizard Rock's whereabouts or its potential rock-nappers, they're encouraged to contact the U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement at 928-443-8110.

[h/t Newsweek]

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