The Man Who Died Twice – The mystery of the death of Clarence Roberts

May be an image of 2 people and text that says 'CLARENCE AND GENEVA ROBERTS'

On November 18, 1970, a fire destroyed a barn at the home of Clarence and Geneva Roberts. While sifting through the debris, the fireman found the remnants of a body burned beyond recognition. It was initially identified as that of Clarence Roberts.

Ten years later, on November 29, 1980, another fire destroyed the new home of Geneva Roberts. Two bodies were found amidst the debris; one was that of Geneva, and the second body was identified as Clarence Roberts.

Today, the small town of Nashville, Indiana, is still divided over the fate of the man who was twice declared dead. The official ruling is that Clarence killed an unidentified man who was found in the first fire only to himself be killed in the second fire ten years later. Some, despite the forensic evidence that says otherwise, still believe he perished in the first fire.
A select few others reject both scenarios; they believe Clarence Roberts did not die in either fire and lived the last years of his life in hiding.

Both lifelong residents of Brown County, Indiana, Clarence and Geneva married in 1941 and settled in rural Nashville, a town of 800 people 60 miles south of Indianapolis.

The Roberts had four sons.

Clarence was a respected member of the community, having served as Brown County Sheriff and as a board member of the town’s bank. He was also active in the local chapter of the Masons.

Clarence and his brother Carson had operated two successful Nashville businesses together, first a lumber company and then a hardware store.

Both Carson and Clarence were earning good livings and living comfortably. Carson was content, but Clarence was not.

Clarence’s financial success had gone to his head. He had a good amount of money but not enough to finance the lifestyle he was living in 1969.

Clarence was becoming an out-of-control spendthrift. He purchased three luxury cars as well as a fashionable and expensive home.

When asked about the lavish purchases, Clarence said he had made a windfall from investments. In reality, he had incurred a pitfall, having lost nearly all of his money in failed investments in an apartment complex and several grain elevators.

The 52-year-old Clarence had been raised in a low-income family but had worked himself from rags to riches. Now, he was returning to the rags, and that was only the beginning of his troubles.

By the fall of 1969, Clarence was in serious financial peril, and several lawsuits had been filed against him.

One bank had recently been granted a $45,000 judgment against Clarence, and another was alleging he had defaulted on his home’s mortgage. In addition, the Wabash Insurance Company, which had loaned Clarence money for building the apartment complex, also filed suit, claiming he had submitted to them altered and fictitious bills totaling between $131,000-$200,000.

In June 1970, Clarence and his attorney discussed his filing for bankruptcy. Against his lawyer’s advice, Clarence rejected the option. In October, two of his prized luxury cars were repossessed.

On the afternoon of November 18, a bank officer went to Clarence’s home to discuss a note on which the bank suspected Clarence had forged his brother’s signature. Clarence’s remaining cars were at the location, and the bank officer believed he saw him in the home. Clarence knew of the bank’s suspicions and did not answer the door. He may have seen only one way out of his predicaments.

At 6:15 p.m. on November 18, 1970, neighbor Ella Cummings reported a small fire on the Roberts property. Geneva and her kids were not at home at the time of the fire.

By the time the fireman arrived on the scene, the fire had engulfed the grain barn the Roberts had used as a garage and storage area. By the time the blaze was suppressed, the barn had been reduced to ashes.

Beneath the remnants, the fireman found a body next to a half-melted shotgun. The body was too charred to recognize, but it was presumed to be Clarence. Knowing he had been severely depressed, authorities initially believed he had committed suicide.

The gun had been recently fired, but no gunshot wounds were found on the burned body. In addition, the gun’s position over the body was not compatible with the recoil, which would have followed its firing.

Further questions were raised when a tooth discovered near the body was identified as a lower right second molar. Clarence had that same tooth removed several years before the fire.

Amidst the ashes, Clarence’s Masonic ring was also found, only slightly damaged.

Investigators believe the ring was planted after the fire because it was virtually unscathed.

Brown County Coroner Jack Bond found an absence of carbonous material and internal burning in the victim’s respiratory tract. Because of the large amounts of carbon monoxide in the blood, Dr. Bond believed the victim had died from carbon monoxide intoxication before the fire.

Dr. Bond refused to sign the death certificate for Clarence Roberts and deemed definitive identification of the body impossible.

The Indiana State Medical Examiner, however, did rule the remains to be those of Clarence Roberts.

Geneva and her children, along with other family members, were certain it was Clarence found in the barn.

Clarence’s nephew Bob White surmised that Clarence had accidentally set the barn afire while shooting himself. Bob said his uncle kept gasoline for his lawnmower in the barn, which may explain the barn’s rapid burning.

The declared remains of Clarence Roberts were buried at the local cemetery.

Because the fire investigation produced a growing list of perplexing questions, the remains were exhumed on December 21, 1970. The findings raised additional red flags when the victim had type AB blood. Clarence’s military records showed his blood type was B.

Clarence’s family countered that the military records of servicemen’s blood type were often inaccurate. They still believed he died in the fire.

Two days before the fire, Clarence had been seen at a bar in Morgantown, 13 miles south of Nashville, in the company of a man who appeared to be a vagrant. He was about the same age and height as Clarence and bore a physical resemblance to him. No one recognized the man.

As the men left the bar together, the vagrant nearly collapsed outside the bar. He had been drinking heavily, and some patrons believed he was excessively drunk; others thought he appeared to suffer a small seizure. Clarence said he would take the man to a hospital.

Police checked all the hospitals within a 300-mile radius. They determined the vagrant had not been admitted to any of them. He has never been identified and, because of his resemblance to Clearance, some believe he may have been the man found burned to death in the Roberts barn.

Several years after Clarence supposedly died in the fire, a dead man walking was reportedly sighted.

An acquaintance believed he had seen Clearance and an unknown woman in his tavern in April 1972. Other acquaintances think they saw him in 1974 and 1975.

An insurance investigator said he received reports of Clarence’s living in New Mexico and abroad in Mexico and West Germany.

In 1975, based on the alleged sightings and the forensic evidence suggesting he had not perished in the fire, a grand jury indicted Clearance Roberts for the murder of the now declared “John Doe” found burned to death on his property November 1970. The grand jury found the fire was an attempt to make the vagrant appear to be Roberts and that he had committed suicide.

Clarence had purchased several life insurance policies in the months before the fire, nearly $640,000 (although some sources say the amount was close to $1 million). He was ruled to have orchestrated the scheme to avoid paying his debts by having the insurance companies award Geneva his life insurance proceeds.

Geneva insisted her husband had died in the fire. Still, the Wabash Live Insurance and Modern Woodmen of America challenged her claims, saying the evidence was insufficient to declare Clarence dead.

Geneva filed an action against the insurance companies. The case dragged for several years. When it finally came to trial in 1978, a judge ruled in favor of the insurance companies, concurring that insufficient evidence existed to prove that Clarence Roberts was deceased.

Geneva’s claims to the life insurance money were denied.

Devastated by the ruling, both financially and mentally, Geneva had to move to a smaller home on the outskirts of Nashville. She became a recluse; when people arrived at her home, she would always greet them outside at the back door. She never let anyone, including family members, into the house.

After taking a kitchen job at a local Howard Johnson’s motel, Geneva began buying large cases of beer from local shopkeepers. Strangely, she was a diabetic who rarely drank. Geneva’s late husband, however, like to sip the suds, and the brand of beer she purchased just happened to be Clarence’s favorite.

When neighbors reported seeing a man on the grounds of Geneva’s home, rumors began to swirl. The man never let anyone get close to him. Police set up surveillance on her home, but they never saw him.

Geneva’s sister, who lived on an adjacent lot, said she could hear Geneva talking to the man but was certain the man’s voice was not Clarence’s.

Some believed Clarence Roberts had returned to Nashville. Soon, coincidence or not, a second catastrophic fire came.

On the evening of November 29, 1980, just over ten years after Clarence had supposedly perished in a fire, another inferno broke out at Geneva’s new home. After it was extinguished, firefighters found her body in the ashes.

Several hours later, a second body was found in another part of the house. It was identified as that of Clarence Roberts.

The second fire was a clear case of arson, and police determined Geneva had been murdered. The burn patterns from her bed led to the adjacent room where the second body was found, then down a hallway and out the home’s back door.

Turpentine was used to start the fire, placed from the bedroom to the back door, but it could not be determined whether it had been started by the man identified as Clarence or by a third party.

Investigators say they are 100% certain the male body found in the second fire’s debris is that of Clarence Roberts.

However, they cannot determine whether Clarence had murdered Geneva, died accidentally, or if he, too, had been murdered.

Some believe an unknown third party murdered both Clearance and Geneva. Others theorize that Clarence and Geneva committed suicide together so their children could collect on their life insurance policies.

A few believe a more sensationalized story: That a desperate Clarence, wanted for murder, out of money, and with nowhere else to go, returned to Nashville after living in hiding for a decade, only to find Geneva with another man and murdered her in a jealous rage before again setting the home on fire.

The Roberts children still believe, despite the forensic evidence, that their father was killed in the first fire in 1970.

Although investigators are certain the second body found in the second fire is Clarence Roberts, exactly who lies beneath this grave, however, is still the subject of local gossip.

The headstone for Clarence Roberts reads that he died on November 29, 1980. The Roberts children, however, still believe his death occurred on November 10, 1970.

I could not find anything stating where the remains of the still-unidentified man killed in the first fire are now buried.



Further Reading:
• Indianapolis Star
• Terre Haute Tribune
• Unsolved Mysteries
• UP

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