The body in the Fort San Jacinto bunker

Battery Croghan, Fort San Jacinto, Galveston, Texas (Creative Commons/Flickr/Patrick Feller)

Battery Croghan, Fort San Jacinto, Galveston, Texas (Creative Commons/Flickr/Patrick Feller)

Several hours after the hot sun melted into the horizon on Aug. 21, 1960, three 13-year-old boys ran along a narrow strip of sand on Galveston’s far East End. They were supposed to be fishing, but a torrential summer downpour drove them toward a bunker at old Fort San Jacinto. The gaping black entrance to the crumbling fortress, built in the early 1900s, probably seemed like it offered endless opportunities for adventure. But I doubt the three Boy Scouts from Houston had any idea their night’s excitement would make them witnesses in a murder investigation.

As they felt their way into the abandoned bunker, the boys stumbled across the body of a dead woman. Her hands were folded across her chest, and a cross made out of two bamboo sticks rested on her stomach. In the sand nearby someone had scratched a message: “I dide (sic) not want to kill her. Roy told. Tell mama I love her very much.”

The boys fled back to the beach where the father of one of them drove to the police station.

The woman turned out to be Mildred “Sandy” Ferro, a 32-year-old waitress at the Idle Hour Club, 1903 Tremont. Seven hours before the boys found her body, Sandy’s estranged husband came rushing into the club waving a gun.

“Don’t give me any trouble, or you’ll all go,” he told the half dozen patrons. They watched helplessly as John Ferro grabbed his wife around the waist and dragged her out the front door. She screamed and struggled as her husband and another man forced her into a waiting car that sped away, witnesses told police.

One bystander took down the car’s license plate number, which eventually led police to the Texas City home of 20-year-old Orlen Block. Detectives found a bullet fragment in the back seat and blood-soaked floor mats. After questioning Block, Texas City police also arrested Domingo Williams, 25.

In Galveston, police knocked on the door of Ferro’s 12th Street apartment. When he didn’t answer, they looked in the window. Ferro was lying in bed, blood seeping from a hole in his temple. They pried open the front door with a tire iron and ordered him to roll over and drop the gun. He did, immediately, but he didn’t seem to realize it.

“Go ahead, take my gun,” he said, holding out an empty, bloody hand for several seconds after the gun fell to the floor. “Take my gun!”

At John Sealy Hospital, doctors discovered the .32-caliber bullet with which Ferro tried to kill himself passed through his head with minimal harm. The only damage appeared to be to the optical nerve, which it severed, leaving Ferro completely blind. Next to the bed in the apartment, investigators found a note:

“Sandy cause this Mama. Mama everything I got go to you. Sandy got me in the hold so bad that this is the only way out. So try to get Pete out to see me and God bless you for me, Mama. Sorry Mama.”

The couple’s trouble began not long after they married. In August 1959, Sandy filed charges against her husband for beating and threatening her. The justice of the peace who heard the case later testified the new bride appeared desperately afraid of her husband. Sandy soon filed for divorce, but it wasn’t final by the time she died.

Battery Mercer, Fort San Jacinto, Galveston, Texas (Creative Commons/Flickr/Patrick Feller)

Battery Mercer, Fort San Jacinto, Galveston, Texas (Creative Commons/Flickr/Patrick Feller)

Despite her attempts to get away from him, Ferro continued to act as though Sandy belonged to him. Roy Brock, who operated the Idle Hour Club, later testified Ferro told him just a few weeks before the murder he had two men from Houston who were going to help him “straighten her out.” Brock said Ferro told him he was no longer going to sea and couldn’t afford to live on what Sandy made at the club. He said he planned to take her north and put her in a house of prostitution.

In his confession to police, Block said after he and Ferro snatched Sandy from the club on Aug. 21, Ferro began pistol-whipping her in the back seat of the car. About four blocks from the club, Block and Williams heard a gunshot.

“I asked Johnny, ‘Did you shoot her?’” Williams later recalled. “And he said, ‘No, I just hit her in the head and the gun went off. She’s just knocked out.’”

With Sandy slumped over in the back seat, Ferro told Williams to drive to Fort San Jacinto. When they arrived, he dragged her out of the car, telling Block to pick up her feet. Block insisted Sandy was still alive, stumbling into the bunker with her arm around Ferro’s neck. But Ferro came back out of the bunker alone and handed Block and Williams his wife’s wedding ring, telling them to hock it for as much as possible and meet him later. The two men drove away and said they had no idea what happened to Sandy after that.

According to the autopsy, Sandy died of a gunshot wound to the head. Based on the lack of blood in the bunker, police believed she either died in the car or shorty after Ferro dumped her in the fort.

The three men were scheduled for trial at the end of January 1961. As jury selection got underway, Ferro pleaded guilty to murder and agreed to accept a life sentence. Block and Williams took their chances with a jury, getting 25 years each. They left for Huntsville together but Ferro didn’t stay there long. According to a funeral announcement in The Galveston Daily News, he died in February 1964, coming home to be buried on the island.

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