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True crime series: The Irene Hitzfelder murder

Nine-year-old Irene Hitzfelder

Nine-year-old Irene Hitzfelder

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman

Some stories seem to write themselves. Not this one. I have struggled with this story for over 2 years. On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 13, 1923, nine-year-old Irene Hitzfelder was brutally killed by sixteen year-old Clarke Coffield.

Irene, the daughter of Herman and Wanda nee Pfeuffer Hitzfelder, had left her home around eight o’clock. She rode her horse “Charlie” down the road towards the Spring Branch school house. By 9 o’clock, she was lying, dead, in a clump of bushes about 200 yards off the road — the left side of her skull shattered in pieces.

Clarke, the stepson of James and Melitta Coffield, left his home that morning to hunt for turkeys. By lunchtime, he was taken into custody for the murder and assault of Irene.

The Spring Branch community, 25 miles northwest of New Braunfels, had been settled by Germans. They were farmers and ranchers with familial ties to New Braunfels. It was a close-knit settlement where people knew their neighbors. The Hitzfelders had a large prosperous ranch; Irene was their only child.

Clarke’s family had moved to Spring Branch when his mother married his stepdad. James Coffield had a small farm which he augmented with funds from cedar chopping and charcoal burning. The newspaper sources I read make me believe that the Coffield’s were considered “lower class.”

The events of the murder, spelled out in detail in dozens of news publications across the US, went like this.

Irene never made it to school. At 10 o’clock recess, nine year-old classmate Valeska Bindseil told her teacher that she had seen Irene’s horse tied to a fence post on the road. 13 year-old Lawrence Knibbe was sent over to his father’s store to phone the Hitzfelder and report her missing.

Henry Bender, a neighboring rancher waiting for his mail, grabbed Lawrence and drove to find the horse. Near the animal, the wire fencing had been lifted and there were two sets of barefoot prints that led towards the Coffield home. Bender and Lawrence drove to the house and found Mrs. Coffield and Clarke. Wet clothes hung on the wash line and Clarke’s clothes were damp.

Bender asked Clarke to join them in looking for Irene in the area between the Coffield home and the horse. Other neighbors, including Irene’s father, joined the search party. Clarke suggested they call out for the girl.

It was Mr. Hitzfelder and Bender who found the child in a clump of bushes — face up, arms outstretched, clothing in disarray. Next to her shattered head was a blood-stained rock the size of two fists. A second stained rock was found seven yards away. Following a trail of blood drops, a third rock was found lying on top of a tangle of barefoot prints that indicated a struggle. Two sets of prints led to this spot: the small set was in front with deep heel marks and the larger set followed close behind as if one person was pushing the other forward.

Bender compared Irene’s foot to the small print and Sheriff Peter Nowotny put Clarke’s foot next to the larger print — both matched perfectly. Clarke immediately claimed his innocence, but when Sheriff Nowotny took him to the body, he confessed his guilt and was secured. The men of the search party, understandably incensed over what they saw, tried to take Clarke by force. Knives were drawn, but Sheriff Nowotny kept a cool head and with the help of Bender got Clarke unharmed into his car. He took Clarke to the Comal County jail. The tragic news spread quickly and fearing trouble from the citizens of NB, Nowotny secretly moved Clarke to the Bexar County jail in San Antonio.

Dr. Rennie Wright was called out to the scene of the crime. After examining the body, he stated that she died of a massive head wound and that there were definitely signs of assault but that he felt certain it had occurred after death.

Later that evening, Clarke sent for Sheriff Nowotny to come and take his confession. Clarke is reported to have confessed that he killed Irene but did not assault her. He had thrown a rock and accidently hit her, wounding her badly on the head. He killed her instead of letting her remain in pain.

It gets a little weird here.

By Friday morning, Clarke’s written confession said, “…after looking for turkeys I grabbed her by the shoulders … we struggled … I released her, grabbed up a rock and threw it hitting her in the head. After assaulting her I killed her with a rock then went to a small pool of water and washed the blood off… I told my mother I had killed a jack rabbit.”

On Friday, Sheriff Nowotny drove Clarke back to NB for the indictment and then returned him to the Bexar County jail to await trial. I found two references to Clarke’s incarceration. One, he asked for a photo of Irene; I think this is pure journalistic fabrication. Two, a Kelly Field woman heard Clarke had asked for clothing and left a package at the jail for him. She said she thought the boy was not in his right mind and would probably be punished severely. She could see no reason for him to be uncomfortable. The package contained: 2 shirts, underwear, socks, a tie, collars, tooth brush and paste, soap and towels, a Bible and a $5 check.

Coffield’s trial was set for some time in February 1924. There was confusion over Clarke’s true age. Clarke and his mother said his birthday was Feb. 11, 1907, but no birth certificate could be located in Houston. This became a big deal. Under Texas law, if Clarke were tried before he was 17, he could only be sent to reform school; if he was tried after that age, because of his confession, he could be given life imprisonment but not executed.

The trial took place on Feb. 13, 1924 — after Clarke had turned 17 — with accounts saying it was not manipulated that way. He was assigned Frank B. Voigt of New Braunfels as his attorney. This was Voigt’s very first trial. Jury selection began at 10:15 and the jury, composed of 6 farmers and 6 businessmen, were sworn in at 12:15. The trial began at 1:15 and was concluded at 4:10. It took the jury a mere four minutes to decide Clarke’s penalty — life imprisonment.

Clarke was sent to Huntsville. He died of congestive heart failure on Jun 13, 1966, and was buried in the Blanco Cemetery.

Irene was buried Friday, Sept. 14, 1923, in Spring Branch, with Pastor Mornhinweg officiating. All the children of Spring Branch School attended with their teacher. Mrs. Hitzfelder gave birth to another little girl, Joyce, on Feb. 25, 1924 — just 12 days after the trial. She died of complications following appendicitis surgery on Oct 20, 1934. She was ten years old.

I told you this was a tough tale to tell.

Sources: “Reflections” interview #970, Mrs. Valeska Bindseil Heimer, Sophienburg Museum & Archives; Newspapers: NB Herald, Sept. 15, 1923; Sept. 21, 1923; Feb. 22, 1924; Mar 7, 1924; NB Zeitung, Sept. 13, 1923; Feb. 21, 1924; SA Light, Sept. 14, 1923; Feb. 12, 1924; Feb. 15, 1924’ Feb. 16, 1924; SA Express, Sept. 14, 1923; Sept. 15, 1923; Sept. 16, 1923; Feb. 16, 1923; The Junction Eagle, Sept. 21, 1923; The Chillicote Constitution, MO, Sept. 18, 1923; Sept. 19, 1923; The Evening Independent, OH, Sept. 13, 1923; The Daily Record, Weatherford, Sept. 14, 1923; The Ada Evening News, OK, Sept. 14, 1923; US Census 1930, 1940; Texas Convict and Conduct Registers 1875-1945; www.ancestry.com, www.findagrave.com