“He fell to the ground but was still breathing…”
Written by Robert A. Waters
For some reason, this tragic story has eluded true
crime sleuths of the internet. But the tale should be told, this remembrance of a
truly senseless crime that rocked south Florida, this murder that had devastating
long-lasting effects on an innocent family, this crime that vanished from the headlines almost as rapidly as it appeared.
On September 4, 1979, the following blurb appeared in the Miami
Herald: “A 64-year-old Fort Lauderdale woman leaped to her death Monday
from her ninth-floor apartment at the Venetian Condominiums, One Las Olas
Circle. Maxine B. Folwell was killed immediately after plunging from the
balcony of her apartment at 12:49 p.m., according to police reports. Folwell
left behind a suicide note in which she said she was sorry for her actions, but
was too despondent to live.”
The years of gnawing, unrequited pain for her murdered son had
finally caught up with Maxine.
By 1950, modern air conditioning had begun to generate a decades-long
population shift from northern climes to Florida. Like others, the family of Roger Folwell, Sr.
purchased a home and fled the ice of Long Island for the Sunshine State.
The household consisted of Roger, his wife Maxine, and two
children, ten-year-old Roger, Jr., and daughter Susan, 11. Roger, Sr. had retired from a storied career as a pilot for
Pan American Airlines—Maxine had been an airline stewardess for Pan Am. The Miami
News reported that they had moved into their “swank island home” on Pelican
Island in Fort Lauderdale. Their son quickly made friends with many local
children and adults. Roger attended Eastside Elementary School, where he was an
honor student, and received awards for never missing Sunday School at the local
On Wednesday afternoon, December 6, 1950, the precocious
youngster rode his maroon-colored bicycle through the neighborhood. Soon he
crossed the Pelican Island bridge that connected Sea Island. At the foot of the
bridge, Roger met thirty-three-year-old Robert William Nelson. The Fort
Lauderdale News described the meeting place as a “desolate, uncleared
island, just two fingers of land near the boy’s home.”
Unable to read or write anything except his name, Nelson lugged
a knapsack bulging with newspapers. The wild-eyed, unkempt street salesman
looked like a bogey-man, but Roger, ever friendly and curious, engaged him in
At 6:30 p.m., Roger’s father called the Fort Lauderdale Police
Department and reported his son missing. The family had been searching for nearly
two hours and told detectives they could find no trace of the boy.
Construction workers informed police they saw the boy ride
over the bridge to Sea Island but never saw him return. In addition to police,
other searchers included firemen, Coast Guard auxiliary members, boy scouts,
American Legionnaires, and local citizens. Cops dragged canals and shut Sea
Island down. Investigators stormed the island, interrogating everyone, but
After 48 hours, a detective stumbled on Robert’s bicycle, then
noticed a foot protruding from a pine thicket near the bridge. Roger Folwell’s
body had been found. His killer had dragged the corpse away from the road and
covered it with pine straw and tree limbs. An autopsy revealed 14 deep wounds
to his head and additional injuries to his body—Roger had been bludgeoned to
death. In fact, nearly every bone in his body had been broken. The coroner informed
reporters that the child had likely been killed shortly after he vanished. He
found no signs of sexual assault.
The senselessness of the crime shook South Florida.
Police dragged waterways and canals searching for the murder
weapon, thought to be a claw hammer. They checked out hundreds of “perverts”
who resided in and around Fort Lauderdale. Detectives set up an “assembly line”
of polygraph machines in a gymnasium so they would not be overwhelmed by the
numbers of people they hooked up to the contraptions. Cops used two military
high-energy magnets to scour nearby canals for the hammer. Roger’s parents
offered a reward of $1,000. Local citizens, police, and the city of Fort
Lauderdale donated funds and the reward eventually grew to $8,000.
Roger and Maxine were overwhelmed with grief. The two could
barely function, and when they did, an underlying sadness hung over the couple.
In later years, they donated much time and money to local charities, possibly
in an attempt to offset the evil they saw in the world.
Throughout the year of 1951, the Fort Lauderdale Police
Department spent thousands of man hours trying to find the killer. But it would
take the Hollywood, Florida Police Department to finally connect a local child
molester to the savage murder of Roger.
A few days after killing Roger Folwell, Robert William Nelson
was arrested in Hollywood for “indecent, immoral and lewd conduct” in the
presence of a minor. Convicted, he spent 30 days in the lockup before being
Nelson’s fetish for young girls caused him to be arrested time
and again. Newspapers later described him as being “borderline retarded.” His
sister told reporters that he’d been in a car crash when he was six-years-old
and the injuries he’d suffered from that wreck had stunted his mental growth.
Another New York transplant, his parents had moved to Florida after the accident
thinking it would improve their son’s health.
In December of 1951, a year after the murder of Roger Folwell,
Nelson was back to his old tricks. Detectives caught him red-handed molesting a
14-year-old girl in the same theater where he’d previously been arrested. When Nelson
informed Hollywood Police detective Roy Longbottom that he’d once had a “fight”
with a young boy on Sea Island, he suspected Nelson may have been the killer of
Roger Folwell and notified Fort Lauderdale police. During the subsequent interrogation,
the suspect readily admitted to killing Roger. Once the floodgates opened, Nelson
made a detailed confession and led cops to the spot where the boy’s body had
He told detectives he met Roger near the Pelican Island
Bridge. Spotting the bag of newspapers, Roger informed Nelson he would like go
into the business. Nelson advised Roger that there was “no money in newspaper
work.” Then, hoping to sell his parents a paper, he asked the boy where they
Roger pointed to Pelican Island and told Nelson the address. For
some reason, the answer enraged Nelson. He accused Roger of lying, then shoved
him off his bicycle. Before the boy could escape, Nelson pulled “the handle of
a heavy hammer” from his pocket and began to pummel Roger. He said he couldn’t
remember if the hammer head was attached.
“[Roger] fell to the ground but was still breathing,” Nelson
He stated that he continued to beat the boy until he was sure Roger
was dead. Then he hid the body and bicycle and walked away as if nothing had
Nelson, locked away in the Brevard County jail, spoke freely
to reporters and clergymen. His story was always the same: he killed the boy
because he believed Roger had lied to him.
Because of his mental disability, Nelson escaped Old Sparky, Florida’s
dreaded electric chair. On November 2, 1951, circuit judge Lamar Warren issued
an order to commit Nelson to the Chattahoochee state mental hospital in
Tallahassee. This ruling came after a competency hearing in which the state
attorney’s office and Nelson’s defense attorney agreed the killer’s mental age was
that of a child between “six to nine years old.”
The Folwell family continued to live in Fort Lauderdale for
many years. Roger Folwell, Sr. owned a business flying customers to Bimini and
back. Maxine was occasionally seen in the news hosting social events around
Their daughter, Susan, married a local businessman and
continued to reside in Fort Lauderdale.
Roger Folwell, Sr. died in 1969 at age 54 and Maxine took her
own life at age 64.
The sad fact is that Robert William Nelson murdered two
people, not one.
After Maxine’s death, the Fort Lauderdale News attempted
to locate Nelson, but Chattahoochee’s staff claimed he was no longer a patient.
They thought he’d been released years before. The News never tracked
down the cold-blooded killer of Roger Folwell.