At the morgue, having identified the body of Thomas Adolph Hotard, Percy Hebert, Sheriff of St. John the Baptist Parish, invited the dead man’s wife and his employer back to his office for a chat.
The distraught wife, Mrs. Beulah Hotard, said she last saw her husband at dawn Saturday morning. She kissed him goodbye as he left for the plant. He had been working Saturdays at Celotex in Marrero for the past two years, she said.
The plant superintendent interjected that Mr. Hotard did not work at the plant that Saturday and had worked only one Saturday in five years.
Mrs. Hotard told the sheriff she couldn’t understand why Audrey Moate had identification cards identifying her as Mrs. Hotard. However, she knew the woman well. “Audrey was intelligent and well educated,” she said. “During the strike at the plant, she roomed with us for six months.”
Audrey and Mr. Hotard grew close, Mrs. Hotard said. Both worked Safety in the plant and taught CPR classes. Thomas Hotard served as a Scoutmaster, and Audrey Moate led Girl Scouts. They spent long hours together, Mrs. Hotard said, but her husband served only as a mentor. She said, “He was much older than Audrey.”
“She did not help me with the housework when she was with us, though,” Mrs. Hotard said. “She preferred to be with my husband. Once, when I spoke to her about it, she said, ‘You know, a man and a woman can work together without any illicit relationship, and they can go outside just to talk.’”
Mrs. Hotard said Audrey described her relationship with Mr. Hotard as merely a young woman’s admiration for an older man. Mrs. Hotard said that rang true with her, and described her husband as “a typical home man his age”—seldom away from the house and no longer interested in pleasures of the flesh.
After his guests departed, Sheriff Hebert cross-checked the address on the registration of Audrey’s impounded 1949 Oldsmobile with the Baton Rouge City Directory and called the telephone number associated with that address.
A woman answered the phone.
Audrey’s mother, Mrs. Minnie Smith, said Audrey was not at home, but she expected her any time. She also told the sheriff that her daughter began using the Hotard name six months earlier.
After her nervous breakdown, the mother said, her daughter’s doctor sent her to a clinic out of state. She returned five months later, holding an infant child she had adopted.
“When Mr. Hotard heard the story about the little girl’s parents not wanting their baby, he offered to sponsor the child,” Mrs. Smith said. “Since he paid for everything, I think Audrey felt obligated to put everything in Mr. Hotard’s name. Mr. Hotard is a wonderful man.”
Sheriff Hebert explained how someone had shot and killed Thomas Hotard – presumably while he lay in his car with her daughter – and that Audrey had vanished, possibly kidnapped. The mother turned pale and put her head down. When she raised it again, she told the sheriff he was mistaken and that Audrey would be home soon.
She had last seen Audrey when she left for the plant early on Saturday.
Asked what Audrey wore when she left home, the mother said she had on a green skirt, white slipover sweater, and tan open-toed shoes. She carried a gray coat and a black cloth purse. She left in her car, the 1949 Oldsmobile she bought for $200 when she got back from the clinic.
Audrey divorced George Moate in 1954, the mother said. Since then, Audrey and her three children had lived with her in Baton Rouge. Audrey, she said, had never stayed away overnight before.
Deputies later visited Mrs. Minnie Smith at home, interviewing the widow and her neighbors. Everyone questioned said Audrey led a quiet life. Excluding Saturdays, she spent evenings at home, even on Sunday. She was thoughtful, the neighbors said, always attentive to her mother and the children.
Back in Edgard, the sheriff asked his investigators if anyone had found a black cloth purse at the scene. Scattered outside the Hotard’s car, they had found the contents of a handbag, but no bag.
On the sheriff’s desk lay every other item Audrey’s mother had described. Dead or alive, Audrey left the murder scene wearing little or no clothes.
Ballistics tests revealed that Thomas Hotard died from a 16-gauge shotgun charge, either Number 7 or 8 birdshot, fired at close range through the right rear window of his blue 1953 Nash Rambler. The pellets deformed on impact with the safety glass, so their size could not be more closely determined. However, the number and weight of the shot recovered corresponded to those carried by 16-gauge shells.
It was impossible to determine the exact time of death, the coroner reported. However, a squirrel hunter saw movement in Hotard’s car at approximately 5:00 p.m. that Saturday evening, and, that day, the couple had time to consume the bulk of groceries found inside the vehicle.
Sheriff Hebert was anxious to talk with Audrey’s ex-husband, but he did not have to search for him. George Moate came to the sheriff’s office on his own.
He had married Audrey when he was in the Navy, he said. They had been happy for a while but separated after returning to Louisiana from California. He had not seen her since they divorced, he said. He usually picked up the children from Minnie Smith while Audrey worked.
“But we had no ill-feelings,” he said. “Audrey was very smart; you might even say brilliant. I imagine she’s still out there somewhere.”
After questioning him and hearing his account of his weekend activities, the sheriff eliminated George Moate as a suspect, telling reporters, “The husband’s movements checked out; his alibi proved ironclad.”
On the west bank of Lake Pontchartrain, the search for Audrey Moate, or her body, continued. At the sheriff’s request, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and several National Guard units painstakingly combed the vast swamp. The search included 200 men from the 225th Engineer Aviation Battalion, the 527th Anti-Aircraft Battalion, and the 141st Field Artillery of the Louisiana National Guard.
When two days of intensive search proved fruitless, Sheriff Hebert and his investigators turned their attention to Audrey Moate’s effects. These included numerous letters from Thomas Hotard and an address book.
The letters revealed nothing the officers had not already learned, but deputies traced and questioned every person whose name they found in the address book. One-by-one, investigators cleared each of them of any implication in the murder or the disappearance.
Police questioned all hunters and trappers who lived near, or frequented, the swampy area surrounding old Frenier Road, suspecting the shot that killed Hotard might have come from the gun of a small game hunter. No one in the swamp had heard or seen or knew anything of the mysterious slaying or the missing woman.
Most of these hunters or trappers lived more or less solitary lives and could provide no alibis for the time of the slaying. However, after extensive interrogation, Sheriff Hebert eventually found all explanations satisfactory, except one.
The man who turned in Audrey’s car keys was a trapper and moss picker named Wallace Nelson. The former tug boat captain had moved to the swamp from Port Allen after retiring and lived a mile from the crime scene.
A prominent New Orleans attorney said he had been fishing on the lake the day of the murder and saw a scantily clad female on a small boat, squatting, holding herself as if trying to keep warm. The boat drifted with the motor off while a big man matching Nelson’s description towered over her.
Nelson owned a single-barreled 16-gauge shotgun which, he told the officers he had not fired for more than a year. Sheriff Hebert impounded the gun for ballistics testing. Nelson had lied. Tests proved someone had recently fired the 16-gauge. However, testing also eliminated Nelson’s shotgun as the murder weapon.
Ballistics tests also cleared a 43-year-old French Settlement man. Police apprehended Clarence Gregoire, an ex-convict, after a Baton Rouge couple reported seeing Gregoire with a unique shotgun, one that fired from both ends. However, Gregoire insisted he had been in Texas at the time of the murder.
When the gun’s test results came back, Livingston Parish released the man but donated the rare gun to the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. Police later determined that Gregoire had stolen the gun from the Jai Alai burlesque club in St. Bernard Parish.
In Amite, Tangipahoa Parish sheriff’s deputies kicked in the door of a man named Fred, who refused to honor their search warrant. An anonymous letter to Sheriff Hebert named Fred as the murderer and described an incident in a Bourbon Street bar where Fred danced with Audrey and threatened to kill anyone who touched her. When New Orleans police confirmed the account with a bartender, a judge issued the warrant to search Fred’s home for a shotgun, and they found one.
As before, ballistics proved Fred’s gun had not been the murder weapon.
On December 6th, 1956, at 4 p.m., just 12 days after the Hotard slaying, the telephone rang at the home of George Moate’s mother. Answering the phone, the New Orleans housewife immediately recognized the unusual California-Louisiana mixed accent on the other end.
“Mom, this is Audrey,” the voice said. “I’m in bad trouble, and I need help.”
“Bayou Justice” is a weekly true crime column featuring exciting or notable crime-related stories often focusing on cold case files in South Louisiana; stories based on interviews with key players, among them: police investigators, lawyers, victims, and their families. If you have information regarding this case or another unsolved crime, contact Crime Stoppers or your local police agency, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.