Theories regarding the disappearance abound-from the men being murdered at the party to an execution-style shooting in a Blount County cave. A few strands of human hair fished out of an abandoned coal shaft led to speculation the men had been dumped there. The one constant in every theory was that moonshine played a pivotal role.
When the brothers and cousin did not return home the day after the Robinwood party, there was little concern, even among their families. The three were known to be heavy drinkers and had been inebriated that last night. Relatives assumed they were sleeping off their hangovers in a cell somewhere. But when there was no word from any of them for several days, their cousin Curtis Brasher and his father checked the jails between Morris and Decatur to no avail. At that point, the family filed a missing persons report with the Jefferson County Sheriffs Department.
Investigators’ initial efforts were stymied by the wall of silence they encountered from the close-knit community where residents viewed outsiders with suspicion. There were reports of gunshots being heard the night of the disappearance, and a neighbor of the Robinwood house, where the three were last seen, told of men carrying containers of water from his outdoor faucet into the neighboring house in the early morning hours of March 4. One of the most bizarre allegations was that a Blount County man had seen a bulldozer being used to bury a car in a construction site where US Highway 79 was being built. No evidence confirmed any of the stories, and the official investigation soon slowed to a halt.
Frustrated by the lack of interest from county officials, Curtis Brasher began a letter-writing campaign to involve state officials; he also began his own investigation, which he pursued until his death in the 1980s. Brasher’s effort resulted in Sheriff Holt McDowell assigning a deputy, Tom Ellison, to the case.
About the time that Ellison was given the case, the Alabama Department of Public Safety began drilling in US 79, looking for any trace of Billy’s 1947 Ford or the bodies. Again, nothing panned out, but the myth that the three were buried in the Ford somewhere under the highway took hold of the public’s imagination and has never let go.
Despite Brasher’s best attempts to keep interest in the case alive--he even corresponded with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s J. Edgar Hoover--the disappearance of the three men took a back seat to other cases during the 1960s. Then in 1972 Jefferson County got a new commissioner, Tom Gloor, and the case once again became front-page news. Gloor believed the missing car was still buried underneath the concrete of US 79, so he ordered county workers to start drilling. Three years later, Gloor asked the US Navy for the use of their metal detectors to scrutinize the other side of the highway. When the sensitive detectors indicated large pieces of metal were below the site, the county commissioner ordered another dig. Both efforts came up empty.
One of the most bizarre allegations was that a Blount County man had seen a bulldozer being used to bury a car in a construction site where US Highway 79 was being built.
Rains’s theory was that the brothers were killed at the Rob inwood party, and Brasher was murdered a few days later and buried in a Morris-area cemetery. And, like Ellison, Rains was convinced that the sheriff hampered the investigation because of department ties to local bootleggers, allegations that were never proved.
Now, more than sixty years after the three vanished, their disappearance is the oldest active case for the Cold Case Squad; the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department still receives tips concerning the men. If the tips seem viable, they are checked out, according to Captain Steve Green, head of the squad. One recent tipster had evidence that the car was buried along US 31 near Gardendale. Deputies spent several days traversing the grounds with specialized radar devices that indicate disturbances underneath the soil. Again, no car and no bodies were discovered.
In the early 1970s, the Birmingham News ran an article on the search for the missing men that had come to dominate Curtis Brasher’s existence since the men’s 1956 disappearance. Brasher quoted his steadfast prayer for Billy Howard, Robert Earl, and Dan:
Lord, please shed a little light on this thing-something that will help us find them boys. They’ve been pitched out there somewhere like animals, in a ditch, an old watery mine or someplace. All I’m asking is that we find them so they can be given a decent burial.
Anyone with information on the disappearance of Billy Howard Dye, Robert Earl Dye, or Dan Brasher should call Captain Steve Green of the Jefferson County Sheriffs Department at (205) 325-5069.
This article was originally published in Alabama Heritage Issue #82, Fall 206.
Pam Jones is a freelance writer in Birmingham with a particular interest in criminal cases from Alabama’s past.