Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Strange Child-Killer of Fort Lauderdale

“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 Presbyterian Church.

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 conversation.


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 learning little.

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 released.

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 been found.   

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 lived.

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 said.

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 happened.

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 town.

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.