A Closer Look at One of Dean Corll’s Victims

Dorothy Hilligiest's son David disappeared one day on the way to a neighborhood swimming pool in 1971. Like a few other Houston mothers during that time, she wondered what had happened to him, refusing to believe that he had run off to experience life. She spent her days and nights searching for him, following leads, and eagerly awaiting his return. But he didn't come home. And then she found out about Dean Corll, one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history.

April 2011By Comments

I spent about six months, on and off, researching the story “The Lost Boys,” and in the process of writing the article, I had to leave out, due to space limitations, enormous amounts of material. When people ask me if there was anyone in particular I wish I had been able to write more about, I always mention Heights mother Dorothy Hilligiest, whose son David disappeared with his buddy Malley Winkle on the way to the neighborhood swimming pool in May 1971.

As I studied the old police reports, I realized that Mrs. Hilligiest came very close to uncovering the murders. She certainly got much closer than the police ever came. Even though I knew what the ultimate outcome was going to be, I found myself rooting for her as I read those faded old reports, hoping she would lead police to the killers—Dean Corll and his teenage accomplices, Wayne Henley and David Brooks—before they were able to commit more murders.

Last autumn, before I really started to work on the story, Barbara Gibson and Debera Phinney, two freelance crime writers in Houston who have researched the Corll killings, told me that Mrs. Hilligiest’s funeral was about to be held at the same Catholic church where her son’s had been held, 37 years earlier. She was 88 years old. On an impulse, I drove down from Dallas, where I live, and slipped into the back of the church, where I assumed I would witness a simple, beautiful celebration of her long life. Indeed, the priest talked about her love of her 5 children who were still living, her 16 grandchildren, her 22 great-grandchildren, and her 5 great-great-grandchildren. He spoke about her love of the church and her love of baking and how she still loved taking summer vacations to Kerrville.

Then he paused and said, clearly referring to David, “But as we all know, this was a woman of sorrow.”

I looked around the congregation. There were a handful of older Heights residents in the pews who had known Mrs. Hilligiest for most of their adult lives. There were middle-aged men and women in other pews who had been children in the Heights when David disappeared. And with that one line about her being a “woman of sorrow,” the grief seemed to sweep over all of them. One of her sons put his face into his handkerchief and wept. It was at that moment that I realized that those killings in the early seventies were still devastating families and friends of the lost boys.

A few days later, two of Mrs. Hilligiests’s children, Cynthia and Stanley, invited me over to her white clapboard house, on West 27th. For a few moments, I stood with them in the front yard and looked down the street, where I could see Wayne Henley’s former home. (It apparently was owned by a young family who had spruced it up with paint and a white picket fence in the front yard. Their SUV was parked in the driveway.) Then I walked inside, where I saw a large painting of David, wearing a blue zip-up shirt, hanging from a wall in the living room. The kitchen, where Mrs. Hilligiest spent so much of her time, was roomy and full of sunlight, with a big window looking out on a fig tree that David used to climb in the backyard.

Then Cynthia and Stanley took me upstairs to their mother’s old quilting room (which had long ago been converted to a bedroom). Cynthia opened a closet and started pulling out boxes that were full of newspaper clippings from the seventies about the murders. Each clipping had been carefully cut out of the newspaper with scissors. In one box were clippings of newspaper articles from the eighties and nineties that mentioned the murders, including a few stories about Henley and Brooks attempting to get parole. “Mom would cut each article out, one by one, and then put them in one of her boxes,” Cynthia said softly.

Cynthia was seventeen when David disappeared. She told me she and her boyfriend (now her husband) spent their Friday night dates driving around Houston, looking for David. She and Stanley remembered posting the flyers their parents had made, offering rewards for information about David, and they remembered their father, Fred, borrowing $1,000 from a credit union to hire a private investigator to find David. They also remembered sitting with their parents in the family car outside a gay bar on Montrose Boulevard after the investigator had told them that David might have been abducted by an underground homosexual ring. “We saw men dressed in women’s clothes going in and out,” recalled Stanley. “Mama just sat there, shaking her head. She had never seen anything like that before.”

Think about that. Here was this gentle, soft-voiced homemaker who used to spend her free time in her garden, suddenly spending a night outside a gay bar or spending other nights cruising Houston streets she had never been on before in her life, all in hopes of spotting her son. With her kids in the backseat, she and Fred drove to a Children of God church in Brenham, supposedly a magnet for runaway kids. They drove to New Orleans, thinking David might be somewhere in the French Quarter. They put advertisements about David in underground newspapers. Growing increasingly desperate, Mrs. Hilligiest wrote the National Enquirer and Jeane Dixon, a famous psychic, begging for help. (I saw copies of the letters in one of her boxes, along with other letters about David’s disappearance sent to the Social Security Administration, the U.S. embassy in Mexico, and the National Missing Youth Locator newspaper.)

I have a feeling that as time passed, Mrs. Hilligiest’s neighbors must have thought that she had sort of lost it, refusing to believe that David, like so many other teenagers in that era, had just run off for a while to experience life, perhaps live in a commune or hitchhike across the country. But she continued to push on, never stopping her search, constantly calling the Houston police to inform them of any tidbit she had picked up in the neighborhood, from a rumor of a suspicious-looking person who was wandering the Heights to another rumor of a particular car that was seen on the streets. I wrote about that car in the magazine article. Mrs. Hilligiest apparently had seen Corll’s GTX, written down the license plate number, and called the police to ask them to check it out. If they had, they would have found Corll, and maybe at that point, the murders would have come to an end.

Then came the moment that is still hard for me to fathom. After the bodies were found and the story was finally revealed about Corll, Henley, and Brooks, Mrs. Hilligiest and Fred were interviewed by a television reporter in front of their home. Mrs. Hilligiest was asked about the Henley family down the street. “I’ve known them for all these years,” she said. “I have a lot of compassion for them. Even with our grief … I can feel compassion for them, because I feel like they are in a much tougher place than we are.”

It was a moment of rare grace that we don’t often get to see anymore. (You can see that interview at the end of a short television documentary that was produced about the Corll killings.)

Through much of 2010, as Mrs. Hilligiest began to get ill, her heart weakening, she spent months living with Cynthia. But in June, she said she wanted to go back to her little home in the Heights. “She wanted to be home because she knew the end was coming,” said Cynthia. “She said, ‘All my memories are there. My memories are at that house.’”

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  • Paul Vandiver

    What a wonderful woman she was. They don’t make them like her anymore. So sad that she lived with this grief for 37 years. But praise God, she is with her boy now!

  • David

    Houston police didn’t check out the license plate. Houston texas is a toilet. Poor lady. It’s amazing. this sort of crime happens more than we know. we don’t have real cops anymore. just like everything else affirmative action has weakened even the police forces around the country. Houston has a lesbian mayor. enough said!