The Houston Mass Murders: What Really Happened

A Q&A with Skip Hollandsworth, author of “The Lost Boys.”

April 2011By Comments

Skip Hollandsworth

On August 8, 1973, the Houston Police Department discovered a 33-year-old man named Dean Corll shot to death at a home where he was staying in Pasadena, a Houston suburb. They were given information that prompted them to search a shed Corll had been renting; a beach at High Island, east of Houston; and a wooded area near Sam Rayburn Reservoir. They eventually discovered the mutilated bodies of 27 boys in what the New York Times called “the largest multiple murder case in United States history.” In this tragic story, Skip Hollandsworth tells of the horror inflicted by Dean Corll on the people of Houston and one family’s search for closure. Here’s the story behind the story.

What made you want to tell this story?
Here’s how stories sometimes fall in your lap. In 2009, I was part of a panel at Stephen F. Austin University, in Nacogdoches, along with fellow TEXAS MONTHLY editors Brian Sweany and Jake Silverstein, in which our topic was to discuss the future of the media business. But before the panel got started, Brian and I were talking to the school’s executive director of marketing and communications, Bob Wright. He said, “Why don’t you do a story on Dean Corll?” Brian and I said, almost simultaneously, “Who’s Dean Corll?”

Wright had been a radio reporter in Houston when the story broke of Corll’s murderous rampage. Over the years, he had remained haunted by what he had seen. After he gave us a brief outline of what happened, Brian and I were haunted too. I was also a little embarrassed. I love Texas crime stories: How had I missed this one? Driving away that night, Brian said, “You’ve got to do that story.” I said, “Well, but it’s just a straight history piece. I’m not sure what relevance it has for today.” He said, “Oh, something might pop up.” Little did Brian and I know just how relevant the story would become.

Did you start working on the story right then?
No, I was swamped with one thing after another, and I kept putting it aside. I finally started working on the story in September 2010. The first person I called was Barbara Gibson, a Houston woman who had done some missing persons investigations over the years and who had gotten interested in the Corll case. She told me about Sharon Derrick, a forensic anthropologist at the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, who was working diligently attempting to identify bodies from the murders. “You are absolutely kidding me?” I said. The case was not old history. It was still going on forty years later. And then Barbara told me about an upcoming funeral for one of the Heights’ mothers whose son had been murdered, and I simply showed up. (I describe what happened to me at that funeral in another story I’ve written for the website, which you can find here.) And just like that, I was on one of those stories that I knew would be unforgettable. Although I worked on other stories, I basically spent the next five months looking into the Corll case and then spent another month writing the story.

How do you find information about the killings that’s now forty years old?
Well, I went to the Houston and Pasadena police departments and filed Open Records Requests asking for their original case files into the Corll murders—files that had been looked at by just a handful of people. Barbara gave me a tip that there were more files—from the original missing persons reports to the autopsies of the boys—at the Harris County Archives. The librarians generously helped me locate what I needed, and one of the librarians must have spent a day photocopying documents for me. I spent two days at the Houston Public Library tracking down all the old newspaper articles I could about the case. Then came the process of hunting down parents who were still alive, brothers and sisters, retired homicide detectives who worked the case, former prosecutors—and making requests to the Texas Department of Corrections to interview Corll’s accomplices, Wayne Henley and David Brooks. Henley said yes. Brooks never responded to any of my letters or requests.

Was the story difficult to write because it was so gruesome?
I have written gruesome stories before, most notably the one about the Dallas man—we called him the modern day Jack the Ripper—who cut out the eyeballs of prostitutes after shooting them in the head, then leaving them on streets of South Dallas (“See No Evil,” May 1993). But this one was definitely different. It struck something deep inside me. And the reason was because I focused as much on the victims’ elderly parents as I did the killers. I’m 53 years old, which would be around the same age of many of Corll’s victims if they had lived. When I walked into the homes of the dead boys’ parents, who are now in their eighties, I was reminded of my own parents, who also are in their eighties, and I couldn’t help but think what their lives would be like if I had been tortured and murdered all those years ago. What hit me the hardest was watching these parents still grieve. Their lives have never gotten back to any sort of normal. They are still stuck in 1973, at that very moment when they heard the news that their sons had been found in one of Corll’s private cemeteries. And what made all this even more searing for me is that I am a parent of a fourteen-year-old daughter. I couldn’t help but realize that my life, too, would become forever stuck in one place if anything happened to her like the things that happened to the Lost Boys.

Why did you center much of the story on one of the parents, Mrs. Mary Scott?
Sharon Derrick, who had gotten to know many of the families, told me during one of our interviews about Mary Scott. She was one of the last parents of a Lost Boy who was still living in the Heights. Derrick told me she was looking into the possibility that maybe, after all these years, she could help Mrs. Scott know for certain what had happened to her son Mark. I called Mrs. Scott, who was very feeble yet very polite, and she invited me over to her home. When I arrived, she was walking out the door to feed her doves. Within the first five minutes I was with her, I had the scene that led off the TEXAS MONTHLY article, and I also knew she was going to be the character to take us through the story. I was going to follow her as Derrick looked for her son. Again, it was pure luck that I decided to do the story in late 2010 rather than when I first heard about it in 2009. Otherwise, I would never have had the ending to the story that I did, with Derrick arriving at the Scotts’ home in February of this year to give them the news. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the feelings I had when I went to see Mrs. Scott after she did learn what Derrick had discovered about her son. I wrote about it at the very end of my TEXAS MONTHLY story. It’s one of the saddest couple of paragraphs I’ve written.

How difficult was it to talk to these families about the most damaging experience of their lives?
What I first did was write a lot of them letters or e-mails, and lay out, as sensitively as I could, what I was doing. I didn’t want to ambush them in a phone call. But there were some parents whose addresses I couldn’t find and who I did call. Luis Garcia, who lost his son Homer in 1973, at first told me there was no way he was going to talk—that talking only brought back memories that he didn’t want to remember. But a few weeks later, he called me back and said he had been thinking about it and was appreciative that I was going to write a story focusing on what the families had been going through instead of just writing a story detailing the old murders. I flew to Houston, spent a morning with him and his wife, and I realized, as I had with other families, that they found some sense of comfort in being able to tell their story after so many years of silence. They were also grateful to have a sympathetic listener. In some ways, I didn’t have to ask many questions. Once they got talking, they truly opened up on their own.

It seemed like Houston law enforcement believed that every missing person was a runaway. How much blame did they deserve for not properly investigating these disappearances?
I never try to paint people either black or white. I always think we’re way too complicated for that. And I simply kept thinking that there had to be a better explanation for why the police completely missed the murders altogether. “Not all the officers were that dense,” I thought. “At least one of them had to figure that one of the boys didn’t really run away,” I said to myself. I pored over those ancient, fading, yellowed police reports, looking to find some officer who sensed something was literally amiss—some cop, for instance, who worked the Heights beat and who might have wondered why there were so many missing persons posters tacked to a telephone pole. But I just couldn’t find that cop.

Today, of course, with Amber Alerts and the Internet, the police would be immediately on the hunt. What’s more, we live in an era where the phrase “serial killer” is known even to young children. If three or four boys disappeared from one neighborhood, the first thing we would all suspect is that a serial killer was on the loose.

But you have to understand what that time back then was like. There was no FBI Behavioral Science Unit in the early seventies warning citizens of a certain type of killer who went after a particular group of people (like boys), killing them one by one, with a “cooling-off period” between each murder. There weren’t even missing children pictured on the side of milk cartons. As hard as it is for us to understand today, people in 1973 didn’t snap to the idea of a serial killer.

And so many people told me that in that era, the general consensus was that there was this rebellion going on among the youth—that many of them wanted to run away and try free love and listen to Janis Joplin and live in communes. A bunch of boys took off from one neighborhood? It was no big deal.

Yet I don’t want to excuse the police. In my opinion, the officers in the juvenile division who were handed the missing persons reports just didn’t do a good enough job of investigating. The way I read the reports, they weren’t all that interested in really finding out what happened to those boys. If they had, they would have realized that all these boys, whom they expected to return after their little bout of experimentation with drugs, sex, and rock and roll, were gone—absolutely gone.

And one of the most stunning quotes in the entire story I wrote came from the retired homicide detective who said that his superiors wouldn’t let him and other detectives keep digging for more bodies. Why? Did the top brass really cut off the investigation after 27 bodies were discovered because of pressure from civic leaders? Could that really be the case? So far, I have to say, that’s the only answer I’ve been able to come up with.

Finally, what about Dean Corll? You say you don’t like to paint anyone in black and white? But isn’t there only one way to paint Corll—as a genuinely evil man?
Maybe. But in the end, we simply don’t know what turned him from the pleasant son of a woman who ran a candy factory to a complete monster. Or maybe he was never a pleasant son who did nothing wrong. Maybe he was doing killings all along. Maybe he had another set of accomplices before Henley and Brooks, and he killed them too along with a bunch of boys and buried their bodies in a cemetery no one has ever found. Then he recruited Henley and Brooks and started all over again.

What does amaze me is that he is not well known. He was as vicious and malevolent—and, let’s be honest—as brilliant a killer who ever existed in the United States. I got an e-mail just the other day from a friend, a longtime writer, who said Corll was far worse than the fictional Hannibal Lecter. I couldn’t agree more.

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  • Debbie A.

    Mr. Hollandsworth,
    Why didn’t you interview the girl that was able to stop Dean Corll on 8/8/73? She was there and the only one who knows what really happened that day other than his accomplice, Elmer Wayne Henley Jr. Any comments about how or why Dean Corll was killed that day would rest solely with the witnesses. This is a long drawn out story that reads like an old newspaper story, or Olson’s book.