Charles Albright patiently waited behind an unbreakable glass wall, watching as the prison guard escorted me through three sets of steel-barred doors. “I apologize for not being able to shake your hand and say hello,” he said, formally rising as I approached his window in the visiting room. “They do not allow me to have face-to-face visits.”
The steel doors clanged shut. Then the man whom the Dallas police had called the coldest, most depraved killer of women in the city’s history gave me a long gentle stare, his dark deep-set eyes never wavering, an encouraging half-smile on his lips. At 59, he had a finely sculpted face and carefully groomed gray hair. Even in his prison uniform, he looked positively distinguished. “Ask me anything you want,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you anything that’s not true.”
Throughout his life, Albright had been described by many who knew him as the portrait of happiness, untroubled and troubling no one. He was, they said, a kind of Renaissance man – fluent in French and Spanish, a masterful painter, able to woo women by playing Chopin preludes on the piano or reciting poetry by Keats. It was simply impossible to believe that he could have viciously murdered three Dallas prostitutes in late 1990 and early 1991. The person who should have been arrested, Albright’s friends and lawyers insisted, was Axton Schindler, a paranoid, fast-talking truck driver who lived in one of Albright’s rental homes. The evidence pointed to him, they claimed, not to their beloved Charles Albright. Perhaps Albright was a touch eccentric, but he was certainly harmless; he was even squeamish when it came to violence.
“You won’t find any woman who’ll say anything other than that I was always a perfect gentleman in their presence,” he said softly. Behind the glass wall, he wore an almost childlike expression – weak and perplexed and, yes, oddly appealing. “I was always trying to do things for women. I would take their pictures. I would paint their portraits. I would give them little presents. I was always open for a lasting relationship.”
In most cases, serial killers are brutal, woefully uneducated young men, lifelong sadists who kill for their own twisted reasons. How, then, could someone so charming, so exceedingly polite, suddenly decide in the later years of his life to become a blood-thirsty sex monster? “Look, I’ve known Charlie for thirty years,” sighed one Albright friend, a retired Baptist minister. “In all that time I think I would have seen his dark side slip out at least once. Believe me, if he really was a psychotic killer, he couldn’t have kept it a secret all this time – could he?”
December 1944: Life With Mother
He was known as the most good-natured, eager-to-please of children, a precocious boy who could do just about anything: name all the constellations in the sky, catch snakes without getting bitten, even perform a tap dance routine onstage at the famous Texas Theater. “Charlie was like a Pied Piper to the rest of us kids,” a childhood friend recalled. “We always wanted to see what he would do next. He was just so much damn fun.”
In 1933, when he was three weeks old, Charles was adopted by a young dark-haired woman, Delle Albright, and her husband, Fred, a Dallas grocer. The Albrights lived in the all-white middle-class neighborhood of Oak Cliff, then a beautiful residential area across the river from downtown. According to the story Delle would later tell Charles, his birth mother was an exceptional law student, just sixteen years old, who had secretly married another student and had become pregnant. When the girl’s father found out, he demanded that she annul her marriage and give up the baby for adoption; otherwise, he would cut her off from the family.
Delle Albright made sure that Charles knew she would never abandon him. She pampered her boy: She kept goats in the back yard so he could drink goat’s milk, which she said was better for him than cow’s milk. Yet sometimes her mothering went to extremes. When Charles was a small child, she occasionally put him in a little girl’s dress and gave him a doll to hold. Two or three times a day she would change his clothes to keep the dirt off him. Afraid that he might touch dog feces and get polio, she took him to Parkland Hospital to see the polio patients locked in huge iron lungs. “You can spend the rest of your life here,” Delle would solemnly tell her son. When he was less than a year old, Delle put him in a dark room as punishment for chewing on her tape measure. When he wouldn’t take a nap, she would tie him to his bed. When he wouldn’t drink his milk, she would spank him.
Indeed, people around the neighborhood talked about Delle Albright’s odd, grim nature. No one could ever remember her buying herself a dress. She kept a scarf over her head and wore clothes from Goodwill. Although she and Fred were far from poor, she usually scrimped at mealtimes, even picking up the old bones the local butcher threw in a box for his dogs. She could use them, she would say, for soup.
Not that Charles ever openly complained. He always appreciated that his mother taught him manners. Delle told him to speak politely about other people or “say nothing at all.” She told him to respect women, especially when it came to sex. She lectured him about the way his father acted “greedy” with sex: Whenever Fred saw her in the bedroom in her bra and panties, he tried to grab her. She was going to have none of that, and she was going to make sure Charlie never tried anything like that with his girlfriends either. As he grew older, she insisted on chauffeuring him every time he was on a date. She would even call the girl’s parents to let them know that her son would not do