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