One morning this past September, Mrs. Mary Scott walked out of her tiny brick house, one hand clutching a plastic tub of birdseed, the other holding on to the front door in case she lost her balance. Taking her time, she stepped off the front stoop and onto a pebbled sidewalk that her husband, Walter, dead now for a decade, had laid down one weekend in the mid-sixties. From out of nowhere, half a dozen doves arrived, soon followed by half a dozen more. “Look at the one that’s all white,” Mrs. Scott said. “Miss Whitey, I call her.”
Suddenly her voice faltered, the doves forgotten. Mrs. Scott had noticed a young man down the block, walking past one of the new three-story townhomes that now line the street, some of them still unoccupied, the builder’s signs advertising wood-paneled ceilings, recessed lighting, and granite countertops. She stared in his direction, her eyes blinking behind her glasses. For a moment, she didn’t seem sure what to do. “Sometimes I see someone and I think it’s my son,” she said. “I think he’s come home.”
Mrs. Scott, who is 83 years old, lives on West Twenty-fifth Street in the Heights, a Houston neighborhood about five miles northwest of downtown. On April 20, 1972, her seventeen-year-old son, Mark, a blue-eyed kid whose cheeks dimpled when he smiled, walked out the front door of that house and was never seen again. Mr. and Mrs. Scott and their younger son, Jeff, called Mark’s friends and classmates, asking if they had seen him. They got in their car and roamed the streets, peering down alleys and stopping at the local drive-in restaurants. They called hospitals to see if Mark had been admitted, and Walter, a self-employed carpenter and handyman, drove to the Houston Police Department to report that Mark was missing.
A few days later, they received what seemed to be a hastily written postcard from Mark. “How are you doing?” he wrote. “I am in Austin for a couple of days. I found a good job. I am making $3 an hour.” His mother and father shook their heads in disbelief. Their son, who was only a junior in high school, had left for Austin without saying a word? They were convinced that something terrible had happened. Mark hadn’t even taken his beloved Honda C70 motorcycle.
Mrs. Scott was then 44 years old, a switchboard operator for Dresser Industries. In those first few weeks, she left work early to wait on her stoop, looking left and right. She walked to the chain-link fence at the edge of the yard, cocked her head, and stared down the street. Some days she would meet the postman at the mailbox to see if he had another postcard.
But Mark never wrote again. He never called. “At night, whenever I heard a noise, I’d get out of bed and walk to the front door,” Mrs. Scott says. “I always prayed he would be there, so I could give him a hug.”
Then, on the evening of August 8, 1973, the Houston television stations cut into their regular programming, and Mrs. Scott, sitting on a flower-print couch in the living room, stared at her black and white screen and sensed that her prayers would forever go unanswered. According to the reporters, a 33-year-old man named Dean Corll had been shot to death at his home in Pasadena, a Houston suburb. The police had learned that Corll had been renting a metal storage shed located just off a narrow, dead-end street about nine miles southwest of downtown. Detectives were at the shed now, the reporters continued, their voices rising, and they were digging up the bodies of teenage boys—all of whom had apparently been murdered by Corll. Checking their notes, the reporters said Corll had once been a resident of the Heights, where he had helped his mother run a small candy factory on West Twenty-second Street. Mrs. Scott grabbed her husband’s hand and said, “Oh, Mark. Our poor Mark.”
By the next day, police officers were exhuming bodies from a wooded area near Sam Rayburn Reservoir, outside Lufkin, and on a beach at High Island, east of Houston. Some of the bodies were covered with a layer of lime powder and shrouded in clear plastic, their faces looking up at the men uncovering them. Others were nothing more than lumps of putrefied flesh. A few still had tape strapped across their mouths; others had nylon rope wrapped around their necks or bullet holes in their heads. One boy was curled up in a fetal position.
Within a week, the remains of 27 young males had been found, a couple of them as young as thirteen, one as old as twenty. The New York Times quickly labeled the killings “the largest multiple murder case in United States history”—the phrase “serial killer” had not yet been coined—surpassing the 13 women choked to death by the Boston Strangler in the early sixties, the 16 people shot by Charles Whitman in 1966 from the Tower at the University of Texas, and the 25 itinerant workers killed by Juan Corona in California just two years earlier. Soon reporters began flying to Houston from every corner of the United States. A few arrived from as far away as Japan and Pakistan. Even Truman Capote, hoping to revive his floundering career and produce his next In Cold Blood, showed up, wearing his signature Panama hat, smoking cigarettes, and being trailed by an entourage of assistants.
It wasn’t just the number of murders that caught everyone’s attention. Of the victims the medical examiner’s office was able to identify, at least twenty of them had been residents of either the Heights or an adjoining neighborhood. Or they were Houston boys who had been somewhere in the Heights right before they disappeared. All of the Heights victims had gone missing between December 13, 1970, and July 25, 1973. Eleven of them had attended the same junior high. How, Capote and everyone else wanted to know, was it possible that