A Q&A With Skip Hollandsworth

The executive editor on writing about prostitutes, working with detectives, and recreating scenes.
A Q&A With Skip Hollandsworth
Skip Hollandsworth

In 2006, Darcus Shorten, a sex-crimes investigator for the Houston Police Department, was handed a couple of sexual assault cases occurring in Acres Homes, a mostly poor, black neighborhood where many prostitutes had taken up business. At the time, Shorten had no idea that her initial investigation would actually turn out to be the impetus into one of the most notorious wild goose chases Houston had ever seen. Over the next five years, Shorten and her partner, Steven Straughter, investigated case after case involving prostitutes solicited by a stout black man in a four-door car. The assailant seemed cordial at first, but he quickly turned violent, pulling out a knife and forcing his victims to strip naked and then perform sexual deeds before killing them and/or dumping them behind a neighborhood church. Several times the detectives uncovered potential suspects who fit the bill—in fact, they did find attackers. Unfortunately, they were never the one they wanted.

Then one day in 2009, they found their man—or had they? In Hollandsworth’s December 2011 piece, “ ‘If the Serial Killer Gets Us, He Gets Us’ ,” the answers are intriguing, yet utterly baffling. Here’s the story behind the story.

How did you stumble upon this story? And what made you decide to write about it?
I had been reading about the investigation for three or four years, and every time I would read a story, it seemed the narrative had changed. One day, the police had arrested a certain suspect for the killings, and then a few months later, they had arrested someone else. Needless to say, I was more than curious.

How were you able to recreate some of the scenes to such compelling detail without overstepping any narrative boundaries?
The story works only because the two main investigators, Darcus Shorten and Steven Straughter of the Houston Police Department, allowed me to spend hours with them, going over every step of their investigation, getting them to recall what they did minute by minute—and, of course, it helped because they had all their police reports with them. Still, it’s rare to find a detective willing to take that much time—and they would talk to me, by the way, in their off hours—to help a reporter with a story. I’m so grateful.

What was it like speaking to Shorten and Straughter? Did the investigations ever take an emotional toll on either of them? Or yourself, for that matter?
I was fascinated by them and how they got so caught up in the investigation. And I was always wondering what toll it took on them. You have to remember that this was a case that they spent many years working on. They ended up arresting around ten men for sex crimes or assault, and then they arrested two prostitute killers and one serial rapist of prostitutes. That’s some serious police work. Yet in the end, they weren’t sure if they really did clean up the neighborhood, make life safe. The attacks began again. More men were out there ready to do their own violence on prostitutes. It was a vicious, sick circle.

Describe your editorial process. How did you go about researching this case?
First I got every story I could find in the Houston media—from newspapers and television reports—that had been published about the attacks. The first one appeared in April 2006 and the last one in March 2011. That file consisted of hundreds of pages. Then I outlined how the narrative of the story went—from the first suspect arrested until the last. And then I realized that for the story to work, I needed to get the participation of Shorten and Straughter. I wanted to tell the whole story through their eyes. If they didn’t agree to talk to me, I wasn’t sure that I could tell the story in a compelling, narrative way. We actually had our first meeting in the spring of 2011, and then we talked and visited dozens of times afterward.

If there was anything you could change about your story, what would it be?
I wish I could have interviewed the killers to try to understand why they wanted to murder prostitutes. (They refused my requests for interviews.) Ever since prostitution began, there have been men who have been driven to kill these women. Why? I’m haunted by that question.

What was the most difficult thing about writing this story?
It was writing about the prostitutes. Their crack-addicted lives were so heartbreakingly awful. After working all night, they would sleep in motel rooms that smelled like piss. Or they would take the Metro bus back to their little flea bag tenement apartments. They had maybe one change of clothes. And they almost never bathed. I understood why Shorten was so consumed with helping them. You meet them and want to do whatever you can to push them into a better life. But most of them are too far gone to change.

The chilling ending says a lot about the condition for prostitutes in Houston. Why do you think law enforcement hasn’t done more to stop attacks and murders from happening?
It’s hard to catch a prostitute killer. A prostitute gets in man’s car and disappears. And what happens next is almost always a mystery. There are never eyewitnesses to the crime. DNA tests are often worthless because the prostitutes usually have so much semen from so many different men in their bodies. You’ve essentially got to catch the killers in the act.

How has the city responded to these attacks, if it has at all?
The top brass of the Houston Police Department got a lot of criticism for not doing more. But the fact is that when they realized there was a pattern of attacks going on in Acres Homes, they sent as many as twenty investigators to work the case. They had extra beat officers working the area. These are just hard cases to do.

What is the one thing you’ll take away from this story

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