Houston and New Orleans stand alone as the creepiest cities on the Gulf Coast.
With its pervasive voodoo ambience, sprawling cities of the dead, air of genteel decay, and long history of murder and mayhem, New Orleans is undeniably a spooky town. Fright is a cottage industry there.
Having said that, Houston is not far behind. Houstonians just don't celebrate death and the past the way New Orleanians do. In fact, we tend to simply forget all the awful and weird things that have happened here over the last 176 years, and mercifully so, because there have been an enormous number of terrible episodes. It's just that with few exceptions, this absent-minded behemoth of a city has forgotten its most chilling outrages, its many midnights in dozens of evil gardens.
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Most locals do know a thing or two about the Candy Man murders, though many of us confuse that case (Dean Corll's horrific years-long serial-killing spree) with that of Ronald Clark O'Bryan, a.k.a. "the man who killed Halloween" by giving his son a stick of cyanide-laced Pixy Stix candy. Andrea Yates, Coral Watts, Karla Faye Tucker, the Poe Bombing, the Peña-Ertman gang initiation murders and the Blood and Money killings are all also widely remembered, the first five because they were simply awful, and the last both because it was terrible and for the window it provided into River Oaks.
There's not much need to retell those stories here in full when there are so many more to choose from, beginning with a hanging in Houston's second full year of existence, continuing with a gruesome murder in the Houston Heights of 1910 and a tale of a golden boy gone astray in the 1970s, and ending with the murder of a sleazebag in the throes of the Oil Bust. And eerily, uncannily, all-too-spookily, several of the well-known crimes listed above are closely connected to the ones we've included here.
A Hanging in the Most Miserable Place in the World
For the not-yet-two-year-old town of Houston, March 28, 1838, was a banner day, the biggest spectacle the capital of Texas had yet seen. On that date, in what historian Stephen L. Hardin says was Houston's first widely publicized execution, two convicted murderers were slated to hang simultaneously from an old oak tree near what is now the corner of Main and Webster. A crowd of two to three thousand men, women and children flocked to the hanging tree, where they watched and jeered as Jones and Quick were wheeled in a cart under one of the live oak's limbs, had ropes placed around their necks and said their last words. Seconds later, the hangman cracked his whip on the team, and the cart was wheeled out from under the doomed men.
Quick met his end after reportedly killing his fifth man. This was Jones's first murder. Unfortunately, in killing a gentleman, Jones chose his victim poorly. Like Quick, Jones was from what was known at the time as the "rowdy loafer" set. As Hardin, a history professor at McMurry University, explains in his eminently readable and enlightening book Texian Macabre: The Melancholy Tale of a Hanging in Early Houston, the rowdy loafers were impoverished, illiterate, Bowie knife-toting, underemployed, tobacco-spitting backwoods desperadoes in search of adventure, easy money and whiskey-fueled good times. They ranked just above slaves and Mexican servants on the social totem pole of early Houston, and far beneath the social elite: the planters, the attorneys, the physicians and the like. (Sam Houston, the fledgling republic's president, combined the social status of the upper crust with the drinking habits of a rowdy loafer.)
Like many others of their sort, Quick and Jones were combat-tested veterans of the recent war against Santa Anna, and they had hair-trigger tempers. As Hardin writes, a sure way to set them off was to offer them a chance to detect a snub against their honor. "You think you're better 'n me?" was often the last thing said before knives were drawn. As the case of Quick showed, such killings, so long as they were kept amongst themselves, were almost never prosecuted. "If two rowdy loafers knifed each other up, they certainly weren't going to waste taxpayer money on that," says Hardin. "Good riddance." But when Jones killed above his station, that was another matter...
Life was as cheap as border-town Chiclets in 1830s Houston, a town that made Deadwood look like Zurich by comparison. A visitor from Nacogdoches called what was then the capital of the Republic of Texas "the most miserable place in the world." There was the heat and humidity, unalleviated by air-conditioning. Among a host of other maladies, yellow fever alone carried off early Houstonians by the thousands, their bodies often simply dumped in the muddy, waste-filled streets, where they vied for space with the corpses of dogs, cats, pigs, cattle and horses. A local complained that the stench came "so near as to impregnate the air with its putridity."
All that rotting flesh attracted billions of flies, fleas "were as thick as the sands of the sea" and Buffalo Bayou was the mosquito's perfect breeding habitat. Just outside of town — which was then bounded by Buffalo Bayou, Texas Avenue, Crawford Street and Louisiana Street — wolves and panthers howled and caterwauled through the long nights. The miserable shanties almost every Houstonian called home were plagued by rats "almost as large as prairie dogs." People feared sleep because these gargantuan rodents were known to gnaw off toes, fingers and noses.
Catering to the desires of the rowdy loafers, Houston soon bloomed so many gambling houses, grog shops and bordellos that in 1838, one respectable resident declared that Houston was "the greatest sink of disipation [sic] and vice that modern times have known...What a den of villains must there be here?"
Davy Jones was one such, albeit one with a more impressive war record than most of his fellows. One of just 28 survivors of the Goliad massacre, Jones made it back to Texan lines in time to fight alongside Sam Houston at San Jacinto. (Colonel Alexander Horton — Houston's aide-de-camp at that battle — makes a cameo later in this article.)
That patriotic pedigree came to naught, however, when, as the result of a tragic misunderstanding over a horse, Jones stuck his Bowie knife in the guts of a gentleman named Mandred Wood, whose brother Fernando was a former mayor of New York City and whose other brother, Benjamin, later rose to become editor of the New York Daily News and a New York state representative.
City fathers knew that this murder was bad for business. If ever Houston was going to rise from the wicked muck, the likes of Davy Jones could not go around stabbing gentlemen like Mandred Wood. "I was flabbergasted that Houston was as brazen and depraved as it was," Hardin says. "But at the same time, you had an upper crust who had a vision for the place that went beyond what they could see out their window every day."
Thus Jones, veteran or not, would have to hang. One-armed Dr. Francis Moore would see to it personally, and as both mayor and editor of the newspaper, he was uniquely positioned to effect just such a result. Try to imagine it in today's Houston: Annise Parker editorializes in favor of hanging a notorious criminal in her own newspaper, and then presides over the execution. "And then praises herself for doing so in the paper," Hardin laughs.
After they were cut down and buried in shallow graves practically under the tree where they had swung, Quick and Jones would not slumber long in peace. According to the diary of attorney John Hunter Herndon, later that day five of the town's leading citizens exhumed the corpses, sawed off the heads and retired to Herndon's lodgings to study the shapes of the two skulls for signs of bad character. A day later, the men popped open the skullcaps to sift through the brains, and Herndon decided to keep Jones's noggin as a souvenir.
This was the pseudoscience of phrenology in action, and Hardin believes such practices were more common than we might think. "Most people did not record those shenanigans in their diary," he says. "We're just so lucky that he kept that diary and that it survived." (Another of Herndon's skull-related entries is even more ghoulish: While on a tear in Galveston, Herndon's friend Dr. Robert Watson guzzled whiskey from a skull "that yet had brains in it.")
While that was a little beyond the pale, Herndon apparently saw nothing amiss with keeping two rotting heads in his room for days. He recorded that after pickling Jones's brain, he sat down and cranked out an article for the Telegraph, called on one young lady and wrote a love poem to another.
The next day, Herndon visited two associates, curled up with a good book in the late morning, then went for a ride in the country, before flirting with more young ladies. After that, it was off "over the prairie beautifully clad with grass and wild flowers" to a Mrs. Smith's, "where we had an excellent supper and fine society." Herndon was back in town by eight p.m., he recorded. "Had several calls," he wrote, before closing out his affairs of the day: "Buried the remains of Quick's and Jones' heads."
Which, as Hardin writes, were no doubt quite "ripe" by then: a full three days after the hanging. Hardin also believes that Herndon did not reunite the heads with the rest of the bodies.
"Most likely," he wrote, "he traipsed out behind Floyd's Hotel, dug a hole and plunked them in. In morose moments, one wonders if the skulls are still there, forlorn, forgotten, shrouded under the blacktop of a frenzied, modern city."
The Houston Heights House of Horror
"Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Five slaughtered in Houston Heights house of horror!"
So the Houston Chronicle newsboys on downtown's street corners must have cried on the afternoon of March 16, 1910, for earlier that day, Harris County Sheriff Archie Anderson walked in on one of the grisliest crime scenes in area history.
According to Chronicle accounts, found stacked in a heap between two beds in a humble three-room shack at 732 Ashland Street were the bodies of Gus Schultz, a lineman for HL&P, and his wife Alice, and their two children (ages three years and five months) and their lodger, Walter Eichmann, a painter. The infant was cradled in the arms of her dead mother.
Bits of skull were scattered all about the room, and the beds, floors and walls halfway to the ceiling were saturated with blood. The victims had been dead several days by the time they were discovered, and Anderson said that he had to air the house out for hours before he could even begin to investigate the crime scene. (The carnage moved more than a few papers, and the Chron was not above toasting its own success, noting that its extra smashed sales records.)
Anderson found several clues. In the artesian well behind the house they found the murder weapon — a hatchet with a blade on one side of the head and a crushing mallet on the other. All of the Schultzes' guns had been removed from the house, leading police to believe that the murderer had known the victims fairly well.
Neighbors told police that Gus and Alice Schultz had hosted a beery little living-room shindig on Friday, March 10. They danced, and people played guitar and piano. Several guests filtered in and out of the party that night, one of whom — Alexander Horton "Sandy" Sheffield, a "big-boned oiler" — had once been "familiarly friendly" with Alice Schultz. Other guests said that the Schultzes planned to leave town for a short fishing trip on Saturday morning.
Despite a rumor that an "unknown Mexican" had been seen leaving the area and later took a blood-soaked suit to a cleaner, Anderson's prime suspect was Sheffield, the grandson and namesake of Sam Houston's aide-de-camp, Alexander Horton. (Anderson scoffed at the "unknown Mexican" theory. No criminal would be so stupid as to take a bloody suit to a cleaners after wearing it while killing five people nearby, he said.)
And in Anderson's eyes, Sheffield had a clear motive. Though Sheffield was married, Anderson believed he still held a candle for Alice Schultz. As the Chronicle grandiloquently expounded on this theory, the slaughter was believed to have been committed "in a fit of jealous rage by someone who had been friendly with Mrs. Schultz and who, unhappy because she belonged to another, succumbed to a paroxysm of feeling and slaughtered her and all about her."
Sheffield was also seen lurking about the area in the days before the bodies were found, and when asked the whereabouts of the Schultzes on Sunday, told a neighbor that they might have drowned on their fishing trip. He also told police that his arrest was not unexpected. His wife declined to visit him in jail more than once, though she did send him a Bible to console him.
And yet it appears that Sheffield was able to beat the rap. Genealogical records show that his son, Alexander Horton Sheffield Jr., was born in 1916 and that Sandy lived on until 1968. It's doubtful that Sheffield would have escaped the gallows for such a crime, and he certainly would not have been out of prison in six years. (Nor were conjugal visits allowed.)
The house is long gone. By 1937, another house was on the property, and that house became the first headquarters of SemaSys Retail Brand & Promotional Solutions. (The second house is gone now, too, as SemaSys has graduated to an industrial office.)
And for now, that's where we will have to end this tale. As of this writing, the county archives are temporarily unavailable, and finding more news of this early suburban horror on Chronicle microfilm is daunting, to say the least. (Check our blog in the weeks to follow for updates on this coldest and most chilling of cold cases.)
There's a Strange One in the Jungle
On September 15, 1959, an ex-con and drifter named Paul Harold Orgeron, outraged that Edgar Allan Poe Elementary School had refused to admit his second-grade son, Dusty, the day before, returned to the Museum District-area school and detonated a briefcase containing six sticks of dynamite. Both Orgerons were killed in the blast, as were a teacher, a janitor and two students. A further 19 people, most of them children, were injured: Many were burned, and two kids lost a leg each.
Survivors got little counseling, and Austin writer Sherrie Tatum says her high school boyfriend Larry, a Poe fifth grader at the time of the bombing, bore emotional scars all his life. During one late-night, hours-long phone call, Larry talked about the bombing, and Tatum says he felt betrayed by society. "He still had that sense of outrage. This affected him so deeply. That was back when we were doing duck-and-cover drills. We expected nuclear annihilation at any moment."
Nevertheless, Larry was doing pretty well by the time high school rolled around. Slim, dark, intense and handsome, he was something like a junior rock star, Tatum says. They first met in 1965 at a Tuesday after-school folk-singing club at Bellaire High School, which Tatum attended. Larry was then a student at Lamar and came by with a friend.
"We would usually sing Kingston Trio songs in unison, and here comes Larry and he looked all bad-boy. He just walked in there, sat on Miss Donovan's desk, played his guitar and sang solo. So that was quite electrifying. We were like, 'Who is this guy? He doesn't even go to our school. Who does he think he is?' And then he asked for a cigarette! On school property!"
Tatum obliged. And then she ran into Larry again a little later, this time at an anti-Vietnam rally. Larry's parents were Communists; in fact, his mother, Mona, was believed by the feds to be the top-ranking Red in the Houston area. The Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross on the lawn of their home on West Main Street, and later peppered the house with gunshots.
At the rally, Sherrie and Larry smoked pot and struck up a romance that later receded into a friendship with romantic overtones. Sherrie would feel awkward introducing her new boyfriends to Larry; Larry would often express his disapproval of them, telling her they weren't sensitive enough for her. (In other words, they weren't like Larry, who painted and played Dylan songs on the guitar.) "Everything always felt like a test with Larry," Sherrie says. "He was like one of those diamond merchants from Amsterdam. Always examining."
Over the next few years, they would run into each other at parties, and it soon became apparent that Larry had gone beyond the usual hippie drugs like pot and acid and had taken to shooting up meth. "Living in Houston, where everything is so slow and sticky, kinda drove him crazy," Sherrie says. "I think he needed that for stimulation."
Larry soon became addicted. Sherrie says he seemed like a hopeless case, constantly strung-out and paranoid. She ran into Larry in Austin in May of 1970, and he told her he was heading out to California. That was the last time Sherrie saw him.
And amazingly, Larry started to turn his life around in the Golden State. A California man, a healer of sorts, had seen potential in the strung-out Larry and sobered him up, introduced him to God and helped him pay his way all through medical school. Degree in hand and a San Francisco-area internship under his belt, Dr. Larry told his friends that he and his benefactor were heading down to South America, where he would serve as a medical missionary.
Unfortunately, that benefactor's name was the Reverend Jim Jones, and Larry — Dr. Laurence Schacht — became the physician for the People's Temple. Schacht committed "revolutionary suicide" by Jones's side in 1978.
"I was home with my young son on a week-day morning when I saw the shocking headlines of mass death in the jungle," Tatum wrote in a memoir she has yet to complete. "According to the article, a young doctor from Houston had formulated the poisonous mixture. The name 'Dr. Laurence Schacht' leaped out at me, but at first I thought it must be someone else. It took a moment for me to realize that 'Laurence' was, of course, Larry, and to recall hearing that he had attended medical school. In another moment my blood turned cold as it all just hit me. 'That's Larry, that's Larry,' I said out loud."
The Mansion on Todville Road
In the fall of 1984, a mortified Houston watched as then-prosecutor Rusty Hardin tried accused murderer Danny Lee Garrett. That spring, Garrett's co-defendant, Karla Faye Tucker, had been convicted in a separate trial and sentenced to death for her role in the horrific pickax slayings of Jerry Lynn Dean and Deborah Thornton, and Garrett would soon join Tucker on death row.
Meanwhile, a few miles southwest of the courthouse, the tenderloin district near the corner of Westheimer and Montrose was teeming with young male street hustlers, even more so than today. Ungentrified Montrose was still sliding downward as the Oil Bust extended into its third year. Cheap rents abounded. Thousands of kids ended up there, where many succumbed to selling their young bodies to aging sugar daddies in exchange for money, booze, crack, smack, crank, acid or X.
Though neither a runaway nor a prostitute, 23-year-old Jeff Statton was in the thick of the scene. Statton had an auto theft conviction and a stay in a mental hospital under his belt. He was also shooting heroin and living with a 17-year-old kid named Lance, and with their eviction from their Montrose apartment looming, Lance said he knew an older guy who would take them in.
This was Bill List, a portly, balding 57-year-old businessman. After a stint in the coffin-and-crypt trade, and a prison stay (for sex with underage boys) and ensuing divorce, the Ohio native made a fortune in the '70s with a trailer rental business. While so many of his neighbors were scraping by, List was living large on Galveston Bay.
There, on Seabrook's Todville Road, List built his dream home: a two-story, 34,000-square-foot brick leviathan with white wrought-iron-encrusted verandas wrapping both floors. Inside, List had placed several huge bars, hundreds of potted plants, multiple Jacuzzis, an enormous gameroom and an atrium complete with indoor swimming pool. In the terrazzo-tiled lobby, List installed a sneeze-shielded steam table, the better to serve guests at his 35-foot dinner table.
"You didn't know whether to be impressed, amazed or disgusted," says Statton. "The sheer size was impressive, but then you'd look closer and it was, 'What kind of hideous thing is this monstrosity?'"
Statton says that for much of his stay in the "Holiday Inn on acid," most of the rooms were unfurnished. One day, List dispatched a moving truck to the mansion. "I was all excited. I wanted to bring people over," Statton remembers. It turns out List had purchased a defunct hotel's inventory. "He had bought all these tweed couches and paintings that had magic marker prices written on the back of them. Just craziness. No sense to the whole thing."
No sense, save for the logic of pure ostentation. List loved to exaggerate his importance and inflate his wealth, and the mansion was a tangible expression of his character. List was much less showy in his personal appearance. When Statton first arrived, he says, List came to the door shirtless and barefoot, wearing only a pair of checkered polyester pants. What little hair he had stood straight up from his head. (He refused to buy shampoo or shaving cream, as both were a waste of money. Bar soap sufficed for both shaving and hair-washing.) Statton thought he was a caretaker.
Estranged from his ex-wife and adult son and daughter, both of whom had changed their last names to distance themselves from their dad, List was free to spend the rest of his days indulging his passion: cruising Montrose for teen boys. Once ensconced in his sprawling bayside lair, List would feed them, give them access to booze and look the other way if they did drugs. And a lavish-if-tacky roof was over their heads, so long as they agreed to help with the cooking, general upkeep...and other things.
Namely sex, and Bill List's appetites were reportedly even more hideous than his mansion. Statton says List was heavily into fisting and enemas, which explains why List needed a never-ending supply of fresh hustlers. While many at first were taken with the party lifestyle of the mansion, few could abide List's demands for long.
"He used the power that his money brought over homeless, hopeless teenage boys," Statton says. "He'd promise them something, bring them allll the way out to Seabrook with no ride back. And then he'd be like, 'Here's 20 bucks. If you don't like it, fuck you.'"
On October 17, 1984, there were four young denizens of the mansion. Statton says it was a "bad combination of people."
There was 19-year-old Elbert Ervin Homan, an angry Pasadena-bred heroin user and crank addict, a Covenant House dropout already convicted of stabbing and robbing a fellow teen. Ironically, he was known on the streets as "Smiley." Statton says he had warned List about kids like Smiley. "I'd tell him, 'These are not St. John's kids you are messin' with. These are street kids. One of these days, one of them is gonna kill you.' And he'd be like, 'Aww, I ain't worried about them. I can take care of myself.'"
There was also Smiley's running buddy, Tim Foran, a.k.a. "Peppermint," a 19-year-old dead-end kid from downstate Illinois. It was Peppermint who introduced Smiley to List in Montrose.
And there was "Joey," a 16-year-old runaway from Tomball List had pounced on when he found him shooting pool at the Midnight Sun bar on Westheimer.
"I was involved with Joey, and Bill repeatedly coerced Joey into sexual deals," Statton says. Statton says List subjected Joey to a constant barrage of emotional blackmail, telling him that he had to have sex with him or he would kick him out. "And you know Jeff's not gonna go with you, because Jeff wants to stay here," List would say. "He's the only person you have, and you will lose him."
Statton says a desperate Joey finally told him all that had been going on. Statton then confronted List and declared his feelings for Joey. "I told him we were in a serious relationship, well, at the time I thought it was a serious relationship, and that he would have to stop. He told me he would, but then he continued to do it."
While only Joey and Peppermint slept with List, all four of the boys had to deal with List's orneriness. "I've looked for a redeeming quality in him, and I never could find one," Statton says. "He never showed any affection toward anyone. Nothing. It was just 'Here's what I want from you, and here's what I am willing to give you for it.' And ultimately I think that's what caused his demise."
One night, after List had gone to bed, the four young men sat up late with a jug and some smokes. One of them joked that they "should just kill the old son of a bitch." They all laughed, but something about the remark must have taken.
The next morning Statton cooked List the same hearty breakfast he always enjoyed, and all in the house would later say that List seemed to be in a good mood, at least by his standards.
List had no clue what he had left behind him that day.
Smiley and List had not gotten along from the start, and the street tough bristled when List ordered him to scrub the terrazzo tiles. Smiley told the others that he wasn't scrubbing any floors. In fact, Smiley said, he was going to trash the fuck out of the place and split.
First went the china, hurled through the windows. Then Peppermint joined in on the fun, and the two hurled a huge potted plant from the second floor veranda into the swimming pool.
And in that moment, Smiley decided he wouldn't be leaving until he had killed Bill List. He soon enlisted Jeff and Joey in his plan. Tim was in, too, though more halfheartedly. "I don't think we would have killed him if Smiley hadn't been there," Statton says. "That's not an excuse, but the original plan was just to trash the place and leave."
That no longer sufficed for Smiley, who grabbed a pen and scrawled a statement of intent on a bedroom wall: "Bill List's a very sick man. he is going to die. Smiley 1984."
"We all had our reasons and we were all in it together, and that made it that much easier to plan it and for us to agree that it needed to be done," says Statton. "Now that I'm 50 years old, I look back and think, 'My God, what were we thinking?'"
For the next four hours, the orgy of destruction raged, and after setting aside some toys they wanted to keep — a VCR and a stereo — they went to List's closet and grabbed his shotgun and a box of shells.
Joey volunteered to be the triggerman, but the others told him he was too young. Statton and Peppermint demurred. Smiley leaped at the chance and posted up just inside the door as the evening shadows gathered.
At 5:45, as List was mounting the stairs to walk in the door, Smiley blew his head apart with a single shotgun blast. Minutes later, Statton saw Smiley pissing on List's corpse. After halfheartedly concealing the body, the four jumped in a car and drove off, the tape deck blaring Tina Turner. They had some cash, a couple of List's credit cards and, after using a stolen key to enter List's workplace, a company checkbook.
Peppermint fled home to Illinois, courtesy of a plane ticket purchased with List's credit card. The other three went on a Montrose spree. Smiley decked himself out in a new suit, Joey a pair of leather pants. A heroin dealer cheated the trio out of $200, and then, when they tried to cash a check at an icehouse, an off-duty cop who worked there part-time called List's company to verify it. The cop was told that List was dead and the check was no good. There the spree ended.
Smiley Homan is currently serving a life sentence in the Polunsky Unit. Statton says Smiley got married in prison.
Joey was sentenced to juvenile probation. Statton says Joey has been in and out of prison for most of his adult life, with his most recent stint ending in July.
Peppermint fought extradition from Illinois. When Texas authorities learned that he was dying of AIDS, extradition proceedings were dropped. He passed away in the 1990s.
Danny Lee Garrett died in prison in 1993, and Karla Faye Tucker was executed in 1998. If you are wondering how they are connected to this story, Deborah Thornton, the woman Tucker pickaxed to death while having a series of intense orgasms, was Bill List's estranged daughter.
After standing vacant for several years, and serving as the set for a B-movie, the mansion was torn down. Condos stand on the site today.
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As for Statton, for his role in the murder he was convicted of nothing more than credit card abuse. Paroled three years into his 15-year sentence, Statton was in and out of jails for drug offenses in Texas and his native Kentucky until five years ago, when, he says, he cleaned up his act.
Statton is remorseful, but not exactly wracked by guilt. "No nightmares or anything like that," he says. Since his imprisonment, he's become a close personal friend of Elmer Wayne Henley, Dean Corll's serial-killing assistant and eventually Corll's killer. Statton believes that List was another Corll in the making.
"It's not like I killed some grandma with four cats and a bunch of kids and I just hated her and wanted her money. He was not the greatest person in the world," Statton says. "The district attorney told me, 'We're not trying to put you away for life. We're glad the motherfucker's dead,' and the Seabrook police chief said the same thing. But it was still a horrible thing to do."