To Die For
The city of Houston wants to build a monument to victims of violent crime -- and mass murderer Elmer Wayne Henley wants to help pay for it with part of the proceeds from his second art show.
Although the idea repulses the father of one of Henley's victims, city officials appear ready to accept the offer, even if not everyone involved is clear on exactly who Henley is.
Almost 25 years have passed since Henley and two of his buddies, Dean Corrl and David Brooks, first sexually tortured and then killed and buried 26 young Houston men in the summer of 1973. After being sexually abused and murdered, some of the victims -- most of them teenage boys -- were buried in shallow graves in a boat shed in southwest Houston, others under the sand dunes of High Island. Henley, Corrl and Brooks became notorious. The victims were forgotten by anyone other than family and friends.
Now, Henley wants to contribute to the construction of a monument to memorialize all victims of violent crime in Houston.
Just over a year ago, Henley had his first one-man show when 22 pieces of his work were featured at Hyde Park Gallery in Montrose. Henley wasn't there to enjoy his moment of glory, as he was, and still is, incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Coffield Unit, where he is serving six consecutive life sentences. Nevertheless, all 22 of the banal black-and-white graphite drawings and oil paintings were snapped up that evening -- a testament, says gallery owner Larry Crawford, to Henley's prowess as an artist.
Crawford says sales from the show generated $3,600. The take was split three ways, with one-third going to Henley's mother, one-third to the Montrose Clinic (a local AIDS health center) and one-third to the gallery for security and expenses (Crawford claims to have made nothing himself.)
Fourteen months later, Henley is back -- or at least 26 more pieces of his art are. Featured in this year's show will be two emu eggs on which Henley has painted landscapes. And like last year, Crawford says one-third of profits will again be donated to a good cause, and this year that cause is the Victims Memorial Monument Fund.
The director of the city's Crime Victims' Office calls a partnership between Henley and the memorial fund a strange one. Indeed, Andy Kahan admits he was dumbfounded when he was initially approached by the gallery.
"At first I thought that this was a marriage that would be made in hell," says Kahan. "But after I thought about it a little more, I realized that this was going to happen with or without us, so why not make the best of it?"
Additionally, although he would prefer Henley not be given this kind of spotlight, Kahan believes that prisoners should be encouraged to give something back to society. And Kahan knows of no other example of victims benefiting from the prison projects of other serial killers, such as the clown art of John Wayne Gacy or the designer fashions of Charles Manson.
But what Henley has to give back to society, Walter Scott doesn't want. Nor, he believes, should the city of Houston.
"I don't want that kind of money," says Scott, whose son Mark was one of Henley's victims. "He's just looking for some sort of glory. He ought to just stay in prison and keep his mouth shut and do his time."
As for the people who buy Henley's paintings and drawings, Scott believes the purchasers have more in common with souvenir hunters at a freak show than with serious collectors of art. And if money is generated, he would prefer it go back into the prison system that keeps his son's killer separated from the rest of the world instead of to Henley's mama or to a memorial for crime victims.
According to Kahan, for the past two years the city has been conducting a search for an artist to create a monument befitting the memory of victims of violent crime. The memorial will be erected near downtown along Allen Parkway, just across Buffalo Bayou from the Houston Police Officers Memorial. The memorial has an estimated price tag of $300,000, all of which, says Kahan, will be raised through private donations. The project, which was the idea of Lee Wells-Flowers with Parents of Murdered Children and Justice For All, is being coordinated by Kahan's office, the parks department and the Municipal Art Commission.
After he was first contacted by the gallery about the Henley proposal, Kahan took the idea to the parks department, where, he concedes, the plan was initially met with a few sideways glances. Parks spokeswoman Susan Christian says parks officials feel that if Kahan and the victims' rights and justice-reform groups he deals with are comfortable with Henley contributing to the memorial fund, so are they. (Kahan says that Parents of Murdered Children has endorsed the donation, but the president of that organization did not return calls from the Press.) Christian adds that the parks department feels that Houston has been in the forefront of the victims' rights movement nationally and wants a monument of national significance to reflect that.
The proposal to accept the money from the sale of Henley's art was also approved by a vote of the Municipal Art Commission. At the time of the vote, there was no debate about taking money from Henley for the memorial. However, according to commission chairwoman Drucie Chase, she was unaware that the money would be coming from a mass murderer.
"This does give me some pause," says Chase, after being informed about Henley's background by the Press. "This sort of arouses my thinking." Chase says she will ask the commission to take a harder look at the proposal at the board's April meeting.
Meanwhile, under the watchful guard of extra security, the opening of Henley's second art exhibit will take place this Friday night at Hyde Park Gallery as scheduled. Andy Kahan doesn't plan to attend. Neither does Walter Scott. But he'll be thinking about it -- and Henley.
"I think about him killing my son every day," says Scott.
Contact Steve McVicker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.