She wakes up to a sharp pain in her side — someone kicking her, telling her to wake up, bitch.
For a moment, she thinks it's her dad. Then she opens her eyes and sees it's Dean Corll, the electrician who's renting this house in Pasadena. She looks over and sees her friend Wayne Henley handcuffed, his feet bound, his mouth duct-taped. She looks to the other side, and there's the boy Tim she hadn't met until the night before, when she escaped from her father's home in the Heights. He's tied and taped, too.
Dean's still berating her when she looks down at her own body and realizes she's also been tied. Dean never liked her — never liked any girls — but this is unexpected. Dean had disappeared before she passed out; retreated to his bedroom, saying something about having to work in the morning. The three plopped down on the living-room carpet and got to feeling good. Wayne and Tim were huffing acrylic paint from a bag; all three shared shots of Wayne's dad's moonshine. She had taken a puff of a joint that one of them passed her way, and then it was lights out.
Dean walks over to Wayne, slips his arms under the teenager's shoulders and carries him to the kitchen. Dean must've taken the tape off Wayne's mouth, because now she hears two voices.
Rhonda Williams is 15. Tim Kerley is 19. It's early in the morning of August 8, 1973. They don't know it yet, but their lives have just changed. There will be life before this day, and life after. Wayne will confess to killing, or helping Dean kill, a handful of 29 boys whose bodies were buried in Houston and the surrounding areas. He will also implicate another teenager, David Brooks. The trio will become infamous, and the crimes — dubbed the Houston Mass Murders — make worldwide headlines. Rhonda and Tim are the forgotten victims, expected to carry on with their lives. They will survive, but they won't completely escape.
As for Rhonda, her father won't want her back after this. A juvenile court judge will change Rhonda's last name, send her to a new school and tell her never to speak of this night again. To act as if it never happened. It will work, in a way. But years later, when the thoughts come back in bits and pieces, she'll have trouble making sense of her life.
She waits 40 years to speak publicly about her ordeal, compressing the story of her troubled childhood and the events of that one night into a four-minute segment for a local ABC affiliate. But now, for the first time, she's telling her whole story to the Houston Press.
But back in that room, with Wayne, with Dean, with Tim, there are more pressing matters, like shock and confusion. It's a little too much for her. She closes her eyes. It's lights out again.
Rhonda doesn't have a mom, but she has a black-and-white photograph of her mom's last day alive.
Catherine Fern Williams was affectionately called "Little Fern." The 37-year-old was kneeling in the yard outside her mother's home in Brownwood, with 18-month-old Rhonda propped on her leg. Rhonda's three-year-old sister Lynn is to her right, and to the right of Lynn is Judy, five. The girls were wearing dresses. Behind them was Rhonda's brother, 15, with thick glasses and a brain that will never develop beyond that of a ten-year-old's, and -Rhonda's grandmother. The photograph was taken in 1958, and everyone is now dead except for Rhonda and Lynn.
They had stopped there on the way back from Longhorn Cavern State Park. About five hours after the photo was snapped, back in Houston, Rhonda's dad went to get groceries, and Catherine stepped outside to tend to laundry on the line.
This was before the Heights, when they lived on Finch, on the northeast side, where Benjamin Finis Williams, a lifelong member of Sheet Metal Workers Local 54, owned several acres. He had a barn with a few cows named after sides of beef. There was Sirloin the Cow and T-Bone.
When Ben returned, Catherine was dead on the back steps. The coroner would say thoracic aortic aneurysm, but Judy and Lynn would tell their little sister for years that their mom's true cause of death was Rhonda.
Rhonda had no way of knowing if it was true. She couldn't even remember her mom. She knew almost nothing about the woman. Little Fern was really good at fixing hair, and she couldn't cook. That's about all she knew.
Rhonda's family moved into a big house on 23rd Street in the Heights when she was about seven. After her mother's death, Rhonda's father quickly took up with a woman, Dorris, who lived in a house right around the corner. Although Ben and Dorris wouldn't marry until years later, Dorris acted as a stepmother right away, and none of the girls got along with her. By the time Rhonda turned 11, both Ben and Dorris decided Rhonda should be someone else's responsibility.
Ben told his youngest child to pack a suitcase and go wait in the car. Rhonda was in the driveway when Wayne rolled by on his bike. He was two years older than Rhonda, who was friends with his younger brother Paul. But everyone seemed to know Wayne. Or at least they thought they did.
"They're sending me off somewhere, I guess," she said. She asked Wayne to tell all her friends that she'd miss them.
Rhonda wouldn't have been in this situation had she succeeded in ending her life a year earlier. Rhonda's bedroom wasn't always a bedroom — back then, it had a gas-jet stove. She can't recall where she got the idea, but she strapped a Styrofoam cup to her face with a rubber band and ran a hose from the cup to the stove. She had waited until she was alone in the house to do it, but her plan was foiled when she heard her dad pull into the driveway. She never tried it again.
After saying goodbye to Wayne, Rhonda was dropped off at the Solid Rock Refuge for Girls, run by a stern woman named Leona Weber, who went on to sue the Houston Independent School District for teaching secular humanism and evolution instead of the Gospel.
At Solid Rock, the girls were padlocked in their rooms at night to prevent escape. But they got a weekly allowance, which Rhonda saved up and took to Sears to buy identical padlocks, which she switched out. One night, when Weber was asleep, Rhonda and four other girls made a break for it. They snuck down into the kitchen with their suitcases, cut the screen window and set out to hitchhike to California.
Incredibly, they made it as far as Bren-ham, where they holed up for the night in an abandoned house. But some Good Samaritan spotted them and spoiled the fun. The police showed up and hauled them to the station, where they sifted through the suitcases and laughed over the girls' tampon stash. They called Weber, who dragged them back to Solid Rock. She'd had enough of Rhonda. The girl had to go.
So Rhonda went to her grandmother's in Brownwood, then to an aunt in Abilene.
"My daddy didn't want me," Rhonda says today. "It wasn't that I was bad. I wasn't wanted."
Before Wayne Henley, there was Frank Aguirre.
Rhonda was just 13 years old, and she would never again experience this kind of love. Frank was 18, liked by everyone and responsible. He worked at a fried-chicken joint for a while, and then alongside Rhonda at Long John Silver's. He and Rhonda were engaged, or at least as engaged as an 18-year-old and 13-year-old can be.
Ben Williams didn't like most boys who came around the house, but most boys didn't come equipped with a big bucket of fried chicken, which Frank liked to bring when he visited after his shifts.
Frank was a sweet boy whose kindness did not go unnoticed in the neighborhood. When he spotted a little girl bawling outside Long John Silver's because she'd lost the dime her mother gave her to fetch hushpuppies, he hooked her up with enough hushpuppies to feed an army. The girl never forgot that.
One night in March 1972, Frank called Rhonda's house to say he was heading over after his shift. He never showed up. Rhonda walked to Long John Silver's and waited. Then she walked over to Frank's house and waited. His car was gone. The sun came up. She waited. Her friends did what they could to help her move on, saying Frank moved and got a new girlfriend.
Wayne told Rhonda the Mafia got Frank. He was never coming back, so she should move on. The fact is, no one but Wayne, Dean and David Brooks knew what happened to Frank. Others gave it little thought. Boys from the Heights had been disappearing for a few years now.
In reality, Wayne brought Frank, who was his friend, to Dean and David Brooks that night. After his remains were found buried in High Island 17 months later, Harris County Medical Examiner Joseph Jachimczyk testified during Wayne's trial that Frank died of "air hunger." Cloth was stuffed into his mouth and held in place with tape. A noose was tied around his neck. He might have died in three to four minutes, Jachimczyk said. He could have been conscious one or two minutes, depending on how long he could hold his breath.
Since Frank left — without even saying goodbye — Rhonda turned to Wayne whenever she felt overwhelmed. He became a big-brother stand-in. She eventually asked Wayne to bike with her from the Heights to the Medical -Center.
Rhonda had been walking with Wayne's younger brother Paul and their friend Johnny Reyna to the park at 23rd and Yale when Johnny pulled one of two joints from his jacket pocket, lit it and passed it to Rhonda. Cue cop car. Rhonda swallowed the joint whole, but it was too late. So she was placed on probation. Thirty years later, Johnny would fatally overdose on a combination of prescription drugs, and Paul, estranged from his family, would rack up an impressive series of alcohol-related charges in Key West.
As a condition of her probation, Rhonda had to see a shrink at Baylor every week. She'd just returned from another foster home, where this time it wasn't the father who snuck into her room late at night but her foster parents' grown son.
So Rhonda had to go talk to a shrink who told her how to get her father to love her. She'd always remember the advice: "What you need to do is go home and cook dinner every night and every day, clean the house, and your dad will love you."
On this day, Wayne seemed upset. When they got to the shrink's building, Wayne asked Rhonda if she thought the guy would talk to him. Not only would the shrink not talk to Wayne, he told Rhonda their sessions were ending.
They stopped at White Oak Bayou on the way back as usual. Wayne had turned white and was feeling sick. He seemed close to saying something but pulled back. They got back on their bikes, but by the time they hit Heights Boulevard, Rhonda got a flat. They were walking their bikes down the street when Dean pulled up in his white van.
He'd probably been looking high and low for his young friend. He was none too pleased to see him with Rhonda. Girls were a nuisance. Dean said nothing as he helped Wayne load the bikes in the back. Rhonda hopped in and sat on a wooden box. She saw cork boards mounted to the sides, with hooks attached. Wayne sat in the passenger seat and was quiet all the way back to Rhonda's house.
Rhonda would spend the rest of her adult life thinking about that brief ride for two reasons: One was, would Wayne have said something if Dean hadn't come along? The other was: Was there a body in that box?
Back in Dean's rented Pasadena home, Rhonda comes to for the second time. She sees Dean walk into the living room with a transistor radio rigged with super-cell batteries for extreme volume.
Dean places the radio on the floor between Rhonda and Tim. Rhonda doesn't know exactly what time it is, but she can see through sheer curtains that it's still dark. Why was her friend doing this, she wonders.
A few hours ago, she was holed up in her sister Judy's old room at home, separated from her drunk, ranting father by a heavy wooden door.
She had never heard her dad shout like that. It seemed worse than the punishment he meted out when the girls were younger, when he would line them up against the wall and whip them with a belt. Judy got it first, and she got it bad. Lynn got it light. Whatever energy Ben had left, he expended on Rhonda.
After a few more minutes, Ben gave up and stormed out of the house and around the corner to Dorris's home.
Rhonda weighed her options. Her foot was sprained and hurting from a minor accident a few days before.
With her foot in a splint and aching, Rhonda couldn't get very far, and although her best friend, Sheila Hines, lived right across the street, that would be the first place Ben would look. Sheila's mother, Margaret, always did what she could to shield Rhonda from Ben. Margaret felt sorry for the girl. One Christmas, when Margaret saw that Rhonda had nothing except old belt-buckle bruises, she took one of Sheila's gifts — a simple plastic makeup mirror — and wrote Rhonda's name on the box. Rhonda had been grateful. And embarrassed.
She didn't have to think of an escape plan for too long: Wayne had heard Ben Williams's shouting from 27th Street, so he came to check on Rhonda. He would always protect her. Back in Dean's house, even though she doesn't understand what's happening, Rhonda assumes she'll be safe. Wayne would never let anything happen to her. There's nothing she can do. She passes out.
When she comes to again, Wayne and Dean are in the living room, holding a knife with an 18-inch blade and a blue-steel .22-caliber revolver, respectively.
Dean tells Wayne to take care of her and steps out of the room again. The tape is off Rhonda's and Tim's mouths. Wayne kneels down beside her and whispers, "Everything's going to be all right; I am going to get you out of here."
Dean and Wayne walk in and out of the room. At one point, Rhonda tells Tim that Wayne said they're going to be okay. Tim looks at her like she's crazy.
Dean comes in, picks up Tim and takes him into the bedroom. She hears Tim screaming in the other room, and Wayne is pacing back and forth, hitting both the moonshine and the huffing bag. Dean wants Wayne to bring Rhonda to the bedroom, but he says Rhonda — weighing all of 100 pounds — is too heavy. An irritated Dean comes into the room, scoops her up, carries her to the bedroom and drops her on a wooden board that's eight feet long and two feet wide. Tim is handcuffed to it, naked. Beneath the board, protecting the rust-colored carpet, is a large plastic sheet.
At some point, Dean has taken off his clothes, and he tells Wayne to strip Rhonda as well. Wayne puts the knife to Rhonda's belt and in a flash cuts the belt, jeans and panties. He's about to do the same to her shirt, but she says please, no, it's her friend Sheila's shirt. Please don't rip it.
Tim is screaming for God. Dean tells Tim to fuck Rhonda. He says he can't. Dean says he'll give him five minutes. Dean and Wayne take turns walking in and out of the room. When Dean is gone, Wayne looks in awe at Rhonda, who, unlike Tim, is not screaming. This is partly because Rhonda has left her body; she's detached herself from the situation. It's how she learned to cope with all the foster fathers who would force themselves on her. So she's not quite frightened. She's confused.
So that's why, Wayne will recall 41 years later, Rhonda asks, "Is this for real?" when he kneels beside her again.
"Yes, this is for real," Wayne says. Rhonda responds, "Well, are you going to do anything about it?'"
Dean returns, crouches beside Tim and puts his hand between Tim's legs, then pushes him on his stomach. When Tim resists, Dean punches him. Dean straddles Tim and tells him what's about to happen.
Wayne is losing it. He looks at Rhonda again, and then at the .22 that Dean had placed on the dresser.
"I would like to think that it was because she trusted me," Wayne will say years later. "The belief that she trusted me is what gave me the...push I needed to do something."
Wayne empties the gun into Dean, who staggers into the hallway, collapses and dies, flush against the wall.
For everyone but Tim and Rhonda, the Houston Mass Murders have come to an end.
Until police could get everything straight, Rhonda, Tim and Wayne were all charged with murder.
Rhonda was remanded to the Harris County Juvenile Probation department, where she remained for weeks. Over the next few days, Wayne and David Brooks led police to 15 bodies buried in a southeast Houston boat shed, some at Lake Sam Rayburn and some more at High Island. It took four decades for some of the remains to be identified. (As of 2014, one victim remained unidentified.)
While the rest of the world heard the gruesome details and came to see Wayne as pure evil, Rhonda was isolated in her cell. All she knew was that Dean had snapped and tried to kill her and Tim and that Wayne, her friend and protector, saved their lives.
When Rhonda was told that her dad had come to the ward, she was ecstatic. She assumed she'd be able to go home. But her father was unhappy and complaining about the media swarming all over the house.
"You have shamed the family and you can never come home," Rhonda recalls Ben saying. Rhonda was petrified by her father's anger.
"I told the guards to take me back...to my cell, and for my daddy to go and never come back," she says today.
Back then, Rhonda didn't know why her dad was so upset. Some time later, she went into the department's chapel, which had a TV. She sat in a pew, across the aisle from a crying girl. The newsman was talking about multiple murders, and all of a sudden she heard her name. When the segment ended, the crying girl got up and turned off the TV.
No one reclaimed Rhonda. She sat in her cell. Her probation officer, only in her mid-twenties, took pity and invited Rhonda to her house. Rhonda would help the officer cook for her husband. The woman needed help because she couldn't cook to save her life. Just like Rhonda's mother.
Juvenile Court Judge Criss Cole was a great man and one of the state's most respected jurists.
He lost his eyesight in a grenade explosion in World War II and went on to become director of Austin's Lighthouse School for the Blind. He was fiercely protective of Rhonda, as he was of all -juveniles tossed into the system. He helped establish Houston's Hope Center for Youth, an extremely progressive and well-funded residential program. That's where he eventually placed Rhonda. He knew she had trouble being placed in a foster home — as soon as potential fosters found out who she was, they balked.
But in the interest of protecting Rhonda, Cole also made a decision that had lifelong ramifications: He told Rhonda to forget how she'd been bound, strapped to a plywood board with another helpless kid and threatened by a naked man with a gun.
Cole had Rhonda's last name changed and sent her to a different school. For the next two years, she was no longer Rhonda Williams; she was Rhonda Griffin.
"Judge Cole said I had to change my name," Rhonda says today. "I could never think about it, talk about it, read about it. It never happened. I was supposed to forget."
But Hope Center helped. It was the first place Rhonda felt like a human being.
Her counselor was a man named David Jones who, seven years earlier, was better known as Cadet Don. He sat at the controls of a low-budget spaceship, hurtling through the galaxy, or at least the KTRK studios, filling the minds of thousands of Houston's children with entertainment and education before they headed off to school. In 1968, Cadet Don traded in his rocket-ship pilot's license for that of a clinical social worker.
Rhonda was a tough nut to crack. She was ordered to forget that night at Dean's, but she seemed to have gone even further and wiped out huge chunks of time before that. Jones tried hypnosis, hoping to bring a positive memory to the surface.
Rhonda made friends at Hope Center and became especially close with a girl named Julie. Sometimes they walked to the park or down to Beth Yeshurun, a Jewish cemetery off Allen Parkway.
Rhonda loved the tranquility of cemeteries. Even though Besh Yeshurun abutted a major thoroughfare, it felt peaceful to her. She liked one grave in particular; the headstone had a simple inscription, "Mama," and a cracked, faded photograph of the deceased.
Rhonda and Julie would sit by that grave for hours. Sometimes they'd share a joint. Sometimes they'd be silent, but other times Rhonda would talk to Rosa. Rhonda's mother was buried in Abilene, so she couldn't visit her. She couldn't talk to her, but she could talk to "Mama."
Many years later, memories of that night started creeping back.
Rhonda wanted to put the pieces together, to construct a narrative. She wanted to understand how the one boy she could always depend on — the boy who she believes saved her life — turned out to be a monster. She thought that writing a book might give her a semblance of control or at least a catharsis. But while she's spoken for years of writing a book, nothing has materialized.
Tim, the other victim on the torture board that night, also considered writing a book, according to his son, Tim Kerley Jr.
Tim Jr. said his father mentioned the book when he first told him about that night. Tim Jr. was 13 or 14, and what he remembered most is how calmly and clinically his father told the story. Since father and son had the same name, Tim was concerned that writing a book might negatively affect Tim Jr.
"I think it would've been a great idea," Tim Jr. says today. But his father never wrote it. Instead, he slipped further into depression, repressed anger and alcoholism, Tim Jr. says.
For years, Tim was able to handle drinking. He stuck mostly to beer, which made him gregarious, fun to be around. And Tim needed people around him constantly. He excelled at his sales job, raking in six figures a year and throwing lavish Christmas parties.
But beer gave way to scotch. And that's when Tim would degenerate into what Tim Jr. called "Captain Dickhead." The Captain drove everyone away.
Tim Jr. would drive his family from Liberty County to Houston to visit Tim — the man loved to play with his grandchildren — but it wouldn't be long before Tim would start to shake. Badly. He'd need to drink, or he would become ill. Then he'd become morose.
Tim Jr. remembers sitting with his father on the front porch, where, after a few drinks, Tim said, "You know, I just sometimes feel like if there really is a God, he's kicking me in the balls right now."
In 2008, Tim broke his silence and gave an interview to KTRK. He said of Wayne, "I don't know if I would shake his hand and say 'Thank you' or beat the [shit] out of him."
Six months later, Tim died of a heart attack. He was 55 years old.
"I think he expected to feel better all of a sudden," Tim Jr. says. "And he didn't. And it pissed him off even more."
Rhonda was also trying to come to terms with Wayne. Around 2005, Rhonda visited Wayne in prison for the first time. She had so many questions. Sometimes on these trips, she stayed with Wayne's mother, something that began to bother the woman after a while.
Rhonda "had to know why he took her there knowing she might get murdered, and all this stuff, and boy, I cut loose on her," Wayne's mother, Mary, says today. "I took that child up one side and down the other."
She says, "I told her, instead of questioning Wayne and giving him a hard time, why didn't she think about the life she has had and was having, and about the life he had, and [how] her life was saved by him. So leave him alone."
To this day, Mary is protective of Wayne. Out of four sons, he is one of only two who are still in her life. Ronnie was 16 when he died in 1975, two years after his brother was revealed as a killer. He was drunk, driving his motorcycle down the wrong side of Clay Street in northwest Houston when he collided with a 1973 Plymouth.
Another son, Paul, who'd been Rhonda's friend, wandered off in the 1990s and didn't keep in touch. Reached in Key West for this story, Paul didn't want to talk. When told that his brother and mother had been interviewed, he said, "Fuck my mom."
When asked about his friendship with Rhonda, he had only this to say before hanging up: "I think you're digging up bones that are best left buried. Good-bye."
Like Mary, Rhonda's sister Lynn never understood the need to repeatedly visit Wayne. She didn't see what good could come of it. The tension grew as Rhonda insisted on revisiting the events of August 1973.
Lynn says she loves her sister but can't understand why she denigrates their father. He tried to do right by Rhonda, but she didn't make it easy. She could be a difficult, manipulative kid. Although Rhonda was maybe only 11 or 12 when she slept with those men in the foster homes, she knew what she was doing, Lynn says today. She was getting something out of it, too. One man gave her a stereo.
Lynn was especially hurt when, on the 40th anniversary of that night at Dean's, Rhonda followed in Tim's footsteps and gave an interview to KTRK's Ted Oberg.
Lynn and others vented on KTRK's Facebook page. Lynn called Rhonda "promiscuous"; Frank's sister Deborah accused her of milking a tragedy. Deborah declined to comment for this story, saying she wasn't interested because Rhonda "is a liar and a thief; nobody wants to talk about her. Write a story about that." Others said that if Rhonda ever wrote a book, she'd be profiting off the boys' deaths.
Tim Jr. has a different take on that.
"I don't know what her motivation behind wanting to write a book is," he says. "I know what my father's motivation was, and it was simply to tell the story and get it off of his chest."
When told that's why Rhonda wants to write it as well, he says this: "Tell her, 'Write the book.' I'll buy it. I'll want an autographed copy, even."
The comments that followed Rhonda's TV appearance were vicious. None of the commenters contacted for this story wanted to talk on the record. Nor would they provide evidence for their assertions that Rhonda ever advocated for Wayne's parole or that she had prior knowledge of the murders.
But their words devastated Rhonda. For some reason — perhaps because she's the only female character in the story — she was never afforded victim status.
Rhonda did have a few other people in her corner, though.
Former Heights resident Melanie Mitchum Turner was the girl Frank gave the bounty of hushpuppies to before he fell victim to Wayne, Dean and David. She was ten years old when the murders came to light and says they had a profound impact on her. She knew some of the victims and had a huge crush on one — 16-year-old Johnny Delome, who, after being raped and tortured, was shot by Wayne in the face. When that failed to kill him, Wayne strangled him.
Melanie said she was appalled by the flak Rhonda got after her TV interview.
"I can't imagine living my life for 40 years and attest to the world that I'm a Christian and continue to hate — to blatantly hate a person for no reason," she says. "[Rhonda] lost. She lost her fiancé, lost her family, she lost her freedom, she lost her identity for a little while...is she supposed to lose her credibility as a human being for the rest of her life because she almost got murdered?"
The person who nearly got Rhonda killed also said she's a victim.
"Her boyfriend was killed," Wayne says today. "Dean tried to kill her. Her friend [referring to himself], whom she trusted implicitly, we know turned out to be a monster. So who's the victim?"
And Wayne was a monster all right: According to Rhonda, Wayne told her many years later that he briefly considered shooting her in the back of the head that night. Wayne could have saved his own skin and kept his freedom, as well as the secret of the Houston Mass Murders.
But he didn't. Instead, after shooting Dean, he helped Rhonda and Tim off the board and called police to report a shooting. The three walked by Dean's body and a blood-smeared wall, out the front door and onto the sidewalk. Wayne laid the .22 on the ground in front of him and started to cry.
Rhonda was still detached, still unable to comprehend what was happening. She thought the blood on the wall was ketchup, that this all must be some cruel joke. When the officers arrived and drove all three to the police department, Rhonda couldn't understand what Wayne was rambling on about. He was talking to the cop. He said there was a warehouse full of bodies. Rhonda didn't understand. She still can't.
Rhonda still likes to go to cemeteries. They're tranquil. For some reason, it's better to be alone with her thoughts there than at home.
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She's remarkably calm among the graves. Sometimes she feels like she can hear spirits. There are times when she feels that her father is with her, and it's comforting.
The spirits aren't always so comforting. A few years back, Rhonda went to the storage units on Silver Bell, in southwest Houston, where Dean, Wayne and David buried 17 bodies. Standing outside stall 11, she felt a tug on her pant leg and heard a boy's voice.
"Tell my mom I'm coming home," she heard the voice say. Rhonda wasn't sure how — or if — to respond.
"Your mom will be waiting for you when you get there," she said.