Local filmmaker Josh Vargas set out to make a movie about the life of Houston serial killer Dean Corll, and ended up discovering evidence of a never-before identified victim. Now he and the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences are hoping you will be able to identify him.
Forty years ago, Houston was plagued by Corll, dubbed the Candy Man because of his penchant of handing out sweets to neighborhood children from his family's candy business. Beneath all that beat the heart of a monster who at the time he was killed held the record for the highest body count of a serial killer. Between 1970 and 1973, he and accomplices David Brooks and Elmer Wayne Henley kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered at least 28 boys.
Henley eventually shot Corll during an argument about a female victim Henley had brought to Corll's apartment. Henley was sentenced to almost 600 years in prison in 1974. Brooks was sentenced to life in 1975. Both are still incarcerated, and the willingness of Henley to talk to an aspiring director has led to a victim that had never been discovered.
"I first became interested in the Corll/Henley crimes after finding out that one of my best friends was the relative of a Corll victim," said Vargas. "I was uninformed about the crimes up until that point. I was surprised at how under the rug the crimes have been and how very few people knew about it. It was easily one of the worst mass murders in American history.
"The idea of doing a film about it came after doing a bit of research and becoming aware of the magnitude of the crimes, not just in the avenue of savagery, but just how little care was put towards the families of the missing boys. There were over 40 kids missing from The Heights during the years that Corll was known to be active and that wasn't enough to send a red flag to the police, even though the vast majority of the missing kids came from good homes and had families that actually searched for them."
Conversations with Henley at the Mark W. Michael Unit in Anderson County led Vargas to seek out Henley's mother, who gave him permission to examine and use Henley's personal effects for the film. She had boxed and sealed all his possessions and left them in an abandoned school bus. In February of this year, Vargas rummaged through the boxes, securing clothes for costumes, posters for set design, and ultimately the picture below.
"My reaction to finding the picture was that of a temporary shock," said Vargas. "Once we obtained Henley's personal belongings, I was dumbfounded when I learned that the police never searched Henley's room. How do you arrest someone for such a crime without going through the room that he lived and slept in? Had they done that, they would have found the picture, rather than my producer and I."
Though it's blurry and indistinct, Vargas and forensic anthropologist Dr. Sharon M. Derrick both feel that the photo represents an as-yet-unknown victim and doesn't match any of the previously found bodies or the two John Does that remain. The boy's ultimate fate is certain, sadly: Corll's toolbox of torture implements looms in the foreground.
Still, someone out there, maybe a sibling, a cousin, maybe even parents who lost a loved one in 1972 or `73 and never knew their fate, Vargas would like to finally deliver answers to them. If you can identify the victim, please call the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences at 713-796-9292.
Vargas's film is scheduled for release near the end of 2012. Chris Binum will star as Wayne Henley, with Dead of Knight director Joe Grisaffi portraying Corll.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.