Between 1970 and 1973, Dean Arnold Corll, one of the United State’s most prolific serial killers, abducted, raped, tortured, and murdered at least 28 teenage boys in Houston. The killings were dubbed the Houston Mass Murders, and at the time, they were considered the worst serial murders in U.S. history.
Corll, an electrician and former candy store owner (hence the moniker), conscripted the help of teens David Owen Brooks and Elmer Wayne Henley to lure other teen boys to his apartment, where they were handcuffed and shackled to a plywood torture board before being sexually assaulted and killed. Corll’s killing spree ended in August 1973 when Henley shot and killed him in self-defense.
It was August 7, 1973, in Pasadena, Texas, Henley had invited his 19-year-old friend Timothy Kerley to Corll’s house to party earlier that night. There, they huffed paint and drank alcohol until about midnight. Then they drove back to Houston to get some snacks.
While there, they stopped and picked up 15-year-old Rhonda Williams, Henley’s another friend. When they returned to Corll’s house, the boys told police, Corll was livid that they had brought a girl to his house, that she had “ruined everything.” But Henley had been able to calm the older man down, and they all went back to partying. After a few hours, they all passed out.
Henley said when he woke up, Corll was handcuffing him. His mouth was covered in tape and his ankles were bound. He could see Williams and Kerley were bound to the “torture board,” one on each side. He said Corll pointed his pistol at him and threatened to kill him, but not until after he’d “had his fun.”
Somehow, Henley convinced Corll to let him go, telling Corll he could help him kill the other two. Corll put the gun down and freed Henley, then handed him a large knife and instructed him to cut Williams’ clothes off and rape her while Corll raped Kerley.
While Corll began torturing Kerley on the other side of the board, Williams looked Henley in the eyes and whispered, “Is this for real?”
Henley told her it was. She then asked, “Aren’t you going to do anything about it?” Henley said that question “flipped a switch” inside his mind. He said he grabbed the gun and pointed it at Corll, demanding he free the two teens, yelling, “I can’t go on any longer! I can’t have you kill all my friends!”
Corll then taunted Henley, daring the teen to shoot him, saying he didn’t have it in him. Henley shot Corll in the forehead, but the bullet only grazed his skull. Henley fired twice more into Corll’s chest. As Corll staggered out of the bedroom, Henley continued shooting until there were no more bullets left.
At first, Henley had wanted all three of them to just leave and never speak of it again. But the other two convinced him to call the police. As they sat on the porch waiting for the police, Henley told Kerley he’d done that — shot someone — before four or five times.
The evidence at the scene corroborates the three’s story. It looks like a clear-cut case of self-defence, and Henley is a hero for saving his two friends from what would have been a terrible fate.
As officers search Corll’s house and property, they find even more disturbing evidence: more sex toys, a total of eight pairs of handcuffs, ropes, vaseline, and some thin glass tubes. In a shed, they find a home-made wooden box, the size of a casket, with holes drilled in the side. Nearby sits a bag of lime.
Corll’s van is suspicious, too. The windows are blocked out with thick blue curtains, the walls covered in pegboards with hooks and rings attached. The floor is covered by a piece of carpeting, stained with dirt. The van also contains another casket-sized wooden box. Inside the box is what looks like human hair.
It is beginning to look like these three might not have been Corll’s first victims. And Henley’s statement that he had done that — shot someone — before raised questions.
Police arrest Henley and take Timothy Kerley and Rhonda Williams in for questioning. All three tell the same harrowing tale. When police question Henley about his suspicious statement, he confesses something that will take this case in a very different direction and expose Henley not as a hero, but as a monster.
Henley confessed to police all that he knew and led police to the graves of the dead. Jack Cato, a reporter for KPRC 2, accompanied Henley and police as Henley led them to a shed where he and Corll had buried some of the murder victims. Cato allowed Henley to call his mother on his telephone and captured the conversation on film. Henley is heard saying the words, “Mama, I killed Dean” into the receiver.
Corll’s known victims were found in mass graves located across the Greater Houston Area. Four bodies were buried in St. Augustine near Lake Sam Rayburn in East Texas; seven were buried on the beach at High Island in Southeast Texas; and 17 were buried in a Houston boathouse of Corll’s.
Some had cords wrapped around their necks, and tape strapped around their feet and mouths and a few had been sexually mutilated. Most of the bodies were badly decomposed and difficult to identify.
Henley and Brooks were both convicted for their roles in the Houston Mass Murders. Henley is serving six consecutive life sentences. Brooks died in a Galveston prison hospital in May 2020 due to complications related to COVID-19, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.