Candyman

I moved to Houston in the spring of 1989, basically to put the past into the rearview mirror and get my shit together. A fresh start was called for, my parents lived there, and so I shipped some stuff and whatever I couldn’t check as luggage or carry on was thrown away. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but rather what I needed to do; I was on a horrible downward spiral of depression and self-loathing and I didn’t see any way to break that cycle while remaining in California. So I boarded an early morning flight and moved to Houston.

I knew relatively nothing about the city. I knew it was in Texas and was a major port, but it didn’t appear to actually be on the Gulf Coast (I would later learn that the Houston Ship Channel was how the city had become a major port), it was big, they had a baseball team (the Astros) and a pro football team (at the time, the Oilers) and a basketball team (the Rockets) and the Astrodome was there. Anything else I knew about the city came primarily from reading Thomas Thompson’s Blood and Money–still one of my favorite true crime books–but admittedly, that wasn’t much. That book had been published fourteen years earlier, and one thing that is very true about Houston, and remains true, is that it changes all the time, sometimes very quickly.

I liked Houston, but as always, whenever I’ve moved there was some severe culture shock. Texas is most definitely not California…and I had never really driven on major highways in a city before. I was soon to learn that it was impossible to exist in Houston, for the most part, without spending time on highways. I was also kind of taken aback by the amount of gun racks in the back windows of pick-up trucks, and was also amazed at the size of some of those trucks. It was a weird, interesting, sprawling city, and I had no idea where anything was or how to get around or how to adapt…but I learned. I liked it there, and it was there, at my first job (selling natural gas, of all things) that I first heard about Dean Corll. I don’t remember how it came up in conversation–maybe a serial killer had been caught, I don’t remember, it’s lost in the mists of time–and she told me about Dean Corll–and even brought me a copy of a book about the killings–Mass Murder in Houston, by John K. Gurwell. It was very short–it was one of those quick books about true crimes that was cobbled together undoubtedly in a hurry to capitalize on the notoriety, but the one thing that always stuck with me was that one of the ways he and his accomplices would torture the boys was to insert glass rods into their penis and break it off.

After I returned the book, I never really thought much about Corll again, until we watched the Mindhunter series on Netflix. In one of the episodes the FBI guys interviewed Wayne Henley–and that reminded me. Paul had never heard of Corll, and the show reignited my interest in him, so I ordered a copy of Jack Olsen’s The Man with the Candy: The Story of the Houston Mass Murders. But I was in the midst of something–probably writing another book or who knows what–and so I simply shelved the book and forgot about it….until we watched The Clown and the Candyman…and I hunted up the book and started reading it.

In his canary-yellow house on shady Twenty-seventh Street in The Heights, a worn-out section of Houston, Fred Hilligiest got up long before the sun. A gaunt, wind-dried man of forty-nine, he striped streets for the city of Houston no weekdays and ran a small painting business in his spare time. This morning he had to be on the job at five; the Gulf sun would catch him soon enough and sear another layer of brown into his deep-lined face, as dark and dry as old parchment.

Dorothy Hilligiest, a radiant, pudgy woman with china-doll hands and a small voice to match, saw her husband off and began to work through a list of chores. In a few days, the family would being its annual vacation to the riverside town of Kerrville and there were still errands to run–to the bank, the car wash, the grocery, the hardware store, to Sears for the last few pints of paint to finish trimming the windows. The Hilligiests worked on their house endlessly, landscaping and painting and decorating till the little bungalow gleamed like a model home on its corner lot. The fact that The Heights was generally considered run-down did not discourage the Hilligiests. A family could live in only one house at a time, and theirs was more than adequate. Others had weakened and lost heart, but Fred and Dorothy, deeply religious Catholics, intended to complete their ordained task of raising a family within these familiar walls.

Two children were already married and gone; three sons and a daughter remained, and by the time Mrs. Hilligiest returned from her first batch of errands in town, they were up and babbling about the vacation to come. It was May 29, 1971, Memorial Day weekend blazing hot in Houston. There was talk among the three boys about going to the pool at the Bohemian lodge to perfect a few strokes they would use later at the river. On the previous year’s visit to Kerrville, they had met a couple of young water nymphs who had impressed and outswum them; this year would be different.

David, the family’s blond-haired court jester and jazz drummer, called a friend to suggest a swim, but the friend was busy. By lunchtime, David still had not been able to round up a swimming companion for himself–being thirteen, he did not relish accompanying his younger brothers–and he ate his customary skimpy meal, a hot dog and a glass of root beer. As usual, Dorothy Hilligiest worried about him. He was a small boy with delicate features, five feet three inches tall and not yet a hundred pounds in weight, and he ate like a gerbil. “Don’t worry,” Fred Hilligiest had told his wife. “He’s as strong as a li’l ol’ bull.” Sometimes the boy earned a dollar an hour working for his father’s striping company and pulled a man’s load without complaint.

Like Blood and Money, one of the strengths of this book is its focus on the city of Houston as a character. He also picks a couple of families who lost their sons to Dean Corll and his accomplices, tracing their suffering from the day their child goes missing out of the blue to the discovery of the bodies. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them, and Olsen does a great job of exploring what they went through without being exploitative, as well as their shock and surprise that the Houston police aren’t in the least bit interested in looking for their sons, telling them their child clearly just ran away. (This is a common thread through a lot of the serial killer documentaries and stories from the late 1960’s through the mid-1970’s; the assumption that missing kids just ran away because a lot of that was going on within the youth culture of the time–San Francisco, of course, being a primary destination for the lost kids running away. It’s also why the serial killers got away undetected for so long; the cops dismissed the concerns of parents–you can almost see the knowing smirk on their faces as they listened to parents insisting their child wouldn’t have run away.) That actually is haunting; the incredible suffering the parents must have gone through, knowing their child didn’t run away and being turned away by cops.

Olsen also explores Corll’s background–his many-times married mother, his own aversion to actual gay men despite his own sexuality–he wasn’t into going to gay bars or meeting other men of his own age, always being interested in young boys and children (his victims were of all ages, but I don’t think any were younger than twelve; I’d have to check to be certain though). There aren’t any answers here, though; why did he become what he did? How did he somehow convince two young men (Wayne Henley and David Brooks) to not only be accomplices but to lure in victims? Did Henley and Brooks tell the whole truth, or did they push most of the blame off on Corll?

I’ve been wrapping my mind around this horrible story since watching The Clown and the Candyman, and reading this book is currently an inspiration for an idea that is developing in my own head for a fictional approach to telling this story. I can see telling it from two directions, actually; which could also make for an interesting book, or two completely separate ones entirely.

It’s also weird that Corll is so completely unknown to most people these days; Gacy stole most of his thunder, and there haven’t been any books about Corll published, new scholarship or investigative reporting, in decades.

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