Houston at 175
Chilling Tales

Houston's crime rate is at a low, but its history is dark: The city's five most notorious murders

Houston's crime rate is at a low, but its history is dark: The city's five most notorious murders

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William Marsh Rice
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Andrea Yates
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Carl Eugene Watts
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The Man on the Grassy Knoll
News_Houston murderers_Dean Croll
Dean Croll
News_William Marsh Rice
News_Houston murderers_Andrea Yates.jpg
News_Houston murderers_Carl Eugene Watts.jpg
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News_Houston murderers_The Man on the Grassy Knoll.jpg
News_Houston murderers_Dean Croll

It's good news for everyone but crime novel enthusiasts: Houston had fewer murder victims in 2011 than in any year since 1965, and the murder rate per capita is the lowest in the city's history.

With crime rates continuing a five-year decline, it's easy to forget that Houston was known for years as the murder capital of the country.

In the early days of Houston, the area saw Reconstruction-forged outlaws roaming through the city like Wild Bill Longley, a gunflighter with a particular penchant for murdering black men, and John Wesley Hardin, made famous by his run-ins with Wild Bill Hickok and by the lore that he once killed a man for snoring.

Even Rice University has a famous murder in its history. Although oilman William Marsh Rice intended for his $8 million fortune to go towards the founding of an institute in Houston, plans for Rice University were almost derailed when his New York lawyer and his valet conspired to poison him and forge a will that left Rice's fortune almost entirely to the lawyer, Albert Patrick.

The plan fell apart when a bank alerted Rice's Texas lawyer after Patrick tried to cash a check he'd made out to himself — he'd spelled Rice's name wrong.

But the most notorious Houston killings don't involve butlers or gunfighters. Whether mysterious, brutal or simply sad, these cases caught national attention:

 Before the Candyman was a figure out of a horror movie, Dean Corll was known as the candy man around his Houston Heights neighborhood for his habit of giving out candy local kids, particularly teen boys

 5. Andrea Yates

From Susan Smith to Darlie Routier, there was no shortage of mothers who made headlines in the '90s by killing their children. But there was something extra-chilling about Andrea Yates, who methodically drowned her five young children in the bathtub of her Clear Lake home before calmly calling police to confess on June 20, 2001.

"It was the seventh deadly sin. My children weren't righteous. They stumbled because I was evil," said Yates, according to the testimony of Dr. Melissa Ferguson, the medical director of psychiatric services at the Harris County Jail.

"The way I was raising them they could never be saved. Better for someone else to tie a millstone around their neck and cast them in a river than stumble. They were going to perish."

The Yates case introduced many Americans to the issue of postpartum depression and psychosis when a retrial (Yates' first conviction was thrown out on appeal) led to a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Many also questioned the conservative religious environment of the household, one in which husband Russell Yates was committed to having as many children as possible (against medical advice) and left his wife to care for the children unsupervised after previous mental breakdowns.

4. The Icebox Murders

Everything seemed normal at the home of Fred and Edwina Rogers, an elderly couple who lived with their reclusive geologist son, Charles, in Montrose. But after relatives could not get the Rogers to answer their repeated calls, on June 23, 1965, police forced their way inside.

One officer happened to open the fridge and was shocked to find the dismembered remains of the couple inside, only recognizing the contents as human when he saw their heads in the vegetable bin.

Fred Rogers was beaten to death with a hammer, while Edwina died from a gunshot to the head. Some of their organs, including sexual organs, had been removed and were found in a nearby sewer.

A trail of blood led to son Charles' bedroom, and a bloody saw was found inside. One thing that was never found was Charles himself. Police sought him for years on a material witness warrant, but he was officially declared dead in 1975.

Charles, who studied nuclear physics at the University of Houston and had served as a pilot in the navy, and his mysterious disappearance have only increased in legend in subsequent years.

 Since the 1970s, more than 30 young women and girls from communities along I-45 have either disappeared or been found murdered in "The Killing Fields."

 In the book The Man on the Grassy Knoll, authors John Craig and Philip Rogers claim that Charles Rogers was part of the CIA conspiracy to murder JFK, as one of the "three tramps" arrested on Dealey Plaza after the assassination.

The authors theorize that Rogers murdered his parents when they became suspicious of his role. Others writing about the icebox murders say he fled by plane to Mexico and later Honduras.

3. The Sunday Morning Slasher

When Carl Eugene Watts moved to Houston from Michigan in 1981, Michigan police say they warned local cops that he was suspected of murder. Just a year later, Watts would confess to attacking, strangling and killing a dozen Texas women, and authorities believe he is responsible for at least 40 murders — some sources say up to 80 or 100 — starting when he was 15 years old.

Watts had already strangled and drowned one woman on the morning of May 23, 1982, when he attacked Lori Lister as she was returning to her apartment. With Lister already unconscious, Watts attacked her roommate, Melinda Aguilar — but Aguilar only pretended to go limp and pass out as he strangled her.

"He was excited and hyper and clappin' and just making noises like he was excited, that this was gonna be fun," Aguilar told 60 Minutes. As Watts filled up bath water to drown Lister, a tied-up Aguilar jumped out the second-story window and police arrived just in time to apprehend Watts as he fled and save Lister's life.

Without any evidence linking Watts to multiple murders, Houston police gave him a plea deal to serve 60 years for burglary with intent to commit murder in exchange for confessing to the 12 murders.

When a new law made Watts eligible for parole in 2006, Michigan police set up a task force and eventually convicted him of the murders of two young women dating back to the 1970s.

2. The Killing Fields

"Of all the dumping grounds around the United States, if you're a serial killer, this is about as good as they come." That's how Skip Hollandsworth describes the abandoned oil fields between Houston and Galveston that have become known as "the killing fields."

Since the 1970s, more than 30 young women and girls from Friendswood, Texas City, League City and other communities along I-45 have either disappeared or been found murdered in the fields.

The name started in the 1980s when four girls were found dead on the land just a mile off the highway. It wasn't until two young teens — Krystal Baker of Texas City and Laura Smither of Friendswood — both disappeared and were found dead within a year of each other in 1996 and 1997 that the various police departments began to work together to search not only for the missing girls, but for their killers.

 One thing that was never found was the murderer himself. Police sought Charles Rogers for years on a material witness warrant, but he was officially declared dead in 1975.

 The cases had enough twists and turns to inspire a Hollywood movie, which was released in the fall of 2011. But though there have been twists and turns, false confessions and eerie letters and phone calls purporting to be from the killer, virtually all of the cases are still unsolved.

1. Houston Mass Murders

Of all the famous serial killers in the past half-century — Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy —it's somewhat unnerving that not many people have heard of Dean Corll.

Before the Candyman was a figure out of a horror movie, Corll was known as the candy man around his Houston Heights neighborhood for his habit of giving out candy from his family's factory to local kids, particularly teen boys.

No one suspected that Corll, along with his two teenage accomplices, Elmer Wayne Hensley and David Brooks, was systematically kidnapping, torturing, raping and killing teen boys between 1970 and 1973.

Despite reports of more than two dozen teens going missing from the then hardscrabble Heights neighborhood, Corll's crimes only came to light when he targeted Hensley, who shot Corll in self-defense and confessed everything to police, bringing them to four burial sites where 27 bodies were uncovered.

There is evidence that Corll might have had even more victims, but at the time the 27 bodies found made him the most prolific serial killer the country had ever seen. Even Truman Capote, contemplating another In Cold Blood, descended on Houston to see the aftershocks of the brutal murders. Hensley and Brooks were both tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

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