They called him the Candy Man. The always-smiling Dean Corll was known for passing out sweets to kids in the Heights, where his family had a candy factory. But that smile was a mask, and behind it was one of the most brutal, calculating serial killers of the 20th century.
Between 1970 and 1973, Corll—with two teenaged accomplices, Elmer Wayne Henley Jr. and David Owen Brooks—lured teen boys and young men into his car with promises of rides, drugs, and partying. Corll then tortured, raped, and killed his victims inside his rent houses and apartments across Houston. The spree ended only after Henley fatally shot 33-year-old Corll during the attempted rape of a victim on August 8, 1973. When police arrived, 17-year-old Henley confessed to his role in at least 28 murders—including six slayings he’d committed—and led investigators to unmarked graves throughout the Houston area.
“It’s not fiction. It’s a very real, deadly conspiracy now listed as one of the most horrifying crimes in this century,” said reporter Larry Conners on a KTRK newscast that August, before cameras showed investigators digging up some of the 17 corpses buried inside a boat shed in southwest Houston. This scene would be repeated at other sites across the city as investigators worked to locate the remains of the victims.
As the story exploded, Houstonians found themselves baffled. How had nobody realized this was happening? Most of the victims were residents of the Heights, a working-class part of town in those days, or an adjacent neighborhood, or were local boys who’d last been seen in the Heights before they disappeared.
It was a combination of things, true-crime author Jack Olsen concluded in his 1974 book The Man with the Candy: The Story of the Houston Mass Murders, including the fact that Houston police lacked resources and sometimes declined to search for missing children. The term “serial killer” hadn’t even been coined yet, and when parents reported their missing sons to police, officers repeatedly concluded they were runaways. The idea that a killer was actually living among them and preying upon teen boys was simply impossible to fathom—until Henley shot Corll, and the truth came out.
The impact of these horrific crimes continues to be felt today. Investigators now believe there may be a 29th victim, thanks to a photograph of a previously unidentified boy unearthed in 2011, while Henley—serving six consecutive 99-year sentences in prison—says there could be even more.