The case of Texas Eyeball Killer, which is how the killer is generally referred to in popular media, is not included in most of the books and articles written on serial killers because despite being suspected of three murders, the alleged killer was finally prosecuted, convicted and sentenced for just one.
When, on December 13, 1990, the kids first came across the almost nude body of Mary Lou Pratt (33), a known, local prostitute of the region, they mistook it for a mannequin. It turned out to be the dead body of a dark-haired woman lying on her back with only a T-shirt on. She had been shot in the back of the head with a .44 bullet. The case was assigned to Detective John Westphalen. Initially, the police started investigating the case considering it to be a regular killing of a prostitute due to anger or disagreement over money. But the autopsy revealed something very unusual.
When Dr. Elizabeth Peacock, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy, pressed opened the eyelids of the dead body to check the eyes, she did not find any behind the eyelids. All that she found was severed muscles. The eyes had been taken out with surgical precision. It was not an angry gouging out of the eyes, but a careful removal. This revelation changed everything about the murder. The killing was not an ordinary run-of-the-mill killing, but the handiwork of a murderer who had enjoyed his kill and had taken away the eyes as souvenir.
The crime was unusual, and Westphalen had enough experience to know that. He approached the FBI’s VICAP unit for assistance because the unit had a Violent Criminals Apprehension Program, which was an electronic database with details about the past crimes and criminals, and the database could be useful with respect to specific kinds of criminals. In the case that Westphalen had in hand, there was a ritual involved, which meant, as the criminal behaviour specialists also pointed out, that the killer was methodical and took pleasure in killing. Therefore, once the thrill of the kill faded away, the killer could return to hunt again.
The information was recorded in the police files, but the investigation did not lead to any substantial clues. The rumour mills had it that Mary Lou Pratt together with another prostitute by the name Susan Peterson had stolen good from the warehouse of one of their customers, and the killing was the result of an angry theft victim striking back for revenge. But those were just rumours because the investigators did not find solid evidence to back it up, not even the identity of the man the girls were rumoured to have stolen from. As far as the media was concerned, the murder was disclosed to them by the police, but the taking away of the eyeball was not made public. So, the story never really made the headlines. And with no progress on the front of the investigation, the case went cold. But there was more in the pipeline.
Veronica, a prostitute, was known to patrol officers John Matthews and Regina Williams, and when Matthew found Veronica in a bad physical shape at Star 8 motel – a place frequented by prostitutes with their customers – sometime in December, he inquired as to what happened to her. She told Matthew that a man tried to kill her the previous evening after picking her up, and though she managed to escape alive, she had been raped. A wound on her stood testimony to the brutal assault she had faced. But the police could not to do much about it. Furthermore, they did not take it seriously, and had no reason to connect this minor incident to the ‘eyeball killing’. On December 15, when the police officers saw Veronica in light-blue truck and tried to take him into custody, Veronica said that it was the man who had saved her from her attacker. This man’s name was “SpeeDee”, and as per his Driver’s License, he lived on Eldorado Avenue, where he lived with his wife whose name he gave as “Dixie”. The officers let the person go, but passed on the facts of this little inquiry to the homicide unit just in case some part of it was useful to them. It was, as it later turned out.
On February 10, 1991, 27-year-old Susan Peterson, was found murdered. She was also a prostitute, and had been shot three times in the left breast, in the top of the head and in the back of her head, point blank. The bullets had pierced her heart and brain. She was found almost naked dumped in south Dallas with her T-shirt pulled up and her breasts bared in much the same was as Pratt’s when she was found. The other similarity was that Peterson’s eyes had also been removed as cleanly as Pratt’s had been.
The killer had struck again, and, like the FBI profilers had warned, this was a repeat killer with a ritual. A patrol officer disclosed that Peterson had hinted at knowing the person who had killed Mary Lou Pratt though she did not tell anything to identify the killer with. Apparently, the killer had killed Peterson at the same place where he had killed Pratt, which indicated that he either lived in the region or worked there. He was not a traveling killer, but a settled one.
Veronica was approached again by Matthews and Williams in search of further lead. But she was telling the same story over and over again. Although she was certainly not among the most credible of people, but her sticking to her story made her story sound pretty convincing. Later, she added one more detail to her story: that she might have actually seen Pratt being killed by the man who assaulted her. However, she could not identify the house she had been taken to, which made her information pretty much useless. By now the press got the wind of the killings and the killer was now referred to as “The Dallas Ripper” in the newspapers.
The investigators were of the opinion that if the killer struck again, it would be a white prostitute because it was thought that such killers were intra-racial in their preference of victims. They also suspected that the killer had some medical background because way he had taken the eyeballs off his victims required certain specialized skills. However, the prediction pertaining to the choice of the next victim was defeated on March 18, 1991, and so was the preparedness to prevent similar attacks, when a part-time, hooker by the name Shirley Williams (41) was killed and her naked dead body was left near a school. And when the medical examiner checked her eyes, he realized that she was latest victim in the series. Bruises on the face and a broken nose indicated that she had been punched. She had been shot in the face and through the top of her head. The killer had not left behind any fingerprints or semen to help the investigators. However, her face had been slashed, and the killer did not seem to have done a clean job of taking the eyes. He had also left inside the eye socket a broken tip the X-Acto knife that he had used to remove the eyes. The investigation revealed that the lady was with her friends the previous night getting high on drugs, and that was the last time anybody had seen the alive. It also came to light that when Williams disappeared she was wearing yellow slickers. So, the police looked for the slicker at all such spots that were secluded enough to be suitable for sex, but they could not find a yellow slicker anywhere. Things had already gotten complicated for them because the killer had killed blacks and whites both, which made the investigation a bit more complex.
The forensic tests came in handy, and Criminalist Charlie Linch scrutinized the body before it was sent for autopsy. He took the hair found on the neck of Williams and put them under the microscope to study their shape, pattern and consistency because hair belonging to different races of people are different and those from different parts of the body are also different. Linch concluded that the hair found on Williams’ body were pubic hair of a Caucasian. Ballistic examination confirmed that the Mary Lou Pratt and Shirley Williams were killed by the bullets fired from the same gun, and though Susan Peterson was killed by a different gun the pattern of mutilation was remarkably similar to Pratt’s. Since the mutilation of Williams was not quite as clean as that of Pratt, the two could be difficult to tag together as the handiwork of the same killer, but the use the same gun took care of that difficulty. However, there was still a major problem. They did not have a suspect yet.
The investigators turned to Veronica, her story that she had possibly seen Pratt murdered and the man they had once stopped — SpeeDee. They had his address, and ran a check on it only to find that the property claimed by ‘SpeeDee’ as his actually belonged to one Fred Albright, who was dead.
The investigators also knew that, no so long ago, a scared woman had called a deputy constable to inform about a man called Charles Albright, the son of Fred Albright. She told that while she worked at a clothing store, Charles was a customer, who returned to the store over and over again and brought her gifts. They got friendlier, after which they dated for a while before she moved into one of the rental properties in his occupation. He was married, and would come over to the place to see her and have sex with her. But his demands of her got weirder and she got absolutely scared of his obsession with eyes and knives, which is when she chose to move out and get on with her life without him. Another piece of useful information that this woman supplied was that Charles and Mary Lou Pratt knew each other.
The investigators did a background check on ‘SpeeDee’, and found a lengthy criminal record, including a conviction for aggravated assault on a child and the name of one Dixie also came up. SpeeDee had given that name as the name of his wife.
A prostitute by the name Brenda had claimed to have been attacked by a white man a few days before Williams was found murdered. She was brought in for identification, and several mugshots were shown to her so that she could correctly point at the picture of the person who had picked her up and threatened her. She had no problems pointing at Charles Albright’s picture. Veronica was next. And she too pointed at Albright’s picture without hesitation. However, the investigators were still not very clear about the connection between Albright and SpeeDee, if there was any. That part of the mystery was yet to be solved.
Originally written for and published in LAWYERS UPDATE as part of a two-part CRIME FILE in May 2015.
15 May 2016