In Focus

Filmmakers may have discovered new victim of 1970s mass murders

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

We have new clues from a 40-year-old serial murder that rocked Houston. It's a tough photograph to see, but investigators still on this case need your help.

If TV cameras hadn't been there to capture every bit of it, the mass murders would have seemed too gruesome to believe.

This month, Houstonian Josh Vargas has decided to retell the story. He is directing a feature film dramatizing the Dean Corll killings, the gruesome murder of 29 boys and young men (that we know of).

Vargas spent years studying the crime spree, eventually visiting Corll's accomplice Elmer Wayne Henley repeatedly in prison.

"You've got this kid who starts off as somebody whose friends are disappearing and nobody knows why, to somebody who's actively involved with the people who were doing the disappearing, to somebody who actually ends it all. And to me, that's where the story lied," Vargas said.

The jailhouse meetings with Henley led Vargas and his production partner Rick Staton to Henley's mother and eventually to Henley's personal belongings.

After Henley confessed, his mother boxed up his stuff and stuffed those boxes in the back of a school bus in an overgrown North Texas field, where it's been for decades.

"We are the first people to go through that stuff in 40 years," Vargas said.

From the back of that bus, Vargas pulled out Henley's actual clothes for his actors to wear, Henley's actual posters to decorate the set with.

But that's not why we're telling you about Josh Vargas' find.

Sitting in the back of that bus, at the bottom a rotting cardboard box in a sealed photo envelope, was a 40-year-old snapshot that shook Vargas.

"While rummaging through those pictures, this Polaroid falls out. I take a look at it and right off the bat, having studied the case and the crime scene photos and everything, I see Dean's toolbox, and I see his implements in that tool box and I see this kid right here with handcuffs on his arms," Vargas said. "I sat there and I looked at this picture for about 30 minutes and then I showed it to my wife and said look at this and tell me what you think it is," Vargas said.

It was a gruesome instant Polaroid.

"That was a boy who was horrified who was laying on a floor," Vargas said.

It was likely snapped an instant before the teen was sexually tortured and likely killed. And even though it's never been seen before, it's not worth telling you about just because he found it.

The reason Vargas wants you to see the photograph is the same reason the Harris County Medical Examiner wants you to see it, and that's because no one knows who it is.

It's 40 years old, out of focus, blurred by old technology then and time now. But the Harris County Medical Examiner doesn't think it's any of the known victims, and according to the anthropologists working on the case, it is not the one set of unidentified remains.

Since Dean Corll never let a victim escape alive, there's only one thing it could be.

"I believe it's a victim they don't know about," Vargas said.

"I don't see how it could be anything else," Staton said.

A newly discovered victim, a young boy, gone for 40 years - forgotten by a city who wanted to put Dean Corll behind them and overlooked by detectives who decades ago closed the case.

He's likely not forgotten by a loving mother or brother who knows who this is and may tonight be one very uncomfortable step closer to finding out what happened to him.

"Even if we abandon the film project today, the greatest news we could get would be that at least something came of this, that maybe somebody will recognize their son, brother" Staton said.

In a prison conversation, Vargas asked Henley about that photograph. He says Henley doesn't know who the boy is, but believes there are more remains yet to be discovered, lending authenticity to the photo. It does match crime scene photos from inside Corll's home at the time and since it likely was taken in late 1972 or 1973, since that's about the time Henley got his Polaroid camera.

In a statement, forensic anthropologist Dr. Sharon M. Derrick, who's working on the case, said:

"I recently viewed the photograph provided by Mr. Vargas. I compared the photograph with the missing person information, such as descriptions and photographs, that are relevant to the 1973 murder cases and are available in the HCIFS files. I have also compared the photograph to photographs of previously identified victims that are available in the HCIFS files. The relatively poor image quality does not allow for a conclusive comparison of features to known or unknown individuals associated with the 1973 murder cases. However, the individual depicted is not immediately recognizable as one of the known victims or missing persons in the photographs or descriptions in the HCIFS files. Any information regarding the individual shown in the photograph may aid HCIFS or law enforcement in identification efforts or investigation."

If anyone knows the identity of the boy in the picture, they should contact the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences at 713-796-9292.

(Copyright ©2014 KTRK-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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