When bodies started turning up in West Dallas in the Winter of 1990 and 1991, police were stunned at this killer’s calling card. This is the story of the seedy sides of the big city, its inhabitants, and the overlooked victims of society who were thrust into the spotlight when they crossed paths with a genuine serial killer. What happens to the eyes of those who stop looking? The Script for Episode 1 follows:
“And the Sparkle in your eyes keeps me alive, keeps me alive.”1The Cult, She Sells Sanctuary, on Love (Beggar’s Banquet 1985).
Enucleated: The Trial of Dallas Serial Killer Charles Albright, Episode 1
December 13, 1990: Mary Pratt
On 4:30 AM on December 13, 1990, Officer M.B. Arnold responded to Beckleyview Drive in Dallas. A Caucasian female was deceased, the victim of homicidal violence. She lay partially in the street, partially in the grass. There were no curbs or sidewalks in this neighborhood. Her arms were outstretched above her head, legs and feet slightly spread apart, and she was covered in a light colored sheet with a pastel flower pattern. Police determined that neighbors covered her body before police arrived. When police removed the sheet, they discovered she was naked except for a shirt that was pulled above her chest. There was an unusual amount of blood dripping down from her eyes. Next to her body was a condom inside of a wrapper. Because there were no other traces of a struggle or blood near her body, it appeared to the police that the killing happened elsewhere and that her body was dumped. The Medical Examiner’s office responded and collected her body for autopsy. Police officers interviewed neighbors and canvassed the neighborhood for potential witnesses. There were no leads, and the case would eventually grow cold.
One of the very first things investigators must do in their investigation is to identify the victim, and in some cases that can take days and weeks. But not for Officer Arnold. He knew her as soon as he saw her – he arrested her on numerous occasions for prostitution in Oak Cliff. He worked an area there known for drugs and prostitution off Fort Worth avenue just a few miles away from the Dallas County Courthouse and Jail, centering around two motels: one called the Avalon (left), the other called the Star (below). He knew and had arrested a lot of women working that area – and working is not the right word. They were selling their bodies for drugs. Ms. Pratt was one of way too many caught up in this vicious cycle of prostitution. The demand for the services of these poor women never runs out. In a 24 hour period, they have up to 40 “dates.” That’s their word. Because of the drugs, they would work for hours and hours at a time. They would turn tricks, take the money to the dope man, turn more tricks, get more dope, get arrested, get out of jail, try and stay clean, fall back into their old ways, start using, need more drugs, turn tricks, and start the whole thing all over again.
And the men were always there.
The demand never ran out.
Investigators found out that Mary was trying to get straight, and was living at her home with her mother Eula in the weeks leading up to her murder. But the pull of the drugs brought her back out on the streets. She convinced her mother that she was leaving to go pick up some of her things at the hospital from which she was just released. Her mother dropped her off at the bus stop. She never saw her daughter alive again.
Dr. Elizabeth Peacock was a Forensic Pathologist at the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Science (SWIFS). Autopsies are performed in a very ordered manner. The external injuries are noted first. There was a gunshot wound to the left side of her face – an entrance wound – without any soot or stippling or gunshot residue, indicating a distant range of fire of more than three feet. Dr. Peacock recovered the bullet from inside of Ms. Pratt’s head. The jacket was aluminum, a very uncommon type. She noted blunt force trauma to the face, and lacerations in her mouth. She had bruising on her breasts consistent with either blunt force trauma or a squeezing force. She had bruising on her trunk as well.
As a part of the external examination, a Trace Evidence Analyst named Charles Linch performed an examination of the body. Trace evidence includes hairs and synthetic fibers apparently foreign to Mrs. Pratt. Trace evidence analysts like Mr. Linch hope that in the event a suspect is developed, his hair might be compared to the hair recovered at the autopsy. Same thing for synthetic fibers: perhaps fibers from an article of clothing worn by the suspect (whenever that suspect is developed) can be compared to synthetic fibers recovered at the autopsy to see whether there is a potential match. Mr. Linch recovered a number of synthetic fibers from Ms. Pratt’s hair and stored them. The problem was there wasn’t anything to compare it to. No suspects, no suspected clothes. Nothing.
Dr. Peacock’s examination includes looking at the eyes of the victim. The eyes may contain fluid indicating intoxicants like alcohol were present in the victim’s body. They also may show evidence of injury – blunt force trauma or strangulation for example. But they were missing. There were no eyes. They had been removed. Dr. Peacock called this, “Enucleation – the removal of the globe or the eyeball itself.” She had never seen an injury like this. She consulted with her Chief Medical Examiner, a 40 year veteran named Dr. Charles Petty. He hadn’t ever seen anything like this, either. The process of Enucleation is normally performed during an autopsy, but only after the brain has been removed. And the removal is done from the inside of the head. The eyes are connected to our bodies by 4 major muscles and the optic nerve. The optic nerve is very tough – like a rope. Very tough to cut. The upper and lower eyelids were not damaged. Dr. Peacock noted small cutting-type injuries on both the inside and outside skin of the eyes. She had to borrow a special type of metal speculum from the Ophthalmology Department in order to complete her examination. The Medical Examiner’s office didn’t have that type of equipment. In her opinion, the removal was more surgical, and with the exception of the extensions of the openings on the edges of the eye, it was a skilled job. Although Dr. Peacock had never seen this type of injury before, it would not be her last.
February 10, 1991: Susan Peterson
Nearly 2 months later, on February 10, 1991, Oscar Martinez and his friend Carlos Cervantes were driving around some of the fields in Southern Dallas County near a street called Beckleyview. They were driving around and drinking beer and Mad Dog 20/20 when they discovered the body of a Caucasian female. Initially toying with the idea of moving the body to Cervantes’ porch to scare his sister, they came to their senses. Martinez called police instead, who responded in due course at 7:59 AM. The Caucasian female body was naked except for a white t-shirt pulled up to her neck, exposing her chest. She was deceased, obviously murdered. Mr. Martinez covered her body with a blanket before the police arrived. The field in Southern Dallas County is off Beckleyview. The area around the body was grassy, some yards away from the tree-line. Her body lay prone, approximately 20 or 30 yards from the gravel road, and 5-10 yards from a narrow ridge in the dirt. Finding no signs of a struggle, no blood, no footprints, limited car and tire tracks, and nothing to otherwise indicate that the homicide took place at the scene at which the body was located, investigators surmised that the killing must have taken place elsewhere, and that this Beckleyview field must have been the dumping ground. Long time Physical Evidence Section Detective Jim Cron – founder of the Physical Evidence Section at the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office – collected evidence from the scene including hairs from a cloth near the body. The Medical Examiner’s office collected the body and took it to the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences for autopsy.
The investigators identified the victim in the case as Susan Peterson daughter of Ronald Maple Peterson. She is the eldest of his two daughters. Just like Ms. Pratt, Susan Peterson was the victim of drug addiction and prostitution on the streets of Dallas. She worked the same area as Mary Pratt – Marsalis / 12th Street / Jefferson from 8th Street to 35. Everyone knew everyone in this area, in this business, on these streets.
Dr. Jeffrey Barnard – the newly appointed chief medical examiner after Dr. Petty’s retirement, explained the findings of Ms. Peterson’s autopsy. She suffered 3 gunshot wounds – one to the back of the head, one to the chest near her left breast and one in the abdomen. Because of the nature of the injuries associated with the gunshot wound to the back of her head, including gun powder, the Medical Examiner concluded that the gun was pressed against her head when she was shot – this is called a contact wound. Using the same analysis, the range of fire – that is how far away the end of the gun was from the body when fired – was determined to be less than 3 feet. A bullet fragment from one of these wounds was recovered. Hairs and fibers were also collected from her body and stored as is the routine in all homicides. A very rough and admittedly estimated time of death based on the condition and temperature of the body and environmental factors at discovery indicated that she had been killed sometime after midnight on the morning she was discovered.
And then there were the eyes. They were gone. “Removal of the globes. Enucleation.” The Medical Examiner noted that this was the second time he had ever seen these types of injuries. It would not be his last, and it also seemed as though the removal of the eyes was done better and cleaner – as if more practiced.
Again – just as with Mary Pratt, this case ran cold. No suspects. No person to search. No one or no thing from which to compare any of the evidence collected at the autopsy.
March 19, 1990: Shirley Williams
In the early morning hours of March 19, 1991, Ratha Bensley was getting off of work at a café. She was arriving at her home off of Bentley Drive by Kiest Park when she discovered the completely naked body of an African-American female laying on her side, bloodied, and the victim of homicidal violence. She was partially in the street and partially in the gutter near the curb. Next to her was a condom wrapper, a speaker cover and a receipt from Roton’s Grocery store located at the Wynnewood Shopping Center in Oak Cliff. Although the receipt was dated 2 months earlier – 1/29/1991 – it appeared to have been on top of the speaker for only a short period of time. Based on the lack of blood/clothes or any other indicators of a struggle near the body, police inferred that the killing took place somewhere else, and that Bentley Drive was just a dumping ground. Responding officers collected the evidence, and the medical examiners took possession of the body, transferring her to SWIFS.
Investigators identified her as Shirley Williams (left). She came from Dallas, and had 3 brothers. Investigators determined that she had fallen into the trap of Dallas’s drug-induced prostitution business. Like so many others, she was caught in the revolving door of selling herself for drugs.
Dr. Elizabeth Peacock performed this autopsy in the same way she performed Mary Pratt’s. Her examination revealed that she had suffered 2 gunshot wounds. Gunshot wound #1 was to her left cheek – gunpowder flakes present in that wound indicated a range of fire of 6 inches to 2 feet from the end of the barrel to her skin. She testified that the wound would have immediately incapacitated Ms. Williams – she would have lost all ability to think, remember, or move. That bullet was recovered from the base of her brain on her right side, and it was rare. Bullets are usually made of copper, but this one was made of aluminum. She had only seen aluminum bullets in an autopsy 4 times – this one, the one with Mary Pratt and 2 others. Gunshot wound #2 was a grazing type wound to the top of her head. The direction of travel that the bullet was fired was from the front, and it traveled in a straight line to the back of her head, grazing the scalp along the way. A near miss. Mere centimeters from instant death. She also had a broken nose; blunt force trauma of some sort caused a laceration and fracture of the bones in the bridge of her nose. Because no redness was associated with this particular injury, Dr. Peacock felt that this injury was post mortem. She also discovered a triangular piece of metal from just under the skin on her head. Apparently the tip of a knife broke when it couldn’t penetrate her skull. Her earlobes were damaged as well, as if an earring was torn out. There was no swelling, no hemorrhaging on her ears, leading the Doctor to conclude that the ear injury was post-mortem. Dr. Peacock hypothesized that the time of death would have been in the early morning hours of the day she was recovered. Scientists collected hair and fiber evidence from her body and stored it just in case a suspect was developed. And then there were the eyes. In a similar manner to Mary Pratt’s, Shirley Williams’s eyes were gone. Removed.
That makes three. In the span of 3 months there were 3 killings – 3 women – 3 prostitutes – 3 enucleations – 3 different dumping grounds – and no arrests. Dallas was dealing with a serial killer.
Jud Ray worked as a supervisor for the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in 1991. He had been there for 11 years, and studied murder cases, interviewed murder convicts, and had access to a database of crimes in the United States called VICAP – standing for the “Violent Criminal Apprehension Program.” He and the FBI became thoroughly interested in the Dallas Case because of the uniqueness of the post mortem mutilation of the victim and the preoccupation with the eyes of the victims. There was not a single case like this in his entire nationwide VICAP database.
There are certain key ingredients in solving Serial Killer cases like this one. Number 1: the victims “Victimology” – who the person was, where they hang out, their hobbies, employment, family background. Investigators needed to gain a complete understanding of the victim to understand why or how the path of the victim crossed the Defendant?
Environment of the Crime – including where the killing was accomplished or where the body was dumped (the Dump site), what location, how accessible? How might an individual reduce the risk of being caught? What does that location tell us? How risky is a crime of this nature? How long would it take to accomplish?
“Comfort Zone” is a term of art to Jud Ray. It simply codifies the idea that it would be very unlikely that a person flew in from New York to accomplish these crimes. A person normally starts out in an area in terms of killing that he’s very comfortable with. In this case, he must therefore be familiar with the dumping sites – perhaps he’s lived there, perhaps worked around there. A person isn’t going to take a mutilated body into a foreign area of the city he knows nothing about. It’s too risky.
The crime itself reveals the motive – as opposed to the Mode of Operation. They are separate and distinct principles. The aim of the crime is accomplished by an outward act. Say for example a bank robber makes the clerk disrobe after giving him the money, and once he gets the money, he leaves. This is his Mode of Operation, his “MO.” The purpose of making the clerk disrobe is to stall the clerk from running away and reporting the crime giving the perpetrator more time to escape. It is not a ritualistic behavior. However, if instead of leaving, he takes pictures of the naked clerk and then leaves, this is a Ritualistic behavior revealing an idiosyncratic motive that goes beyond that which is necessary to rob the bank. There is something intrinsic in the mind of the bank robber that only he knows until he expresses his motive in the form of the physical act of taking the picture.
The FBI Agent says that there are a number of cases involving mutilation after death, but none with the precision type cutting of the eyes and taking them away. “It is the work of one man, a lone individual, preoccupied with this kind of depravity.” According to him, what makes this case unique is not necessarily the preoccupation with the eyes, but the method and manner in which they were removed. They were taken for a particular reason: to relive and fantasize the kill.
Who would have those fantasies? In whose comfort zone were the dump sites? Who had a connection to the victims or the area in which they worked? The investigators were out talking to as many people on the streets as they could. And as it turns out, they were presented with a lead – it just didn’t sound good or believable at the time. But investigators were willing to retrace their steps, and those steps lead to a newspaper delivery man for the Dallas Times Herald named Charles Albright.
— End of Episode 1 —