Was Dallas in the grips of a serial killer in the early 1990’s? Could police have caught him sooner if they had paid closer attention to those in the margins? Hear how testimony from Dallas street walkers combined with trace evidence led authorities to the man who has become known for his peculiar calling card – a pair of empty eye sockets. The script for Episode 3 follows.
Enucleated: The Trial of Dallas Serial Killer Charles Albright, Episode 2
The step by step process that investigators walk that leads to a particular defendant is perhaps the most important part of any homicide case. I’ll call it the “Homicide Chain.” In some cases the link is very short: a witness knows and saw the person who committed the crime. There is really not a chain, just 1 link. In others, though, there are more links, more steps the investigators had to go through in order to develop a person as a suspect. Once that person is identified and named, the investigators should be testing all of the evidence they have against that person. Leads often look good at first – those first few links in the homicide chain hold together well – only to be broken by some type of forensic analysis, or an alibi. When the chain is broken, that’s when investigators say that a case has gone “cold.” That just always meant to me, “leadless.” Sometimes leads are later developed by DNA hits or Fingerprint hits. Sometimes, like in this case, leads are developed by good old fashioned police work: interviewing and reviewing notes – that process of constantly reevaluating everything that can be known about an investigation.
The Homicide Chain
That good-old-fashioned police work exposed two discussion points I’ll share with you: 1.) The tragic journey of the Dallas streetwalker, and 2.) the story that eventually led investigators to Charles Albright.
Patrol officers work in the same area, usually during the same time of day. The really good ones get to know the people in their area well – and the people in the area know the officers well, too. The officers don’t always arrest the prostitutes they come into contact with. They are usually intent on gathering intelligence for making cases on the bigger fish – the dope dealers, the pimps, and trying to solve other violent crimes that inevitably follow the drug and human trade.
In between the killing of Mary Pratt in December and Susan Peterson in February some officers and witnesses noticed that there were fewer Caucasian prostitutes around. The word on the street was that they were being targeted. When Shirley Williams – an African American – was killed in the same way in March, however, it was obvious in the streets that no one was safe. The unifying tie between the 3 victims was their involvement in prostitution in the same area. Also, given that the crimes were most likely committed by the same person, investigators were conducting interviews trying to uncover the very obvious connection between the 3 victims and that single person. Perhaps one of the women who worked the area saw one of the victims get into a unique looking car or perhaps one of the victims shared with someone an uncomfortable encounter with one of their Johns. There was only one way to find out – investigators hit the streets. Here are the stories of the women who eventually testified at trial.
Mary was from New York. She began prostituting at 15 to support her addiction to cocaine and heroin, more than half her life by 1991. She had times of sobriety, some longer than others. In these times of sobriety, she had a family life with kids in school. But the streets pulled her back. And in those streets, she became friends with Mary Pratt, victim number 1. Friendships like that are very common; the women look out for each other as much as possible. They are fighting the same demons, struggling to survive in the same way. There is strength in numbers, and for most of these women, these friends are all that they have. Pratt showed her the ropes – where to stand, where not to stand, who were the undercover officers, where they were, and where they were not. They worked the streets together, becoming friends, sharing drugs and tricks. In 1984 Mary flagged down a man she would later identify as Charles Albright on Jefferson Blvd. in Oak Cliff at Radcliffe’s food store. He stopped, pulled over, and introduced himself as “Pappy.” The price was right, she said. But before anything happened, he told her “don’t ever fuck me over. You will be sorry.” She never did, and he became a regular customer every Friday for a couple of years. He always used a condom. She skipped town and skipped out on her Robbery probation in 1987 and went back to New York. She was eventually caught, brought back to Texas and sent to prison. She was released from custody in January of 1991. She couldn’t provide any other information about Albright closer in time to the killings, but her description put him in the area engaged in the business all 3 victims shared. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
Edna was another prostitute that worked the same area. She knew Susan Peterson and she knew the man she would eventually identify as Charles Albright – a man that she wouldn’t forget because of a very violent date she had with him and Susan Pratt. He picked them up and took them to the Alamo Plaza Motel on Ft. Worth Avenue – he was driving a red and white pickup with the cover on the bed. He wanted to handcuff her to the bed and did – one foot and one arm. He whipped her with a belt and made her scream, leaving painful bloody welts that permanently scarred her back. It was Susan’s turn next – he undressed, and he made her perform oral sex on him while he beat her with a homemade braided extension cord, and yelled, “Scream bitch! You Know you like it!” After he was finished, he paid them and dropped them off at the Avalon Motel. Although the timeframe was difficult to nail down, investigators now had a direct connection between Albright and the second victim Susan Peterson. They also had an example of Charles Albright’s extremely sadistic and violent character.
Cathey knew and worked in the same area as Mary Pratt and Susan Peterson as well. On the day Mary Pratt was killed in December of 1991, she was with her. They were at a drug house – she recalls that Mary talked about her hospital stay and even had her hospital band on. This was an important fact used to establish that Cathey had her dates right. Mary Pratt was wearing her hospital bracelet when her body was discovered and inventoried at autopsy. She knew Charles Albright, having seen him in the area in his red and white truck, but that was back in October. Although she hadn’t seen Albright and Pratt together on the date of Pratt’s killing, she did put Pratt in the prostitution area so often frequented by Albright on the night she was killed.
Tina shared her all too common journey with investigators, a journey that began with drug use and ended in a life of prostitution. She was born in Ohio, was married and divorced by 23 after attending some college. In 1983, she became a heroin addict, and moved around the country working different cities – Atlanta, Tampa, and Dallas. She described herself as a street walker – working in known areas around Dallas off Harry Hines, Samuel, Jefferson and Marsalis. Mostly though, she worked off Ft. Worth Avenue just south of the Trinity River and Downtown. She had regulars, men who return to her frequently and on a regular basis. She preferred them because they were safer. They came at all hours of the day, all day, all night. She met them in cars, in motels, in fields. That was her life, the life of a streetwalker in Dallas in 1991.
She met Shirley Williams in 1989 and they became friends. In October of 1990, she saw a man driving a red and white pickup with a camper. He was a “Mark” to her, driving up and down the street, pausing, looking at the women, driving back and forth, and looking again. Finally he made contact with her. He told her his name was “Dave” and that he worked as a carpenter. They made small talk. He said he was with a girl, but that there was nothing sexual happening between them, and that’s why he was visiting her. He also mentioned that he had recently gone to Arkansas to look at some property he might buy. She noticed tools in his truck that confirmed to her that he was in fact a carpenter: hammers, carpenter’s pouches. She also noticed the covered bed of the truck was full of blankets and boxes. They pulled into a field off Westmount near Ft. Worth Ave., a field she later showed police. She performed oral sex on him for 30$ – he provided and wore a condom. He became a regular of hers after that for the next few months, meeting him usually in the late afternoon after working hours on Ft. Worth Ave. He wanted her to go to a group of trees on numerous occasions instead of doing things in the truck, but she didn’t feel safe doing so. To her, there was no reason to leave the truck. The last time they were together in the truck, they were parked by those trees, but he was acting funny. She caught him reaching for something by the door as she was performing oral sex on him. She stopped and asked what he was doing. He said nothing, and then said he had to go to the bathroom. He got out and went to the back of the truck. She got out, not saying anything, and ran towards Ft. Worth Ave. He followed and tried to get her attention. She ignored him until she came upon some guys at a shop there on the street, and started hollering at him and calling him names so as to draw attention to them. He took off. She saw him after that, but never dated him ever again. On March 19th – 1991 – the day Shirley Williams was murdered – Tina saw Shirley Williams at the Avalon Motel on Fort Worth Ave. Albright came up to her as she was standing with Shirley, some feet away, but she recognized him. It was around 2 or 3 in the morning. She went off with another man, leaving Shirley and Albright talking with each other. He was driving a different car than his red and white truck, but she knows that it was him. She came back about 15 minutes later, and Shirley was there, with different clothes on, wearing a yellow raincoat. They parted ways. She found out the next day that Shirley was dead. She said she never put two and two together. Investigators, however, had a connection between victim number 3 and Albright on the night of the killing – and they had a description of a yellow raincoat.
Brenda was another prostitute willing to share her story, and hers might have been the most fortuitous. She came to Dallas in 1979 with her family and two children. She fell victim to drug abuse and was selling herself to support her habit. She knew Mary Pratt and Susan Peterson “by the streets” for a few years. She also knew the man in the red pickup. She estimated that she had seen him in that area about 10 times. On March 16th or 17th, a day or two prior to Shirley Williams murder, she got into his station wagon. She wanted to go to a motel but he had another spot. She didn’t want to go there – doing so would break a cardinal rule in her business – the lady always picks the spot on the first date. The man became very angry and enraged: “I hate whores. I am going to kill all you mother fucking whores.” She maced him and jumped out of the back of the station wagon and ran away.
Brenda relayed this story to DPD Patrol Officers named John Matthews and Regina Smith. The story Brenda told and the description she gave of the man who did it sounded eerily similar to an incident another prostitute named Veronica told him three months earlier in December on the same day that the first victim, Mary Pratt, was killed.
On that day, Officer Matthews arrested a prostitute named Veronica. She was caught at the Star Motel and had injuries on her neck and a scratch on her head. She told police that a trick brought her to a field in Lancaster or far South Dallas, hit her with a pistol, and cut her, but that she escaped. She hid in the field for a long time, then ran to a house by the field. She encountered a man in the house who saved her and helped her. She also said that the man that attacked her was somehow at the house, too. She told officers that all 3 of them had sex together. And that she was taken back to the Ft. Worth Avenue area.
Officer Matthew and his partner didn’t believe her at the time – they thought she was making up a story to gain sympathy in the hopes that she wouldn’t be arrested. How could it be believable that she would have had sex with the man that just attacked her? They took her to jail despite her plea for sympathy. Two days later, Officer Matthews was working the same area – and he saw a male and female engaged in prostitution inside of a big rig truck. When he went to investigate, he discovered that the female was Veronica – the same Veronica he arrested 2 days earlier. She immediately recognized Officer Matthews, and told him that the man she was with was the man that helped save her two days earlier at the house by the field in Lancaster in southern Dallas county. Officer Matthews took both of their names and identifying information down, and made the arrest. The man identified himself as Axton Schindler, and gave an address off Cotton Valley.
Now, in March of 1991, after hearing the similarities between Brenda and Veronica’s story, Officer Matthews decided to look into Veronica’s story a little further. He pulled the address Axton Schindler gave and found that the property records came back to Charles Albright. This is how he was officially identified, and how investigators were able to make lineups to show to some of the prostitutes you have already heard from. For example: Brenda identified the picture of Charles Albright as the man that wanted her to go to a field, and became enraged when she wouldn’t let him break the cardinal rule of “ladies-choose-the-location of their first encounter.” They interviewed Veronica again and showed her the picture of the defendant. She didn’t identify him when his picture was turned over – but she became visibly upset and couldn’t go any further. Tina identified him, and described and pointed investigators to the location of the field she frequently dated Albright off of Ft. Worth Avenue. Investigators searched that field for evidence, and they found some: one was the yellow raincoat Tina identified as belonging to victim Shirley Williams. The other significant piece of evidence was a light blue blanket. Investigators collected both of those, and sent them to the crime lab at SWIFS for analysis. Both would prove to be extraordinarily valuable pieces of the forensic puzzle in this case.
Now that investigators identified Charles Albright, they prepared an arrest warrant for him for the murder of Shirley Williams and headed to his listed house – 1035 El Dorado – to make an arrest and to search his house. Police arrested Albright without incident. While some investigators searched his home and property, an FBI Agent named Shannon placed Albright in the back of the squad car, handcuffed. He was very unemotional, very flat, and very calm when he uttered, “I really fucked up this time.”
Investigators had eyewitness identification of him, could tie him to the victims and to the locations at and near the times of the killings through a host of witnesses, but who was Charles Albright? What was he like – where did he come from?
The Newspaper Deliveryman
He was a man of extraordinary intellect. He was fluent in Spanish and French. He was an accomplished painter, singer and pianist. One of his friends also described him as a talented biologist. Up until the time of his arrest, he played competitive softball. In his younger years, he was a college football player at North Texas State University in Denton. He was also a bullfighter. He had been living with Dixie Austin for some time at his home off El Dorado parkway, and they had a dog named Nikki. She is from Arkansas, and it was there that they met. He was a wedding singer at a wedding she attended. She quickly fell for him and moved to Dallas, and into the house on El Dorado. He would buy her little gifts, and often came by her shop at the mall to visit on the days she worked. She said that when they would travel to different places, that he collected animals, preserving them in formaldehyde. He was a packrat, owned a public storage facility, and two homes. He leased one home off of Cotton Valley to a man named Axton Schindler.
Albright worked for the Dallas Times Herald delivering newspapers. Typically, his job required that he meet the newspaper distributors at around 3 AM near his route. All of the papers on the route were required by policy to be delivered by 6:30 AM on Monday through Saturday, and by 7:30 AM on Sundays. The route he worked at the time took about 1.5 hours to make. Albright stopped working for the Times Herald officially towards the end of February 1991, just a few weeks before he was arrested. Beside the time in the last few weeks before he quit while he was training his replacement, he worked alone. He also did work as a carpenter for some friends. Other than that, he didn’t have a job. That was Charles Albright – or Charlie to his friends. He was a white male in his 50’s, skinny with salt and pepper grey hair. And investigators and prosecutors thought he was Dallas’s serial killer.
Since there were no eyewitnesses to these three murders, investigators needed to forensically analyze all of the physical evidence and see what – if any – connections could be made between Charlie and the three killings. These cases happened before DNA evidence, so that wasn’t an option. Investigators did collect fingerprints where they could, but there weren’t any of value for them to try and compare. After all, the only real evidence at the sites where the bodies were found were the bodies themselves and the clothes that were on them, neither of which yield good fingerprints. And the few little pieces of evidence – the receipt, the condom wrapper found by Mary Pratt – didn’t either. So investigators and prosecutors had to rely on some other type of scientific analysis: hair and fiber analysis. And upon hairs and fibers was the case against Charles Albright built.
Trace Evidence: Frequency and Reciprocity
Trace Evidence is a term that includes the science of comparing hairs – head hairs, body hairs, or pubic hairs from human beings, or hairs from animals – collected at a crime scene, or from a suspected area like a suspect’s house, clothing, or car, or collected from autopsy. In addition to hair comparison, trace analysts can also compare synthetic fibers – perhaps from a blanket or carpet or a rug of some sort – collected from either a crime scene, autopsy or place of interest. A Known standard is a term that refers to a sample of a hair or fiber collected from a suspect or an object that investigators actually possess. Known samples are then compared with samples collected from the crime scene or autopsy side by side under a microscope to determine whether they are similar or not. Scientists consider their shape, texture, length, endpoints. They also use instruments to determine the exact color of the two samples. If all of these characteristics are similar, for example in size, shape, color, and texture – then the scientist will conclude that the hair collected from an autopsy is consistent with the hair collected from a particular suspect. It is not accurate for a trace evidence analyst to say that one hair absolutely matches another. The process is not foolproof. There are limitations to trace evidence.
First, it is not as discriminating as fingerprint comparison or DNA analysis, and scientists can’t guarantee that one hair matches another with absolute scientific certainty. They can say that one hair does not match another, however, and there is great investigatory power in being able to eliminate someone from being the donor of the hair.
Also, because the hairs and fibers do not provide – merely by microscopic sight – an exact time of being deposited, another limitation on hair and fiber evidence is that it is impossible to say when a hair or fiber was deposited or left behind at a crime scene. The term we’ll use is temporal proximity. Common sense certainly guides us in this regard. Environmental factors can give us some indication of when the hair was deposited, and the longer a body is in the elements, the less likely there are to be hairs or fibers due to wind or rain. Since some of the women in this case were found naked and outside, common sense suggests – although not conclusively – that the hairs and fibers were deposited close in time to the disposal of the body or else they would have been blown away by the wind, or washed away in the rain.
The location of the hair on the body or belongings of the victim is a very important consideration for forensic scientists. Whether the hairs and fibers were found on the outside of the few clothes that were on the victims, for example, was an important consideration for scientists in this case given that the female victims were found mostly naked.
It’s also important to consider any type of known or pre-existing connections between the defendant, the victim, and any object from which hairs and fibers are collected. Hair and fiber comparisons may have much more value in a stranger on stranger crime than crimes between intimate partners who live together.
Finally, hairs transfer from one person to another or one place to another, and there’s no way to say how many times a hair was transferred before it was recovered. For example, person A may have ridden in a taxi cab – person B gets in after person A. It’s possible that Person A shed a hair that got onto person B. Let’s say that after person B got out of the taxi, he went to a restaurant with person’s A hair still on his jacket. He puts the jacket down and the hair falls off. Person C sits down where the jacket used to be, and person A’s hair got onto person C. If Person C’s clothes were analyzed, and we had a known sample of hair person A, it would appear that A and C might have had contact – but clearly they didn’t. This is the transfer theory, and must be considered when analyzing trace evidence.
Understanding all of those caveats and limitations on hair and fiber analysis, the convincing nature of hair or fiber comparison may ultimately lie in the power of frequency and reciprocity. First, let’s mention frequency – that’s a term I’ll use. Scientists call it the Principle of Connective Force Increase. Here’s how it works: If a single hair collected at a victim’s autopsy is similar enough that it can’t be eliminated as having come from the defendant, you have some evidence – though certainly not conclusive – that the defendant was possibly in some type of contact with the victim. If more than one hair is found on different parts of the victim’s body that that is microscopically similar to the defendant, then two conclusions become much stronger: 1.) that the contact was first hand as opposed to transferred, 2.) that the hairs did in fact originate from the same source. 1 hair may not be enough, 2 is more persuasive, and on and on. The more hairs and fibers, the stronger the conclusion that the defendant did actually leave the hair or fibers at a scene or on the victim, and the weaker and weaker any innocent explanation becomes, whether that innocent explanation is coincidence, transfer theory, or the non-conclusive nature of this brand of science.
Finally, the power of hair and fiber analysis can be increased greatly when there are reciprocal findings. Simply put, it is one thing if a single hair that matches a defendant is found on the victim. It is quite another if the victim’s hair is also found on the defendant, or an area that he frequents, like his house or car. The force and weight of the evidence grows considerably in strength the more connections are made between the defendant and the crime scene, or the defendant and the victim, and vice versa.
For hair and fiber evidence, the fight between the lawyers on both sides boils down to the inverse relationship of the strengths and weaknesses of all of these principles. On the one side suggesting a connection you have reciprocal findings, frequency, temporal proximity, the principle of connective force increase, location, and a lack of pre-existing connections. On the other side, you have the inherent lack of scientific certainty and the transfer theory. This would ultimately prove to be the battleground between the defense and prosecution in the case. We’ll discuss the specific relevant findings now.
Numerous Hairs and fibers were collected from various places in this case: From the autopsies of all 3 victims, from the defendant’s house, from the blankets recovered from the field Tina showed investigators, and from some of the property in the defendant’s own house. In particular, his vacuum cleaner and a utility brush. Forensic scientists named Charles Linch, Chester Blythe, and Ann Reed took all of the hairs and fibers from these locations and items, and compared them to the known standards of Charles Albright and the 3 victims – Shirley Williams, Mary Pratt and Susan Peterson. These are the findings.
For the Hairs found on Shirley Williams – Albright’s hair was microscopically similar to the head hairs found on her back, on her left hand and one found on her face at her autopsy. Of particular importance is the fact that this hair – the one on her face – adhered to her face in blood, indicating a close temporal proximity to her killing. Albrights’ pubic hair was also microscopically similar to the pubic hair found on the back of her neck.
In the field that Tina showed investigators – the one that Tina showed them in March, the one where she and Albright had their “dates” – police recovered a blue blanket and the yellow raincoat. They took this blue blanket to the crime lab for analysis. Albright’s pubic hair was microscopically similar to 3 pubic hairs found on this Blue Blanket. Also on the blue blanket, scientists determined 2 different pubic hairs and 4 head hairs were similar to the known hair standards of Victim Shirley Williams. Fibers from this blanket were also microscopically similar to fibers found in Shirley Williams’s hair. Fibers from this Blue Blanket were also similar to fibers found in the head hair of the First Victim from December, Mary Pratt.
What about any hairs or fibers that was collected from the Defendant’s property? While Albright was being arrested and placed into custody by Agent Shannon in the back of the squad car, other investigators were there seizing property that they felt might have contained important forensic evidence. Two pieces in particular proved to be valuable for hair and fiber analysis. One of these important items was a vacuum cleaner; the second a utility brush. From the vacuum, 8 head hairs were consistent with Shirley Williams’s head hair. Some of these 8 had been forcibly removed. The utility brush recovered from Albrights property had 2 head hairs and 2 pubic hairs consistent with the second Victim, Susan Peterson, the one killed in February.
Investigators searched and seized 2 blankets from Albright’s red and white pickup truck, the one with the camper, and the one that some of the women described as being cluttered with boxes, tools, and blankets. Susan Peterson’s head hair was similar to head hair recovered from this blanket; Mary Pratt’s head hair was similar to hair recovered from another blanket in Albrights’ truck.
To summarize, hair and fiber analysis connected with ever-increasing force Charles Albright, Shirley Williams, Susan Peterson and Mary Pratt. It connected them through the principles of frequency and reciprocity, temporal proximity, and a lack of pre-existing connections. They tied Albright to the locations of the body dumping grounds and to his own house. They also indicated a guilty conscience – people only vacuum things that they hope no one ever sees again.
—End of Episode–