The Serial Killer's Apprentice

Image of The Serial Killer's Apprentice
Release Date: 
April 16, 2024
Crime Ink
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“The general public . . . may sleep better at night not knowing of the nightmares that roam the streets of their cities and towns, but it needs to be alerted to the very real dangers that exist.”

Judges have law clerks, doctors have interns, and serial killers have apprentices—recruited, groomed, and set in motion to round up potential victims, participate in murders, and dispose of bodies. Essentially, they facilitate the efficiency of the crimes. If they do their jobs well, they leave serial killers free to do that which they do best without having to deal with nagging little details.

There have been many studies on the psychology of serial killers, themselves, from Ted Bundy to Henry Lee Lucas, but what makes their apprentices tick? In The Serial Killer’s Apprentice: The True Story of How Houston’s Deadliest Murderer Turned a Kid into a Killing Machine, authors Katherine Ramsland and Tracy Ullman dig into the psyche of Elmer Wayne Henley, teenaged apprentice to Dean Corll, Houston’s notorious “Candy Man” serial killer nicknamed for his habit of passing out free candy to neighborhood children from his family’s candy company.  

How did 14-year-old Henley, along with another teenager, David Owen Brooks, help lure victims for Corll, believed to have murdered at least 28 boys—and likely more—in the 1970s? Murders that might never have been solved had not Henley reached his breaking point and shot Corll to death, then assisted law enforcement in the grisly task of unearthing bodies.

It wasn’t that serial killers didn’t exist before Dean Corll—Jack the Ripper being an obvious example—but they flourished during the decade of the 1970s, signaling the “start of the so-called Golden Age of serial murder.” But the term serial killer hadn’t yet been coined by any law enforcement agency nor had any attempt yet been made to understand how and why they did what they did.

On the surface, these perpetrators don’t necessarily stand out. In fact, as the authors write, they groom the community just as fastidiously as they groom accomplices or victims. “To the outside world, predators of children act normally. . . . They’re confident, competent, and seemingly truthful.” Those same surface attributes allow them to enlist apprentices, impressionable people who are often simply looking for someplace to fit in or be accepted. Sadly, the Dean Corlls of the world offer these lost souls what they most need and desire—and then they exploit it.

Elmer Wayne Henley provided some of the initial insights into predators of this type with his first-hand account of Corll’s methods and means in Houston, including his recruitment and grooming of “apprentices” that included not only Henley but also David Brooks. The authors categorize both Henley and Brooks as “compliant accomplices,” which they define as “participants who accept a lesser role in murder due to an emotional bond with the primary killer.” Both boys—and they truly were boys, minors when first entangled in Corll’s web—not only found themselves sharing in the sexual predator’s indulgences but also actively enticed other boys and young men to be victimized by this hellish trio.

The very notion seems unfathomable, but The Serial Killer’s Apprentice offers valuable insights into how such a thing can happen. The transformation is incremental, proof of the old saying, “Give them an inch; they’ll take a mile.” Corll’s demands, usually initiated as suggestions, came inch by inch, probing for the soft and hard limits of his young apprentices until lines had been crossed that could never be uncrossed.

“Through the process of grooming, Henley had evolved from a kid who wanted to help people into a kid who wanted to please a sadistic killer.” Then, ably aided by his trained apprentices, as well as bungling law enforcement authorities willing to write off disappearances of many of the victims as simply runaways, Corll wreaked havoc in Houston just as others of that ilk have also done across the nation.

The authors tell the reader that their purpose in writing the book was “to show the considerable reach of predatory networks and to explore how one boy’s vulnerability applies more broadly to kids today.” In the process, they occasionally walk a fine line between explaining Henley’s behavior and excusing it, sometimes relying solely upon Henley’s own self-interested words.

Although they protest that “[w]e don’t diminish Henley’s criminal responsibility (nor does he),” it’s not always so clear. They note that, prior to trial, Henley agreed with one of his attorneys that “he was being scapegoated for Corll’s crimes.” When the FBI declined to include Henley in their study of serial killers, the authors conclude, apparently based solely on Henley’s account, that he had “in essence” been nothing more than an “accomplice.” Without reference to any official FBI statement or position, they write simply that he “had no lust for blood, no fantasy-driven motivation, and no desire to have continued to kill, short of the need to please Corll.”

Or, to quote an old joke, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” Henley had, in fact, participated in the killings. He told police he shot one victim in the head with Corll’s pistol and strangled others, noting that it wasn’t as easy to kill someone by strangulation as it appeared on television. It’s unclear where the “need to please Corll” boundary was staked out.

The Serial Killer’s Apprentice is a valuable cautionary tale of the dangers lurking in our world for, not only children, but anyone who may be vulnerable to the lure of acceptance by someone—by anyone. Technology has only increased the danger. “With smartphones, kids now hold in their hands the thing that makes them most vulnerable.”

The general public, by and large, may sleep better at night not knowing of the nightmares that roam the streets of their cities and towns, but it needs to be alerted to the very real dangers that exist. The Serial Killer’s Apprentice sounds the alarm.