Overlapping Murders: Debbie Thornton and Bill List

Posted: November 22, 2012 in Uncategorized

The most minor of decisions can have vast consequences,
and moments of synchronicity and kismet which initially appear to be gifts of fate
may subsequently be revealed as beautifully wrapped packets of weapons-grade anthrax.
When Ron Carlson and his sister Debbie Thornton received a phone call from their estranged father
Bill List it must have seemed a felicitous godsend. A fabulously prosperous manufacturing magnate,
Bill had made a fortune during the Texas oil boom constructing trailers for hauling drilling pipe,
and the money had flowed like crude from a Lone Star gusher. He’d used his great wealth to construct
a 34,000 square foot home; though Texas is hardly a bastion of modesty and restraint the gaudy List Mansion,
described by one onlooker as resembling “a Holiday Inn on acid,”
was the talk of Houston.

Ron and Debbie accepted Bill’s invitation to relocate from Ohio to Houston to assist in his business and become better reacquainted,
but the siblings’ relationship with their long-absent father soon became strained.
Although unquestionably a financial success, Bill’s interpersonal relationship skills were less sublime;
outspoken and truculent,
he also possessed a profoundly unconventional
sex life—he’d been divorced by Ron and Debbie’s mother in 1959 after being imprisoned for sexually assaulting several teenaged boys.

The siblings’ fractious relationship with their father eventually eroded into an uneasy détente,
and such was the state of affairs on June 12, 1983 when Ron received an unexpected phone call;
Debbie’s been murdered, his father informed him. Ron’s grief at his thirty-two year old sister’s untimely death
soon gave way to burning rage when he learned the circumstances of Debbie’s demise,
a notorious crime which, more than thirty years later,
is still considered one of the most gruesome slayings in Houston history.

Debbie Thornton

Debbie Thornton

The sequence of events which placed Debbie at her murder scene were entirely random,
a sobering reminder that even the most picayune of decisions may have dire reverberations
leading inexorably to the grave. After an argument with her husband Debbie had decided to attend a pool party;
there, out of all the men in attendance,
she struck up a flirtatious conversation with Jerry Dean, age 27,
and as the festivities wound down she agreed to accompany him to his apartment.

Unbeknownst to Debbie, Dean had been embroiled in a long-running feud of nebulous origin with Karla Faye Tucker,
age 23, a local amphetamine-enthusiast and part-time prostitute.
Although the feud had simmered for some time and there had been no recent precipitating incident it was this very night,
the night during which Debbie had randomly met and rashly agreed to go home with Dean,
that a drug-addled Karla Faye decided the time was nigh to end the hazy dispute in a torrent of blood.

In the wee hours of the morning Karla Faye and her boyfriend broke into Dean’s apartment;
exhibiting a lack of foresight characteristic of the pharmaceutically-impaired,
the pair had neglected to bring a weapon and thus grabbed a pickaxe which Dean, a manual laborer by trade,
had lamentably left propped nearby. The couple then crept into Dean’s bedroom and proceeded to bludgeon and hack
at their slumbering victim until the mortally wounded Dean lay silent in an areola of blood.

Such was the couple’s inebriation that they initially failed to notice their quarry had not been sleeping alone;
the intruders were preparing to leave Dean’s apartment when they espied Debbie huddling under the blankets,
frozen still with fear. Unimaginably terrified,
Debbie begged for her life as Karla Faye began to strike her with the pickaxe;
the unwieldy implement failed to kill Debbie immediately, however,
so Karla’s boyfriend delivered a vicious kick to the agonized woman’s face
forever ending her futile pleas for mercy.
In an astounding display of the cruelty of fate, Debbie had been murdered by two strangers
in a place she’d never before visited,
laying next to a man she’d known but a few hours,
for reasons her killers were never able to cogently articulate.

That Karla Faye and her boyfriend were sentenced to death for their crimes was scant comfort to Ron Carlson;
his rage at the barbarity of his sister’s murderers and the injustice of her death knew no bounds.
Sadly, however, Ron Carlson’s pas de deux with tragedy was not yet complete;
a little over a year later, on October 17th, 1984, Ron received word that his father Bill List,
the man who had drawn Debbie to Houston and her ghastly destiny,
had been found murdered—slain with his own shotgun in the foyer of his colossal abode.

Bill List

Bill List

To call the circumstances of Bill List’s demise sordid would be charitable.
The successful businessman and pillar of the community’s unquenchable thirst for sadomasochistic sex
with teenaged boys had finally come home to roost.
As a friend recounted, “He [Bill] was perverted, and by perverted I don’t mean gay;”
in fact, Bill’s sexual shenanigans were so extreme that a witness to his lewd escapades
later reported vomiting at the mere sight of the proceedings.

Not surprisingly, finding youngsters to participate in these debauched escapades proved challenging.
Bill’s favored source of prey was the Westheimer strip, a seedy, ten-block stretch of human misery teeming with dejected teenaged runaways
and hustlers so desperate for a meal or a fix that they’d willingly transcend the boundaries of normal sexual behavior
with an unattractive, overweight, fifty-seven year old degenerate sadist.

If Bill took a particular shine to one of these rough-trade urchins he’d invite the lad to become his houseboy,
tasked with cooking meals and tidying up the mansion in exchange for sexual servitude and a warm place to sleep.
For all his business acumen Bill exhibited a stunning lack of caution in his sex life;
common sense dictates that boys desperate enough to indulge in grotesque sex acts for money are capable of virtually anything, murder included.
Unlike his daughter Debbie, Bill List was not slaughtered in a random bit of happenstance;
he created his destiny much as he’d constructed his infamous mansion,
with careful foresight, boy by boy,
brick by brick.

Weary of Bill’s ceaseless sexual demands,
four of his houseboys eventually banded together and concocted a plot to murder their lecherous benefactor.
After Bill had departed for work on the prearranged morning the boys, led by Elbert Ervin Homan, aged 19,
ransacked the mansion and then lay in wait to murder their host as he returned home to his beloved architectural monstrosity for the very last time.

Bill may have been willfully obtuse to the inherently perilous nature of his sexual peccadillos,
but there is no question that the message literally if belatedly penetrated his skull in his last moments on earth;
as he stepped over the mansion’s ornate wrought iron threshold a single bullet crashed into his cranium and ended Bill List’s twisted sexual hijinks forever,
the acts of torture and degradation finally coming full circle,
predator reduced to prey.

The triggerman, Elbert Ervin Homan, was subsequently sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison,
escaping the berth on death row that had awaited Karla Faye; his three accomplices were charged with minor crimes and soon released.
Did Homan escape the death penalty because of Bill List’s sexual deviance?
Despite his wealth and social prominence, I can’t imagine a Bible-belt jury felt much sympathy for Bill List;
an older man who revels in sadomasochistic sex with vulnerable teenaged boys would doubtless be a pariah
irrespective of whether his primary residence was Houston’s biggest mansion
or a discarded refrigerator box.

Regardless of his predatory sexual practices, however, Bill List was still a father and a human being;
I can’t fathom how the circumstances of Bill’s murder must have affected
Ron Carlson—to have the details of your murdered father’s tawdry sexual practices printed in the media
and aired in the courtroom must have been horrifying,
especially to a psyche still raw from his cherished sister’s death.

Unbelievably, Bill List’s murder
at the hands of his sexually-exploited teenaged victims is not the last twist in this tragic tale;
after the deaths of his father and sister Ron Carlson found Jesus,
and in the spirit of the Lord the new convert reached out to Karla Faye to convey his forgiveness.
Karla had likewise embraced the Almighty,
and a friendship borne from the fertile ground of their shared faith blossomed between the murderess and her victim’s once-vengeful brother.
As the date of Karla’s execution neared Ron became a vocal opponent of capital punishment,
and often appeared in the media urging that his sister’s killer’s sentence be commuted to life imprisonment.

In a final act of symmetry, Ron agreed to be with Karla Faye at the moment of her death
just as Karla had been present during the last breaths of his sister Debbie.
When Karla was strapped to Huntsville prison’s well-used lethal injection gurney on February 3rd, 1998, Ron Carlson was in attendance;
it was the first time in Texas history that a victim’s family member witnessed an execution
not as a guest of the state,
but as a guest of the condemned.

Ron’s sister Debbie had been killed by Karla Faye entirely by chance,
slaughtered on a whim of fortune,
a cosmic joke with a deadly punch line.
Ron Carlson could have allowed his rage at this gross injustice to poison his life
but he instead wrested order from chaos,
somehow finding not only the wherewithal to survive his father’s and sister’s murders
but also the mercy to forgive Karla Faye.
I’m not sure if Judeo-Christian heaven exists,
or if a teen-loving sexual sadist would be welcomed inside,
but if a trace of Bill List’s consciousness lingers I hope he’s proud of his son’s stunning act of compassion.

Comments
  1. Night Raider says:

    Thank you for posting this. It answered a thousand questions that I have been searching for online for the last 10 years.

    I had a friend from Lake Charles, Louisiana who knew Bill List and visited him over the years on business. One weekend List had a large party and invited him to attend. My friend was invited to stay over since it was late. He said there were countless guest rooms like the Holiday Inn description many have given the mansion.

    My friend said Bill List had a private apartment suite upstairs that had very tight security with electronic cypher locks. After the party he barricaded himself in there and told his guests who were staying over to help themselves from the bar and the kitchen. My friend woke at daybreak and went to make breakfast. He said there were many healthful things in the commercial fridge and he chose orange juice and an assortment of fruit.

    He said he went to get the morning paper off the front doorstep and he realized the massive front door to the house would close and lock him out. So he found an object in the living room and propped it open and did the same with the outside grill door and retrieved the Houston Post.

    He said he waited to see if List would get up and greet guests but List slept in instead so he left the mansion and drove back to Lake Charles. My friend was not in the teen boy set, but a man of about 60 at the time. He told me this story in 1985 after List had been murdered.

    He evidently corresponded with List over several years because he said List called and ventilated to him for months after his daughter’s murder. He said List then informed him he was going to attend the trial of Karla Faye Tucker and her accomplice. My friend recommended List not do that, but he did anyway. He reported the testimony to him each day.

    One of the things List purportedly told him was that Deborah Thornton attempted to make an escape before she was overpowered. She ran to an outside rear door to the apartment located in the kitchen but it had a dead bolt that required a key and she didn’t know where the key was kept hidden. Her murderers dragged her into the living room and hacked her to death on the floor. List said the testimony from Tucker was that she first plead for her life. Then after the first couple of blows plead for them to kill her the pain was so excruciating. Really bad Karma about all these events.

    My friend died in 1998 of natural causes. As a result I was never able to ask him questions about List and his mansion that came to me later. This article did that.

    • That is such an interesting story; if I may ask, how did your friend feel about the circumstances of List’s murder?

      I’m very torn about List’s peccadilloes. On one hand, some of the boys were of age, and they were compensated for their involvement; List didn’t forcibly abduct and rape them—regardless of how degrading the sex acts might have been, the boys always had the option of saying “no.” I have no right to judge what two willing participants do in the privacy of their bedroom, regardless of their age discrepancy or financial arrangements.

      On the other hand, many of the boys were minors; and apparently all of the boys were homeless/drug-addicted and profoundly desperate for money. As evinced by Bill’s murder, the boys absolutely loathed the deviant sex acts that Bill enjoyed—he was clearly exploiting their poverty and vulnerability. To prey on children so desperate for a place to sleep and a hot meal that they’ll do virtually ANYTHING is morally reprehensible.

      I didn’t realize that Debbie tried to escape from Karla Faye; I’ll definitely do a little digging and amend the post if need be. Thanks so much for sharing your friend’s story!

  2. Connie says:

    I was incarcerated with Karla in the Harris Co jail. We became friends, and she shared with me her story. She never did mention Debbie trying to escape. This is the first time I’ve heard that.

  3. Chel Pompa says:

    Hello. I visited the list mansion in 1995. I broke in along with friends and a group of curious kids. I remember the house like it was yesterday. I drew it up on one of my lunch breaks. What i remember the most was a crazy walkway/room underneath the catwalk. It was creepy and dark. There was this communal shower as if were a gym on the lower section of the front of the house.

  4. Chel Pompa says:

    i have PDFs of the drawings if u like…

    • Katherine Bollmann says:

      I would really, really appreciate the PDFs of the drawings to the William G. List aka Todville Murder Mansion. I have been looking for these for a long time. I have a friend who’s making a documentary about this. Please, oh please, send them to me.

  5. Viola Carlton says:

    List was also involved (as a witness) in the Randall Webster Throw Down Murder Trial involving the Houston Police Department. You can check this out on OpenJurist website, Webster vs City of Houston. You have to wonder how one person can be so close to three different tragic incidents, a 17 boy’s murder, his daughter’s murder and then his own. Only God knows.

    • Thanks so much for the information; Bill List certainly got around, didn’t he?

      Did the Throw Down Murder get a lot of press? I wonder if any of the police officers at List’s crime scene recognized him as a witness who had testified against Houston PD….

      • Viola Carlton says:

        Yeah he did, except for the getting wealthy and identifying the police officers part in the throw down case, all the rest of of his luck was bad. Him getting murdered was partly his doing at least in my mind, he did some terrible things to those young boys and men, most of them were homeless runaways and street people and he preyed upon them. The throw down murder did get a lot of press and as far as the police officers recognizing him I’m sure they did. Some of them got put in prison, I really can’t remember but I’m sure they did. At that time the HPD pretty much did what they wanted. There was another case I think the name of the guy was Torres and they threw him in the bayou and he drowned. I don’t remember that case as well as the List case because I lived in Seabrook just down the street from the mansion(?).

  6. cindy shaw says:

    I spent many hrs in this mansion. But a few yrs after the murder. Went to school with bills nephew bucky.

  7. von alan says:

    amazing how stories can change from one mouth to another.how everytime its told , something is added to it.
    i know the truth, i lived there briefly in 1984 …have pictures , drawings and the memories . bill did not care one bit for others! it was all about bill.
    pay was a carton of cigarettes and an once of weed ea week.
    room and board also. was his grounds keeper , and when i found out the truth of what was happening, (the perversion) , my father come and rescued me.
    amazing people still talk about this.

    • ziggy8it says:

      You lived there?? Wow! My friend and I recently discovered this story and have been enraptured by the whole proceedings. Do you know of anyone who lived there like you who has written a book? Would love to read from the perspective of someone who was there. Also would find it interesting to see pictures with someone to explain things. Looking at the internet images only allows for my imagination to fill in the blanks.

  8. mac says:

    debbie played the flute

  9. Ron Carlson says:

    She also played the piccolo.

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