GETTIN’ A-HEAD: Decapitation Murders in Houston and Beyond

Posted: July 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

“The most difficult thing for us was to bury our sister without her head.”
—Decapitation victim’s relative

The recent beheading of wealthy retiree Russell Dermond, still unsolved,
has me pondering the whys and wherefores of decapitation.
Russell, age eighty-eight, and his wife Shirley, eighty-seven, were the unlikeliest
of murder victims—elderly residents of an affluent gated community which hadn’t been subject
to so much as a burglary in the last two decades. Blissfully married for sixty-eight years,
the devoted duo were slaughtered sometime between May 2nd and May 4th in their million dollar home on the languid shores of Georgia’s Lake Oconee.

dermondsWhen the Dermonds missed a Kentucky Derby viewing party
concerned neighbors made a welfare check
that devolved into a scene from a slasher film;
though nothing else in the home appeared disturbed,
Russell’s mutilated corpse was found splayed in the garage.
His beloved wife Shirley wasn’t the only thing missing from the crime scene—despite a thorough search, Russell’s head was nowhere to be found.
Shirley’s remains were located approximately two weeks later, secreted deep in the shimmering waters of Lake Oconee; although his wife’s head was blessedly unhewn, Russell’s head remains at large.

The murder of these churchgoing, law-abiding grandparents
is unfathomable enough, but the fact that anyone would invest the time and trouble
to sever and transport an elderly gentleman’s head bewilders me.
The Dermonds’ son believes Satanists harvested his father’s head
as a tribute to their goat-footed god,
but that seems unlikely—the circumstances of the crime belie a sophistication
rarely exhibited by the average teenaged or mentally ill devil’s disciple.
Most body parts collected at crime scenes are intended for use as sexual playthings, but Shirley,
I believe, would’ve been a much likelier target
of a deranged lust killer—male octogenarians are so low on the rape victim totem pole,
statistically speaking,
that they barely exist.

It’s possible, of course, that Russell’s head was simply taken as a trophy,
a keepsake of the killer’s grim deed—like a sea shell from a beach vacation,
only encrusted with gore and emanating the rank stench of decay.
Although ‘tis folly to impose logic on nonsensical events,
the impracticality of storing a decapitated human head as a trophy vexes me.
Nothing else was missing from the crime scene; if the Dermonds’ killer had wanted a trinket
why not pilfer the couple’s car keys, or wallets, or virtually anything else
in their fully-furnished, 3,300-square foot home that wasn’t oozing blood?
Decomposition is swift,
especially in the dog days of a Georgia summer; lest it resides in a freezer,
tucked perhaps behind a camouflaging wall of Lean Cuisines,
Russell’s head has doubtless turned black
as the flinty heart of his killer.

It is, I suppose, pointless to speculate about the motivation of beheading enthusiasts;
I am reminded of this quote from the classic French film The Rules of the Game:
“The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.”
And clearly someone had their reasons,
however ghoulish or demented, for coveting Russell Dermond’s noggin—hopefully
the fiend will be apprehended before he has his reasons
to add yet another prize specimen to his cranial collection.

The Orchard Apartments today

The Orchard Apartments today

According to medical journals decapitation in civilian populations
is exceedingly rare—beheaded corpses comprise just 0.1% of medico-legal autopsies.
Yet in the waning days of the so-called “Me decade” lightning struck twice in Houston, and the crimes remain unsolved to this day.

In the swinging 1970s the Orchard Apartments were awash in polyester
and grooving to a disco beat; inhabited mainly by singles, the complex was a mecca
for recent transplants lured to the area by Houston’s booming oil and aerospace industries.
By 1979, however, the hedonism-stoked shenanigans at the Orchard Apartments,
much like the decade,
were drawing to a close; soon dancing the Hustle on teetering platform heels
would no longer be the leisure-besuited residents’ greatest concern.
One midsummer morning Alys Elaine Rankin, a thirty-three year-old secretary, was found butchered
in her ground floor apartment;
when word spread of her grisly decapitation
every last mood ring in the Orchard Apartment complex turned black.

Although the murder of the Dermonds lay thirty five years in the future the circumstances
at the Orchard Apartments on July 27th, 1979 are uncannily similar—a good deed, a horrific discovery,
and an image destined to prance unfettered through a lifetime’s worth of night terrors.

Cynics say no good deed goes unpunished, and sometimes, lamentably, cynics are correct.
Bob Smith, Alys Rankin’s co-worker at a local engineering firm,
had offered to drive her to the office whilst her car was being repaired.
Upon arriving at the Orchard complex the would-be Good Samaritan found her apartment door ajar;
stepping inside, he bore witness to a Grand Guignol spectacle reimagined by Wes Craven:
festooned with blood, Alys was trussed on her bed, a pillow obscuring her upper body.
In a decision which would forever scar his psyche, Bob Smith removed the pillow
to check his co-worker’s respiration;
it was only then that he realized Alys’s life wasn’t the only thing
the assailant had stolen—under the pillow lay nothing but gore.
The killer had taken her head.

Law enforcement descended upon the Orchard complex,
and soon discovered the crime scene extended beyond the bounds
of the victim’s apartment—it was almost as if the carnage was too gruesome
to be contained within four walls. Detectives were able to follow a trail of crimson droplets
from a large pool at Alys’s bedside—likely the initial locus of her freshly severed head—past
the threshold of her dwelling, out into the parking lot
where the blood’s source had presumably been tossed, still dripping, into a vehicle.
The implication was clear:
Alys’s killer had toted her decapitated head through the Orchard complex as openly and proudly as a well-coiffed designer purse.

Even in the Harvey Wallbanger-infused, Quaalude-benumbed Orchard Apartments Alys’s murder caused
a sensation; many female residents packed up their earth shoes and pet rocks
and decamped to safer quarters.
Understandably skittish, third floor tenant Mary Michael Calcutta stayed with friends for a time,
but the twenty-six year old bank teller eventually returned to her apartment.
To quell her jitters she intended to barricade herself inside her unit and refuse entry to all but trusted compatriots.

Alas, like so many of the best laid plans of mice and men,
Mary’s scheme to convert her bachelorette pad into an impenetrable fortress came to naught;
on August 10th, two weeks
after Bob Smith opened the door of his co-worker’s apartment and launched an armada of nightmares,
Mary Michael Calcutta’s blood-drenched corpse was found sprawled in her bathroom,
hacked to death with a knife from her own kitchen. That which she feared had come to pass; her safety precautions had not saved her.

“Mary Calcutta died harder than any murdered woman I ever worked,”
a homicide investigator later told the Houston Chronicle.
“She fought her killer from the front door until she couldn’t fight him anymore.”
The attack was so frenzied, the detective said, that the murder weapon, a sturdy butcher knife,
had been twisted askew: “He stabbed her with such force that it went all the way through her,
and it bent the blade.”
In a bit of cold comfort, Mary Michael Calcutta kept her head;
detectives later theorized her killer had been interrupted
before the completion of the diabolical deed,
or perhaps the epic battle Mary Michael Calcutta waged for her life exhausted his murderous rage.

Much as Charles Manson is said to have killed the 1960s,
these two ghastly, still-unsolved murders killed the swinging 1970s at the Orchard Apartments;
the disco beats would never again be so loud, the chest hair never again bared so freely.
Although the complex has changed names several times it is still in operation;
to this day the murders are mentioned on, a real estate rating website.
The identity of Alys and Mary’s killer may remain unknown,
but his infamy lives on in cyberspace.

Although death never again came calling at the Orchard Apartments
the murders did not cease in our nation’s fifth largest city; on October 3rd,
six weeks after Mary Calcutta’s slaying and a mere ten minute drive from the doomed complex,
residents around Freed Park heard gunshots and shrill screams in the dead of night:
“Help! Don’t do this to me!”

A man in a hat
was espied dragging a woman by her hair
across the porch of a house adjacent to the park.
Although the police were called to the scene they found nothing amiss,
and assured worried residents the ruckus was merely
a combustible combination of rowdy teens and firecrackers. Morning’s light, however,
told a different tale—the veranda where the screaming woman struggled with her attacker was found
to be spattered with blood.

Later that day, four miles distant from the abduction site,
the lifeless body of Joann Huffman, age sixteen, was found dumped beside a picnic table in Watonga Park.
She’d been shot in the mouth;
although her blue jeans were unzipped there was no overt sign of sexual assault.
Detectives believe Joann Huffman was the screaming woman struggling with an attacker in Freed Park; the sounds the witnesses had reported the previous night were not belated Independence Day fireworks after all.

Joanne Huffman’s corpse was not the only dreadful discovery made in Houston that day.
In a nearby used car lot a sales manager was perplexed by the presence of a mysterious Dodge
not listed in the business inventory;
when he realized the smears dappling the car’s white paint were blood he called law enforcement.
Patrolmen arrived,
and a search of the vehicle’s trunk revealed a horrific sight—the headless body of Robert Spangenberger, age eighteen, lay inside. As is the case with Russell Dermond and Alys Rankin,
Robert Spangenberger’s missing head has never been located.

Robert Spangenberger and Joann Huffman were sweethearts;
since they’d last been seen together detectives were unsure why their bodies were separated in death,
and the reason for Robert’s decapitation remains unknown.
Sadly, to this day definitive answers continue to elude law enforcement in virtually every aspect
of the couple’s slaying—as is the case with the Orchard complex murders,
no testable forensic evidence was present, and no motive ever established which would feasibly explain the victims’ wanton butchering.

Investigators remain uncertain
if the couple’s deaths are related to the slayings at the Orchard Apartments—although detectives
are fairly certain Alys and Mary were killed by the same assailant they’re unsure
whether this perpetrator is also responsible for the young lovers’ demise.
No forensic link has been established,
and despite the rarity of decapitation murders police believe it’s possible
there’s no connecting thread between these tapestries of death—although statistically improbable,
two separate head-hungry maniacs may have dwelt in the area,
each nursing his lurid fantasies alone.
It’s also conceivable that the couple’s killer was inspired by the Orchard complex crimes;
the 1970s birthed some bizarre fads,
and copycat decapitations are no more outlandish
than platform footwear aswim with live goldfish
or peddling pond scum under the brand name Sea-Monkeys.

And this, dear readers, is the world in which we live.
Not only do the human guillotines responsible for all of these crimes roam free,
but somewhere out there, in a tatty hat box, perhaps, or afloat in an antique specimen jar,
three severed human heads bide their time,
waiting to be reunited with the earthly vessels from which they’ve been so rudely sundered.
The cri de coeur of today’s blog post?
Keep an eye peeled for these stray craniums,
and always lock your doors—decapitation fetishists lurk among us,
and if you’re caught unawares
that good head on your shoulders just might wind up hidden behind the Haagen Dazs
in the farthest reaches
of a headhunter’s Frigidaire.

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