Everything’s Bigger in Texas: Overlapping Houston Murders Redux

Posted: August 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

In the 1970s the streets of Houston ran red with the blood of murdered boys.
All of the victims are equally dead, but the fates of their killers couldn’t be more different.

elliott5

Sixteen-year old widow is sad and bitter,” blared the January 18th,
1974 edition of The Argus. Deborah Cobble, bitter widow of headline fame,
married her husband Charles Cary Cobble when he was sixteen and she but a wee lass of fourteen.
Although the course of their true love had not run smooth
and the couple had briefly separated,
in late July of 1973 they were in the process of arranging a detente
when Charles Cobble dropped out of sight.

Charles Cary Cobble

Charles Cary Cobble

The reunion was not to be—the marriage was over,
but the impetuousness of youth played no role in its demise. On August 9th,
two weeks after his puzzling disappearance, Charles Cobble’s body was unearthed
in a boathouse belonging to an unprepossessing
neighborhood electrician named Dean Corll.
The discovery of the young bridegroom’s bullet-riddled corpse
was but an appetizer in an epic feast of carnage; Cobble, astoundingly,
dwelt not alone in the makeshift cemetery—Corll’s boathouse
had been transformed into a charnel house, the soil virtually glutted
with the decomposing corpses of mutilated teenage boys.
As the details of Corll’s depravity unfurled in the press
local residents were aghast and astounded in equal measure—Dean Corll’s murder spree would kill not only Deborah Cobble’s husband but also the innocence of the entire state of Texas.

Elmer Wayne Henley at his arrest

Elmer Wayne Henley at his arrest

Corll’s three-year bacchanal of butchery
came to light after he was shot dead by his teenaged accomplice Elmer Wayne Henley; Henley,
tasked with procuring victims in exchange for cash,
preemptively killed Corll when his delivery of a female prospective victim
so enraged Corll that Henley began to fear his own sorry hide
was next in line for a hastily-dug grave.

After dispatching his murderous mentor, Henley,
age seventeen,
led police to the bodies of twenty-eight teenaged boys entombed throughout the Houston area.
Henley and Charles Cobble had been friends and schoolmates,
yet despite their rapport
Henley had lured the young newlywed to his doom for a fistful of greenbacks.
Upon learning of this betrayal Cobble’s widow Deborah was not in a forgiving mood; as she told the reporter from The Argus: “I can’t help it, but I wish Elmer Henley the worst;
these boys and my husband didn’t get a chance, so why should he get one?”

Although this detail is given short shrift in media accounts,
by the time of Elmer Wayne Henley’s pre-trial hearing Deborah had remarried—six months
after Charles’ death, on December 13th, 1973,
the youthful widow wed Martin Steven Elliott, age eighteen.
Alas, their connubial congress would be brief—the star-crossed couple would separate within a few weeks.
Deborah blamed the failure of her second marriage on her continuing grief over Charles Cobble’s death,
and her husband, familiarly known as “Steve,”
wrestled with tribulations of his own—Deborah was not the only spouse in the doomed union
grieving the loss of a murdered loved one.
Steve Elliott’s little brother had recently been slain by an unknown assailant,
and the grim pall of tragedy
would erelong revisit the Elliott family doorstep.

stempelwidowwishesworstOn November 15th,
three weeks before Steve Elliott’s foray into short-lived marital bliss,
his younger brother Ronald Elliott, age twelve, had inexplicably vanished.
Other members of the Elliott family—father Martin Sr., mother Betty,
and six brothers ranging in age from twenty-four to eleven—joined law enforcement
in a frantic search for the missing child,
but no trace of Ronald could be found.

For four excruciating days the Elliotts hoped and prayed,
but when news arrived it was not bad but horrific—Ronald
had been found
butchered and sexually mutilated
in piney woods roughly a quarter of a mile from the family home.

The scene which greeted investigators at Ronald’s murder site was surreal: a deflating yellow balloon bobbed near the child’s desecrated corpse,
and a half-eaten hardboiled egg lay nearby—both objects used as lures, detectives believed,
to entice the child into the forest.
Ronald had been emasculated, carved from stem to stern,
and his throat slashed so deeply he was nearly beheaded. Dean Corll was dead
and Elmer Wayne Henley imprisoned,
but still the boys of Houston were dying apace.

Police had no suspects in the ghastly crime,
and although Ronald’s loss remained fresh to his devastated kith and kin
his murder soon faded from the Houston headlines. As the months passed
the Elliott family’s deep wounds of grief did not heal but ceased to bleed so freely,
and Steve Elliott’s brief but tumultuous marriage served as a reminder that,
painful though it can be,
life goes on.

And for six months life did go on—until May 8th, 1974, when another Elliott brother went missing.

elliottThe day had begun like any other;
after his return from school
eleven-year old Kenneth,
youngest of the Elliott septet,
asked his older brother Walter for permission to visit a nearby convenience store.
“I told him no,” Walter later explained to a reporter from the Big Spring Herald.
“We’ve been careful since Ronnie died, but he got up again and walked toward the kitchen. I guess he went out the door. We didn’t see him again.”

This time there would be no four day search for the missing Elliott child—with a dread-tinged sense of déjà vu
the Harris County Sheriff’s Office dispatched patrolmen on horseback to the same piney woodlands where his brother had been found six months earlier.
There, approximately two hundred yards
from Ronald’s murder site
investigators came upon a small bundle of clothes.
Unthinkably, history had repeated itself—nearby lay the ravaged remains
of little Kenneth Elliott, nude but for his right shoe.
Unlike his older brother, Kenneth had been decapitated; the killer’s grotesqueries were escalating.
It took law enforcement nearly two hours to find the second-grader’s severed head resting against a pine tree
fifty feet from his body,
his flaxen hair shrouded beneath a cascade of pine needles.

Eerily, aside from his missing head Kenneth’s murder scene was a blood-drenched carbon copy of his brother’s;
both boys had been castrated while still alive
and their torsos viciously hacked open. A half-eaten sandwich lay near Kenneth’s body;
like Ronald, he had apparently been lured into the woodlands with a snack.
It was immediately clear to investigators and the Elliott family
that the same assailant had slain both boys;
as Steve Elliott told a reporter from the Big Spring Herald, “You just know it has to be the same dude that killed Ronnie.”

Unlike Ronald’s stealthy disappearance, however, several people had spotted Kenneth
shortly before his murder—he’d been seen walking in the direction of the woods
with Lawrence Strempel Jr., a mild-mannered tenth-grader
who lived with his divorced father a block away from Elliott clan. At fifteen,
Strempel was small for his age; at 5’3” and barely a hundred pounds he more closely resembled a child of twelve than an average-sized high school sophomore.

Strempel’s father Lawrence Sr. was a construction worker
who drove a pickup truck plastered with right-wing bumper stickers;
perhaps hoping to inculcate his namesake with machismo,
Strempel Sr. insisted his son sport a military-style crew-cut rather than the free-flowing locks
favored by male teens of the time.
Due to his diminutive stature and close-cropped coif the younger Strempel
was a frequent target of schoolyard bullies;
many neighborhood residents felt sympathy for the ostracized, oft-tormented teen.

Strempel’s parents had separated two years previously,
and as the only child in the family who had chosen to stay with his father
the shy teen was isolated from his mother and siblings.
Despite his rather bleak domestic and social circumstances, however,
Lawrence Strempel had no history of wrongdoing,
and he was unfailingly polite to adults; neighbors described him as “a nice quiet boy” and “one of the sweetest and nicest boys around.”

According to his peers,
Strempel’s one true love was farming:
“He hangs out at the agriculture building,” a fellow student told the Panama City News-Herald. “It’s his whole life.”
Strempel’s class had recently butchered a calf,
and police wondered if the gruesome gashes on the Elliott brothers’ torsos
were an attempt to mimic the wounds inflicted during the slaughterhouse processing of livestock.

Before detectives from the Harris County Sheriff’s Department were able to locate Strempel for an interview
a major breakthrough occurred—a worried father,
large pocketknife in tow,
visited the stationhouse with a story that cast a damning light
on the pint-sized agriculture aficionado.
The man’s son was a classmate of Strempel’s,
and the tipster told detectives Strempel had asked his son
to hide the aforementioned pocketknife on Strempel’s behalf.
Investigators quickly deduced the implement in question was consistent
with the five-inch blade
used to murder the Elliott brothers; circumstantial evidence against “one of the sweetest and nicest boys around” was mounting.
stempelphoto

Strempel was interrogated later that evening,
and when confronted with these incriminating circumstances
the teenager quickly confessed to killing both Ronald and Kenneth Elliott.
It is, in some ways, a tale as old as time; feeling powerless,
bullied youth strives to harm those smaller and weaker than he—only this particular iteration of the vicious cycle of violence was far more grisly
than the usual schoolyard contretemps.

When informed of Kenneth’s fate Martin Sr. and Betty Elliott had to be hospitalized for sedation,
unable to cope with the slaughter of a second son in less than a year’s time.
The death of a child is a dreadful ordeal for any parent,
but to lose two,
and under such horrendous circumstances, is unimaginable.
Yet the family’s nightmare was not over;
the Elliotts may have been heartened by the arrest of their sons’ killer, but their relief at Strempel’s arrest would prove short-lived.

Although Strempel and Elmer Wayne Henley were both teenagers at the time of their offenses
and their crimes were roughly comparable—Strempel was charged
with murdering two boys, and Henley six—the twenty-two month difference
in their ages led to a staggering disparity in their treatment by the justice system.
Henley, who was sixteen when his involvement in Corll’s murder spree began and seventeen when arrested,
was tried in adult court; at fifteen, Strempel’s case
was eligible for juvenile court, where the sentences are brief and emphasis is placed on rehabilitation rather than punishment.

At the time, applicable Texas jurisprudence
gave the trial judge discretion to decide whether defendants under the age of sixteen
should be tried in adult or juvenile court.
Citing his otherwise clean record and challenging personal circumstances,
the judge deemed Strempel an excellent candidate for rehabilitation
despite the gravity of his crimes
and thus opted to keep the proceedings in the juvenile justice system.

The Harris County Prosecutor’s Office did not contest the trial judge’s ruling;
Strempel’s confession had been given without a parent or guardian present—rendering it inadmissible
in adult court—and the District Attorney did not relish proceeding to trial
with only circumstantial evidence and the rudimentary forensics of the time.
Apparently the great wrong done to the Elliott family
played no role in the judge and prosecutor’s calculations;
like a tofu dish at a Lone Star barbecue,
the Elliotts were completely ignored.

On July 16th, 1974,
Elmer Wayne Henley was sentenced to five hundred and ninety-four years in prison;
five months later, on December 18th,
Lawrence Strempel Jr. was ordered into the custody of the Texas Youth Council
until he reached the age of eighteen, roughly two years hence.
Lawrence Strempel ultimately served barely a year for each murdered schoolboy.
Elmer Wayne Henley,
his victims no more dead than Strempel’s,
has served a total of forty years and counting.

STEMPELREFORMSCHOOL

The Elliotts were devastated by Strempel’s risible punishment;
as Mrs. Elliott told The Valley Morning Star,
“There’s no justice if he’s turned loose.”
Mr. Elliot was further concerned with Strempel’s propensity for future violence:
“It’s too late for my sons; it’s other persons I’m worried about.”
I can’t imagine how it feels to have the justice system deem your murdered children utterly unworthy of avengement.

Though I can find no mention of his release in the media,
Lawrence Strempel Jr. was statutorily obligated
to be freed from the Texas Youth Council on his eighteenth birthday, July 15th, 1976.
Elmer Wayne Henley is still incarcerated within the Texas penal system;
the infamy of his crimes and the vocal opposition of his victims’ loved ones make his imminent release unlikely.

Despite my vigorous cyber-sleuthing I can find no evidence Lawrence Strempel has ever re-offended.
There is, I suppose,
an argument to be made that society has been well-served by his brief incarceration
and swift rehabilitation—the financial burden of keeping Henley imprisoned
for the past four decades has been steep.
But I can’t help but ache for the Elliott family— justice, ever elusive, evaded them entirely.
They’ve been sentenced to life without Ronald and Kenneth,
and not even a presidential pardon can set them free.

Their grief, vast as the state of Texas, will never be commuted.

Comments
  1. Jeff says:

    You’re never going to be Truman Capote no matter how badly you want to be him.

    • Julie Ann Smith says:

      What is ironic, I always said the Mr. Strempel reminded me of Truman Capote. I grew up down the street from them and had visited their house.

  2. dnajera15 says:

    http://www.mocavo.com/Lawrence-Strempel-Jr-Vs-Teresa-Strempel-Jr-Texas-Divorce-Record-Index-1968-2002/11882109814233043693
    http://www.mocavo.com/Lawrence-Strempel-Jr-Teresa-Mcgill-Texas-Marriage-Record-Index-1966-2008/08655083174811757108
    One record notes the Stremple Jr was born in 1958, the other notes that he was born in 1959, it seems likely that these are one marriage and one divorce record for Strempel Jr., who seems to be living his life, with literally no judicial repercussions, after the absolutely horrendous murders of the Elliot boys.

  3. Brenda says:

    I lived right down the street from the Strempel’s and The Elliott’s lived one house behind and over from us. Lawrence was younger than me and would always save a seat for me on the bus. His dad was a real wacko. Most of us thought that it might of been the dad that killed the kids instead of Jr. One thing that was not right in the article is that all of his siblings lived with the dad. I think the author was told otherwise for sympathy for Lawrence. The oldest, Pam was a friend for a while. I was spending the night for the first time and in the middle of the night I came running home because her dad would not keep his hands off of me.
    We had a sweet dog that all neighbors loved that walked us down to the bus stop and wait for us when we got off the bus, it was right across from the Strempel house. We felt like Mr. Strempel poisoned him. There was a gay man that lived down the street from the Strempel’s that was found hung, It was considered suicide. Mr. Strempel was visiting his house quite a bit, we wondered about his death also.
    Pam would show up at school with bruises and busted lips. Back then nothing was really done. She told me it was her dad that caused these injuries. He came home drunk one night, beat and kicked her with his steal toed boots because she did not clean and cook the fish. She was too young and did not know how to clean the fish. He drank a lot and I heard stories from her about how he treated their mom and the injuries caused by him. The neighbors had reasons for concerns. Like pulling a kid off the bus and close to putting a fist to the kid’s face before being stopped by the bus driver. So many things we could tell. The poor Elliott boys were not the brightest kids. My dad tried to help them by giving them small jobs when we were building our house. The rarely finished the job yet he still paid them. They broke coke bottles on our foundation and he finally sent them away. When missing, it devastated him and still haunts him to this day. He looked for them hoping to find them yet frightful he might. When the oldest was missing he said when they found him he would take him to pro wrestling match. If you knew my dad you would know it was so far from something he would ever do, he knew Ronnie liked wrestling. It was all so tragic and as you can see, I still think about it.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your recollections—you can tell from the news coverage of the time that Strempel Sr. was a horror show. I don’t know how the Elliotts survived losing two children like that; I’d be getting my mail courtesy of the insane asylum…..

  4. CJ says:

    Ronnie and Kenny as we called them are my cousins. I was only five when they died but I remember this vividly. They went camping with us at Lake Houston a lot and they LOVED it. I just cannot believe the justice or lack of!

    • I’m so sorry for your family’s loss. I can’t imagine how Mr. and Mrs. Elliott felt seeing their sons’ killer around town three years after the crime.

      • CJ says:

        Thank you! Betty and Martin Elliott have both passed now. I don’t know how they did it either. My Dad was one of the ones who found one of my cousins in the search. Don’t know how anyone could do such a horrific crime.

      • If you have any photos of your cousins to share I’d love to post them—I couldn’t find many images in the newspaper archives. For a crime so brutal there really wasn’t much publicity; I suppose journalists were burnt out from the Dean Corrll case.

  5. Tim says:

    As far as the Strempel case goes you have no proof of anything other than that a nice fifteen year old boy with no priors was made to confess to the murders. Every sensible person that knew Lawrence says they don’t see how he could have done this. He was institutionalized and released and has been a fine member of society since. Yet you provide this forum so that his reputation can be forever stained. Maybe he didn’t do it. Maybe he confessed to protect someone that he loved dearly. Maybe you shouldn’t be pushing a tale that has so few proven facts. Maybe you should let the man live in peace and let the community finish healing.

    • I’ll take this post down when those two little dead boys claw their way out of the grave.

      The Elliotts got a punch in the face from the justice system; even if Strempel took the rap for someone else he deprived that family of seeing any meaningful retribution for the loss of their sons.

      You’re standing in front of a fatal car crash whining about a hangnail.

    • Julie Smith says:

      There will be no true healing. I lived down the street from the Strempels and behind the Elliots. I was friends with the youngest Strempel girl and had visited their house on more than a few occasions… even ran errands with them. The two Elliot boys had been to our house while under construction and “helped” my dad build it.
      I still have nightmares about the house Lawrence lived in. When getting ready to build a major road, the county bought and tore down the house. In my nightmares, once the house is torn down, bodies were found under the house.
      So you see, even though it was over 43 years ago, leaving it alone will not allow healing. This was a traumatic experience for a 10/11 year old. I can’t imagine what it was like for the family. Sweeping it under the rug won’t make it go away.
      Why don’t you ask the Ag teacher he had at the time. He could no longer stand to teach since the boys were butchered just like a cow. How about asking my pastor who found the head of the second boy? A friend told me 25 years later that Lawrence gave him the knife to hide so nobody would know he had one. That haunted him till the day he died.
      No, Tim. There will be no healing for the community that was visited door to door by the FBI with police dogs searching around every house, for the community that couldn’t leave their neighborhood because of the hordes of press blocking the entrance. I will never heal from that nightmare.

    • Julie Smith says:

      There will be no true healing. I lived down the street from the Strempel family and behind the Elliot family. I was friends with the youngest Strempel daughter and had visited their house on several occasions… even running errands with them. The two Elliot boys “helped” my dad build our house.
      43 years later, I still have nightmares about the Strempel house. The county bought and tore down that house to put in a major road. In my nightmares, once they tear down the house, bodies are found underneath it. It was very traumatic for me as a 10/11 year old. I can’t even begin to imagine what the family went through. Sweeping it under the rug and pretending that it didn’t happen will not bring healing.
      No, Tim, there will be no healing. If you think there are no facts, just ask my pastor who found the head of the youngest in the woods behind the church. If he were still alive, you could ask the pastor’s son how he was haunted by the fact that Lawrence gave him the knife to hide so no one would know he had it. Ask the Ag teacher who could no longer teach because the boys were butchered just like a cow. Ask the community who was visited door to door by the FBI and houses searched by dogs, who couldn’t even leave the neighborhood because of all the media. Healing will never come, no matter how silent we are about it.

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