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.
“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.
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. 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,
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.
On 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.
The 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.
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.
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.