KATHERINE RAMSLAND – Serial Murderers–Upclose

Dr. Katherine Ramsland teaches forensic psychology and behavioral criminology in the criminal justice graduate program at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. She has appeared as an expert in criminal psychology on more than two hundred crime documentaries, was an executive producer of Murder House Flip, and consulted for CSI, Bones, and The Alienist. The author of more than 1,800 articles and blogs and seventy-two books, including The Forensic Science of CSI, The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds, How to Catch a Killer, and Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, The BTK Killer, she was co-executive producer for the Wolf Entertainment/A&E four-part documentary based on her talks with Rader.

Over the past two years, Katherine has worked with Elmer Wayne Henley Jr. to tell his story of being an accomplice to the “Candy Man,” Dean Corll, who tortured and murdered at least twenty-seven boys during the 1970s. Ramsland’s new book, written with journalist Tracy Ullman, is The Serial Killer’s Apprentice: The True Story of How Houston’s Deadliest Murderer Turned a Kid into a Killing Machine, Crime Ink, April 2024.

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Elevator Pitch for The Serial Killer’s Apprentice: Elmer Wayne Henley Jr. is the only accomplice to a serial killer who killed the predator to end the spree. As a cautionary tale for kids today, Henley describes how he was lured at the age of fifteen and then leveraged to kill.

What is this book about? In 1973, 17-year-old Wayne Henley shot and killed Dean Corll, an adult predator who’d used him and another accomplice to help procure local boys for torture and murder. Henley called the police to report it and showed them where twenty-seven victims were buried. The true crime books published quickly thereafter offered just part of the story (with errors). Fifty years later, our book not only provides more details, including interviews with Henley but also tracks down what both accomplices stated: there was an active sex trafficking organization in Dallas that Corll had used to leverage them. We use this case to discuss teen vulnerability to adult predators, which is as relevant today as it was back then. Within this frame, we show how predators like Corll identify and groom recruitable kids to get them involved in criminal acts.

What is it like to interview serial killers? I’ve spent a lot of time over nearly thirty years researching the criminal mind, so talking to these offenders isn’t as daunting as you might think. I’m not a collector. I don’t have letters from hundreds of murderers. I’m more interested in the deep dive, which means I spend a lot of time on a few. I have a clinical goal, which gives me a sense of purpose, and I select those who want to help us understand how they developed. Dennis Rader, for example, was eager to get his story on record within the frame of psychological analysis. The process took five years. Wayne Henley proved to be a reflective individual who contributed considerable insight to my studies. Yet I’ve spoken to others who simply wanted to express their anger or gain some advantage, and I cut them off before I’d wasted much time. But each of these interview experiences, whether productive or not, had its moments. It’s difficult to listen nonjudgmentally to someone coldly describing torture or murder. Still, it’s important to do so because we’re trying to identify the signals of disorder in young people before they turn violent.

What inspired your current work? I’ve been researching the psychology of extreme offenders for over 25 years. Some time ago, I came across a documentary called The Collectors, which is about people who collect murderabilia. One of the subjects being interviewed was Elmer Wayne Henley Jr., who’d created some impressive artwork. As he talked about himself, it changed the impression I’d gained of him from the true crime books on the “Candy Man” case. Over a decade later, when I was given the chance to choose someone as a documentary subject, I named him. I didn’t know if he’d even talk with me, but he did. Once he trusted me, our discussions grew into a unique kind of book. No one had yet told his story from his personal experience. I soon realized that the kind of vulnerability he had in Houston in 1972 when Dean Corll recruited him is the same for many kids today. And we now have many more predators looking for partners. The book is more than a new telling of an older crime with more information than earlier authors knew; it’s a guide to help parents, teachers, and counselors protect their children.

You’ve written 72 books, and you often write more than one at once. How do you keep them straight? I was writing the second and third novels in my “Nut Cracker Investigations” series while I was also working with Henley (and working a full-time teaching job). But I’ve always undertaken multiple projects at once. Our brains thrive on cross-fertilization. I keep the projects separate by placing relevant documents in separate piles on my office floor. Some days, I can barely find a path through them, but I always know where to find things I need. When I tire of one project or finish one, I’m glad to have something else to keep the juices flowing. It’s been this way for me for at least thirty years.

What is your writing process? First, I form habits. I believe in the power of body memories. I get up, get coffee, and get on the computer. My days vary, but my body is used to starting the day with writing (and often ending the day this way). I’ve written a book, Snap: Seizing your Aha! Moments, which describes one of the best things to do for the creative process. I’ve discovered that you can set yourself up for flashes of insight and get them regularly. In the book, I propose a program that I’ve found useful for generating sparks. First, you create your “mental salad.” You toss in all kinds of info and experiences. Then you relax in whatever way works for you. (For me, it’s walking or riding a horse.) During this time, you let the brain’s association network mix and match the various pieces of info you’ve added to yield what you need: an unexpected plot twist, a new character, the resolution of a scene, a new direction to take, etc. I’ve been counting on this process for years for both fiction and nonfiction. Order and chaos working together.

Do real people ever influence your fictional characters? My discussions with Wayne Henley had an impact on two of my novels. In I Scream Man, the first novel in my fictional series based on a female forensic psychologist, I have a scene in which the Candy Man is mentioned as a predator with two accomplices. It becomes a parallel story for what happens in the novel. While writing that scene, I remembered I’d long wished to speak with Henley. Three years later, a set of serendipitous circumstances made it possible to contact Henley and work with him. To some extent, his story influenced the “Danny” character in I Scream Man, but I also used what I’d learned directly from him for a character in the next book, In the Damage Path. In fact, all the novels in that series are based on actual cases and, therefore, on things that actual people did.

What obstacles do you face when writing about people no longer alive? The figure of Dean Corll, central to The Serial Killer’s Apprentice, remained mysterious. In some ways, I had to write around the holes in his story. Since Henley had killed him, he couldn’t give interviews—if he even would. Some journalists collected comments from his relatives and coworkers, but it wasn’t enough to flesh him out, especially psychologically. The two who knew him best were his accomplices, David Brooks, and Wayne Henley. But both said he was secretive and wouldn’t talk about himself. We know a lot about what he did to his victims, how he leveraged his accomplices, and how he constantly moved from one place to another in Houston, but we don’t truly know how many victims he had. Brooks claimed Corll had killed someone in California, but I could learn nothing about his time there other than a potential connection with another serial killer. We do know he killed alone at times and had burial sites other than the three his accomplices were aware of. I tried to piece this together, but it was difficult. I was able to use the frame of what we know about sadists and predators to figure out some likely traits for Corll, but I’m frustrated that we may never know crucial details about his development.

What is your experience of writing with a co-author? I met Tracy Ullman while working on the A&E production of the BTK documentary. When a producer asked me who I’d want to interview for a similar venture, I named Henley. She told me Tracy had already talked with him about another project and had police reports and news articles. Henley trusted her, so when she made the introduction, he was open to what I had in mind. Over the next two years, Tracy and I balanced responsibilities. She worked on the inroads she’d made with Wayne’s mother and childhood friends while I organized the material to write the book. Tracy had also spent over a decade compiling research on the sex trafficking organization that seemingly linked Dean Corll to serial killer John Wayne Gacy, so she wrote the chapter segments where that material was relevant. We talked frequently to reinforce our focus and discuss issues that arose. She always responded quickly to deadlines and the tasks of seeing a manuscript through the production process. We developed a relationship of mutual trust and respect because we shared a vision for the book and honored each other’s expertise. In the midst of all this, of course, were the discussions with Henley. In a way, he’s a co-author, too. He had to trust us both despite being burned a lot by the media.

How do our readers contact you?

Readers can find me mainly on Facebook. I have three pages there. Also, my website, which I set up for my latest novel series, has an email address.

2 Comments

  1. Michael A. Black

    You have a tremendous work ethic and energy that is tremendously impressive. Having heard you speak on numerous occasions, I look forward to your next book and to seeing you once again at the Writer’s Police Academy. Stay safe.

    Reply
    • Katherine

      Thank you. I will be there.

      Reply

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