Dallas pathologist Elizabeth Peacock was examining the body of Mary Pratt, 33, a prostitute who had been shot in the head the night before, Dec. 12, 1990. Peacock was not prepared for what she found when she opened the eyelids.
Pratt’s eyeballs were gone, removed with such precision that it appeared, when the lids were shut, as if they were still in the victim’s head.
It was the first time she’d ever seen anything like it, but it would not be the last. This form of mutilation would become the signature of a monster.
The press dubbed him the “Eyeball Killer.”
Two months later, another Dallas pathologist examining a murdered prostitute — Susan Peterson, 27 — had the same startling experience of finding empty space where eyeballs should have been.
Pratt’s body had been dumped at the side of a road on the outskirts of town. Peterson’s was found about a mile away, also in clear sight. Police speculated that the person responsible wanted people to see his handiwork.
Mary Pratt, a 33-year-old prostitute was fatally shot in December 1990. The pathologist soon found that her eyes had been cleanly removed as well.
On March 19, 1991, the body of a third prostitute, Shirley Williams, 45, was found on a road in full view of an elementary school. Like the others, she had been shot in the head, and her eyeballs were gone. But the killer was sloppier this time. There were cuts around the eyes, including one large gash that contained the tip of an X-Acto blade.
News of the mutilation murders spread, sparking a wildfire of tips from people sure they knew who committed the crimes. Among these was Veronica Rodriguez, 26. She said she not only knew the killer’s identity, but that she witnessed Pratt’s murder.
Rodriguez, a prostitute, was well known to police. Drugs had fried her brain, and she lied and was incoherent much of the time, wrote John Matthews, a detective on the case, in “The Eyeball Killer,” a book co-authored with Christine Wicker.
Rodriguez was so flaky that no one believed her horror story of how she and Pratt had gone off with a stranger for a threesome in a south Dallas field.
Rodriguez recalled that the man became violent and hit her in the head with a gun, briefly knocking her out. She said she came to just in time to see the man shoot Pratt, and she bolted to the closest house, where the occupant — truck driver Axton Schindler — let her in.
Susan Peterson, 27, suffered the same fate two months later.
Police started probing Schindler’s background on the chance that, in her drug-addled state, Rodriguez had scrambled some details and mistook the attacker for her savior.
They found nothing — except one possible clue. The house where Schindler was living belonged to another man — Charles Albright, 57, a former high school science teacher who owned a few pieces of property around Dallas. Two were near the dumping grounds for the dead prostitutes.
More evidence soon came from Brenda White, 37.
A 20-year veteran of the streets, White said that one of her clients had tried to kill her, and she got away only because she had a can of Mace.
Rodriguez and White described the attacker as middle-aged, with salt-and-pepper hair.
Shirley Williams, 45, was found similarly mutilated the following month. Albright was ultimately found guilty of her murder.
Albright fit the description.
Police started looking into his background and learned he was the adopted son of Fred and Delle Albright, a Dallas grocer and his stay-at-home wife.
Delle Albright was devoted and very strict. She nurtured the child’s natural talents with piano, art and language lessons.
Among these enrichment activities was a craft that psychologists would later blame for Albright’s ghoulish obsession with eyeballs.
In 1944, Delle Albright enrolled her son in a mail-order taxidermy course. Through this, he learned how to pop an eye out of its socket without damaging the surrounding tissues. The family budget could not afford expensive glass eyes for the stuffed animals. Charlie’s creations were finished with black buttons sewn over the sockets.
Veronica Rodriguez was one of two prostitutes whose testimony led cops to Albright.
Charlie was a bright child who appeared to have a shining future, but, as he grew older, a dark side emerged. By the late 1980s, Albright had a long criminal history, including child molestation, and no job. He lived in one of the houses left to him by his parents and had a common-law wife who supported him. He sometimes allowed acquaintances, like Schindler, to stay at one of the homes he inherited.
White and Rodriguez picked Albright’s picture out of a photo lineup; police arrested him at his home on March 22, 1991. Searches of Albright’s property turned up hints — like stashes of guns and X-Acto knives and collections of true-crime books — but no strong links to the killings.
Hair from a squirrel’s tail became a key part of the case against him. Police located the field where Williams was murdered and found her coat. They recovered squirrel hairs from the coat and matched them to strands found in the vacuum at Albright’s home. Investigators believed that both killer and victim picked up squirrel hairs at the scene.
Albright was charged with four murders, including one dating back to 1988, but went to trial just for Williams’ death.
The prosecution’s case was built entirely on circumstantial evidence — hair samples and the testimony of prostitutes.
Still, on Dec. 18, the jury found Albright guilty of Williams’ murder, which meant a life sentence. Now 84, he remains confined to a psychiatric hospital, still insisting that he killed no one and never touched a human eyeball.
His case will come up for parole review in August.