The Houston decapitator

By Robert Grimminck

In July 1979, 33-year-old Alys Elaine Rankin was working as a secretary at an engineering firm in Houston, Texas. On July 27, her car was being repaired, so she asked a co-worker, 40-year-old Bob Smith, to give her a ride to work.

Rankin lived in an apartment complex called the Orchard Apartments, which was located in Southwest Houston. 

When Smith arrived at Rankin’s apartment on the morning of July 27, he noticed her door was ajar. He let himself in, and he found a trail of blood. He followed the trail and found Rankin’s dead body.

She had been decapitated, and her head was missing.

Smith called the police immediately, and they arrived on the scene not long afterward. The apartment was searched, but Rankin’s head was nowhere to be found. 

An autopsy revealed that Rankin had been sexually assaulted. The cause of death was strangulation, and then her head was removed after she was dead. It was most likely detached with a butcher knife that the killer took from Rankin’s kitchen. He left the knife behind. Also found near the body were some razor blades.

The crime shocked the city of Houston, and the citizens wanted the killer arrested quickly. Unfortunately, the police were not able to make an arrest in the weeks after the murder. 

One person who was particularly shaken by the murder was 27-year-old Mary Michael Calcutta. Calcutta lived in the Orchard Apartments, just two floors above Rankin.

After the murder, Calcutta went and stayed with some friends. But she knew that this wasn’t a permanent solution, so she went back home. Calcutta told her friends that she would put a bookcase in front of her door, and she would never let a stranger into her apartment.

On August 10, 1979, two weeks after Rankin was murdered, a friend went to visit Calcutta. He found her dead body in the bathroom. She had been stabbed dozens of times, and her throat was slit. The murder weapon was a butcher knife from Calcutta’s kitchen. 

A homicide detective said, "Mary Calcutta died harder than any murdered woman I ever worked. She fought her killer from the front door until she couldn't fight him anymore. He stabbed her with such force that it went all the way through her, and it bent the blade." 

Just hours after Calcutta’s body was found, another young woman was found murdered in her Houston home. 26-year-old Doris Lynn Threadgill lived in a townhouse in Northwest Houston, several miles from the Orchard Apartments. Like Rankin’s and Calcutta’s murders, Threadgill’s murder was quite gruesome. She had nearly been decapitated.

Since all three women were brutally slaughtered within two weeks of each other, the police thought the murders could be connected, but they didn’t have any evidence that definitely linked the killings.

No arrests were made in any of the cases.

Just under two months later, on October 3, 1979, the police were called to a house nearly five blocks from Threadgill’s home. A resident told the police that he saw his neighbor, 16-year-old Joann Huffman, being dragged by her hair by a man on her porch. She screamed, “Help! Don’t do this to me.” The man dragged her into the house, and then there was the sound of a gunshot.

The police checked the porch and the house, and they didn’t see anything unusual, so they left.

The next day, the neighbor felt uneasy because he had not seen Joann since the incident. He called the police again, and they came to check Joann’s home. This time, they found blood on the porch.

Several hours later, Joann’s body was found in Watonga Park, which is about four miles from her home. She had been shot once through the mouth.

A few hours after that, the police were called to a used car lot in Northwest Houston. One of the car lot’s employees had found a white Dodge that had a bloodstain on it. 

The police opened the trunk, and inside of it, was a headless body. The head was nowhere to be found. 

They determined that the body was 18-year-old Robert Spangenberger, who was Joann Huffman’s boyfriend.

With five people brutally murdered in two months, the people of Houston were left reeling. Was one person responsible for all five murders? It’s something the police want to know, so in 2010, evidence from both decapitations was examined for DNA. Unfortunately, none of the killers’ DNA was found. 

Today, the police aren’t entirely convinced that all five murders are connected. They believe that Alys Elaine Rankin and Mary Michael Calcutta were killed by the same person, but they think that Joann Huffman and Robert Spangenberger were murdered by someone else. They aren’t sure if one of those killers was responsible for the murder of Doris Lynn Threadgill, or if there was a third killer.

Other people think that the barbarity of the crimes indicates that there was only one killer. They point out that in the two sets of murders, the victims’ heads were removed and they have never been found. This is a pretty unusual modus operandi. What are the odds that two different killers who collected heads were operating within several miles of each other at the same time?

Unfortunately, the cases have more questions than answers. For example, why did the killer take the heads? What did he do with them? To this day, they have never been found. 

The murders were especially brutal. Had they taken place in a horror movie, they would have been considered excessive. What motivated him, or them, to commit such gruesome murders? Could someone, or several people, have committed these horrific murders and gone back to their normal day-to-day lives? Did they move away from Houston and commit similar crimes? Were they arrested for a different crime, and they stopped killing because they were in prison?

Unfortunately, we may never know the answers to these questions. And since it’s been 40-years since the murders were committed, it’s entirely possible we may never know who caused the carnage in Houston in the summer and fall of 1979. 

Copyright 2019 by Robert Grimminck. All Rights Reserved.

Robert Grimminck is the host of the Criminally Listed YouTube channel. He has a degree in both English Literature and Film Studies from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario and a diploma in Broadcast Journalism from Fanshawe College.

1 thought on “The Houston decapitator

  1. I was Alys Rankin’s roommate prior to her moving into the Orchard Apartments…Alys moved into the apartment I was scheduled to move into. Years ago you could walk an apartment prior to signing the lease. So when the apartment management called me to inform me my new apartment was ready for inspection I drove to SW Houston to inspect it. I walked around the apartment, but to my initial concern standing in the galley kitchen at the louvre doors of the pantry the hair on the back of my neck raised and cold chills over came me..Thinking it bizarre, I ignored it and continued to inspect the bedroom then the bathroom. When I returned to the kitchen again, standing in front of the pantry, it evoked great cold and fear around me. Chills. The hair at my neck was standing up…So by now I am thinking I am going crazy so I stepped outside the apartment to calm down and warm myself to see if I could change my perception of the kitchen pantry. After a few minutes of walking along the outdoor walkway I returned to the apartment. Determined to examine my emotions as to what the hell was happening…It took only seconds for the wave of terror to surround me and I felt pure cold evil energy flooding through the pantry door. I literally ran from the apartment, got in my car, drove to the apartment office and told them I was not taking the apartment. I lost my deposit and the manager wanted to know why I did not want the apartment. I was afraid she would think I was totally crazy if I told her I felt evil in the kitchen at the pantry door…so my stupid excuse not to move in, was the apartment would not provide enough sunlight for my very large ficus tree. The manager looked at me as if I was crazy. Little did she know how crazy she would think I was if I gave her my real reason. So I returned to the apartment that Alys and I shared and all I told her was I did not plan on taking the apartment. She ask if I would care if she inquired about renting it. I said no and maybe they would transfer my deposit to her since I just left them and had told them no..I did not say anything about my concerns. I was ashamed to tell Alys that I was afraid of the apartment. After all how crazy did that sound? But after she was murdered in that apartment, I have never really forgiven myself for not speaking of my fears or premonition of the evil in that apartment. This still haunts me and leaves me with guilt 41 years later. I do not know if Alys would have chosen not to lease the apartment if I had shared my fears, but I would have at least given her the opportunity to think about what frightened me about the apartment and then she could make an informed decision.

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