We sat down with former Dallas investigative journalist and best-selling true crime biographer Stephen G. Michaud (author of books about Ted Bundy, Sarita Kenedy East and others) to talk true crime, elder abuse and his latest book – which is a combination of both.
When did you live in Texas and what did you do here?
I first came to Texas in the summer of 1973 to work for Hugh Aynesworth, then the Houston bureau chief for Newsweek magazine. The surprise local story that year broke on a steamy afternoon in August when teenager Elmer Wayne Henley was seen and heard explaining from the back seat of a police cruiser to his mother at home, how, “I shot Dean” – dead.
Dean was 33-year-old Dean Arnold Corll, Houston’s so-called Candy Man killer, who since 1970 had been luring the city’s boys and young men into the large van Corll drove around town, selling candies, pralines in particular. Young Henley and another youth, David Owen Brooks, had acted as the Candy Man’s accomplices, participating in his unspeakable sexual fantasies. Both were later tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, where Brooks later succumbed to Covid 19.
My major role in the investigation was to follow around the exhumation teams tasked with recovering the victims’ remains, nearly 30 bodies in all, many of them sealed in plastic body bags and covered with lime, buried in the soft sand beneath area boat sheds.
Is that first case how you got started in writing true crime biographies?
I left for awhile, and then returned to Texas in 1979 to work again with Ayesworth on what would become our Ted Bundy biography – The Only Living Witness: A True Account of Homicidal Insanity – Bundy’s account of his career as a serial killer as he explained it to us from Death Row at the Florida State Prison.
I didn’t think of myself as a true crime writer until I got married, moved to Dallas and discovered that my readers were mostly interested in more reports from the far side of human behavior. So, I obliged them.
Among my better-known efforts were two volumes on deviant criminals I wrote with Roy Hazelwood, an FBI agent and early member of the bureau’s criminal profiling team headquartered at Quantico, Virginia. Our books, Dark Dreams and The Evil that Men Do still are standard texts at police academies and in criminal justice curricula.
You’ve written about outlaws and criminals from Ted Bundy to a rogue Trappist monk named Brother Leo. How does Robert’s Story fit into your true crime book shelf?
In our last book together, Ayesworth and I moved away from aberrant criminal violence to a focus on fraud and deceit. In “If You Love Me You Will Do My Will,” Sarita Kenedy East, rich, lonely, devout and childless, is beguiled by Brother Leo Gregory, a wily hustler in Trappist robes who nearly relieves the widow of her half-billion dollar fortune, and might have succeeded had the monk’s plotting not been thwarted by Sarita’s sudden, untimely death. Much of Robert’s Story: A Texas Cowboy’s Troubled Life and Horrifying Death, follows a similar track to Sarita’s, amazing for the fact that Robert East was her nephew.
What attracted you to the story of Robert Claude East and what makes it different from your other true crime books?
Robert’s Story also stands apart, I think, for three important reasons: 1) The appalling ease with which a well-known regional figure lost hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as his life, to a pack of wolves, 2) The bravery of a young Mexican who audiotaped much of Robert’s abuse, 3) The unchallenged recall of Robert’s late cousin, Helenita Groves, who remembers in the prolog to the book, how she saw him on his deathbed, terrified. “I was horrified,” she told me. “He didn’t deserve to die that way.”
Where does the Robert East case stand now? Was anyone ever convicted?
The once proud patrón wasted away to death in a case where no criminal charges were ever filed.
About the book:
Tired, disoriented and confused, Robert Claude East, the aged patrón of a vast Texas cattle ranch, and suddenly the owner of the most productive gas well in the U.S., if not the world, was no match for the wolves when they arrived. Gradually, they took over the old man’s life and isolated him on his remote ranch—hundreds of thousands of acres on which his family had raised cattle for more than a century. This heartbreaking saga, locked away until now in hidden memories and buried deep in old legal records, comes to light in Robert’s Story: A Texas Cowboy’s Troubled Life and Horrifying Death, Michaud’s insider account of how easily the elderly are abused and financially exploited.
Here are some startling facts about Elder Abuse and some of what happened to this South Texas rancher:
> According to the CDC, 1 in 10 older adults in the US suffer from elder abuse.
> Elder abuse victims are often targeted for financial gain. Comparitech reports that over the last year, the cost of elder financial exploitation has grown by over 54 percent, rising from $177 billion in 2020 to more than $273.5 billion in 2021. Robert East’s monthly royalty income from just one natural gas field reached $12 million, making him a very valuable target to his abusers.
> Abusers tend to isolate their victims from friends and loved ones. According to the Social Security Association, isolation by a caregiver is a “red flag” that could suggest the presence of elder abuse. When Robert’s family came to visit, they were turned away at the gate per instructions of the ranch foreman, not even allowed to check on him. When his cousin brought a court order, demanding to see him, what she saw horrified her. Robert was dehydrated, emaciated and showed signs of a stroke. He couldn’t even speak.
> Police Chief Magazine says that not all law enforcement officers may be familiar with the many forms of elder abuse. This means that they might be ill-equipped and ill-trained to provide support to victims of elder abuse and their loved ones. When a Texas Ranger was contacted about the situation, he offered to visit the rancher for a “wellness check.” On his way, the Ranger stopped to confer with a local state game warden, who assured the Ranger that the old man was in good health and there was no need for a welfare check. The Ranger returned to Laredo without checking on East at all.
> Too many elder abuse victims do not receive adequate justice, because many cases are not reported because elders are afraid or unable to tell police, friends, or family about the violence, also noted by the CDC.
Robert’s Story: A Texas Cowboy’s Troubling Life and Horrifying Death is available everywhere books are sold and the audiobook will be released in September 2023.
More information about Robert’s Story:
Cover photo The Rosemary Hen
Leslie Barrett is a native Texan and avid traveler and reader, living her best life in the Hill Country.