Crime in Dallas was at an all-time high in the early ’90s. In 1991, for example, the city had more than 500 homicides — about 10 times the number of more recent years. North Oak Cliff had more than its share of crime and gang activity.
John Matthews was a Dallas Police beat cop assigned to open the city’s first police storefront, at 220 W. Jefferson, as part of the Main Street program, a partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 10 years as a storefront cop, Matthews says, he helped reduce crime. And he also helped catch Dallas’ only known serial killer, Charles Albright, the Texas Eyeball Killer.
When the Jefferson storefront opened, prostitutes regularly worked the boulevard, Matthews says. He previously had worked for several years in the area around Harry Hines, so he was familiar with prostitutes.
“One of the first things we did was adopt a zero-tolerance policy for prostitutes,” he says. “We let them know that if they were out there, they were going to go to jail. At the same time, they knew they could trust us. I wasn’t just there to harass them all the time.”
Matthews and his partner Regina Smith arrested and re-arrested hookers until street walking was abolished on Jefferson.
Crime was so high on Jefferson at the time, and police responses so spotty, that many merchants accepted shoplifting and even armed robbery as a cost of doing business there.
Matthews and his partner walked the 16 blocks surrounding their storefront every day. In the first six weeks, they made 40 arrests, according to news reports from the time.
They formed relationships with business owners and started a program called “just the fax,” where, in an era before email was widely used, Jefferson merchants could blast faxes to everyone else on the street to let them know of a crime or suspicious person.
Communicating better prevented crime and helped solve many cases, Matthews says. In their first year as storefront cops, they helped catch a serial killer.
A prostitute Matthews knew, Susan Peterson, was found dead in a vacant lot in Oak Cliff in February 1991. This was after another prostitute, Mary Lou Pratt, had been found dead the previous December. Both women had been beaten before they were shot to death. They’d both been dumped in vacant lots, and their eyes had been surgically removed.
Since Matthews had known Peterson, he took her death personally, and he wanted to find the killer. He found that the owner of the vacant lot where Pratt was found also owned property near where Peterson was found.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but I was basically doing a geographic profile,” Matthews says.
But county records showed that the property owner, Fred Albright, had died.
Then a woman named Veronica, who was known as La Flaca, told Matthews that she had escaped from a trick who had tried to kill her. The tiny Flaca escaped the killer’s station wagon and hid in a sewer pipe.
The woman was known to be a heavy drug user, and homicide investigators didn’t take her seriously at first, Matthews says.
“The thing about Flaca’s story is that it never changed,” he says. “She was perfectly consistent.”
He believed her.
Eventually, she picked Charles Albright out of a lineup as the one who had tried to hold her captive.
Charles Albright was born in Dallas to Fred and Della Albright and had attended Adamson High School. At the time of the killings, he lived on El Dorado with his girlfriend, Dixie. He was such a disarming guy that neighbors sometimes asked him to babysit.
“Oh, he was totally charming,” Matthews says. “He was a pure sociopath.”
Albright had never held a legitimate job, although he falsified a diploma from Texas State Teachers College and worked illegally for a time as a high school teacher. He was a lifelong thief and sexual predator who lived a double life as a friendly guy who mowed lawns for elderly neighbors and played in several men’s softball leagues.
“I believe Dixie had no idea,” Matthews says. “It’s terrifying that people knew one side and not the other.”
Albright had a newspaper route, which allowed him to be out before dawn without suspicion. After his parents died, he spent their life savings on his habit of paying for sex. Matthews says Oak Cliff prostitutes knew Albright as someone who paid very well but was rough. His parents had owned several properties in Oak Cliff and South Dallas, and in one of them, Charles Albright created a dungeon where he tortured prostitutes.
Albright became interested in taxidermy as a young child, and there is speculation that his obsession with eyes came from that hobby. Among the clues police found in Albright’s home were thousands of close-up photographs of women’s eyes. He also was an artist and often painted women without eyes.
In December 1991, Albright was convicted of murder for the death of his third known victim, Shirley Williams, and given a life sentence. He is 81 now.
Matthews wrote a book about Albright, “The Eyeball Killer,” and he currently is working on another book about his time on Jefferson Boulevard called “Life and Death in Oak Cliff: Stories of a Beat Cop.”
Matthews lives in Ovilla with his family, and he is an expert on community policing as well as mass shootings. Anytime a mass shooting takes place, he is called to appear on cable news shows.
And he works as a consultant to cities and towns working in the community policing model, using anecdotes and lessons from his days on Jefferson.
“I truly believe that we laid the groundwork for all the good things that are going on there now,” Matthews says. “Since then, I’ve worked with communities all over to help them do the same thing.”