'Bad Henry': Investigation Discovery Examines Serial Killer Case That Highlighted Inequity In The Treatment Of Black Victims
Photo Credit: An interview still of the victim's mother.

'Bad Henry': Investigation Discovery Examines Serial Killer Case That Highlighted Inequity In The Treatment Of Black Victims

Convicted of murder and given nine death sentences, serial killer Henry Louis Wallace has been sitting on North Carolina’s death row at its Central Prison in Raleigh since 1997. No one has been put to death in North Carolina since 2006 due to pending lawsuits challenging the death penalty. The situation isn’t likely to be resolved soon, and so Wallace isn’t expected to be put to death any time soon. To many, it is just the latest perversion of justice to occur to Wallace’s victims, all of whom were poor black women.

The new documentary special on Investigation Discovery, Bad Henry, details not just the tragedy of the murders but the firestorm of controversy surrounding the handling of the murder investigations of the women. It graphically depicts the drama of frustrated grieving mother Dee Sumpter against Detective Garry McFadden. Sumpter, along with her daughter Shawna’s boyfriend, found Shawna’s lifeless body in a bathtub of water and her eyes still open. Coincidentally, McFadden himself was acquainted with two of Wallace’s victims. McFadden has since retired.

Black women make up about 7 percent of the United States population, but, according to studies done by the Centers for Disease Control, are murdered at twice the rate of white and Hispanic women. The only other women killed at comparable rates are non-Hispanic Native American women. The media, though, seems to care much more about the murders of white women and report on those cases quicker to develop patterns of violence that indicate deaths are related or committed by serial killers. Before authorities caught Ted Bundy, police in Washington ascertained the killings of young, white, middle-class college-aged women were related. The same goes for Gary Ridgway, the Green River serial killer, also in Washington. Though his victims were of low-income and some were minorities, most were white. The vast majority of Ridgway’s victims were sex workers, an easily identifiable common variable.

A profile shot of McFadden.
Source: Investigation Discovery

Though not as easily discernible, there was, in fact, a common thread among the Charlotte victims. Citizens blamed Charlotte police for not investigating the cases for the emergence of patterns indicating there was a single perpetrator. All of the victims connected to Wallace, a definite clue the police force was dealing with a serial killer, as well as who the killer was. However, this wasn’t known until many women had already met their untimely deaths at the hands of the sadistic sociopath.

McFadden points out in Bad Henry that over the period in which the Wallace murders were taking place, there was more than a 200 percent increase in homicides. This directly correlated with the rise in the sale and use of crack cocaine. In contrast, there were only seven full-time homicide detectives in the Charlotte Police Department at the time.

McFadden doesn’t explicitly state it but alludes to Wallace’s wildly varying modus operandi over the course of the murders. Serial killers are believed to mainly stick to one manner of approaching, subduing, killing and dealing with the dead body. Wallace, however, was completely different. He stabbed as well as strangled some of his victims. In some cases, Wallace thoroughly cleaned the crime scene; in others, he did not. Sometimes he killed them in their home; sometimes he murdered them outside. Most victims bodies he left at the crime scene, in others, he dumped the body elsewhere. In one case, he set the victim’s apartment on fire.

Unlike most other serial killers, Wallace knew all of his victims. These were women he knew through working with them or met through his girlfriend, Sadie McKnight. One of the victims was friends with his sisters. There was never any evidence of a struggle at any of his crime scenes for this reason. Wallace was the one who went to file the missing person’s report for Caroline Love, sitting next to her worried sister, Kathy, at the police station assuring her that he would let her know if he heard anything about her sister’s whereabouts. He went to the funeral of Valencia Jumper, a friend of his sister’s. Wallace had raped and strangled Jumper to death before setting her body on fire. He consoled Brandi Henderson’s cousin, George, in the wake of her death, rubbing George’s back and assuring him everything would be okay. Wallace wondered aloud along with the victim’s families, “Who would do something like this?” There were small children at two of the crime scenes. One, a ten-month-old, he strangled and left for dead. Its mother had been holding the baby to her chest as Wallace commenced raping her. The baby was discovered lying by himself in the middle of the bed, barely alive.

A more attentive police force may have honed in on the similarities in the cases where he used a ligature because it also represented a signature. He didn’t use a belt or electrical cord as many killers do, but bath towels. McFadden also admitted that strangulations as a cause of death were rare and usually involved domestic violence situations. One can read this finding two ways. The first is that the detectives felt it was a boyfriend and were stymied upon finding no other evidence to back this up. The second is that they could have also been clued into it as a signature of a serial killer for the very same reason.

Interview of victim's mother camera in frame.Source: Investigation Discovery

Wallace had also raped each of the victims. It wasn’t readily apparent since he made them all re-dress afterward, but rape kits were completed on each. Sadly, investigators had not processed any of them at the time of Wallace’s apprehension. The failure of law enforcement to prioritize the processing of rape kits continues to plague law enforcement and frustrate victims and advocates. Across the countries, thousands of rape kits, some decades old, sit unprocessed in evidence rooms. Squarely at the intersection of gender and justice, it has become so worrisome an issue Detroit assistant prosecutor Kym Worthy spearheaded the movement to clear the shameful backlog. She worked tirelessly to make it a national issue with nonprofit organizations as well as the Department of Justice now involved. Actress Mariska Hargitay produced a documentary about it called I Am Evidence in which Worthy appears, stating, “It’s not just the fact that nobody cared about these women. It’s the fact that they were violated in the most intimate of ways and nobody gave a damn. Nobody gives a damn about women in this country.”

There may have also been a psychological blind spot. Back in 1992,  black men weren’t widely believed to be serial killers in the same way that white men were. Before Wallace, the only prominent black serial killer was Wayne Williams, who killed boys and young men. Black serial killers such as Morris Solomon (Sacramento Slayer), Carl Eugene Watts (Sunday Morning Slasher), Anthony Sowell (Cleveland Strangler), Maury Travis, Terry Blair, Kendall Francois (Poughkeepsie Killer) all came to infamy after Wallace’s imprisonment. It is perhaps due to the Wallace case that the subsequent cases involving black perpetrators or victims were perceived as serial murders by law enforcement much earlier than they would have been otherwise.

Still, Dee Sumpter’s perception that there was a gross disparity in the treatment of black female victims versus white female victims was not wrong. The media as a whole ignores the disappearances and homicides of black women while fueling public obsession over the deaths of white women. In the vast landscape of true crime television and film, most of the subjects are middle-class white women and girls.

Regardless of whatever protestations the police may come up with, it is difficult to reconcile two things: race and class. If the women were all attractive, in their late-20s or 30s, were all blonde and lived in a well-to-do neighborhood, it’s not hard to believe that the police would have been on high alert after at least the third killing.

Only after Wallace’s rate of killing escalated to practically one per day, punctuated by the same modus operandi and telltale towel signature, with two of the victims living in the same apartment complex, did it dawn on the police that these were the acts of a serial killer. Then, they asked the families for a list of people who knew Brandi Henderson, Betty Baucom and Vanessa Mack. Wallace was the common denominator, and a manhunt ensued.

Source: Investigation Discovery

Investigation Discovery itself is a network purely dedicated to covering crime stories, and most of those are murders. Most of the stories they choose to cover center on white victims. The same may be said of broadcast network true crime stalwarts Dateline and 48 Hours. Looking at the actual crime statistics compared to the way they are covered, there is a vast disparity between victims of crimes versus on whom the media chooses to focus. To be fair, over the past few years they have increasingly covered stories where black women and other POC are victims. It is clear that Investigation Discovery is attempting to do the same. The detective at the center of Bad Henry, Gary McFadden, has a series on Investigation Discovery called I Am Homicide, which chronicles some of the over 700 homicide cases McFadden was involved with over the course of his almost thirty-year career. In East Charlotte, where he worked, over 30 percent of the residents are black, and those are the cases that now have the chance to be seen and heard in a national forum.

In format, Bad Henry is very similar to other true crime series and documentaries in its use of on-camera interviews with family, friends, law enforcement and journalists who were involved. They share their memories of not just the case itself but the culture and mood of the community at the time of the deaths. There are photos of the victims as they were in life, full of vibrancy and hope. There are both still images as well as video of crime scenes and evidence photos that bring the crimes eerily to life for the viewer. Bad Henry, however, stands out in its slow, deliberate pacing and the wrenching recollections of Dee Sumpter and George Burrell, Brandi Henderson’s cousin. The audiocassettes of Wallace’s jarringly detached confession to the eleven crimes brings the audience into the interrogation room with police in 1994. There are also inserts of actual autopsy reports for some of the victims and news footage covering the cases as they unfolded, haplessness and helplessness etched on the faces of the victims’ families and investigators. This rich source material raises the bar; moving Bad Henry from what could have been reduced to mere spectacle to meaningful journalism.

Bad Henry is currently available to stream on the ID Go app,  now available on all streaming platforms (iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, etc).

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