Henry Louis Wallace, known as “The Charlotte Strangler” and “The Taco Bell Strangler,” murdered 11 Black women in the span of four years in the 1990s.
Wallace was the manager of a Taco Bell restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina. Ten of his victims were his friends or acquaintances, including three who worked at the restaurant, and one who was the roommate of his girlfriend.
He raped and strangled most of his victims, who unsuspectingly let him into their homes. He even attended at least one of their funerals, according to a 1995 article in The Charlotte Observer.
[Stream an episode of First Blood about Henry Louis Wallace and his victims in the A&E App.]
Investigators didn’t figure out a serial killer was at large until Wallace murdered two women who lived in the same apartment complex on back-to-back days in March 1994. He killed his 11th victim shortly after, and finally was caught and arrested on March 12, 1994.
Investigating Under ‘Difficult Conditions’
During a press conference following Wallace’s arrest, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Deputy Chief Larry Snider said police “worked tremendously hard” and “did an excellent job” investigating the cases.
“We’re sorry that we didn’t get him identified earlier,” he said. “Had we done that, we maybe could have saved the lives of some of these women.”
With a total 129 murders, 1993 was the deadliest year in Charlotte, partly fueled by the crack epidemic. Former Charlotte-Mecklenburg homicide detective Garry McFadden, who worked on the Wallace murders, tells A&E True Crime the unit was understaffed, with only six to eight detectives who also dealt with natural and accidental deaths, suicides and missing persons.
“We worked under very difficult conditions,” says McFadden, now sheriff in Mecklenburg County. “We never had time to collaborate, we never had time to give [cases] a lot of attention. “Additionally, the Wallace investigations were hampered by the fact that the killer wiped down surfaces and put items he wasn’t sure he touched in the oven to evaporate any prints, McFadden says. Wallace made at least one of his victims shower to wash off DNA evidence.
The race of Wallace’s victims may have also played a role, according to Dee Sumpter, co-founder of the victims’ rights group Mothers of Murdered Offspring in Charlotte. Sumpter’s 20-year-old daughter, Shawna Hawk, was murdered by Wallace in 1993.
“They didn’t give enough value to Black women’s lives. It just didn’t matter to them,” Sumpter, who pushed the police department to keep investigating her daughter’s murder, tells A&E True Crime. “They were overworked, unbeknownst to me underpaid and they just didn’t give a damn. All those factors were working together in concert.”
Henry Louis Wallace’s Violent Childhood
According to various accounts, Wallace was raised by a single mother who abused him physically and psychologically while growing up in Barnwell, South Carolina.
He told police he started having violent fantasies of dominating women after he witnessed a gang rape at age 8, according to an episode of A&E’s First Blood on Wallace. At 16, he attempted to rape a friend’s younger sister. Eventually, he started having “rough sex” with sex workers.
In high school, he got good grades, served on the student council and was well-liked as the only male on the cheerleading squad, according to a 1994 article in The Charlotte Observer.
He joined the U.S. Navy in 1985, at age 20, and married a high school classmate while on leave. The marriage was short lived.
Wallace committed his first rape in 1987 in Seattle, where he was stationed. The Navy honorably discharged him in 1992 after he was caught stealing, and he returned home to South Carolina.
Henry Louis Wallace’s Victims
Wallace’s first murder victim was 18-year-old Tashanda Bethea, a local woman. Her body was found in a pond in March 1990. Wallace then moved to Charlotte, where he killed 10 more women through March 1994.
In addition to Bethea and Hawk, his other victims were: Sharon Lavette Nance, 33; Caroline Love, 20; Audrey Ann Spain, 24; Valencia M. Jumper, 21; Michelle Stinson, 20; Vanessa Little Mack, 25; Betty Jean Baucom, 24; Brandi J. Henderson, 18; and Debra Slaughter, 35. He also tried to strangle Henderson’s 10-month-old son, who survived.
All along, Wallace—who at some point had become addicted to crack—played the part of the concerned friend, Hawk’s mother says.
Hawk was loving, kind, sensitive, warm and giving, her mother says. She attended community college, and considered a career in nursing, law or politics. She was happy to work at Taco Bell, where she earned her highest salary yet. She once went to a comedy show with Wallace, who came to pick her up at the house, but was not interested in dating him, her mother says.
Wallace, whom Sumpter described as “intelligent” and “well-spoken,” went to her daughter’s visitation. Later, Sumpter ran into him at a store.
“He leans over to hug me and says, ‘I’ve been wanting to come and see you. I’m so sorry,'” Sumpter recalls. “He’s hugging me and patting me on the back, saying, ‘Oh my God, Shawna was the sweetest person ever.'”
Police finally zeroed in on Wallace after they located Baucom’s car and found his palm print on the trunk. They pulled his mugshot, in which he wore a cross-shaped earring, just like a man who was identified as having used Mack’s ATM card after her death.
Police arrested Wallace on March 13, 1994, the day after he murdered his last victim, and he confessed to 11 murders. Police were stunned at the enormity of his crimes, McFadden says.
Wallace wrote down the names of his victims except Nance’s, a sex worker he beat to death whose name he didn’t know. He also led police to Love’s body, who’d been deemed a missing person.
Sumpter says she found out about his arrest from the TV news. She saw Wallace’s photo on the screen, followed by her daughter’s. Anguished, she collapsed to the floor with such force that she hit her head and started bleeding, she recalls.
“There’s the good Henry, and then the bad Henry,” Wallace told police. “As the years progressed, bad Henry took over.”
Wallace was found guilty in January 1997 of nine murders, plus rape, sexual offenses and robbery. He was sentenced to death.
In 1998, he married a former prison nurse in a ceremony at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he remains on death row.
Investigators should have recognized early on they were dealing with a methodical serial killer because of the common elements of his crimes, said experts interviewed in the 1990s by WBTV in Charlotte. The victims were strangled—a manner of death that accounts for well under 10 percent of murders—the crime scenes were all neat and there were no signs of forced entry, pointing to the fact that the women likely knew their murderer.
The medical examiner wrongly ruled Jumper’s death as due to carbon monoxide poisoning after a fire at her home. Wallace confessed to killing her and setting the fire.
McFadden, who is Black, acknowledges “some undertones” of the victims’ race playing a role in the failure to catch Wallace sooner. However, he believes it’s because society as a whole devalues Black lives, and law enforcements’ efforts are unduly pressured by media coverage of white crime victims, he says. Still, he feels the primary culprit was the homicide unit’s understaffing, he says.
Wallace’s race also might have played a role in allowing him to prey on women undetected, according to a 2004 case study on Wallace published in Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology.
“A common misperception exists which suggested that few serial killers have been African American, at least according to media sources and many scholars,” the authors write. Data generally indicate that most serial killers are white, with 13 percent to 20 percent who are Black, according to the study.
Changes In the Wake of Wallace’s Murders
Wallace’s murder spree prompted the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to beef up staffing. Recruiting started during Wallace’s trial and eventually the homicide unit grew four times larger, McFadden says.
The Wallace case instilled in him the belief that police must establish good rapport—and be unfailingly honest—with victims’ families, McFadden says.
Sumpter has stepped away from active involvement with Mothers of Murdered Offspring after realizing she needed to focus on her own healing.
“There are moments, even now, where the mere mention of her [my daughter’s] name…and I am reduced to a puddle,” Sumpter says. “I thank our higher power for the determination to keep keeping on.”