by Lise Olsen
Self-described serial killer Edward Harold Bell died in the Texas prison Saturday, leaving unanswered questions about the unsolved murders of 11 girls he claimed to have killed.
Bell died Saturday morning at the Wallace Pack Unit, a prison that houses many elderly prisoners, a spokesman confirmed. He was 82.
Bell was already a Texas inmate serving a 70-year sentence for the murder of Larry Dickens, an ex-Marine from Pasadena, when in 2011 he told the Houston Chronicle that he had committed a string of other homicides. Bell described abducting and murdering girls as young as 12 who had disappeared from Galveston, Dickinson, Houston, Clear Lake and Alvin between 1971 and 1977.
Bell called the girls the “Eleven who went to Heaven,” in one of several letters. In interviews, Bell also acknowledged he had also sent confession letters describing several of the same crimes to prosecutors in Galveston and Harris counties in 1998.
But Bell was never prosecuted for any other murder besides that of Dickens, whom he shot and killed on Aug. 24, 1978 in Pasadena. Bell shot Dickens several times with two different guns minutes after Dickens confronted Bell, a serial sex offender who had just exposed himself to a group of neighborhood girls. Dickens’ mother, who could see her son being shot from a kitchen window, immediately called 911. In minutes, Pasadena Police arrested Bell and found murder weapons and pornography in his pick-up.
Bell made bail in Harris County and went on the lam for 14 years.
Tips that finally led to his arrest poured in after Bell became the subject of a 1992 Unsolved Mysteries episode. The show featured Matthew McConaughey as a Dickens in the actor’s first TV role. A former Harris County District Attorney investigator Larry Boucher helped coordinate Bell’s arrest in 1993 at a yacht club in Panama where he’d been living with a teenaged girl.
A few years after Bell made his 2011 jailhouse claims to be a serial killer, retired Galveston homicide detective Fred Paige and a Chronicle reporter teamed up to try to find proof of whether Bell had been in the right places at the right times to murder girls in the 1970s as he claimed in interviews and in letters.
As a result of discoveries in that investigation, featured in a 2017 documentary on A&E called “The Eleven,” Galveston prosecutors reopened the murder cases of Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson, two island girls whose abduction and deaths Bell described in detail in both letters and interviews. Bell admitted in a recorded interview that he had picked up the two girls on the day they disappeared at a Baskin Robbins on the island. In a letter, he described how he’d shot and killed them. And their bodies were found dumped as Bell described in an isolated bayou very near a pasture where Bell kept a trailer, public records and interviews show.
Bell was never charged with those two homicides, but he remained the prime suspect at the time of his death Saturday. He was also the suspect in several other unsolved murders, but no DNA evidence or weapons were located by the departments in charge of the 11 cold cases Bell described.
Many of the girls’ relatives joined Dickens’ family in opposing Bell’s efforts to win parole.
Galveston Police Officer Michelle Sollenberger, who reinvestigated the murders in recent years, posted on Facebook Saturday that she believed Bell’s death would bring some comfort. “Today these girls may finally rest in peace because their killer has gone to hell.”
Rita Brestrup, who lost her sister Maria Johnson in 1971, said she had no words for Bell but was glad that he “no longer walks this earth and will never be paroled.
“I believe he took a life precious to me and my life has never been the same since. Maria’s death impacted my life more than any other single event. Nothing can take her memory away.”
Phyllis Southern , a long-time Galveston resident, was one of the family members of the 11 girls. Southern became convinced through discoveries recently made that Bell was also responsible for the murder of her sister, Brenda Jones.
Upon hearing of Bell’s death, Southern said: “I had hoped to one day to question him myself, but now God’s judgment is upon him!! I just wanted him to know that he will Never take anything else from me! My little Sister was my everything and he took her in the most vile and horrible way he could!!”
TDCJ Spokesman Jeremy Desel confirmed Bell collapsed at the Pack Unit in Navasota. “Like all in custody deaths, it is under investigation by the Independent Office of the Inspector General,” Desel said.