Carol Hawkins was at her home in Houston, Texas with her 11-year-old son Todd on a hot, muggy July night in 1991 when someone knocked on the front door around 7 pm. She opened the door to see a person in a bright yellow clown suite wearing a blue curly wig with a lurid smile pained on their face. They were holding out a bouquet of flowers and three red balloons. She smiled and took them, paused to smell the flowers, before looking back at the clown.
Nearly 30 years later on a Sunday afternoon in late April 2021, Gabe Cunningham, a handsome 32-year-old wedding photographer, along with his 29-year-old wife Lisa were shopping at the Austin Country flea market. Gabe had reluctantly come along because Lisa insisted. He usually didn’t go with her, but often had to go later to help pickup her purchases. She loved to discover unique eclectic items, fix them up and resell them in her Curiosity Shop in downtown Austin.
“This will be fun, you’ll be amazed at what people bring to sell at these things.” She said as they strolled down one of the aisles of multiple booths. “Look at that, Gabe.” Lisa said, pointing to a shoebox of old photos with a leather camera case on top of the prints.
“Oh wow, look at that.” Gabe said, holding tight to the Canon DSLR camera strapped around his neck as he bent over to pickup it up. “These pictures look to be from the 80s or 90s.” He said. Gabe stared intently at the pictures, picking up one of the photos, examining it. A picture of a man and woman on vacation somewhere near a beach, They sat smiling at a balcony table in a restaurant by the sea with a sunset behind them. Gabe looked through more of the photos, another one with the same couple in bathing suits standing by a crowded swimming pool, a tall building in the background with a sign that read ‘Hotel Galvez’. “Look at this, Lisa.” He said looking around. She had moved on to the next booth.
“You can have the whole box and the camera for 35.” A pudgy older man with a gray beard said.
“No, no, thanks, just shopping.”
“30.” The man said.
Gabe picked up the camera case, snapped it open to see the camera inside. It was an old 35 MM Olympus camera that looked to be in good condition. “I’ll give you 20.” Gabe said.
“Maybe… it’s deal.” The man said. Gabe handed him a 20 dollar bill, closed the lid on the shoebox and stuck it under his arm, running to catch up to Lisa. “I bought it, Lisa, the old Olympus camera.” He said.
“See, I told you might find something interesting. My parents would spend hours going from booth to booth at the flea markets in Houston looking for treasures most people considered to be junk.” They continued walking through the aisles of the flea market, shopping and examining items. Lisa found a crate of antique blue mason jars, “I’ll put silk flower arrangements in these, they’ll sell for sure.” She said, paying for them and telling the vendor she’d be back to pick them up later. Next she found a pair of old chipped and faded white closet doors. “These will be perfect for the shop, I can stand them in the center of the store to hang tie-dyes and knickknacks on.” She said.
Gabe pointed to a shaded area ahead with a couple of food trucks and some picnic tables. “I could use some lunch.” He said.
Gabe returned to the table with two plastic baskets of street tacos. When he went back to pick up their drinks, Lisa began looking through the pictures in the shoebox.
Gabe returned with their drinks, and Lisa said. “Now aren’t you glad I convinced you to come.”
“Yes, really, I didn’t expect to find anything of interest. I’m excited about the old camera. It was a steal for just 20 dollars, too. Maybe I can use it to take some pictures the old fashion way.” Gabe said smiling.
Studying one of the pictures of the couple, Lisa said. “You know, this man somehow looks oddly familiar to me, but I don’t recognize the woman at all. I’m not sure where I’ve seen him before. But, I’m almost sure I have.”
Gabe was busy examining the old camera while she nibbled on one of her tacos and rummaged through the box of pictures. Gabe popped open the back of the camera. “Look, there’s a role of exposed film in here.” He said, holding it up for her to see.
“Think it can be developed?” She said.
“Don’t know why not.” He replied.
She picked up another picture of the man and woman in front of a house with a manicured lawn and a beautiful flower bed behind them. “Look, look at this, Gabe.” She said excitedly. “I recognize that house or at least one like it, I think, it’s in the neighborhood I grew up in, in Houston.” She said, continuing to shuffle through the shoebox of pictures. Gabe wiped his fingers before taking the picture to look.
“So these pictures are from the neighborhood you grew up in?” Gabe said.
“I think so.” She said.
She found another picture. “For sure, it’s my old neighborhood. See this one.” She held up a picture of a young boy ridding a red bicycle in the street. “See that cross street, she pointed to a street sign in the picture, that’s the street we lived on Spring Green Drive. These pictures are definitely from Houston. The boy in the picture must be the son of the old man and woman who lived down the street and around the corner, I’m almost positive. Their son was much older than me, a teenager or maybe in college. I think his name is Todd.”
Gabe picked up the plastic taco baskets, emptied them in a trash container and returned them to the food truck. “We should pick up your things, get them loaded and head back, don’t you think?” Lisa kept focused on the pictures, looking at one and then another, tossing them back into the box.
“Yeah, we should.” She said, totally focused on the pictures.
The two of them loaded Lisa’s items into Gabe’s truck and headed back to the shop. Gabe used one of the back rooms of the shop for his photo business, and the other small storage room he converted into a dark room.
After they unloaded the truck and put away the flea market purchases, Todd began developing the roll of film. Lisa called her Mom in Houston. “So what is the name of the old man who lives at the end of the street around the corner from our house? You know, the one that something strange happen to his family a long time ago. They had a son named Todd, I think. I don’t remember their names or what exactly happened to them.” Lisa said.
“You're thinking of Kenneth Hawkins, something strange happened to his first wife a few weeks before we moved in. It was before you were born, and we had just closed on the house. I remember the neighbors talking about how bizarre the whole thing was. Her name was Carol, his second wife, Maureen, moved back to Galveston, when he passed away not too long ago. Why do you ask?” Her Mom said.
“Well, you’ll never believe it, but Gabe and I found a box of his pictures and an old camera at a flea market here in Austin. I was looking through the photos and found a picture of their house and I recognized the neighborhood.” Lisa said, as she walked through the store rearranging items, unpacking the mason jars, hanging tie-dye shirts on closet doors in the center of the store.
“Small world, I know she had a huge yard sale before she moved. I bet some flea market folks bought the lot of it for resell.” Her mom said. They chatted a bit more before Gabe came from the back and motioned for her.
He had developed the negatives from the old camera, they had been hanging in the darkroom to dry and were ready to put on the scanner.
“Come on, the negatives are ready to scan.” Gabe said. “I was able to develop about a dozen of them.”
“Really, more family pictures?” She said.
“Not sure, these are black and white and as near as I can tell, they're of a different woman. I’ll be able to see more once I scan them into the computer.” Gabe said.
“The man’s name is Kenneth Hawkins, Mom remembered him. He did live around the corner at the end of the street. She said he passed away not too long ago.” Lisa said.
“These pictures are not outdoor shots, I can tell that.” Gabe said, putting the negatives on his Epson scanner.
The first of photos began to appear on the screen. Two were of the same lady as before, sitting on a sofa beside a young boy. Next were three pictures of another woman partial nude wrapped in a sheet lying on a bed with a seductive smile. Then some photos of a man, practically nude on the bed, a sheet across his lap, posing with a cigarette.
“That must be Kenneth, right?” Gabe said. “Same guy as before?”
“Yep, that’s him, alright." Lisa said. “There’s nothing obscene on these, is there?”
“Not that I could see.” Gabe said.
In one of the photos, a reflection in the mirror of the ocean view from the window, clearly visible. “Look there at the reflection, must have been near the ocean, wonder if this one was in Galveston too.” Lisa said.
The next several photos showed the same lady working at a sewing machine, one putting curled lace onto the neck of a satin fabric garment. Others showing her adding large buttons and patches of gingham to it.“What’s she doing?” Gabe asked.
“It looks to me like she’s making a dress or something.” Lisa said.
“Looks like a clown costume to me?” Gabe said.
Then one of the most fascinating picture started appearing on the screen. Kenneth Hawkins standing with a woman, their arms around each other, the woman dressed as a clown wearing a wig.
“Oh my God.” Lisa said. “Is that … must be his second wife, I think I recognize her now.” The last photo starting appearing. A person in a clown suit, face painted, standing alone with their hand out holding a bouquet of flowers and three balloons. “Colorize them.” Lisa said.
Gabe tapped the colorize button on Photoshop, and instantly the pictures turned into lifelike full color photos. One of a clown wearing a bright yellow satin costume, white gloves, and a blue wig, while holding a bouquet of red flowers and three red balloons. The other the couple standing smiling with their arms around each other, the woman wore a blue wig and bright yellow satin costume. It was clearly Maureen Lewis, Kenneth’s second wife.
“What are these people doing and why did they take these pictures?” Gabe said.
“They must have been having some kind of sick affair.” Lisa said.
“Why were they never removed from the camera or developed?” Gabe said.
“This whole thing is starting to creep me out.” Lisa said.
“It’s odd that the two of them would document such a creepy event in the first place.” Gabe said.
“I’m going to google him and see what comes back.” Gabe said, typing ‘Kenneth Hawkins’ into the search bar.
The first link was to Kenneth Hawkins’s obituary. Next, a wedding announcement with a picture of a couple appeared. Clearly it was Kenneth standing next to the second Mrs. Hawkins. The announcement read, 'Kenneth Hawkins, owner and operator of the Hawkins’s Rental Car Agency of Houston and Maureen Lewis, owner and operator of Lewis Repossession Services, of Galveston, to wed on December 14, 1991.’
Last was a link to a Houston Chronicle story about the murder of his wife in 1991. ‘According to neighborhood witnesses, a person dressed in a bright yellow clown costume handed Mrs. Hawkins a bouquet of flowers and balloons, then shot her twice in the face. After the shooting, the clown calmly turned around walked to a brown sedan parked on the street, got in and sped away. The getaway car found about four days later abandoned in a local parking lot, clean, no prints except those of the actual owners of the stolen car. Kenneth was apparently at the dog races with a couple of friends at the time of the murder. Receipts from the racetrack and his friends collaborated his story. The red balloons were untraceable, the flowers most likely stolen from a grocery store florist. The investigators had not found any other suspects or anyone else with a motive for the killing. The only physical evidence were some fibers from the blue wig the clown was wearing found on one of Carol’s shoes.’ The Houston police investigated, but they were never able to identify the perpetrator, the case went cold.
Lisa said. “Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins, from my old neighborhood… They must have conspired to murder his first wife. We've got the proof. I’ve got to call Mom, right now.”
“Better yet, we should call the police.” Gabe said.