My Girlfriend and I Found the Real Hannibal Lecter for Thomas Harris
Photo by Juan Carlos Rodriguez
Diego Enrique Osorno is a prominent Mexican author and poet. He has written six books, primarily focusing on the country's drug cartels, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo León, where the real-life Hannibal Lecter was imprisoned.
Last week horror fans discovered that one of the genre’s most notorious villains, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, was based on a real doctor imprisoned in Mexico, whom the author met while visiting the prison as a young man to interview another inmate named Dykes Askew Simmons. Last spring, through my editor, I received a message from Harris, who wanted me to find and identify someone who had been a prisoner in the Nuevo Leon State Prison during the 50s and 60s. For a few moments I thought I’d wind up sustaining an epistolary exchange with Harris like Hannibal held with some of his patients. As I read the note, however, it became clear that I was only needed as a sort of hired detective. His note read [sic]:
I need information about a medical doctor, known in the press as "The Werewolf of Nuevo Leon," who was a prisoner in the Nuevo Leon State Prison in the late 1950's and the l960s. I do not know his name. The doctor was convicted of killing hitchhikers in Nuevo Leon, dismembering them and throwing them piecemeal out of his car at night. The doctor saved the life of another prisoner, Dykes Askew Simmons, in the prison when Simmons was shot by prison guards while trying to escape. The doctor also treated poor people for free while he was a prisoner, and had a medical office inside the prison.
Simmons was a Texan convicted in Nuevo Leon in March, 1961, of murdering three young members of the Perez Villagomez family in October, l959. He was sentenced to death, a sentence later commuted to 30 years. He was in the Nuevo Leon State Prison from 1961 until his escape in 1969. The case of Simmons, and probably the case of the doctor, were covered by the newspapers El Norte de Nuevo Leon and El Sol de Nuevo Leon. Two of the El Norte reporters who wrote about Simmons were Ricardo Bartres and Esteban Ardines.
Any help would be much appreciated.
At first my assignment seemed awfully simple. With so many details, I didn’t think it would be difficult to find the name of the killer who interested Harris so much. I began my search with a phone call to the writer Eduardo Antonio Parra, one of the masters of crime literature from northeast Mexico whose work I very much admire. I gave him all of the details, but, unfortunately, he couldn’t think of anyone who matched the description. Next I looked up Hugo Valdés, author of The Crime of Aramberri Street, a novel based on an incident that occurred in Monterrey’s Barrio Antiguo at the turn of last century. Again, no luck.
Soon I had another message in my inbox from Harris [sic]:
I am very pleased to have your help in identifying the doctor who treated Dykes Askew Simmons. Thank you for your time. The identity of the doctor is my principal interest, and any details about him. I do not need further information on the Simmons case, except for his contact with the doctor.
I watched with interest your You.Tube discussion of current problems in Mexico, and I wish you well.
I then decided to take a different course of action. I sought out two ex-agents from the DA’s office, an ex-commander, and an ex-prosecutor. I asked them if they remembered anything about a prisoner who fit Harris’s description, but they did not. The search pushed me to make a quick index of the major celebrity crimes of the 60s and 70s in Monterrey.
That’s when Harris wrote once more, with a few more leads [sic]:
The director of the prison at the time was Miguel Guadiana Barra. One of the police inspectors was named Sarquiz. I hope that information is helpful.
Just to clarify: All I need is the name of the Doctor, and a few facts about his crimes. He was in prison during the late 50s and the 60s, at the same time as Dykes Askew Simmons. He was convicted of several murders in which the victims were dismembered. He treated patients while he was a prisoner. He saved Simmons life when he was shot trying to escape. He was a member of a prominent family in Mexico.
When I know his name I can proceed with my publication.Thank you for your help. Best wishes.
Just as I was about to head to Alfonsina Chapel at the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon to dig into the periodicals collection and check the newspapers from the late 50s and early 60s, day by day, my girlfriend called to say one name: Doctor Ballí. She—a sharp and avid reader of all forms of criminal tales—had investigated on her end with friends and family and ended up finding Harris’s guy. All of my Dick Tracey-esque hard work was bested by a few of my girlfriend’s casual conversations.
Once I knew the name I decided to dig a bit deeper. I found a story written in 2008 on Ballí based on a legal curiosity: Ballí was the last prisoner sentenced to death in Mexico. Lucky for the doctor, his sentence was commuted, and after a long stay, he left prison in the year 2000. Ballí’s interviewer for the story, titled “I Don’t Want to Relive My Ghosts,” was Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a friend and old colleague from the daily paper Milenio.
I called him up to ask about his experience with the doctor.
“Do you remember an interview you did a while ago with a doctor who was sentenced to death?” I asked.
“Alfredo Ballí Treviño?”
"Yes," I said. "Do you know if he’s still alive?”
“Don’t know. I suppose he might be. I remember more or less where he lived and worked as a doctor, although technically he couldn’t be working because he was an ex-con.”
“Any other details?”
“I didn’t keep much. In fact, that interview came about because a lawyer told us where we could find him, and we found him.”
“His office was in Colonia Talleres?”
“Yes. It was very austere. I don’t remember the exact street number.”
“What happened to him? Is he still alive?”
“I think so.”
Using the information provided by Juan Carlos Rodriguez, and information gathered at the periodicals collection, I prepared a bulky dossier for Harris, which I summarized as the following:
* The name of the doctor that treated Dykes is Alfredo Ballí Treviño.
* He was sentenced to death for “the crimes of qualified homicide, with clandestine burial and seizure of profession, in loss against the doctor Jesús Castillo Rangel.”
* His case is filed under the penal number 263/59, at the prosecutor’s office of the state of Nuevo Leon.
* The date this case was opened was October 9, 1959.
* The sentence in the case was served in May 1961.
* On the judicial front in Mexico, his case is interesting because it involved a person who was legally sentenced to death. The death penalty has not been practiced in Mexico in any legal form since then (although we’ve had governments who practice it in an extrajudicial form).
* More interestingly, the sentence was commuted.
* All signs suggest Dr. Alfredo Ballí Treviño died in 2010. Until that year, he practiced medicine at an office in a forgotten colonia of Monterrey. The street address is:
Calle Artículo 123,
Monterrey, Nuevo León,
México CP 64480 Norte
Harris responded with gratitude for the find. Now I know that he needed the information to finish the prologue for the 25th-anniversary edition of The Silence of the Lambs. In that text, excerpted in the Times of London, Harris narrates that at the age of 23 he traveled to Monterrey to interview Dykes Askew Simmons, at which point, he met a figure that inspired him to create Hannibal Lecter. In his text he refers to that person as “Doctor Salazar.” “Doctor Salazar” is Dr. Ballí. And Dr. Ballí is the alter-ego of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who, under the mastery of Harris, possesses a uniquely sinister manner of speaking that we’ll never forget: “Have you seen blood in the moonlight? It appears quite black.”
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