Alfredo Ballí: the murderous Mexican doctor who inspired the Hannibal Lecter movie
It was Harris who recounted in the prologue of his anniversary edition and in several interviews with international media that at the time unknown Mexican killer Alfredo Ballí Treviño inspired Hannibal Lecter.
In 1959, a crime shocked the city of Monterrey, capital of the state of Nuevo León, in northern Mexico. It happened on October 8 of that year, in a doctor's office located on Article 123 Street in the Talleres neighborhood, according to the newspapers of the time.
Alfredo Ballí Treviño, a young doctor of 28 years of age at the time, was attending to his patients. That day he was visited by Jesús Castillo Rangel, a medical student of only 20 years of age. The newspapers of the time state that there was a sentimental relationship between them and that they had a strong argument that ended tragically.
Ballí Treviño subdued his lover, gave him an injection of sodium pentothal, cut his throat with a scalpel, bled him, dismembered him and placed his broken body in a cardboard box. He then left his office with the package, put it in the trunk of his car and drove to a vacant lot in an area known as Rancho La Noria, in the municipality of Guadalupe. There he buried the box with the remains of his victim, which a few days later the authorities found as evidence to arrest Ballí Treviño.
In his statements to the authorities, the young doctor did not reject the charges. On the contrary, during his confession he boasted of his meticulousness in dismembering the body of Jesús Castillo, without needing to touch a bone in his cuts, said the head of the Homicide Squad of the Secret Service, Eusebio Lara, at the time.
The press collected a series of epithets for him. They called him "The Werewolf of Nuevo León", "The Killer Doctor", "The Monster of the Talleres" and "The Vampire Ballí".
For his crime, he was sentenced to death. He was the last Mexican to receive this sentence in Mexico, in May 1961, when a judge found him guilty of the crimes of aggravated homicide, clandestine burial and usurpation of profession, to the detriment of the doctor Jesús Castillo Rangel, according to criminal case 263/59 of the Nuevo León Attorney General's Office.
The authorities presumed that the murder of Castillo Rangel had not been the only one committed by Ballí Treviño and implicated him in a series of murders of young people who had been found dead on the highways of the state. But these crimes could never be proven.
The doctor was confined in the Topo Chico prison, in Nuevo León, where in 1963 he met an American reporter from Argosy magazine. That young journalist was Thomas Harris, who 25 years later wrote the successful crime novel The Silence of the Lambs and gave life to one of the most intriguing and creepy characters of the genre: the famous Dr. Hannibal Lecter, starring Anthony Hopkins on the screen.
It was Harris who, in 2013, celebrating 25 years since the release of his successful novel, told in the prologue of its anniversary edition and in several interviews with international media, that the unknown Mexican murderer, whom he calls "Dr. Salazar", triggered in his imagination the character of Hannibal Lecter.
Harris had met Ballí Treviño by chance. In 1963, as a reporter, he had traveled to Monterrey to interview an American triple murderer, originally from Texas, imprisoned in the Topo Chico prison. His name was Dykes Askew Simmons, a man with a harelip and small scars on his head, who had been in a mental institution in the United States. He had then traveled to Monterrey, where he murdered three young siblings: Hilda, Martha and Manuel Pérez Villagómez.
He was sentenced to death and, shortly before receiving Harris in prison, he had tried to escape. Guards fired shots to prevent his escape and seriously wounded him. Ballí Treviño, who served as a prison doctor, had saved Simmons' life and Harris wanted to meet him without knowing who he was.
He remembered him as a "small, lithe man with dark red hair". Meeting him at the prison, "he stood very still," Harris recalled. "There was a certain elegance," Harris said, about the doctor, who apparently came from a well-to-do family. During Harris' brief encounter with Ballí Treviño, the journalist was locked in an unsettling conversation with the doctor he did not know was a prisoner:
-Mr. Harris, how did you feel when you looked at Simmons?
-Do you have sunglasses with you, Mr. Harris?
-May I suggest that when you interview him (Simmons) that you don't wear them?
-Because he might see his reflection in yours... But tell me, do you think Simmons was bullied by other kids during recess because he's a man with a physical defect?
-Probably, that's common.
"The doctor seemed to rejoice at my answer," Harris recounted years later.
-Yes, it's common. Did you see pictures of the victims: the two young girls and their little brother?
-Would you say they were attractive boys?
-They were: good-looking young men from a good family... with a good education, I've been told. But... you're not saying they provoked him, are you?
-No, of course not. But childhood afflictions make later afflictions easily recreated.
This strange dialogue between the two later inspired the scene recreated in the movies by Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter and Jodi Foster as agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.
The conversation continued for a few more minutes, until the prison director, Miguel Guadiana Barra, knocked on the door of the office where the journalist and the doctor were gathered to announce that their time was over. Harris thanked Ballí Treviño and invited him to have a drink or lunch with him if he ever traveled to Texas, still unaware that he was an inmate.
Harris recalled the scene years later: "Looking back I can't recall any trace of irony in his response. 'Thank you, Mr. Harris. I certainly will, when I travel again.'" As they left the place where they had had the interview, Harris asked the warden how long Ballí Treviño had been working there as a doctor.
"Man, don't you know who he is? The doctor is a murderer," the official told the journalist and told him how he had packed his victim's body in a small cardboard box. "He'll never leave this place. He's crazy," he told Harris. Intrigued, Harris asked him why he had then seen other patients heading to the office. The warden told him that he was a good doctor and that "with poor people he doesn't act insane."
The young reporter kept that encounter in his memory and dusted it off 25 years later when he wrote The Silence of the Lambs. Although in reality the first trace of "Dr. Salazar", as Harris identified him, appeared in his 1981 novel The Red Dragon. There readers had their first encounter with the brilliant psychiatrist and cannibal who starred Hopkins in the 1990s and in 2003 was declared the #1 movie villain by the American Film Institute.
The end of the "killer doctor"
In 2013, when preparing the foreword for the anniversary edition of The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris remembered that "Dr. Salazar" who had so shocked him in the Monterrey prison and wanted to know about him. Harris turned to Mexican reporter Diego Osorno to help him look up the details of Ballí Treviño. The writer did not remember his name and only gave the Mexican journalist a few clues. Osorno himself narrated in Vice the message Harris received:
"I need information about a doctor known in the press as 'The Werewolf of Nuevo Leon,' who was an inmate in the Nuevo Leon state prison in the late 1950s and 1960s. I do not know his name. The doctor was convicted of killing hitchhikers in Nuevo Leon, dismembering them and throwing them out of his car for parts during the night. In prison, the doctor saved the life of another prisoner, Dykes Askew Simmons, after Simmons was attacked by guards while trying to escape. During his years in prison, the doctor also treated the poor free of charge. He had a medical office inside the prison. Simmons was a Texan convicted in Nuevo Leon in March 1961 for the murder of three young members of the Villagomez Perez family in October 1959. He was sentenced to death, a sentence commuted to 30 years. He was in Nuevo Leon state prison from 1961 until his release in 1969. Simmons' case, and probably the doctor's case, were covered by the Nuevo Leon newspapers El Norte and El Sol. Two of the El Norte reporters who wrote about Simmons were Ricardo Bartres and Esteban Ardines. Any help from them would be greatly appreciated."
Osorno was able to get the information on the case and send it to Harris to close the circle of his recollection.
He confirmed that Ballí Treveño had spent 20 years in prison, after his lawyer managed to get the authorities to commute his death sentence. Since his release from prison, between 1980 and 1981, he spent his life treating poor people in a modest medical office in the city of Monterrey.
In 2008, reporter Juan Carlos Rodríguez of the daily Milenio interviewed him to tell his story, but he refused to talk about his crimes. "If you wish, we can talk about anything else but that. I don't want to relive my dark past. I don't want to awaken my ghosts, it's very difficult," Ballí Treviño told the journalist.
The doctor was in a wheelchair, but he was still working. "I don't remember how many years I have been a doctor," he told him. "Now I take care of the elderly, like me. I think I got out of prison in 1981, but I honestly don't remember."
He confessed that upon his release from prison things were difficult, "but over time they got better." However, though, some days, depression would assail him, the man explained. "I paid what I had to pay. Now I'm just waiting for divine punishment."
The English newspaper The Times even visited the neighborhood where Ballí Treviño offered consultation to the poor and saw how well people remembered him for treating the sick for free. "He was a good person," said one of those interviewed.
Alfredo Ballí Treviño died in 2009, unaware that he had inspired one of the most famous serial killers in the history of thrillers. He left with his past in tow and "unbearable" anguish, he said in his only known interview.
By the way, Dykes Askew Simmons was imprisoned in Mexico for about 8 years and then managed to escape, in 1969, dressed in the habits of a nun that his wife managed to get. He escaped from prison in the midst of a group of nuns and months later was run over and killed in Fort Worth, Texas.