It was a Friday, the morning of Feb. 21, 1975. A 19-year-old blonde woman named Dale Sauls Howell needed laundry detergent. She walked from her apartment behind a shopping center on Cherry Road to what was then the Super Duper grocery store. That walk would change her life, hurt her and hurts her still, because in the parking lot of that store a man sat in a green Volkswagen.
That man tried to abduct her. That man lived in Rock Hill in those days, on Saluda Street. He was arrested. About three months later, that man pleaded guilty and got probation.
That man's name was Larry Gene Bell.
The same Larry Gene Bell who 10 years later would kidnap and kill two blonde girls near Columbia. But before he was caught, after those girls were missing for almost a month, people around the state were afraid to let kids play outside.
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The name is never Bell or Larry. It is always all three, Larry Gene Bell. The name for 22 years has been synonymous in South Carolina with evil. Bell died in the electric chair in 1996.
A retired State Law Enforcement Division forensic photographer named Rita Shuler wrote a recently published book about his crimes, and in researching the book found this lady from Rock Hill who was Bell's first confirmed victim.
In 1975, Dale Sauls Howell was married with a young son. After her husband died many years later, she changed her name back to Sauls.
"I noticed the guy sitting in the green Volkswagen," Sauls said of that February 1975 morning. "I walked across the parking lot, and he got out. He said, 'Let's go to Charlotte and party.' I said no, and he grabbed me and spun me around. He stuck a knife at my stomach. I started screaming."
People inside the store heard the screams and called the police. Bell took off in the Volkswagen, south on Cherry Road. He was caught near the intersection of Charlotte Avenue, police reports show. Sauls went to the Rock Hill Police Department and identified Bell.
"I saw him there, sitting in a chair, and started screaming," she remembered.
Larry Gene Bell, who worked at Eastern Airlines in Charlotte, was charged that same day with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. The police report shows an open knife was found in the car.
Bell "did press a knife against her abdomen in a threatening manner in an attempt to abduct her," the arrest warrant stated.
The same day, court records show, a woman from Columbia put up a $5,000 bond for Bell, and he was free.
"I couldn't sleep worrying about it," Sauls said of Bell's release.
Sauls said she kept a baseball bat in the bed with her. She hated to be by herself at night.
Court records show that in York on May 26, 1975, Bell pleaded guilty. He received a five-year sentence that was suspended to five years probation. He was supposed to seek mental health counseling for attacking women, documents show.
"I was never told about the hearing," Sauls said. "I didn't find out until that night. I didn't get a chance to go to court."
Ricky Sauls, her brother, said the family knew about Bell's release on bond but were told nothing else afterward until finding out that Bell had already pleaded guilty.
"We never got a chance to go to court," Ricky Sauls said.
The police and court officials involved in the case are long gone from those offices. But it was not the law in 1975 -- as it is now required, and has been for a few years -- that victims had to be told of court appearances and be given the opportunity to address the court during sentencing, Lt. Jerry Waldrop of the Rock Hill Police Department said.
York County probation officials said when Bell was sentenced in May 1975, he had a Columbia address and his probation location was shifted there. Records there also show he had no prior criminal record before the Rock Hill arrest and conviction, officials said.
In June 1976, Bell's probation was revoked after he was convicted and sentenced to five years for attacking a University of South Carolina female student in October 1975 in Columbia, court records show.
Bell could have faced 30 to 40 years after the second conviction, but there was testimony in 1976 that he again would seek treatment for attacking women.
Bell was paroled in March 1978 after serving 21 months of that five years sentence in prison after the 1976 Columbia conviction, said Pete O'Boyle, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon services.
In 1979, Bell was charged with making obscene phone calls in Charlotte.
In 1985, Bell was arrested and charged with kidnapping and killing two girls, one a blonde teen named Sharon Faye Smith and another blonde girl named Debra May Helmick. Helmick was just 9 years old.
Sauls was terrified the first time she saw Bell's picture in the newspaper and on television for the killings because she knew it was the same man who attacked her all those years before.
After his arrest in 1985, Bell was questioned in the disappearance of Sandee Cornett of Charlotte, but never charged.
In her mind every day
In 1986, Bell was convicted and sentenced to die for the Smith murder. Sauls was there to testify for prosecutors, to show his history of attacking women.
"I was there the whole time," she said. "I had Larry Gene Bell's face in my mind every day since he did that to me."
Court testimony from the 1986 Smith murder trial shows Bell only went for treatment once after the Rock Hill attack, then turned himself in to a mental health treatment center several days after the October 1975 attack in Columbia. He spent three months at a treatment center, testimony from the 1986 Smith trial shows.
Bell was convicted and sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of Helmick.
For nine years, Bell's appeals worked through the courts. Sauls relived what happened to her during those years, too, feeling guilty that something more could have been done to protect the other victims after she was attacked.
"I was terrified he'd get out on some mental thing," she said.
A movie about Bell's killings, called "Death of Innocence," was made in 1991 and filmed partly in York.
On Oct. 4, 1996, after all the appeals were over, Larry Gene Bell was strapped into the electric chair, and finally Howell knew that he was dead.
She knew because she was there, outside the prison, and watched the hearse leave with his body.
She was safe, but never escaped.
'Miscarraige of justice'
Ricky Sauls said his sister's life has been affected by what Bell did and what he says the system didn't do. Ricky Sauls said what happened to Bell for holding his sister at knifepoint -- probation -- was "a miscarriage of justice." Police should have charged Bell with attempted kidnapping at least, Ricky Sauls said.
"I think Larry Gene Bell was a serial killer; he just got caught," Ricky Sauls said. "How many people he raped and killed, we will never know."
Assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature is a misdemeanor that carries up to 10 years in prison. It was not uncommon more than 30 years ago for someone convicted of that charge to get a probation sentence on a first offense, said Shuler, the retired SLED agent.
Looking back 32 years to say police or prosecutors or a judge could have done something different isn't entirely fair, because police, prosecutors and the courts are different today. The police should be praised for acting swiftly that 1975 day, catching Bell just minutes after the attack.
Moreover, it won't change that Larry Gene Bell had no record when convicted in York County in 1975, no matter what he was charged with that day. In all guilty pleas then and now, a judge has to listen to the facts of a case before giving out a sentence.
Although each has no proof, Shuler, and Sauls herself, and her brother, all say there is no doubt that Bell did not start attacking women on that February day in 1975 when he was 27 years old and living on Saluda Street in Rock Hill.
Shuler said she wrote the book so victims like Sauls are not forgotten. So, the name Larry Gene Bell isn't the only name anybody will ever remember.
The name Larry Gene Bell sure is a name Dale Sauls will never forget.
View more documents concerning Larry Gene Bell's assault of Dale Howell Sauls on The Herald's Web site.
Who was Larry Gene Bell?
Larry Gene Bell was one of South Carolina's most notorious killers. In 1985, the disappearance of two girls near Columbia went unsolved for four weeks. Bell was arrested almost a month after the disappearance of the first girl.
Bell was convicted in 1986 and 1987 for those killings. In 1996, Bell was executed for those crimes.
Rita Shuler, a retired State Law Enforcement Division forensic photographer, recently wrote a book about the crimes called "Murder in the Midlands. 28 Days of Terror that Shook South Carolina." During the course of writing that book, Shuler met and interviewed Rock Hill native Dale Sauls, who was Bell's first reported victim of assault in 1975 when Sauls' married name was Dale Howell. Bell was living in Rock Hill at the time of that crime.