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True crime. Casually done.

Henry Lee Lucas: The Confession Killer

Written by Chris Lake

PRE-INTRO

Typically, any writer worth their salt will open a piece with an attention-grabbing intro replete with pathos, compelling story hooks, and liberal use of the rule of threes. What they won’t do is burden the audience with dry discussions of source criticism and historiography, because that’s the kind of writing done by those posers who spend their days in cafes ostentatiously using laptops. The ones who’ve never been published as they’ve never actually finished anything worth reading or shown anything to anyone who might conceivably buy it. But I digress – the fact is, the case of Henry Lee Lucas makes it unavoidable as I have to set expectations straight away. Henry Lee Lucas and his erstwhile lover Ottis [OTT-us] Toole have been regarded as America’s worst serial killers for decades, despite a near total lack of evidence, and layer upon layer of contradiction and dispute. Even the pronunciation of Ottis’ name seems to be disputed – the appellate court of Texas, as well as roughly half the documentarians covering him use the standard pronunciation ‘Otis’ [owe-tis], whereas everyone else, especially Texans, pronounce it phonetically as dictated by the double ‘t’. Ottis himself has confusingly used both himself. Beyond this, a perfect conjunction of deliberate mythmaking, moral panics, the peak of television’s cultural ascendancy, and the legendary Texas Rangers, made them a national sensation and an integral part of the fabric of America’s national memory, as well as the darker side of its identity. This needs to be balanced against the fact that most of their story is utter bullshit, and that it’s unlikely we’ll ever know exactly what they did and to whom. But hopefully, this won’t be too much of an issue. To my mind, the perverse obsession with necrophilia, cannibalism, and incest porn to which this story is so often reduced isn’t actually the main event. What this story’s really about is an appalling miscarriage of justice, perpetrated by some sections of law enforcement, and exposed by the courageous efforts of victims’ families, other sections of law enforcement, and the modern era’s favourite whipping boy, the mainstream media. But I’ve held you all up long enough and will save my note on sources for when it’s more directly relevant. And now, without further ado, here’s that narrativised intro I really wanted to put at the top.

ACTUAL INTRO

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It’s the early eighties, and Bob and Joyce Lemons are going about their business, taking care of daily tasks, and generally trying to get on with their lives. It’s an ordinary day, marred only by the deep scars of an unresolved tragedy. So it’s a bit of a surprise when they receive a call from a Lubbock detective saying they’ve caught the man who murdered their daughter Deborah. Deborah Sue Agnew Williams died aged eighteen in August 1975, roughly eight years earlier. She was a happy, kind young woman who’d recently been married – she’d been Mrs Williams for about ten weeks. One day, her husband Doug came home to find his new bride lying in a pool of her own blood in the carport outside their house, brutally stabbed to death. Years had dragged by with no progress in the case, and the whole family suffered hellish uncertainty, corrosive suspicion, and profound grief for close to a decade. So when Bob and Joyce heard a man named Henry Lucas had confessed, they experienced a sense of relief it’s difficult to imagine and which Bob, when speaking about it, didn’t attempt to describe. Obviously, they head straight to the station to hear the taped confession of this Henry Lucas character. At this point, their relief – their sense that their ordeal might finally be over – is cruelly snatched away. QUOTE “It’s like it was a joke,” says Bob Lemons, speaking to an ITV documentary team. “He knew she’d been stabbed, but he got every other thing wrong. Every. Other. Thing.” Lucas had confessed to breaking into a white house, but Deborah’s house was green. He described breaking in through the patio door – that particular door had been walled shut. He claimed to have stabbed her to death in the bedroom, but her body had clearly been found where she’d been killed – in the carport. They raised their concerns with Texas Ranger Bob Prince [prinz], who argued that Lucas had “a lot of murders on him”, that he’d given confessions to other crimes which contained details only the killer could have known, and that it wasn’t worth sweating a few small details when all could be explained by the sheer number of murders he’d committed. So basically, Lucas was to be believed because he remembered many details of other killings, and also because he couldn’t remember the details of Deborah’s. Unsatisfied, the Lemons started their own investigation, tracing Henry Lucas’ movements – a revolutionary approach known back then as “elementary fucking police work”. They eventually tracked down Henry’s half-sister in Maryland, who said she’d kicked Lucas out of her home for molesting her grandchildren. She confirmed, regretfully according to the report, that Henry was living with her in Maryland, more than 1,600 miles from Lubbock, at the time of the murder. The Lemons went back to Ranger Prince and were told they could either leave the station of their own volition or by force. I don’t know if Prince ever read anything by Franz Kafka, but he could have been lifted straight from the pages of The Trial. Deborah’s younger sister is still investigating the murder to this day, but as the years go by it’s becoming more likely that the real murderer might never be found, in large part due to the Rangers having closed the case on the strength of an inconsistent confession made by a compulsive liar. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Hundreds of cases across 27 states would end up being either closed, or seriously derailed over a period of years, as star suspect Henry Lee Lucas and his sidekick Ottis [OTT-is] Toole eagerly confessed to six hundred killings, triggering one of the most spectacular miscarriages of Justice in America’s modern history.

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THE OTHER HUNDRED

On the 11th of July 1983, police in Stoneberg, Texas arrested a penniless drifter named Henry Lee Lucas in connection with the disappearance of two women – 82-year-old Kate Rich and 15-year-old Frieda “Becky” Powell. They lacked the evidence to hold him but were able to keep him in custody for a weapons charge – Lucas was a convicted felon, having served ten years for killing his own mother – and was barred from owning firearms. Lucas, then 46 years old, had been living with Kate Rich and Becky, the fifteen-year-old, was known to be his common-law wife. The sheriffs thought they could sweat Henry Lee pretty easily. He was a nobody with a hick accent and low intelligence – just a dirty, shabby, one-eyed bum, and they figured it was unlikely he was going to trouble them with petty stuff like due process or habeas corpus. We don’t really know what happened next – according to the sheriff’s department, Lucas was held in custody for four to five days he requested an interview to “clear things up”. According to Lucas himself, he was beaten, stripped, and deprived of sleep, coffee, and cigarettes for five days before he begged to confess in exchange for some smokes. Whatever actually happened, we know that after five days of confinement, Lucas told one of his jailers that he’d, QUOTE “done some bad things”. He asked for pen and paper and wrote a letter to Sheriff Conway. This led to an interview where Lucas waived his right to an attorney before confessing to killing both women. He was able to corroborate this by telling police exactly where to find their belongings and remains, as well as describing the murders to a level of detail which simultaneously chimed with evidence already found and added clarity to the police picture of the case.

Lucas told the cops he’d stabbed Kate Rich to death before having sex with her body, then stuffing it into a pipe. He claims to have come back later and burnt it in a wood stove behind the cabin he was staying in at the time. He also described how he’d murdered Becky. She’d wanted to return to Florida, where Lucas had lived for a time, but Lucas liked Texas. He said the argument got heated and he hit her, unaware he was holding a knife at the time – a remarkably similar story to the one he told about killing his own mother, for which he’d already served ten years. He went on to recount having sex with the corpse before carefully dismembering the body and scattering it around, as well as her belongings. He also returned later to bury the body parts in shallow pits. Lucas was able to direct police to the remains of both Becky Powell and Kate Rich, as well as to their possessions. And then he went on to describe another 77 murders spread across the US. Of these, several murders he’d claimed to have committed in Maryland were handed over to Maryland state troopers, who investigated them thoroughly and found no evidence they’d been committed. At his July 21 arraignment, Lucas admitted to the murders of Rich and Powell, and then mumbled, “What’re we gonna do about the other hundred women I killed?” There was a moment of stunned silence before the court confirmed that he was, in fact, confessing to another hundred murders. This was a public arraignment in a courtroom full of reporters, who wasted no time spreading the story far and wide. And thus was born the legend of Henry Lee Lucas, America’s most prolific serial killer.

BIGGER THAN ELVIS

When Henry Lee first put his hand up for so many murders, Sheriff Jim Boutwell [BOT-well] – at the time a legendary lawman and former Texas Ranger – decided to call in his old unit. The Texas Rangers are one of the USA’s oldest and most famous police forces. Started when Texas was first wrested away from Mexico in the early 19th century, they were initially a citizen militia charged with securing the frontier against Native American and Mexican raids. During the US Civil War they were absorbed into the Confederate Army under the famous Colonel Terry and then, after Texas was readmitted to the union, went back to being frontier guards and peace officers. By 1901, the frontier had basically disappeared, and the Frontier Battalion, as they were known at the time, was dissolved and new laws turned the Rangers into exclusively peace officers. Through the years of WWI, prohibition, the Mexican Revolution, and the oil boom, the Rangers shrunk drastically, outpaced by the pressures of the modern world. They had a renaissance in 1935 when the Texas Department of Public Safety was created – this department absorbed the remaining Rangers, boosted their numbers and powers, and for the first time put them to work exclusively as a state-wide police force. As we can see from this storied history, the Rangers are part of the story of America, of the Old West, and especially of Texas. And their unusual, often ambiguous status, and their frontier militia origins have deeply marked their culture and the way they operate to this day. In short, the Texas Rangers were a legendary police force, collaborating with a legendary lawman, and nobody had any doubts that putting together a taskforce out of these materials would quickly crack open the case of what Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole had been getting up to all these years.

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About a week after the “hundred more” incident, Henry asked if he might be allowed to send a letter to Ottis Toole, to see if he’d be okay with him confessing to a bunch of murders they’d committed together. Ottis agreed, and they had a telephone conversation with Rangers and other law enforcement listening in, supervising the call. According to one of the Rangers present, they milked this call for all it was worth. They discussed their past crimes and vied with each other in trying to appear more badass. It was clear there was some unresolved tension between the two, with Ottis saying, “remember when I drank the blood to see what a man tasted like?”, and then joshing Henry for shying away from eating the flesh of one of their victims when he’d cooked it up with barbecue sauce. Henry shot right back, saying he’d only refused because he didn’t like the taste of barbecue sauce, and going on to boast about how many women he’d raped. After this phone call, Ottis Toole began talking as well, backing up statements made by Henry, confessing independently to murders, and soaking up his share of prison privileges and media attention. Most notably, Ottis confessed to the murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh. He said he’d grabbed Adam from a Sears carpark, raped him for several hours over a couple of sessions and then, when Adam began demanding to be taken home, had decapitated him with a machete. He claims to have driven around with the severed head in the back seat for weeks, having forgotten about it. When he found it, he tossed it into a canal. Adam’s head was found in a canal, and his father, John Walsh, still firmly believes Ottis Toole committed the murder. What’s notable about this is that Mr Walsh’s grief and trauma gave him a sense of mission, which led him to create the hit television show America’s Most Wanted, a TV sensation which aided in the capture of over 1,500 criminals. It’s not possible to say whether Ottis Toole killed young Adam or not – the case was understandably a high profile one and had been open for some time before Ottis confessed. And it’s clear to me from watching hours of his interviews that very little reliance can be placed on almost anything Ottis says, not least because he’s contradicted nearly everything he’s ever said, sometimes in the course of a single sentence. Ottis was initially reluctant to discuss his crimes, but once news reached him that Henry was taking officers on guided tours of crime scenes, he began to loosen up and eventually copped to 109 murders.

It all started quite humbly with the taskforce, led by Sheriff Boutwell and Texas Ranger Robert Prince, co-ordinating a phone-in centre. They’d call officers from jurisdictions where Henry Lee claimed to have killed somebody and facilitated interviews with investigators from those areas. As I said earlier, some of these claims were investigated properly and immediately dismissed. The murders of Kate Rich and Frieda ‘Becky’ Powell were a lock, no matter what later commentators might say. Lucas knew the times, places, dates, and dump sites. He had their possessions, and those he’d dumped he was able to help the police recover. It was only much later, when the house of cards was falling, and Lucas was making his dim-witted bid to avoid a death penalty bounce that he and his defence lawyer cast doubt on these convictions. In the trawl was also a woman called, at the time, orange socks, after the only article of clothing she was wearing when her body was found. She’s since been identified as Debra Jackson, and there’s now some doubt as to whether Lucas actually committed this murder, despite it being the one for which he was sentenced to death. In the meantime, Lucas was confessing to more and more murders. It wasn’t long before Henry Lee Lucas was famous. He was shown on nightly news bulletins and routinely described as America’s worst serial killer. The number of killings credited to him in the media went from 100 to 300 to 600 in quick time, and before long people were bandying around numbers in the neighbourhood of 1000. Henry Lucas had reached superstar status, with local and national news outlets requesting recordings of his interviews, or to be present at some, and bathing Sheriff Boutwell and Ranger Prince in the warm glow of celebrity. As Henry said in one of his many taped interviews, “I was bigger than Elvis”. Very soon, hundreds of officers were coming to meet with Henry, with the taskforce acting as his body men and chauffeurs and controlling access to their star suspect.

There’s quite a bit of famous footage showing the Rangers sitting around with Henry, laughing and joking. In one bit of infamous video, the Rangers are sitting at a table with their prisoner, who is uncuffed, joking that they must have lost the handcuffs and guffawing about it – just all good ole boys together, doin’ the lord’s work. Reporters noted that Henry was free to wander around prison and police stations, often letting himself through electronically locked doors by punching in the keycodes he’d obviously been given by the Rangers. When they went out to crime scenes, they’d invariably stop at fast food restaurants on the way out and back – Henry had a particular fondness for strawberry milkshakes – and buy burgers and steak dinners for their prisoner. Henry lapped this up. He’d been born in a four-room shack in Virginia, had spent most of his childhood sleeping in a chicken coop, and had never been so well off in his life. He’d proudly show journalists and visiting police officers the stacks of cartons of cigarettes he had and boast that he’d never eaten so many hot meals in his entire life as he did in one week under the care of the taskforce. He also said he had more spending money than he’d ever had before, and described Sheriff Boutwell as being, “Like a father to me,” and Ranger Prince as, “like my brother”. On one occasion, when Henry copped to the murder of a police officer whose death had been ruled as suicide, the result was that the widow was granted a life insurance claim which otherwise would have been denied. The Rangers celebrated this by booking out a restaurant and, allegedly, spending $3000 on booze and hookers, apparently with their prisoner in attendance. It’s worth pointing out here that, as bad as all this looks, it’s not entirely without justification. There’s quite a lot to be said for keeping an informant sweet and establishing rapport with them is the gold standard of interrogation technique. It’s not all that incredible that Henry would have these feelings towards his captors, especially if they were skilled interrogators. And it’s not that unusual for the officers, after an extended period of time, to start being genuinely friendly with an interrogation subject, especially one so cheerfully cooperative and easy to please as Henry.

Anyway, the way Henry told it, he and Ottis would go on long road trips looking for people or places to rob. On the way they’d pick up hitchhikers – women for Lucas and men for Toole. Lucas said he preferred to kill his women quickly, as he preferred sex with dead bodies. QUOTE “A live woman ain’t nothing to me,” Lucas said on one of the many occasions he explained his preference for necrophilia. According to them, they would usually rape their victims before killing them either by strangulation, stabbing, battery, or gunshot. They would then have sex with the corpses before mutilating them and disposing of the bodies. When they were forced to move out of Ottis’ mother’s house, where they’d shared a room, they took Ottis’ nephew and niece Frank and Frieda with them and continued to commit sex crimes and murders in front of the children. Sometimes they would also commit robberies, either burglaries or armed robberies, killing their victims to eliminate witnesses. Henry said that when he discovered Ottis also had a proclivity for killing, he coached him in how to vary his MO. QUOTE “He was killin’ people in the same way, with the same weapon every time,” said Henry, going on to explain he’d taught Ottis to “mix it up” to prevent police in different states from connecting their offences to each other, incorrectly assuming that local and state law enforcement were well coordinated across jurisdictions. Interestingly, Ottis mentions this little bit of tradecraft as his own idea, lecturing journalists and police interrogators as if he’s delivering a murder 101 course. Whoever had the idea originally, this, in the eyes of the police, explained the widely different modes of killing across the hundreds of victims which, in any other circumstances, would strongly suggest they’d been killed by entirely different people. Anyway, at some point during their years long spree, they were recruited by a Satanic cult. This cult wanted to use them as hitmen and gave them several months of training in order to become, in Henry’s words, “killing machines for Satan”. Sometimes they’d be tasked with finding children to be sacrificed in rituals or were instructed to rape and kill people in order to “spread evil in the world”. Other times they’d be sent to eliminate threats to the cult, or people whom the cult had deemed too godly or too prone to spread good in the world. These jobs were apparently well paid, with some killings netting up to $10,000. This apparently came to an end when, ‘Becky’ (Frieda) and Henry fell in love and ran away together, abandoning Uncle Ottis. When asked about Henry during one interview, Ottis replied, QUOTE “Henry… Henry was a person I used to love, but that love turned to hate. […] If I saw him now I’d like to shove a baseball bat right in his mouth, right in there, and I’d shove it in so deep it’d come out his ass. Sticking right out his ass. Then I’d put him in a barbecue pit and there’d be people all around, all the cops and the guards, and they’d all have some barbecue and then I’d tell them, ‘You just ate a human body’. That’s what I’d like to do.” So it seems he was a bit annoyed about Henry running off with his niece.

The Henry Lee Lucas Taskforce – the one Boutwell and Prince had set up – became an industrial scale clearing house. One thing that often gets lost in this case is the fact that there was, in fact, a suspected serial murder operating around Lubbock and McLennan counties at the time, and Sheriffs Boutwell and Conway were under significant pressure to get some results in that investigation. So when Kate Rich and Frieda “Becky” Powell disappeared, with a clear suspect who’d been convicted for the murder of his own mother, no less, it’s likely that they genuinely thought they had their man. It’s even possible that Henry Lucas was their killer or was at least responsible for some of the murders. So the initial steps taken – calling in the state authorities in the form of the Texas Rangers, setting up a taskforce, and questioning their prisoner about other murders in the area – all of this was not only reasonable, it was good police work. Especially in light of the fact Henry’s first confession – the “hundred more” thing – was unsolicited. Where most people start to find fault is in the way the Rangers allowed the Henry Lucas confession factory to balloon unchecked, and the lack of police work done by the sheriffs and the Rangers as the investigation wore on. In fact, “investigation” is far too flattering a moniker for what followed. First of all, there was the nature of the suspect – cops are exposed to quite a few false confessions, especially those with experience of high-profile cases. I know Simon’s pretty gobsmacked by the whole concept, but to be fair, so are most people. There’s a whole branch of criminal psychology which deals exclusively with the phenomenon of false confessions, and even they sometimes struggle to explain why it happens. What they have done extremely well, though, is develop a typology for a typical Confessing Sam. It’s broad, as there’s many different kinds, but Henry Lucas fit perfectly. His pathetic eagerness to please, his para-social bonding with his captors, the way he’d give wild guesses until he hit on the right details, and his increasingly implausible explanations for why he didn’t know them: all this and more should have rung alarm bells for the members of the taskforce and the horde of out of state cops and investigators who descended on him. And to be fair, it did for some. Notably, a couple of the Rangers on the taskforce did have doubts, but they were quickly bullied into silence or moved to other duties, and the Henry Lee Lucas Carnival of Death kept rolling on.

THINGS FALL APART

By 1985, the Henry Lee Lucas show was at its height, with multiple documentaries, news features, articles, and interviews keeping the public’s interest in these phenomenal killers alive. It was fortunate – or unfortunate – that Henry’s confessions coincided with the beginning of the Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) panics of the 1980s, started by Lawrence Pazder and his wife and patient Michelle Smith, who published a book of supposedly recovered memories of SRA she’d suffered as a child. It hardly needs pointing out that recovered memory therapy is garbage and caused untold harm and suffering in the years before it was finally discredited. Though, in fairness, it did cause some increases in child protection funding. Anyway, the idea of kidnapping, raping, torturing, and eating the innocent was very front of mind for the American public at the time, so the existence of an apparently concrete example of this phenomenon was of great interest to them, and perhaps not as unbelievable as it might have been without the SRA panics. On top of this, the malefactor was being brought to justice by the legendary Texas Rangers – a fantastic outcome and a feelgood story, in a way, despite all the spine-tingling grisly details. The problem was that intelligent, experienced people were starting to have serious doubts about the case being built against Henry and Ottis. I mentioned before that their frontier militia roots were formative to their whole approach to policing, and it’s worth adding here that it’s also contributed to an existential crisis they’ve been going through, and which arguably started with the Henry Lucas case. The Rangers are a proud and highly traditional force, who’ve shown a dogged resistance to any efforts to modernise their methods. There were mass resignations when the first female Rangers were sworn in, with some old Rangers citing doubts as to whether women could hack the frontier outdoor lifestyle associated with being a Ranger. This despite the fact that even back then, investigators were about as likely to be playing harmonica round a campfire while boiling tinned beans as you or I. And there have been multiple instances, reaching down to the present day, where Rangers have fatally compromised investigations by stubbornly sticking to investigative techniques and assumptions which would have been thought of as quaint in the 1930s. This isn’t intended to dump on this proud and storied force – the Texas Rangers are making sincere and significant efforts at reform. But they’re hamstrung by their own legend and the culture it sustains, so the process is excruciatingly slow – which may go some way to explaining why their investigation into Henry Lucas was so crude and perfunctory.

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One of the crimes which Henry had confessed to was the rape and murder of Rita Salazar, and the murder of her date Frank “Kevin” Key in 1978 in McLennan County, Texas. It was a high-profile case sitting open on the books of newly minted McLennan District Attorney Vic Feazell [FUR-zell]. Feazell initially looked on the confession as a gift – a career making one, in fact. He said, QUOTE “It would have been great to have my picture in the paper with a Ranger standing there next to me with the real-life version of Hannibal Lector.” DAs are elected officials in the US and closing high profile cases is probably the best way they can ensure their continuing tenure. Fortunately for everyone, Feazell was a conscientious type, and he duly sent his investigators out to find corroborative evidence of Henry’s claims, which they were unable to do. What they did find, though, was Bob and Joyce Lemons, who by now had teamed up with investigative reporters from the Dallas Times Herald, Hugh Aynesworth and Jim Henderson, convinced that Henry had never even clapped eyes on their murdered daughter Deborah Sue. Feazell decided to inspect the Rangers’ file on the case, but found that access had been blocked, and not only the state database, but the federal one too, which was highly disturbing. In the meantime, Aynesworth and the Lemons were patiently tracking Henry and Ottis’ movements across the country and had already achieved some modest success. Feazell went to his boss, Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox, requesting approval to start a comprehensive investigation. AG Mattox, no fan of the Department of Public Safety, of which the Rangers were a part, told Feazell to go at it, which started the excellent investigative work which would culminate in the sixty-page Lucas report. But the Rangers weren’t going to let their prize go that easily, and here’s where things get seriously hinky. Up until this point, it’s actually not too difficult to see the taskforce as just haplessly stuck in an impossible position. They’d been publicly lauded as national heroes and credited with the capture and exposure of a massive threat to the public, but this necessarily meant they were also in the full glare of intensive scrutiny by the media and the authorities. Any walking back from their current position of believing in Henry Lucas and Ottis Toole would have been catastrophically embarrassing, and it’s easy to see how it might seem reasonable to just hold on tight and try to slowly and carefully get off the tiger they’d been riding. But this is absolutely not what they did. Hugh Aynesworth was subjected to intimidation and was also the subject of a home invasion where nothing but his professional papers were taken. And Feazell, who’d been wondering how the hell the Rangers had been able to lock down the federal database, got his answer when the FBI suddenly charged him with racketeering, corruption, and even homicide, slapping him with a collection of charges which could see him locked up for eighty years. As it turns out, the Rangers were pretty tight with the FBI. James B Adams, then director of the Department of Public Safety – the parent organisation which ran the Rangers – was previously the FBI’s second in command who’d been accused, among other things, of being part of an operation to attempt to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr into either quitting public life or committing suicide. Adams insists this was all his boss, J Edgar Hoover’s doing, just by the by. Anyway, Feazell’s investigation kicked off a blood feud between Adams and Feazell, and Adams used every trick in the book to silence the young DA. Witnesses who’d been brought against Feazell turned out to have been leaned on by the IRS or Justice Department or both, and it also came out later that the Belo company, which owned TV station WFAA and the Dallas Times Herald’s rival, The Dallas Morning News, was colluding with Adams to help smear Feazell. Which explained why a major Dallas broadcaster was willing to publish stories about Feazell which were patently and obviously untrue.

Pressing on regardless, even while he was effectively facing trial for his life, as well as being smeared publicly by the Rangers and the FBI, who took every opportunity to perp walk him in front of WFAA news cameras, Feazell’s investigators painstakingly pieced together the most exact chronology of Henry and Ottis’ movements possible, verifying and incorporating the earlier work done by Aynesworth, Henderson, and the Lemons family. What this revealed was that it was physically impossible for them to have committed many of the murders they claimed, and highly improbable they could have done the rest. There were a handful of murders claimed by Ottis and Henry respectively where they were, in fact, in prison at the time. For the period where they claimed they’d been committing murders in front of Becky and Frank, state school records show they were present in school, hundreds or thousands of miles away. During one period in 1979, when the Rangers had the pair committing 46 murders in 16 states, Henry cashed 43 weekly pay cheques at the same Buy-Rite supermarket in Jacksonville, Florida, and the store owner testified to having seen Henry and Becky personally on numerous occasions. The store policy also forbade employees from cashing cheques for people they didn’t personally recognise – a policy which Feazell’s investigators saw being rigorously applied when they visited the store – which means Henry, at least, must have been there. Further to this, the company they were working for had them clocked on basically full time for the whole period, meaning Henry and Ottis, even if they’d been skiving off work, must have been running around the country like blue-arsed flies. And on top of all of this, once Henry had lost his job in Jacksonville, he was subsisting on sales of scrap metal to a variety of metal recycling plants in the area, one of which had retained detailed sales receipts and testified to Henry and Becky showing up frequently, in person, to make their sales. They even recalled and correctly identified their vehicle, so frequently did they see the pair. Which does open to question what they were doing with all their $10,000 dollar hitman fees, if Henry still needed to sell scrap to survive. In Feazell’s office, they gave Henry the nickname “Rocket Man”, as they concluded he must have been travelling by rocket ship to commit all these murders in all these places. Jim Henderson of the Dallas Times Herald commented that he couldn’t have committed all these murders if he’d been strapped to the nose of a guided missile. The Rangers, who hadn’t really bothered to check any of this, explained it all away by accusing the foremen of billing fraud – a practice where employees are told to go home, but the prime contractor is still billed for their work, which is then pocketed by the foreman. They dismissed the school records, scrap metal sales, and everything else by saying that anyone could have been there cashing cheques and selling copper and whatnot. But it wasn’t just documentary records. Feazell, Aynesworth, and the Lemons had tracked down Henry’s relatives and associates, none of whom ever wanted to see him again unless they had an opportunity to hurt him, who gave a picture of his whereabouts from day to day which had him basically accounted for and alibied for all but a few weeks here and there. Basically, anyone who was actually interested in solving the case would have shut everything down then and there and conducted a thorough audit and, most importantly, reopened the cases which their confessions had closed, as for every one of these, there was a potential murderer who had got away with their crimes scot free. What the Rangers did instead was ignore the Lemons and anyone else who had doubts, bully and intimidate the Dallas Times Herald reporters, and attempt to frame Vic Feazell.  

In 1985, the late great Dallas Times Herald published their investigative findings, opening two cans – one of worms and the other of whoop-ass – on the Henry Lee Lucas Taskforce. The Herald has unfortunately gone out of business, but I was able to find an archival copy on the Wayback Machine and it’s utterly devastating. Amazingly, however, it wasn’t a death blow. So firmly had the myth of the Mephistophelean murderers hiding their fiendish cunning behind façades of good ole boy homeliness taken root, the story barely caused a ripple. But it did lend impetus to AG Mattox and DA Feazell’s inquiry, and by 1986, The Lucas Report was released. This contained a summary of the detailed chronology of Henry Lee and, to a lesser extent, Ottis Toole, cross referenced with the murders they’d confessed to. It’s glaringly obvious from just a cursory glance down its neatly typed columns that the vast majority of these murders not only couldn’t have been committed by these two, but that it was highly unlikely they were even connected. The MOs varied to a troubling extent and the victim profiles were spread wildly across age, sex, and race. Variations in MO and victim profile aren’t conclusive, of course, but even the most perfunctory of inquiries should have been prompted by these into asking some basic questions. And it seems this was all they did. It turns out the taskforce file basically contained nothing but records of interview, working papers and synopses, and a sparse log of confessions consisting of victim’s name, date, location, and whether the crime was attributed to Henry, or Ottis, or both. Further digging poked even more holes in the case against Henry and Ottis. Henry had taken to providing drawings of dump sites and victims’ bodies, and was able to provide freakish levels of detail, even down to eye colour – which should have been a red flag in and of itself. As it turns out, various investigators had been feeding him information from the case files in a few different ways. In some cases, interrogators would patiently ask the same questions over and over again until one of Henry’s wild guesses would hit the mark, after which they’d feed him a nugget of information and then rinse and repeat. Where these confessions were taped and used in evidence, heavily edited versions excluding Henry’s confusion and inaccuracy were provided to the court. At other times, members of the taskforce would secretly share key details of a crime with Henry ahead of an interview with another law enforcement officer. And on numerous occasions, he was allowed to “refresh his memory” during interviews by reading directly from the case file. Proof positive of this was the fact that on multiple occasions, Lucas had confessed to erroneous details which existed nowhere else but as mistakes in the files. For those police officers and investigators who came from external forces, the Rangers insisted they follow a strict interview protocol to avoid tainting evidence, but don’t appear to have backed this up with any supervision or oversight of any kind, which probably isn’t surprising given what they themselves were up to. Ottis, who was less famous and received slightly less rockstar treatment, underwent a similar process, making wild guesses at MOs and crime scenes until he hit on the right answer. All this and more was revealed in inquiries conducted by Mattox, Feazell, and others. Vic Feazell, by the way, was acquitted of all the charges against him and was awarded the largest defamation payout in US history – 58 million bucks – against the WFAA news channel which had helped the DPS director in his attempt to destroy him. He subsequently became Henry Lucas’ attorney for a time, and is now in private practice and will, perhaps understandably, spin wild tales of government corruption at every level to anyone who’ll listen to him. His writings and podcast interviews on the Lucas case are excellent, however – I don’t want to give the impression I think he’s crazy, but he definitely does seem embittered, and who can blame him for that?

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What followed was a bit of a catastrophe for the Texas DPS and the Texas Rangers. In public, and in circles which directly affected them, they had a whole battery farm’s worth of egg on their faces. Strange to say, though, there weren’t actually that many concrete consequences for this monumental balls-up. There’s a few reasons for this, and it’s worth going through them. First of all, the taskforce was quick to point out that they weren’t actually tasked with investigating the vast majority of the crimes this pair had confessed to, and they’re actually right. In most of these cases, responsibility technically and actually fell upon the individual jurisdictions investigating each crime – one reason why the taskforce files were so sparse. The taskforce, insisted Boutwell and Prince, existed merely to facilitate access to Henry Lee Lucas – any hash made of the products of this access couldn’t fairly be laid at their feet. This is partially true – if cops from Maryland, Virginia, California, and so on come and interview a suspect and then charge him with crimes he’s confessed to, where exactly do the Texas Rangers come into it? From a strictly legal point of view, this argument’s pretty unassailable. Sure, as reasonable people, we know that they have a duty of care and of diligence as a state law enforcement agency. That this obviously loopy idiot confessing randomly to every crime put in front of him should have been scrutinised, or even questioned properly just once or twice. That the taskforce practically advertised Henry Lee as a neat way to clear up old cases and improve statistics for any force willing to buy in to the taskforce’s fiction that Henry Lucas and Ottis Toole were demonic tools of Satan pretending to be slow-witted drifters. But within the strict definition of the taskforce’s duties and remit, somewhat hastily fleshed out in detail just after the roof fell in, they hadn’t really done anything criminal which could be easily proved. And there was very little incentive to prove it anyway. Close on a hundred police forces and investigative agencies were implicated in what was, at best, gobsmacking incompetence and, at worst, staggering corruption. The public’s confidence in the whole system of American justice was at stake – an idea that wasn’t as risible then as it is today – and there were powerful interests in favour of just sweeping the whole thing under the carpet and riding out the ridicule in the meantime. And then there was the somewhat incredible fact that the ridicule wasn’t actually so bad, after all. Unbelievably, even with all the evidence revealed by people who’d staked livelihoods and futures on getting it out there in front of the public, there existed a stubborn insistence on believing the confessions anyway. The myth crafted by the taskforce had resonated so powerfully with the American public that to this very day, there are numerous sources – some, sadly, quite authoritative – who will swear blind that Henry Lucas and Ottis Toole were everything they claimed to be. If this seems incredible, just go halfway down the first page of Google and you’ll see that hits which still credit these two with being America’s most prolific serial killers, delivering their obviously fabricated confessions as fact, are worryingly numerous. And I fully expect to see some folks in the comments, cursing my name and Simon’s and stridently insisting that Henry Lucas and Ottis Toole did everything they claimed to have done.

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It’s important here to make a quick comment on conspiracy. Most reporters, including the makers of the recent Netflix Docuseries The Confession Killer, agree that there wasn’t really a concerted conspiracy to encourage Henry and Ottis to make confessions up. They weren’t coerced, particularly, and the first confession was unsolicited. The strong impression here is that, right up to a certain point in time, everyone involved here initially thought they were doing the right thing. The chummy relationship with the suspects can be explained through interrogation technique. The provision of police file details was clearly rationalised as helping along a suspect who couldn’t possibly have remembered all the details of his hundreds of crimes. And there were people within and external to the taskforce who did question or dismiss confessions as a result of good police work. In the end, only eleven murder convictions were returned, as well as a death sentence for Henry Lee, and it seems pretty clear that the murders Ottis was convicted of were actually committed by him. Where it all went south is when the taskforce lost control of the scope of the enterprise, and then tried to cover up under scrutiny. What I’m saying here is that yes, wrongdoing definitely happened, but it really doesn’t look like anyone planned to do it from the beginning. Of course, many people, including Vic Feazell disagree, and all I can say to that is that I’m not sure enough of the majority opinion – that this was a snowballing cockup rather than a dark plan from the outset – to dismiss what they say. Especially as it’s clear that, in the course of trying to silence their critics, a full-blown, Hollywood worthy conspiracy sprang into action, suborning the DOJ and the IRS in an attempt to jail a public official and silence any sceptical voices.

THE DIGNITY OF HISTORY

Back in the ancient world, the question of what did and didn’t constitute history was a largely uncharted issue, mainly because the rules of history as we practise them today were still being formed. The problem was that the immense totality of past and present couldn’t possibly be recorded – it’s not even really possible today – but there was disagreement on how to best select those things which must be presented or emphasised in order to create a historical account. One of the concepts Livy and others came up with was “The Dignity of History”. The basic idea was that since history was a highbrow sort of affair, mostly concerned with great matters of state, kings and generals and whatnot, there was a bunch of stuff to do with everyday common living that just didn’t matter enough to sully history with. Which is why we know Julius Caesar’s exact itinerary on the morning of his death, but not how the microcredit network underpinning the entire Roman market system worked, or even if it existed. I know this seems like it’s a million miles away from a pair of purported serial killers in eighties America, but it’s a problem that’s relevant to any poor sod trying to research their lives and deeds. The fact is that Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole existed in a world which is rendered darker by the fact that it’s still considered beneath the dignity of history. Or, to put that another way, the whole enterprise of history is ill-suited to capturing the lives of the very poor, mostly owing to the faint echoes of ancient snobbery which still dog historiography to some extent to this day. So even with the scrutiny under which their lives came after they started swapping confessions for steak dinners and cigarettes, it’s still difficult to find good quality sources for their lives and doings. Which means that once again, I have to make a note on my sources.

A worrying proportion of the accounts of their early lives rests solely on the personal testimony of two proven liars, namely Henry and Ottis. Having said that, given the remarkable consistency of these accounts – as contrasted with their descriptions of their later lives – I’ve accepted these, albeit with a largeish pinch of salt. I’ve also made heavy use of The Lucas Report – the painstaking chronology compiled by AG Mattox and DA Feazell. This is mostly owing to the scope and rules of that inquiry, where they deliberately set out to establish a ranking of evidence types (as any good investigator or intelligence analyst should), prioritising documentary records, then independent first-hand accounts, and then all the other secondary and tertiary sources. I’ve also made heavy use of the full judicial opinion in Henry Lee LUCAS, Appellant, v. The STATE of Texas, Appellee, which contains a wealth of primary evidence as well as updates on and summaries of the various inquiries conducted up to 1989, including Mattox and Feazell’s. I’ve also prioritised various court documents relating to lawsuits filed both by and against the various law enforcement agencies involved, as well as the meagre collection of publicly available police documents which aren’t tainted by… well, by this whole thing. Beyond this, there’s been a fair amount of investigative journalism, starting with the Dallas Times Herald’s sterling first expose, and a variety of other sources including Time, Vox, AP, and so on. Various interviews conducted by reporters and filmmakers over the years with Sheriff Boutwell, Ranger Prince, Vic Feazell, Bob and Joyce Lemons, documentarians Taki Oldham and Robert Kenner, reporter Jim Henderson, and of course, Henry and Ottis themselves, were invaluable in piecing together details which were confused, disputed, or both. And I’ve basically dismissed nearly everything else – almost all of the secondary sources get a host of elementary things wrong or are little more than exercises in gore porn. A few of the big true crime channels get it right, but they’re often very light on detail, for reasons I completely understand. At any rate, what follows is the best account of their lives I was able to put together. I should note that Henry and Ottis led chaotic, peripatetic existences, and I’ve not included every single pointless trip across country, or brief sexual partner – this is very much the highlight reel, sticking with events which either shed light on the case or on the character and nature of the two men.

THE ACTUAL CHRONOLOGY

Henry Lee Lucas was born in 1936 in Blacksburg, Virginia, in a four-room shack where his mother, Viola, made a tenuous living as a prostitute. Henry was the youngest of either six, eight, or nine siblings, most of whom had been farmed out to relatives or foster care by the time he was born. His father was an alcoholic who had lost both legs after passing out drunk on the tracks where a train ran over them. He supplemented the household income by making and selling moonshine. Many accounts claim Henry was a profligate drunk, and that this habit started with his father giving him moonshine as a child. Viola appears to have taken a dislike to her son and would regularly beat him. She’d also make him watch her having sex with clients, and from the age of seven began dressing him as a girl in the hopes of pimping him out to both men and women. This is one of the few early details we can corroborate, as the school board took out a court order to force Viola to stop. When he was eight, he got into a fight with one of his brothers, who cut his eye with a knife. Viola’s neglect led to the wound becoming infected, and the eye was replaced with a prosthetic. That same year, Viola called him over to watch her having sex and, when he didn’t respond, became so incensed she hit him in the back of the head with a plank, knocking him unconscious. Records are sketchy, but Henry seems to have been comatose for a period of days, first in the chicken coop that was his bedroom, and later in hospital.

In 1949, when Henry was thirteen, his father either ran away from the house or simply got drunk and fell asleep in a snowdrift, causing a fatal case of pneumonia. He couldn’t cope with being the sole target of Viola’s wrath, and ran away the following year, hitchhiking his way to Lynchburg in 1951, where he claims to have raped and killed a seventeen-year-old girl. Laura Burnsley, who matches his description, did go missing in Lynchburg, but her body was never found, so it’s not clear she was ever even murdered. Lucas later recanted this confession, and while it makes a neat ‘victim zero’ story, it may never have happened. Around this time he went to reformatory school and was IQ tested, returning a result in the seventies – on the edge of mentally disabled. He seems to have fallen in with a local gang and taken to breaking and entering. In 1954, aged seventeen, he was convicted of two counts of burglary and sentenced to six years at Virginia State Prison. He has alternately described this period as one of the happiest in his life, saying he had a bed and regular hot meals for the first time, and as a living hell where he was repeatedly raped. It seems that Lucas was bisexual and had a series of consensual relationships with inmates – his sexuality appears to have been a source of inner conflict, as he offered wildly contradictory accounts of his sexual encounters with men, either denying they ever happened, saying he enjoyed them, or claiming they were non-consensual. It’s worth noting his denials ramped up after his prison conversion to Christianity. In 1957, Lucas and a few others escaped from a road gang, but he was quickly recaptured and served another two years before being released on parole.

Upon release, he went to Tecumseh [tuh-COOM-suh] Michigan to live with his older sister Carol and got engaged to a girl he’d been corresponding with. Viola got wind of this and came to Michigan for a visit. By now in her seventies, she wasn’t earning like she used to, so decided to force Henry to return to Blacksburg to take care of her. Henry wasn’t exactly in love with this idea and refused. They went to a bar to hash it out, got drunk, and when they got back to Carol’s place, Viola began beating him with a broomstick. According to Henry, he lashed out in self defence and hit her in the neck, not realising he was holding a knife. According to the coroner, Viola Lucas was stabbed deeply and violently through the neck. Henry stole a car and fled towards Blacksburg before, thinking better of his plan, trying to hitchhike his way back to Michigan. On the way, he was picked up by highway patrol and charged with his mother’s murder. The court rejected his plea of self-defence, and he was sentenced to 20 to 40 years. He served ten and was released in 1970. Almost immediately, he was arrested for attempting to abduct two teenage girls and locked up again, being finally released on the 22nd of August 1975. From here, he headed by plane and automobile to Maryland, where his half-sister Almeda Kiser lived. He met up with her on the 23rd or 24th, which is important, as he’s supposed to have killed Deborah Sue Agnew Williamson 1,600 miles away, on the 24th of August. On the 5th of December 1975, Henry married Betty Crawford, the widow of one of his nephews, in Elkton, Maryland. Multiple members of his family attended the wedding, which isn’t surprising as he was marrying a family member, and they all went to Frank’s Steak and Brew, in Oxford, Pennsylvania, for the reception. They spend the night in Chatham, where another of his nieces had a place. This is the day he supposedly murdered 19-year-old Linda Beichler, stabbing her 19 times with a kitchen knife, in Lancaster, 72 miles from Elkton, and over 40 miles from Chatham or Oxford. I guess it’s possible that Henry got married, drove his family interstate then took a two hour round trip kill a woman without anyone noticing, but it seems a bit doubtful.

During his time as a married man, Henry lived in trailer parks and hitchhiked around looking for work and selling scrap metal. He did work a few jobs, most of which didn’t last more than a week, and eventually his family gave up getting him new ones. He did travel, but nowhere near as much as he claimed. When questioned, Henry’s extended family said he was rarely gone for more than a day, apart from a couple of random week-long trips he took either to find work or pursue some harebrained scheme or other. This is important, as the pattern of life described by his cohabitants doesn’t match in any way the one he described in his confessions. This relatively settled period didn’t have long to run, however, as Henry had begun sexually abusing his prepubescent stepdaughters, just before he got married to Betty. His half-sister Almeda spotted blood on their underwear and confronted him about it. Lucas, according to Almeda, asked if she wanted him to leave. She said he didn’t have to, unless he was abusing her granddaughters. The next day, he stole her husband Wade’s truck and hit the road, never to return.

Ottis Toole was born in Jackson, Florida in 1947. His parents were abusive alcoholics, and it seems that from a very young age, Ottis was forced into sexual activities with relatives and family friends. He also claims he was sexually assaulted by his elder sister before the age of ten, realised he was gay around the time he was twelve, and became a male prostitute by age fourteen. Ottis said his grandmother was a Satanist, who would involve him in Satanic rituals, which is highly dubious. He also tells a story of being dressed as a girl by his mother and pimped out to said family friends. It wasn’t uncommon in the mid-twentieth century, in some parts of the US, for parents to dress young boys as girls – Ernest Hemingway is probably the most famous example. In the US, gendered kid’s clothing became the norm around 1920, but there were pockets of the country way behind the times. With Lucas, and possibly Toole, there seems to have been a sexual motive, but this is one of the many instances in which one man’s story may be bleeding into the other’s. In the case of Lucas, there’s photographic evidence of his being got up in a dress and ringlets, but not so with Toole. It’s possible, though, that these two bonded over their very similar life stories, and that all of it’s true. It certainly was verified by Feazell’s investigators that both Toole and Lucas were subjected to horrific neglect and abuse, and it seems beyond question Ottis was sexually abused throughout his youth. At any rate, Ottis led a peripatetic life, drifting through the southwest of America, panhandling and selling his body. He claims to have killed a travelling salesman who propositioned him for sex by running over him with his own car at age fourteen. Ottis was suspected of several murders of men and women throughout the seventies, and he was a known pyromaniac, experiencing sexual arousal from lighting fires, especially when he thought he might be burning people. Ottis probably rates a video of his own, despite his usual billing as second fiddle to Henry. It’s possible Ottis had much more agency in the relationship than he’s given credit for, and in terms of what can be verified, it seems he was the more violent one. During Feazell’s investigation, almost all of Henry Lee’s associates were shocked to discover he’d murdered in cold blood, whereas people who knew Ottis weren’t surprised at all.

By 1976, Ottis was back in Jacksonville, Florida, living with his wife, mother, sister, and his niece and nephew, Frieda and Frank Powell. Frieda and Frank were his half-sister’s, Druzilla. She’d separated from her husband and, since neither could look after kids, left them in grandma’s care. Ottis would regularly visit a local shelter, sometimes up to three times a week, to cruise for sex. His sister said he’d often go in drag, the better to lure men. He’d also enjoy watching them have sex with his wife – she reported that he QUOTE “couldn’t perform with a woman unless he knew he could get a man”. She didn’t stay with him very long, but this didn’t bother Ottis as he was just as happy watching men have sex with his sister and, on occasion, his prepubescent niece. There are conflicting accounts of when Henry and Ottis actually met, as both men shifted the meeting significantly earlier, presumably to deconflict with their false confessions. Investigators say they couldn’t have met until 1977. According to Sarah Pierce, Ottis’ sister, Henry first appeared in Spring 1977. She said most of the men Ottis brought would stay a day or two, mooch beer, food, and cigarettes, and then leave. Henry was different, however, as he stayed. Henry denies having sex with Ottis, but multiple people who lived in the house reported that after about a week, Henry moved into Ottis’ bedroom more or less permanently. Lucas had also developed a close bond with Ottis’ niece, Frieda, whom he liked to call Becky, for reasons unknown. According to Lucas, he and ‘Becky’ first had sex when she was twelve, after tickling each other in bed.

For much of 1979, both men worked Naval Air Station in Florida as labourers for Southeast Colorcoat, one of many companies owned by the Reeves brothers, whom Ottis had known for years. Every week, Ottis, Henry, and Becky would go to the Buy-Rite Supermarket to cash their pay cheques, and also frequently to buy groceries. Some time around 1980, Lucas stopped working for Colorcoat and began selling scrap metal. Commercial Metals, the ones who kept their records, reported seeing both Henry and Becky more than weekly, with either him or Becky personally signing the sales receipts. In May of 1981, Ottis’ mother died, and they were forced to leave her house. Documentary records show they were away for about three weeks. They went to Houston, then Del Rio, where they sold their car, before ‘riding the rails’ (stowing away on freight trains) to Tucson [TOO-sonn] Arizona. At this point, they claimed the children became sickly and irritable, so they rode the rails back to Houston before hitchhiking back to Jacksonville. It’s not clear the children were even with them. They drifted through Delaware and Maryland for a while, before shacking up together in an apartment in Jacksonville. Henry returned to Maryland for some reason and was jailed for a few months for the theft of Wade Kiser’s truck, was released on probation, and then had that probation transferred to Florida. In 1981, Becky, who’d been living with her mother in Auburndale, Florida, was sent into an emergency shelter when her mother committed suicide. Becky escaped in January 1982 – Henry picked her up, somehow bought and insured a vehicle, and left with her some time after January 10, having discovered she was wanted by police for escaping state custody. This is where Ottis and Henry finally separated, with Ottis remaining in Jacksonville and fuming about Henry running off with his niece. Ottis and his wife went to California to look for work, got into a car accident which hospitalised Ottis, and then separated, with Ottis’ wife returning to Jacksonville while he stayed on, apparently working for a fencing company. For all of this period, they were supposedly killing dozens of people in multiple states.

Henry and Becky had also headed to California, where they pitched up on the property of 82-year-old Kate Rich. They worked for Ms Rich for a while, as carers and odd-job folks, but Kate’s family were suspicious of Henry, and soon convinced her to dismiss them. Becky and Henry headed south and came to the All People’s House of Prayer – a Pentecostal commune in Stoneberg, Texas run by Reuben Moore. Reuben was in the roofing business and, as the founding preacher of the commune, the business of saving waifs and strays. When Becky and Henry arrived, they claimed they were married. Reuben gave Henry a roofing job, and he and Becky stayed in the commune. Henry says he was happiest here. He had work, and Becky, and he got along with Reuben and most of the others. Unfortunately, Becky didn’t like their new situation, and they began arguing, as she wanted to return to Florida and Lucas couldn’t. He’d violated his probation in Florida, and had also transported Becky, a minor, across state lines while she was wanted by police – which would have been bad enough if he hadn’t also been having sex with her, which amounted to trafficking a minor across state lines with intent of committing indecency – a potential life sentence. To placate her, he offered to hitchhike back to Jacksonville and borrowed money from Reuben for the purpose. They left the shelter in August 1982, when according to Henry, he and Becky began to argue, and he hit her with a knife – just like mother dearest. He had sex with the body, claiming it was the best sex he’d ever had with her, before dismembering and disposing of it. He returned with a story that Becky had run off with a truck driver. The locals, especially Sheriff Conway, were suspicious, and he was questioned and held multiple times. The local school superintendent had him kicked off a worksite on the grounds that a murder suspect shouldn’t be that close to children. Or perhaps he thought anyone like Henry shouldn’t be anywhere near any child for any reason.

Henry declared on multiple occasions he would find Becky, bring her back, and clear his name. Once, he convinced Kate Rich to join him in looking for her – Kate had liked Becky and was one of the loudest voices in suspecting Henry of foul play. He took Kate for a drive, stabbed her in the heart, violated and dumped the corpse, and then returned a little while later to burn it in his wood stove. With the finger of suspicion now pointing at him for both Kate and Becky, he claimed that some criminal acquaintances had kidnapped them, and that he would drive out to where they were being held and recover them. He bought an old Pontiac and told Reuben he was leaving to get them. Over this period, Lucas had wandered round the country several times, hitchhiking to Maryland, where he was briefly jailed for parole violations, and somehow acquiring a .22 calibre pistol. It wasn’t unusual for him to take a up to a week-long trip and call Reuben to borrow money to get back – it seems Lucas was punctual in paying most of his debts. He drove the Pontiac to New Mexico and called Reuben collect to tell him he had Kate Rich and Becky Powell with him. He called again from San Jon to say the car had broken down and asked for a lift. Reuben, who by this time was as suspicious of Henry as anyone else, consulted with Sheriff Conway and drove out to get them. When he got there, he found Lucas in tears, claiming his criminal friend – a man called Jack Smart – had “re-kidnapped” the two women. Reuben suggested he call Sheriff Conway, as a bluff to get Lucas to confess to whatever he’d done, but to Reuben’s surprise, Lucas made the call. It was while he was being interviewed that Reuben agreed to swear a statement about Henry Lee’s possession of the .22 pistol, which allowed the Sheriff to lock up his suspect and question him. And as we heard at the top of this piece, they held him for four or five days before Henry started his confessions.

WRAP-UP

Both Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole died in prison, Henry of heart failure in 2001, and Ottis of liver failure in 1996. Henry was convicted of eleven murders, and for all we know, he may have committed some of them. Texas Ranger Glenn Elliott says he sometimes caught Henry trying to confess to murders he didn’t commit but was convinced on at least one occasion that Henry was the killer. Ottis Toole was convicted of six murders, two of which he almost certainly did commit, but in the case of the murder of Adam Walsh, he died while he was in the process of being indicted, and police somehow lost crucial evidence, so that case remains unsolved. As pointed out earlier, however, most people, including the boy’s father, believe he did it. Ottis’ six death sentences were commuted to life on appeal. The best estimates of Henry’s real body count are anywhere between three and twelve murders, with a question mark over Ottis. And this is probably the best we’ll ever get. As the years went on, the Rangers, the taskforce, and a bunch of different local and state police forces, were pilloried in the press, but this curiously didn’t last as long as the inexplicable belief in the pair’s false confessions. Both Henry and Ottis were subject to even more media attention after the stunning incompetence of the police in general and the taskforce in particular was revealed. And of course, the key question was why on earth they confessed to all those crimes. Henry’s given multiple answers over the years, including saying that he did some or all of them, but what he’s said most consistently is that he was out to QUOTE “destroy Texas law enforcement”. Ottis has given a dizzying number of reasons, one of which was that he was confessing in the hopes of getting transferred to the same prison as Henry, so he could kill him. What is clear is that a big part of why Henry confessed was to improve his life in prison, to get special food and privileges and, it seems to me, to please the people around him. Both of these men had IQs in the low to mid-seventies – though in Ottis’ case, he was probably under-rated as his tests didn’t account for dyslexia and other difficulties, and he does come across as the more intelligent (though less sane) of the two. The whole case was summed up best, in my opinion, by Jim Schutze, veteran reporter and scourge of city hall, when he opined that the Rangers had attempted to paint Henry Lucas as a monster and killing machine, hiding behind the appearance of QUOTE “a gap-toothed idiot”. And it was only when ordinary citizens, some journalists, and a high-minded DA decided to probe the case, that the truth came out – that it was actually a “gap-toothed” idiot posing as a monster. Schutze essentially captures what happened here. Looking carefully through Henry’s movements and decisions, it’s easy to see that he was really a feckless drifter, dealt an unbelievably raw hand by fate, and too stupid and brutal to improve on it in any way. And when he started confessing, it really does seem that on some level, at least at first, it was just to get some smokes, and maybe a walk outside, as we can see from this excerpt from that very first letter he wrote to Sheriff Conway.

 “What ever inside me I hope will leave me alone. Since I am not aloud to buy cigaretts or make phone calls to get any We will see what will come out of this mess. I have cigaretts at home but I can’t get to call to get them and [no] one can’t talk to me because I not allowed to contact any one. I’m here in by myself and still can’t talk with a lawyer on this. I have no rights so what can I do to convince you about all this. I can’t take you to where they are because no one believes me and what ever I say seem like I am talking to my self.”

DISMEMBERED APPENDICES

  1. George W Bush, when he was Governor of Texas, came under a lot of fire because of the way he handled death penalty cases. As Governor, he was the highest state authority when it came to clemency or stays of execution and had infamously said in public that he considered all these cases very carefully, sometimes devoting as much as fifteen minutes to praying and thinking about them. When Henry Lucas’ case came before him, he was looking at a presidential run, but had never once overturned a death. This, added to the manifest weakness of the case against Henry, led him to commute his death sentence to life in prison – the first and only time he’d done this.
  2. Over the course of my career, I’ve spent a significant amount of time surveilling heavy drug users, and the whole time I was beating my head against various walls trying to untangle the lives and behaviour of Ottis Toole and Henry Lucas, the thing that kept bugging me was just how much their activities resembled that of severe drug addicts. But none of the sources mentioned anything about drugs – plenty about booze, but no drugs. And this for a pair of drifters moping around the USA in the 1970s. Finally, I found a single reference to their “drugs problem” in the judge’s opinion on Henry’s 1989 appeal. I guess all the murder and whatnot pushed the narcotics off the map.  
  3. There’s been quite a bit of speculation about the sanity of Henry Lee Lucas, with various experts both diagnosing him as a schizophrenic, while others deny this and claim he had a sociopathic disorder. It seems this is still hotly debated to this day, and since he’s long dead, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure.
  4. The Salazar/Key murders – the ones which set Vic Feazell off on his costly quest – were subsequently solved by DNA evidence. Needless to say, the killer was not Henry Lee Lucas, but one Benny Tijerina, who was stopped for drink driving in 2007 and submitted a DNA sample. He’s currently doing 40 years for both Rita and Kevin’s murders.
  5. Henry Lucas owned a total of two firearms in his life – one .32 rimfire, obtained mysteriously on a random road trip with a stranger, and one .22 pistol he acquired later. Henry never could afford ammunition for either of them, and despite the fact that many of the murders he confessed to involved shooting deaths, neither weapon was ever linked to any of the crimes. And nor was he ever thought to have owned any other firearms.
  6. Samuel Little, who confessed to 93 murders between 2018 and his death in 2020, is often mentioned in conjunction with Henry Lee Lucas. Like Lucas, Little claims his mother was a prostitute and that he travelled the country killing women. Like Lucas, he provided drawings of the women he’d murdered. He also made his first confession to a Texas Ranger. Unlike Lucas, 60 of the 93 murders have been confirmed, the timescale of 93 murders over 35 years is plausible, and there’s actual evidence other than his confessions linking him to many of the killings.
  7. While Henry was on death row, a woman came forward claiming to be Becky Powell, which chimed with his later denials that he’d ever killed her. It turned out to be Phyllis Wilcox, a notorious superfan of serial killers, who’d visited Henry to cook up a plan to help him in his case.
  8. Some of the crimes Henry confessed to have since been solved, mostly through DNA. There are myriad others which are still officially closed, however, and victims’ families have been petitioning to reopen these investigations. They’ve made little progress, as it’s a hell of a lot of cases, it makes all the agencies involved look like fools (again), and thanks to being closed decades ago, they’re very cold. Having said all that, though, it’s clearly the right thing to do. So if you do come across an affected family petitioning online or protesting in person, perhaps consider lending your support, as they surely deserve the justice promised and denied them by the Henry Lee Lucas taskforce, and every cop who used it as a handy way to balance their murder books.

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