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Henry Lee Lucas

Mug shot of Henry Lee Lucas.
Background information
Birth name: Henry Lee Lucas
Also known as: The Confession Killer
Born: August 23, 1936(1936-08-23)
Blacksburg, Virginia
Died: March 13, 2001 (aged 64)
Cause of death: Heart failure
Number of victims: at least 3; confessed to more than 3000
Span of killings: January 11, 1960 – 1983(?)
Country: USA
State(s): Michigan, Texas, possibly Florida
Date apprehended: June 11, 1983

Henry Lee Lucas (August 23, 1936[1] – March 13, 2001[2]) was an American criminal, convicted of murder and once listed as America's most prolific serial killer; he later recanted his confessions, and flatly stated "I am not a serial killer" in a letter to researcher Patrick Poff.[3] Lucas confessed to involvement in about 600 murders, with an average of about one murder every five days between his release from prison in mid-1975 to his arrest in mid-1983. A more widely circulated total of about 350 murders committed by Lucas is based on confessions deemed "believable" by a Texas-based Lucas Task Force, a group which was criticized by the Attorney General of Texas, Jim Mattox, and others for sloppy police work and taking part in an extended "hoax".[4]

Beyond his recantation, some of Lucas' confessions have been challenged as inaccurate by a number of critics, including law enforcement and court officials. Lucas claimed to have been initially subjected to poor treatment and coercive interrogation tactics while in police custody, and to have confessed to murders in an effort to improve his living conditions. Amnesty International reported "the belief of two former state Attorneys General that Lucas was in all likelihood innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced to death."[5]

Lucas's sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1998 by then-Governor George W. Bush. It remains the only commutation in Bush's entire history as Governor of Texas and the only successful commutation of a death sentence in Texas since the re-institution of the death penalty in Texas in 1982. Lucas died in prison of natural causes. Because Lucas' death removed the possibility of resolution in many instances, a number of questions remain unresolved. Some authorities—while admitting that Lucas tended to exaggerate his accounts and told some outright lies, and also recognizing that the Lucas Task Force engaged in some very questionable tactics—insist that Lucas was a viable suspect in a number of unsolved murders. Despite these factors, Lucas still maintains a reputation, in the words of author Sarah L. Knox, "as one of the world's worst serial killers—even after the debunking of the majority of his confessions by the Attorney General of Texas."[6]

Lucas allegedly carried out many murders with an accomplice, Ottis Toole, whose reputation as a serial killer is mostly unaltered by Lucas' recantations.


Early life

Lucas was born in a one-room log cabin in Blacksburg, Virginia, the youngest of nine children. His mother, Viola Dixon Waugh, was an alcoholic prostitute. His father, Anderson Lucas, was an alcoholic and former railroad employee who had lost his legs after being hit by a freight train. He would usually come home inebriated, and would suffer from Viola's wrath as often as his sons.

Lucas claimed that he and his brother were regularly beaten by Viola, often for no reason. He once spent three days in a coma after his mother struck him with a wooden plank, and on many occasions he was forced by his mother to watch her having sex with men. Lucas also claimed that his mother would often dress him in girls' clothing. His sister Almeda Lucas supports his story, and she claims that she once had two pictures of Henry as a toddler dressed in girls' clothing. Lucas described an incident when he was given a mule as a gift by his uncle, only to see his mother shoot and kill it. Another incident Lucas described occurred when he was eight. He claimed he was given a teddy bear by one of his teachers, and was then beaten by his mother for accepting charity.

When Lucas was 10, his brother accidentally stabbed him in the left eye while they were fighting. His mother ignored the injury for four days, and subsequently the eye grew infected and had to be replaced by a glass eye.

In December 1949, Anderson Lucas died of hypothermia, after going home drunk and collapsing outside during a blizzard. Shortly after, Henry dropped out of school in the sixth grade and ran away from home, drifting around Virginia. Lucas claimed that he first practiced bestiality and zoosadism while he was a runaway, and also began committing petty thefts and burglaries around the state. Lucas claimed to have committed his first murder in 1951, when he strangled 17-year-old Laura Burnsley, who refused his sexual advances. Like most of his confessions, he later retracted this claim. On June 10, 1954, Lucas was convicted on over a dozen counts of burglary in and around Richmond, Virginia, and was sentenced to four years in prison. He escaped in 1957, was recaptured three days later, and was released on September 2, 1959.

In late 1959, Lucas travelled to Tecumseh, Michigan to live with his half-sister, Opal. Around this time, Lucas was engaged to marry a pen pal with whom he had corresponded while incarcerated. When his mother visited him for Christmas, she disapproved of her son's fiancée and insisted he move back to Blacksburg. He refused, and they argued repeatedly about his upcoming nuptials.

First known murder

On January 11, 1960, Lucas killed his mother during the course of an ongoing argument regarding whether or not he should return home to his mother's house to care for her as she grew older. He claimed she struck him over the head with a broom, at which point he struck her on the neck and she fell. Lucas then fled the scene. He subsequently said,

All I remember was slapping her alongside the neck, but after I did that I saw her fall and decided to grab her. But she fell to the floor and when I went back to pick her up, I realized she was dead. Then I noticed that I had my knife in my hand and she had been cut.

She was not in fact dead, and when Lucas's half-sister Opal (with whom he was staying) returned later, she discovered their mother alive in a pool of blood. She called an ambulance, but it turned out to be too late to save Viola Lucas's life. The official police report stated she died of a heart attack precipitated by the assault. Lucas returned to Virginia, then says he decided to drive back to Michigan, but was arrested in Ohio on the outstanding Michigan warrant.

Lucas claimed to have attacked his mother only in self-defense, but his claim was rejected, and he was sentenced to between 20 and 40 years' imprisonment in Michigan for second-degree murder. After serving ten years in prison, he was released in June 1970 due to prison overcrowding.


Lucas drifted around the American South, working a number of mostly short-term jobs. In Florida, he made the acquaintance of Ottis Toole in 1976 and had a romantic affair with Toole's 12-year-old niece, Frieda Powell, who had escaped from a juvenile detention facility. Lucas and Toole both called Powell "Becky", partly to disguise her identity and because Powell preferred it over her given name. Lucas would later claim that during this period he had killed hundreds of people, Toole assisting him in 108 murders. The trio left Florida and eventually settled in Stoneburg, Texas, at a religious commune called "The House of Prayer." Ruben Moore, the commune owner and minister, found Lucas a job as a roofer, and allowed Lucas and Powell to live in a small apartment on the commune.

Powell became homesick, so Lucas agreed to move to Florida with her. Lucas said they argued at a Bowie, Texas truck stop and claimed that Powell left with a trucker. A waitress at the truck stop supported Lucas's account in court.[4]

"The Lucas Report" confessions and controversy

Lucas was arrested on June 11, 1983 by Texas Ranger Phil Ryan, initially for unlawful firearm possession.[7] He was later charged with killing 82-year-old Kate Rich in Ringgold, Texas, and was also charged with Powell's murder. Lucas claimed that police stripped him naked, denied him cigarettes and bedding, held him in a cold cell, and did not allow him to contact an attorney. After four days of this treatment, Lucas claimed he decided to confess to the crimes in a desperate bid to improve his treatment. Lucas confessed to the murders but claimed to be unable to take police to the victims' bodies. He closed out his confession with a hand-written addendum that read:[8] "I am not aloud [sic] to contact any one I'm in here by myself and still can't talk to a lawyer on this I have no rights so what can I do to convince you about all this." When he was finally allowed counsel, Lucas's lawyer described[8] his client's treatment as "inhumane" and "calculated solely to require the defendant to confess guilt, whether innocent or guilty."

The forensic evidence in the Powell and Rich cases has been criticized as inconclusive.[9] A single bone fragment recovered from a wood-burning stove was said to be Rich's, and a mostly-complete skeleton roughly matched Powell's age and size, but Shellady reports that the coroner stopped short of positively identifying either remains. As with most of his alleged crimes, Lucas has confessed to these murders only to deny involvement later, but the general consensus seems to be that Lucas did indeed murder Powell and Rich. Lucas pleaded guilty to the charges, and in open court stated he had "killed about a hundred more women" as well. This was an unexpected confession, and Lucas later claimed to have been despondent over being suspected in Powell's disappearance. Shellady reports[4] that Lucas said, "If they were going to make me confess to one I didn't do, then I was going to confess to everything." These claims were quickly seized upon by the press, and Lucas, accompanied by Texas Rangers, was soon flown from state to state, to meet with various police agencies in an effort to resolve a number of unsolved murders.

In November 1983, Lucas was transferred to a jail in Williamson County, Texas, where the Lucas Task Force was soon established. While in Williamson County, he was interviewed by then-Sheriff Jim Boutwell. Boutwell is said to have played an important role early in the task force as well as Bob Prince of the Texas Rangers. Lucas stated that he and Boutwell "were like father and son".[citation needed] Shellady describes the task force as "a veritable clearinghouse of unsolved murder." Police officially "cleared" 213 previously unsolved murders via Lucas's confessions. Lucas reported that he confessed to murders only because doing so improved his living conditions, and that he received preferential treatment rarely offered to convicts. Others have offered accounts that seem to support Lucas's claims, for example, that Lucas was rarely handcuffed when in custody or being transported, that he was often allowed to wander police stations and jails at will — including knowing the security codes for computerized doors — and that he was frequently taken to restaurants and cafés. It was later learned that Boutwell and other task force agents purposely fed Lucas information about other unsolved murders so that Lucas would make "credible" confessions. Lucas was also granted favors while incarcerated that other inmates never received.[10] On one occasion, in Huntington, West Virginia, Lucas confessed to killing a man whose death had originally been ruled a suicide. The man's widow received a large life insurance settlement that had been denied after the initial suicide verdict.

Texas Ranger Phil Ryan reports that Lucas became so accustomed to such treatment that he began "dictating orders" that were often obeyed by Rangers. Ryan also reported that he became concerned about the veracity of most of Lucas's confessions, feeling confident in the accuracy of two of Lucas's confessions, and further stated to the Houston Chronicle that "I wouldn't bet a paycheck on any of the others."[11] Shellady reports that in order to expose Lucas's claims, Ryan invented utterly fictional crimes, to which Lucas would generally "confess" involvement, a tactic also employed by Dallas detective Linda Erwin. Ryan reports the manner in which Lucas typically confessed to a number of unsolved murders: If a police agency suspected Lucas, and if Lucas admitted involvement — and his total of some 3,000 confessions suggests he rarely denied complicity — they would send the Lucas Task Force a case file with information pertaining to the unsolved crime. Lucas would be questioned at length and sometimes even allowed to read police reports, thus learning any number of details previously known only to police, which he could then use during interviews.

The same Houston Chronicle article reports that Erwin interviewed Lucas after he confessed to 13 murders in Houston. Erwin reports that "when I heard it got to be hundreds and hundreds (of confessions), it was unbelievable to me." Erwin further reports that, like Ryan, she assembled an utterly fictional crime: She "fabricated a case using random photographs from old murders long since solved and details pulled from her imagination ... He claimed credit for the phony crime, and his confession, containing facts she had dribbled out to him, probably could have convinced a jury to convict him, she said." Erwin admitted she was uncomfortable fabricating a crime, but felt it necessary in order to settle questions of Lucas's reliability. Lucas was not charged with any of the crimes he confessed to committing in Dallas.

Lucas' claims gradually became criticized as outlandish and less likely: He claimed to have been part of a cannibalistic, satanic cult called "The Hand of Death",[6] to have taken part in snuff films, to have killed Jimmy Hoffa, and to have delivered poison to cult leader Jim Jones in Jonestown prior to the notorious mass murder/suicide of Jones's group.

In response to these claims, and to reports of the Lucas Task Force's questionable investigative methodology, the Texas Attorney General's office issued a study (sometimes called "The Lucas Report") in 1986.[12]

The bulk of the Lucas Report was devoted to a detailed timeline of Lucas's claimed murders. The report compared Lucas's claims to reliable, verifiable sources for Lucas's whereabouts; the results often contradicted his confessions, and thus cast doubt on most of the crimes in which he was implicated. Attorney General Jim Mattox wrote[8] that "when Lucas was confessing to hundreds of murders, those with custody of Lucas did nothing to bring an end to this hoax," and "We have found information that would lead us to believe that some officials 'cleared cases' just to get them off the books."

Here are a few examples of crimes the Lucas Task Force ruled "closed" based on Lucas's "confessions," when strong evidence has been cited, indicating Lucas was far from the scene of the crime:

Orange Socks murder

Ultimately, Lucas was convicted of 11 homicides. He was sentenced to death for the murder of an unidentified woman dubbed "Orange Socks", as those were the only clothing found on her. Her body was discovered in Williamson County, Texas, on Halloween 1979. Lucas' confession was recorded on audio tape and videotape and, when presented at court, had been subjected to significant editing, leading critics to speculate that the removed sections showed authorities coaching Lucas on details of the crime.

Dan Morales, Mattox's successor as Texas Attorney General, concluded that it was "highly unlikely" that Lucas was guilty in the "Orange Socks" case.[13] Though initially skeptical of the Lucas Report, he came generally to support its findings.

Williamson County prosecutor Cecil Kuykendall discounted Lucas as a suspect in the "Orange Socks" case and has stated his opinion that Lucas' confession drew attention from a far more viable suspect, further noting evidence that Lucas was in Florida, working as a roofer, during the time that "Orange Socks" was killed. As cited in an Amnesty International report, Mattox stated that during the time "Orange Socks" was killed, "work records, check cashing evidence, all information indicating Lucas was somewhere else. We found nothing tying [Lucas] with the crime he confessed to and was convicted of."[14] Mattox's office decided not to intervene, so certain they were that the state appeals court would overturn Lucas' conviction in the "Orange Socks" case.

Lucas told Shellady that he confessed to the murder in an effort at "legal suicide," and that he "just wanted to die." Lucas expressed what Shellady describes as "deep regret and sorrow" for offering false confessions, stating that he "was not aware how crooked they [Texas authorities] were until it was too late." The Houston Chronicle article also notes that Lucas offered various motives for his confession spree: Improving his conditions, a desire to embarrass police, and feeling guilt over killing Powell and Rich.

Adding to the confusion, however, was Lucas's habit of making confessions, recanting them, then offering more confessions, and again recanting them. Mattox, wary of Lucas's many false confessions, suggested in 1999 that, in the case of Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, "I hope they don't start pinning on him every crime that happens near a railroad track."[15]

Clemency and death

Lucas's supposed confidant, Ottis Toole, died on September 15, 1996, from cirrhosis of the liver. He was serving six life sentences in a Florida prison. In 1998, the Texas Board of Pardon and Parole voted to commute Lucas's death sentence to life imprisonment, in accordance with Governor George W. Bush's request, who believed that Lucas did not commit all of the murders for which he was convicted. On March 13, 2001, Lucas died in prison from heart failure at age 64.

Dissenting opinions

Several authorities and interested parties remained sure of Lucas's guilt in a number of murders, regardless of his recantations and the controversy surrounding his many confessions. Jim Lawson, a sheriff's department investigator in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, questioned Lucas in September 1984 regarding the unsolved 1978 murder of schoolteacher Stella McLean. Lawson says he asked deceptive questions to test Lucas, but insists Lucas offered compelling testimony to support his claims of killing McLean.[16]

Texas General Land Office Commissioner Garry Mauro, then standing for election of Governor of Texas, stated his opinion that "There is no doubt in my mind that Henry Lee Lucas is guilty enough of the murders he confessed to that he earned the death penalty."[17]

The Houston Chronicle article quotes Harold Murphy of Marianna, Florida, who remained convinced that Lucas killed his daughter Jerilyn in 1981.

As cited in the above Houston Chronicle article, Texas Ranger Phil Ryan — while strongly criticizing the Lucas Task Force for their questionable methods, and while rejecting the vast majority of Lucas's confessions — concluded that Lucas was a strong suspect in two cases (those of his 15-year-old traveling companion, Becky Powell, and Kate Rich), and thought Lucas was "at most ... responsible for 15 murders." This was still a considerable total, qualifying Lucas as a serial killer according to the FBI's definitions, but well below the claims of hundreds or even thousands of murders. Eric W. Hickey[18] cites an unnamed "investigator" who interviewed Lucas several times, and who concluded Lucas had probably killed about 40 people.

Popular references

The movies Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2 and confessions of a serial killer are loosely based on Lucas's confessions. Portrait of a Serial Killer starred Michael Rooker as a fictionalized version of Lucas, while Portrait of a Serial Killer, Part 2 starred Neil Giuntoli.

Drifter: Henry Lee Lucas (2009), starred Antonio Sabato Jr.

Metal band Downthesun released a song titled "Lucas Toole" in 2002.

See also


Further reading

  • Sara L. Knox, "The Productive Power of Confessions of Cruelty" 2001 [1]
  • Brad Shellady, "Henry: Fabrication of a Serial Killer", included in Everything You Know Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Secrets and Lies, 2002; Russ Kick, editor.
  • Michael A. Kroll, "Condemned in Texas: When Innocence Doesn't Matter", 1998 [2]
  • "The Death Penalty In Texas: Lethal Injustice", Amnesty International, 1998 [3]
  • "Failing the Future: Death Penalty Developments, March 1998 - March 2000" Amnesty International, 2000 [4]
  • "Henry Lee Lucas able to confuse authorities and then beat death", Jim Henderson, 1998 Houston Chronicle [5]
  • "Sheriff's wife among 4 dead in shooting", Melissa Nelson, 2007 Associated Press (Yahoo News) [6]

External links

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