Henry Lee Lucas was an American criminal, convicted of murder in 11 different cases and once listed as America’s most prolific serial killer.
Henry Lee Lucas was born in Blacksburg, Virginia, in the Appalachian Mountains, on 23 August 1936, to Anderson & Viola Lucas. Following the loss of both of Anderson’s legs in a drunken train track accident, Viola was the sole source of income in the house, a squalid two-room log cabin where the entire family shared the single bedroom. Most of Lucas’ siblings, eight in all, were fortunate enough to have been farmed out to relatives early on in their lives, but Henry and his half-brother were forced to stay with their mother, a vicious, brutal tyrannical woman who earned a living as a prostitute. She moved her lover and pimp, a man named Bernie, into the family home, and would regularly force the boys to observe her having sex with a succession of strangers. She provided absolutely no nurturing, either physically or emotionally, and believed that the sole purpose of her children was to do her bidding. Lucas’ disabled father gave the young boy some comfort, when he could, but was generally as brutalised as his son. Anderson was responsible for the brewing of bootleg whisky to supplement their meagre income, but he consumed more than he sold, also encouraging his young son: Lucas later claimed to have been practically an alcoholic by the age of 10.
Lucas claimed that he killed his first victim at the age of 15, a young girl who had refused his sexual advances. He strangled her and dumped the body and, although no body was found, the disappearance in March 1951 of 17-year-old Laura Burnley was linked to Lucas, although he later recanted this confession. In 1954, Lucas was convicted on several counts of burglary in and around Richmond, Virginia, and was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. He managed to escape from a prison road-gang, was then recaptured, and was released on 2 September 1959, one year early, despite his earlier escape. After his release, Lucas moved to Tecumseh, Michigan, to live with his half-sister, Opal. Lucas met a girl called Stella and proposed to her before Christmas 1959. His mother Viola strongly disapproved of his choice of bride, however, and came to Michigan to air her concerns, insisting that Lucas return to live with her instead. A violent argument ensued and Stella broke off the engagement. Viola continued to try to persuade Lucas to return home with her, and a number of heated arguments culminated in a vicious fight on 11 January 1960.
“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 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-defence, but his claim was rejected, and he was sentenced to between 20 and 40 years’ imprisonment in Michigan for second-degree murder.
He tried to commit suicide twice during his jail term, and spent time in the Iona State Mental Institution. Due to severe overcrowding conditions in the Michigan State Penitentiary, he was released after serving only 10 years of his sentence, on 3 June 1970, but was back inside by December 1971, this time for kidnapping two teenage girls. He served a four-year sentence for this offence and was released on 22 August 1975. Later in the year he married widow Betty Crawford, but the marriage was short-lived: they were divorced in summer 1977, when she accused him of interfering with her young daughters from her first marriage.
Wandering aimlessly around the American South following his divorce, Lucas met a kindred spirit, named Ottis Toole, with whom he began a homosexual affair, in early 1978, and he moved in with Toole’s family in Jacksonville, Florida. Lucas also began an affair with Toole’s niece, Frieda Powell, known as Becky, who was not yet in her teens at the time. According to Lucas, he and Toole developed a close relationship, moulded by crime, and made money by holding up convenience stores and banks. Depending on whether one accepts Lucas’ multiple confessions to murder or not, he also began a murder spree of epic proportions, that continued virtually unabated until his arrest in June 1983. Toole later corroborated Lucas’ claims, but Lucas’ later recantation of all confessions leaves a question mark over whether Lucas, Toole and even Becky, were complicit in a homicidal spree or not.
The trio were forced onto the road in 1981 when they lost their Jacksonville home after Toole’s mother died, and Lucas’ claims of criminal acts extended from straightforward murder to necrophilia, cannibalism, baby kidnapping rings and even Satanic cults. On one occasion, he even claimed to have supplied and delivered Jim Jones the poison for the infamous Jonestown cult massacre, in Guyana. On another, he claimed to have been in Washington State, contributing to the ‘Green River Killer’ body count, although this was later discounted, when it was conclusively proved that he was elsewhere when the murders occurred. By early 1982, Lucas and Becky were travelling alone, ending up in Ringgold, Texas, in May, where they were taken in by 82-year-old widow, Kate Rich, who came to regard Becky with a great deal of affection. Lucas and Becky did not reciprocate this affection, however, and were driven away by Rich’s relatives, when they discovered that the pair were stealing from the old woman.
They were then taken in by Ruben Moore, who gave them board and lodging at his religious commune in Stoneburg, Texas, known as ‘The House of Prayer’, and Lucas found work as a roofer. Despite their poor treatment of Kate Rich, she remained in contact with Becky during this time. All was well until August 1982, when Becky decided she was homesick and insisted that they return to Florida. On 23 August, they left the commune, but Lucas returned the next day claiming to Moore that Becky and he had argued at a truck stop, and that she had hitched a ride with a trucker, leaving him behind. Apparently a witness corroborated this story, although he later confessed that he had killed her during a fight, had sex with her corpse, chopped her into small pieces and returned later to bury the remains
Kate Rich was suspicious of Lucas’ return without Becky, and badgered him for further information over the following weeks, until he eventually agreed to meet with her. He took her out in Moore’s car, stabbed her and dumped her body, returning later to retrieve the body, which he disposed of by dismembering and burning it in a wood stove in the commune kitchen. The search for Rich brought the police into contact with Lucas, given his previous history with her, but the sheriff, named Conway, was unable to link him conclusively to the disappearance, and was forced to release him. He left the area immediately, returning to his aimless travel mode, and killing indiscriminately (or not, depending on whose version of events is accepted).
Short of money and desperate, Lucas eventually contacted Ruben Moore again in May 1983, who promised to help him out if he returned to Stoneburg. Unbeknownst to Lucas, Moore contacted the police to apprise them of his impending return, and he was held on outstanding car theft charges, released, and then arrested for the last time on 11 June 1983, on possession of firearms charges. Sheriff Conway was determined to hold Lucas this time, but he refused to admit any knowledge of Rich’s death. In an attempt to get at the truth, Lucas was deprived of cigarettes and caffeine, and refused legal counsel; by 15 June 1983, Conway had his confession and much more: Lucas admitted killing Rich, as well as Powell (who had been presumed alive until that time). He also admitted having killed indiscriminately over the previous 10 years, claiming a victim count in the hundreds, initially.
What is interesting about the Lucas case is that the doubts about his true murder count don’t stem from the expected quarter, namely the ghoulish groupies who tend to surround serial killers with pledges of marriage and claims of innocence: they come from all areas of law enforcement, from officers on the ground to Attorneys General. Some claim that Lucas had information that only the killer could have; others believe that, in order to facilitate a confession, he was given access to police notes prior to interview, so that he could give an accurate account that would implicate him.
The Lucas Task Force was set up in late 1983, and what is clear is that Lucas had a tremendous sense of power, as police forces from across the country assembled to try to clear unsolved cases. Lucas spent a great deal of time travelling around the country, during which time he was treated extremely well, granted unheard-of freedoms for a convicted murderer, and his eventual confessions totalled over 3,000. More than 200 cases were closed as a direct result of his confessions. Those who doubted his confessions grew increasingly uncomfortable as they became increasingly outlandish, but the desire to clear hundreds of ‘cold’ cases was irresistible.
Lucas was eventually charged with 11 homicides, including the killing of an unknown woman, known only as ‘Orange Socks’, because they were the only clothing found on her body, in April 1984. This latter confession resulted in the death sentence being handed down, but rather than a cell on Death Row, Lucas returned to the Lucas Task Force headquarters, where he continued to assist police with case clearances, travelling around the country at taxpayer’s expense.
On 15 April 1985, a reporter at the Dallas Times-Herald, Hugh Aynesworth, published a series of stories, following interviews with Lucas, claiming that Lucas’ confessions had been a hoax. He claimed that Lucas had soon realised the advantages to be had, in personal comfort terms, if he continued to ‘assist’ the police, and therefore maintained the charade as long as possible, with the collusion of police authorities. Lucas then recanted almost all of his confessions, and police officials who had been sceptical expressed their own doubts publicly.
Clearly Lucas’ usefulness as a ‘case closer’ was over, and he was sent to Death Row in Huntsville to await his execution. His defence team launched a number of appeals following the recantation of his confession to the murder of ‘Orange Socks’. Lucas continued to give interviews, making various claims, including that he had confessed the ‘Orange Socks’ killing as a form of ‘legal suicide’; that he had only wanted to improve his well-being in jail; that he wanted to assuage his guilt over the killing of Becky Powell; and that he had wanted to make the police authorities seem stupid.
‘The Lucas Report’, published in 1986 by Attorney General Jim Mattox, uncovered a raft of contradictory evidence that resulted in the re-opening of a large number of the cases that had been previously closed as a result of the confessions. Lucas’ appeals were eventually exhausted and, on 24 June 1998, he conducted an interview with the press, in what was expected to be his last public appearance before being executed by lethal injection. He was not hopeful of reprieve, according to the gathered reporters. Amazingly, just 48 hours later, on 26 June 1998, George W. Bush, then Governor of Texas, commuted his death sentence to a life sentence, on the recommendation of the Texas Parole Board, which concluded that he could not have killed ‘Orange Socks’. It was the only time during his tenure as Governor that Bush showed clemency to a Death Row prisoner.
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. On the evening of 13 March 2001, 64-year-old Lucas died in prison from heart failure, taking the truth about his actual victim count with him.