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Henry Lee Lucas

Henry Lee Lucas (August 23, 1936 – March 13, 2001) was an American, convicted of murder and once listed as America's most prolific serial killer. However, he later recanted his confessions. He once flatly stated "I am not a serial killer" in a letter to researcher Brad Shellady.

Many sources report that Lucas confessed to involvement in about 350 murders. In fact, according to Shellady, Lucas confessed to involvement in about 3,000 murders: An average of about one murder per day between his release from prison in mid-1975 to his arrest in mid-1983. The figure of 350 is based on confessions deemed "believable" by a Texas-based "Lucas Task Force," a group which was criticized by Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox for sloppy police work and taking part in an extended "hoax." (Note: Shellady misspells "Mattox" as "Maddox".)

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 subject to poor treatment and coercive interrogation tactics while in police custody, and that he confessed to murders in an effort to improve his living conditions. This calls into question many of Lucas' alleged murders, since his confessions were often the sole evidence cited in favor of his guilt, especially his sole death penalty conviction; 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."[1]

Though Lucas' death seemed to have removed the possibility of resolution in many instances, there are still a number of unresolved or open questions. 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 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."[2]

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

Table of contents

Early life

Lucas was born on August 23, 1936, in Blacksburg, Virginia. He described his mother, Viola Lucas, as a violent prostitute and his father, Anderson Lucas, an alcoholic and former railroad employee who had lost his legs in a train accident, and who suffered from Viola's wrath as often as Henry. Lucas reports that Viola regularly beat Henry and his half-brother, often for no reason. Henry once spent three days in a coma when his mother hit him round the head with a plank of wood, and on many occasions he witnessed his mother having sex with a variety of men. Lucas described an incident when he was given a pony as a gift by his father's friends, only to see his mother shoot and kill it.

When he was a teenager, Henry Lucas claimed to have been introduced to bestiality and killing animals for pleasure—the latter a common trait amongst serial-murderers—as well as picking up convictions for petty theft. Lucas had also lost an eye during a fight with his half-brother and had a glass-eye for the rest of his life.

Lucas claimed to have first murdered in 1951, when he strangled a girl who refused his sexual advances. Like most of his confessions, he later retracted this claim.

In 1954, Lucas was convicted on several counts of burglary in and around Richmond, Virginia, and was sentenced to six years' imprisonment. He escaped and was recaptured, and was released in September, 1959.

Matricide

In late 1959, Lucas moved to Tecumseh, Michigan, to live with his half-sister, Opal. Lucas was engaged to marry when his mother Viola came to Michigan for a Christmas visit. She disapproved of Henry's fiancée and insisted he move back to Virginia. He refused, and they argued repeatedly about his upcoming nuptials.

On January 11 1960, Lucas killed his mother. He claims to have returned home from a night of drinking and gone to bed, only to be later woken by his mother, who beat him with a broom. He stabbed her with a knife. Lucas fled in a stolen car, 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 twenty and forty years' imprisonment in Michigan for second degree murder. He served fifteen years and was released on August 22, 1975.

Lucas drifted around the American South, working a number of mostly short-term jobs. In Florida, he made the acquaintance of Otis Toole sometime between 1976 and 1978—sources disagree—and claims to have had a romantic affair with Toole's teenaged niece, Frieda Powell, who had escaped from a juvenile detention facility. Lucas and Toole both called Powell "Becky" sometimes, partly to disguise her identity and because Powell preferred it over her given name. Lucas and Toole were also reportedly lovers.

Lucas would later claim that during this period he had killed hundreds of people, sometimes as Toole's partner.

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, and Lucas agreed to move to Florida with her. Lucas says they got in an argument at a Bowie, Texas, truck stop, and claimed that Powell left with a trucker. According to Shellady, a waitress at the truck stop supported Lucas' account in court.

1983 arrest and multiple confessions

Lucas was arrested in June 1983, initially on a firearms violation. He was later charged with killing 82-year-old Kate Rich in Ringold, Texas, and was also charged with Powell's murder. Lucas claims 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 claims 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: "I am not aloud 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" (spellings as in original).

When he was finally allowed counsel, Lucas' lawyer described 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. 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 Shelladay reports that the coroner stopped short of positively identifying either remains. As with most of his alleged crimes, Lucas has confessed and recanted to these murders, but the general consensus seems to be that Lucas did indeed murder Powell and Rich.

Lucas pled 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. Shelladay reports 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. Shelladay describes the task force as "a veritable clearinghouse of unsolved murder, courtesy of the Texas Rangers." They officially "cleared" 213 previously unsolved murders via Lucas' 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' 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 cafes. 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, and the Texas Rangers hosted a party at a Holiday Inn, spending $3,000 on drinks and prostitutes.

It has been suggested that such treatment demonstrates that the Lucas Task Force did not consider Lucas a threat.

Texas Ranger Phil Ryan reports that Lucas became so accustomed to such treatment that he began "dictating orders" which were often obeyed by Rangers. Ryan also reported that he became concerned about the veracity of most of Lucas' confessions, feeling confident in the accuracy of two of Lucas' confessions, and further stated to the Houston Chronicle that "I wouldn't bet a paycheck on any of the others." [3] Shellady reports that Ryan invented utterly fictional crimes, to which Lucas would generally "confess" involvement, a tactic also employed by Dallas detective Linda Erwin.

The same Houston Chronicle article reports Dallas, Texas, detective Linda Erwin, who 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 reports she was uncomfortable fabricating a crime, but felt it necessary in order to settle questions of Lucas' reliability. Lucas was not charged with any of the crimes he confessed to committing in Dallas.

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 regurgitate at will.

"The Lucas Report" and controversy

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" [4], to have taken part in snuff films, to have killed Jimmy Hoffa, and to have delivered poison to Jim Jones in Jonestown.

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. Attorney General Jim Mattox wrote 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' "confessions," when strong evidence has been cited, indicating Lucas was far from the scene of the crime:

  • Lucas confessed to the August 10, 1977, murder of Curby Reeves in Smith County, Texas, while payroll records indicate that Lucas worked a full shift at the Kaolin Mushroom Company in Kaolin, Pennsylvania.
  • Chris Piazza, then a prosecutor in Little Rock, Arkansas, wrote of a specific 1981 robbery-murder case in which Lucas claimed involvement that "the testimony of Henry Lee Lucas ... is dubious, to say the least" and that Lucas' testimony was "inaccurate in nearly every detail."

Dissenting opinions

On the other hand, several authorities and interested parties remained sure of Lucas' guilt in a number of murders, regardless of his recantations and the controversy surrounding his many confessions.

Jim Larson, a sheriff’s department investigator in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, questioned Lucas in September 1984 regarding the unsolved 1978 murder of school teacher Stella McLean. Larson says he asked deceptive questions to test Lucas, but insists Lucas offered compelling testimony to support his claims of killing McLean. [5]

Gerry Macro, 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." [6]

The Houston Chronicle article quotes Harold Murphy of Mariana, 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' confessions—concluded that Lucas was a strong suspect in two cases, and thought Lucas was "at most ... responsible for 15 murders." Still a considerable total, qualifying Lucas as a serial killer but well below the claims of hundreds or even thousands of murders.

These statements—among others—make it clear that law enforcement officials and other figures have conflicting opinions as to Lucas' guilt or innocence.

Orange Socks

Ultimately, Lucas was convicted of eleven homicides. He was sentenced to death for the murder of an unidentified woman—dubbed "Orange Socks" after her only clothing—who was discovered in Williamson County, Texas, on Halloween 1979. Lucas' confession was recorded on audio tape and video tape and, when presented at court, had been subject to significant editing, leading critics to speculate that the removed sections showed authorities coaching Lucas on details of the crime.

Dan Morales, Mattox' successor as Texas Attorney General, concluded that it was "Highly Unlikely" that Lucas was guilty in the "Orange Socks" case.[7] Though initially skeptical of the Lucas Report, he came to generally 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 reports, Mattox stated that during the time "Orange Socks" was killed, "work records, check cashing evidence, all information indicating Lucas was somewhere else. [W]e found nothing tying [Lucas] with the crime he confessed to and was convicted of." [8] Mattox' 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 Shelladay 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' habit of making confessions, recanting them, then offering more confessions, and again recanting them.

Mattox, wary of Lucas' 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." [9]

In 1998, the Texas pardons and paroles board commuted Lucas's death sentence to life imprisonment. Governor George W. Bush publicly supported the commutation.

Lucas' supposed confederate, Otis Toole, died in September 1996 from heart failure. He was serving six life-sentences in a Florida prison.

On March 13, 2001, 64-year-old Lucas died in prison from heart failure.

In fiction

The movie Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer is loosely based on Lucas' confessions.

References

  • Sara L. Knox, "The Productive Power of Confessions of Cruelty," 2001[10]
  • Brad Shellady, "Henry: Fabrication of a Serial Killer", included in Everything You Know Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guite to Secrets and Lies, 2002, Russ Kick, editor.
  • Michael A. Kroll, "Condemned in Texas: When Innocence Doesn't Matter", 1998 [11]
  • "The Death Penalty In Texas: Lethal Injustice", Amnesty International, 1998 [12]
  • "Failing the Future: Death Penalty Developments, March 1998 – March 2000" Amnesty International, 2000 [13]
  • "Henry Lee Lucas able to confuse authorities and then beat death", Jim Henderson, 1998 Houston Chronicle [14]

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