Henry Lee Lucas: The Confession Killer
He claimed to be America's most prolific serial killer, responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths.By Adam Karlin
Depending on what you believe, Henry Lee Lucas is either the most prolific serial killer in American history, or the supplier of the greatest amount of potentially false confessions.
The general public will likely never know the whole truth—if Lucas, as he claimed, killed as many as 3,000 people, or if, as is suspected, he made hundreds of false confessions to garner attention and score preferential treatment in jail. Still, three murders can be positively linked to Henry Lee Lucas—and that includes the death of his own mother.
Her name was Viola Lucas, and she raised her nine children, of which Henry was the youngest, in the mountain town of Blacksburg, Virginia. Viola was not a model of maternal care. The alcoholic prostitute forced young Henry to cross-dress in public and watch her have sex with her clients. When Henry injured his left eye in a fight, Viola ignored the wound for three days, at which point the eye became infected and required removal.
By the time he was 10 years old, Henry Lee Lucas was an alcoholic. By his early teens, he was having sex with an older half-brother, killing animals for kicks, and violating the bodies. Henry’s father, Anderson, was another alcoholic; along with Henry, he was subject to beatings by Viola. In December of 1949, Anderson, who had lost his legs in a railroad accident, froze to death during a blizzard after passing out in a drunken stupor outside.
By his own admission, when he was 14 or 15 years old, Henry Lee Lucas raped and killed his first victim, 17-year-old Laura Burnsley in 1951. This testimony remains highly unreliable, and Lucas later withdrew the confession. Three years later, in 1954, Lucas was busted on a dozen counts of burglary and sentenced to six years in prison. He broke out in 1957, only to be captured three days later. He was released in 1959.
While behind bars, Lucas had become engaged to a pen pal. He intended to meet this person now that he was a free man, but an aging Viola insisted he return home to care for her. Lucas obliged, though he wouldn’t stay long. On January 11, 1960, the two got into a drunken argument. Lucas stabbed his 74-year old mother in the neck, which brought on a fatal heart attack. Authorities arrested Lucas and convicted him of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 20-40 years in prison.
Lucas only served a decade for Viola’s death, being released in 1970 due to prison overcrowding. Just 18 months later, however, he was back in prison again, this time for the attempted kidnapping of three schoolgirls.
He was released in 1975, and engaged, again, to a prison pen pal. This time he followed through on the marriage, but fled after his stepdaughter accused him of abuse.
A period of drifting followed. Lucas met Ottis Toole in Jacksonville, Florida, another drifter who would become his friend, lover, and, according to some, killing partner on a rampage that stretched across the United States. Lucas met Toole’s mentally challenged niece at this time, a young girl named Frieda ‘Becky’ Powell. Lucas and Powell soon became lovers and common law spouses, even though Lucas was almost 30 years her senior.
Around 1982, Lucas convinced Powell to head west. They ended up in California and then Ringgold, Texas, where they found work as a hired hand for 82-year-old Kate Rich. The employment was short-lived. Rich’s family grew suspicious of the couple, and accused them of cashing bad checks. Soon Lucas and Powell were on the road again. They briefly resettled in a religious commune in Stoneburg, TX, about 13 miles to the south. Lucas was content with their surroundings, but Powell wanted to leave. She longed for her native Florida.
It was at this time that authorities believe Lucas savagely ended Powell’s life. He drove her out to an empty field, where he murdered her, dismembered her body, and scattered the remains. Afterward, he lured Kate Rich away from her home in Ringgold to help search for Powell, then murdered her and stuffed her body in a drainage pipe. Although Lucas confessed to the murders and then retracted his confession, these two killings, as well as the murder of his mother, are the three that remain definitively ascribed to him.
In 1983, Lucas, still living in Texas, was arrested on an illegal weapons charge. It was while in custody that he began confessing to murder after murder—hundreds of killings. The confessions were so far fetched, and often contradictory, that they were dismissed as hoaxes by the media, who believed detectives were using Lucas as a convenient way to close stagnant cold cases. Indeed, authorities initially cleared hundreds of unsolved murders using Lucas’ confessions. In 1985, the Dallas Times-Herald estimated Lucas would have had to drive 11,000 miles in the space of a month to have murdered all of the victims on his confession list.
Lucas himself went on to retract many of his confessions; he claimed the attention he received for his numerous statements afforded him privileges normal prisoners were denied. Due to the long distances between each murder scene, for instance, he often traveled. While on the road, he was unshackled from his arm and leg restraints and could demand meals from burger joints and restaurants. He was allowed to roam freely through police stations during stops, and even knew the security codes to some of the doors.
Nevertheless, there were a few chilling instances from this period in which Lucas demonstrated knowledge that only the killer could have known, baffling authorities and leading some to believe he may be telling the truth. One Texas Ranger remembers Lucas’ eerie ability to walk him through a forest straight to a deer camp where a murder occurred. Another recalls Lucas’ smooth navigation of a crime scene as if he had been there before.
Lucas was convicted of 11 total slayings and sentenced to death for the murder of one of his alleged victims, an unknown woman dubbed “Orange Socks” whose body was found in Texas on Halloween night. But even this confession fell apart under scrutiny. His punishment was commuted to life in prison by then Texas governor George W. Bush in 1998. He died of heart failure in prison on March 12, 2001.
Photos (in order): Wikimedia Commons; Murderpedia; Wikimedia Commons; Murderpedia; AFP / Getty