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Henry Lee Lucas

America’s most controversial murderer was born August 23, 1936, at Blacksburg, Virginia. The Lucas family home was a two-room, dirt-floor cabin in the woods outside of town, where Henry’s alcoholic parents brewed bootleg whiskey, his mother doing occasional turns as the neighborhood prostitute. Viola Lucas ran her family with a rod of iron, while husband Anderson Lucas – dubbed “No Legs” after his drunken encounter with a freight train – dragged himself around the house and tried to drown his personal humiliation in a non-stop flow of liquor.

The Lucas brood consisted of nine children, but several were farmed out to relatives, institutions, and foster homes over the years. Henry was one of those “lucky” enough to remain with his parents, and mother Viola appears to have hated the child from the moment of birth, seizing every opportunity to make his life a living hell on earth. Both Anderson and Henry were the targets of her violent outbursts, man and boy alike enduring wicked beatings, forced to witness the parade of strangers that were called upon to share Viola’s bed. Sickened by one such episode, Anderson Lucas dragged himself outside to spend a night in the snow, there contracting a fatal case of pneumonia.

Henry survived, after a fashion, but his mother’s cruelty seemed to know no bounds. When Lucas entered school, in 1943, she curled his stringy hair in ringlets, dressed him as a girl, and sent him off to class that way. Barefoot until a kindly teacher bought him shoes, Henry was beaten at home for accepting the gift. If Henry found a pet, his mother killed it, and he came to understand that life – like sex – was cheap. When Henry’s eye was gashed, reportedly while playing with a knife, Viola let him suffer until doctors had to surgically remove the withered orb, replacing it with glass. On one occasion, after he was beaten with a piece of lumber, Henry lay semi-conscious for three days before Viola’s live-in lover – “Uncle Bernie” – took him to a local hospital for treatment.

Bernie also introduced the boy to bestiality, teaching Henry to kill various animals after they were raped and tortured. At age 15, anxious to try sex with a human being, Lucas picked up a girl near Lynchburg, strangled her when she resisted his clumsy advances, and buried her corpse in the woods near Harrisburg, Virginia. (The March 1951 disappearance of 17-year-old Laura Burnley would remain unsolved for three decades, until Lucas confessed the murder in 1983.)

In June 1954, a series of burglaries around Richmond earned Lucas a six-year prison term. He walked away from a road gang on September 14, 1957, and authorities tracked him to his half-sister’s home, in Tecumseh, Michigan, three months later. A second escape attempt, in December 1957, saw Lucas recaptured the same day, and he was discharged from prison on September 2, 1959.

Back in Tecumseh, Henry was furious when his 74-year-old mother turned up on the doorstep, nagging him incessantly with her demands that he return to Blacksburg. Both of them were drinking on the night of January 11, 1960, when she struck him with a broom and Henry struck back with a knife, leaving her dead on the floor. Arrested five days later, in Toledo, Ohio, Lucas confessed to the murder and boasted of raping his mother’s corpse, a detail he later retracted as “something I made up.” Convicted in March 1960, he drew a term of 20 to 40 years in prison. Two months later, he was transferred to Ionia’s state hospital for the criminally insane, where he remained until April 1966. Paroled on June 3, 1970, Lucas went back to Tecumseh and moved in with relatives.

In December 1971, Henry was booked on a charge of molesting two teenaged girls. The charge was reduced to simple kidnapping at his trial, and Lucas went back to the state pen at Jackson. Paroled in August 1975, over his own objections, Henry found brief employment at a Pennsylvania mushroom farm, then married Betty, the widow of his cousin, in December 1975. Three months later, they moved to Port Deposit, Maryland, and Betty divorced him in the summer of 1977, charging that Lucas molested her daughters by a previous marriage.

Meanwhile, according to Henry’s confessions, he had already launched a career of random murder, traveling and killing as the spirit moved him, claiming victims in Maryland and farther afield. In late 1976, he met 29-year-old Ottis Toole at a Jacksonville, Florida, soup kitchen. The homosexual Toole was an arsonist and serial killer in his own right, and they hit it off immediately, swapping grisly tales of their adventures in homicide. Over the next six and a half years, Lucas and Toole were fast friends, occasional lovers and frequent traveling companions, taking their murderous act on the road.

A bachelor once again by 1978, Lucas moved in with Toole’s family in Jacksonville. There, he met Toole’s niece and nephew, Frieda and Frank Powell, falling slowly in love with the ten-year-old girl who called herself Becky. In 1979, Lucas and Toole were hired by a Jacksonville roofing company, Southeast Color Coat, but they often missed work as they answered the call of the highway. Two years later, after Toole’s mother and sister died a few months apart, Becky and Frank were placed in juvenile homes. Lucas helped spring them both, and they made a quartet on the road, Frank Powell witnessing deeds that would drive him into a mental institution by 1983.

Authorities came looking for Becky Powell in January 1982, and she fled westward with Lucas. In Hemet, California, they met Jack and O’Bere Smart, spending four months with the couple as house guests and hired hands, refinishing furniture to earn their keep. In May, O’Bere Smart had a brainstorm, dispatching Lucas and Powell to care for her 80-year-old mother, Kate Rich, in Ringgold, Texas.

Henry and Becky arrived on May 14, spending four days with Rich and cashing two $50 checks on her back account before relatives booted them out of the house. Thumbing their way out of town, they were picked up by Ruben Moore and invited to join his religious commune – the All People’s House of Prayer – near Stoneburg, Texas. Becky made the grave mistake of slapping Lucas, and he stabbed her on the spot, dismembering her corpse and scattering its parts around the desert.

Back in Stoneburg the next morning, Lucas explained that Becky had “run off” with a truck driver. Kate Rich dropped from sight three weeks later, on September 16, and police grew suspicious when Lucas left town the next day, his car found abandoned in Needles, California on September 21. An arsonist burned Rich’s home on October 17, and deputies were waiting when Lucas surfaced in Stoneburg the following day. Held on a fugitive warrant from Maryland, he was released when authorities there dropped pending charges of auto theft.

Chafing under sporadic surveillance, Lucas huddled with Ruben Moore on June 4, 1983, declaring an intent to “clear his name” by finding Powell and Rich, wherever they might be. He left a pistol with Moore, for safe-keeping, and rolled out of town in a wheezing old junker. Four days later, Moore was summoned to fetch him from San Juan, New Mexico, where his car had given up the ghost. Returning to Stoneburg on June 11, Lucas was jailed as an ex-con possessing a handgun. Four nights later, he summoned the jailer, pressing his face to the bars of his cage as he whispered, “I’ve done some bad things.”

Over the next 18 months, Lucas confessed to a seemingly endless series of murders, bumping his estimated body-count from 75 to 100, then from 150 to 360, tossing in murders by friends and associates to reach a total “way over 500.” Ottis Toole, then serving time on a Florida arson charge, was implicated in many of the crimes, and Toole chimed in with more confessions of his own. Some of the crimes, said Lucas, were committed under orders from a nationwide Satanic cult, the “Hand of Death.” which he joined at Toole’s request. Toole sometimes ate the flesh of victims they had killed, but Lucas abstained. His reason: “I don’t like barbecue sauce.”

Detectives from around the country gathered in Monroe, Louisiana, in October 1983, comparing notes and going home convinced that Toole and Lucas were responsible for at least 69 murders. A second conference at Monroe, in January 1984, raised the total to 81. By March 1985, police in 20 states had “cleared” 90 murders for Lucas alone, plus another 108 committed with Toole as an accomplice. Henry stood convicted in nine deaths – including a Texas death sentence on one of the unsolved “I-35 murders” – and he was formally charged with 30 others across the country. Dozens of officers visited Lucas in jail, and he also toured the country under guard, visiting crime scenes, providing details from memory. A California tour, in August 1984, “cleared” 14 unsolved cases. Five months later, in New Orleans, Lucas solved five more. In the first week of April 1985, he led a caravan across the state of Georgia, closing the books on ten murders.

Lucas was barely home from that trip when the storm broke, on April 15. Writing for the Dallas Times-Herald, journalist Hugh Aynesworth prepared a series off headline articles, blasting the “massive hoax” that Lucas had perpetrated, misleading homicide investigators and the public, sometimes with connivance from the officers themselves. According to Aynesworth, over-zealous detectives had prompted Lucas with vital bits of information, coaching him through his confessions, deliberately ignoring evidence that placed him miles away from various murder scenes at the crucial moment. From jail, Lucas joined in by recanting his statements across the board. Aside from his mother, he claimed to have slain only two victims – Powell and Rich – in his life. By April 23, he was denying those crimes, despite the fact that he led police to Becky’s grave, while Rich’s bones had been recovered from his stove, at Stoneburg.

From the beginning, officers had been aware of Henry’s penchant for exaggeration. One of his first alleged victims, a Virginia school teacher, was found alive and well by police. Some of his statements were clearly absurd, including confessions to murders in Spain and Japan, plus delivery of poison to the People’s Temple cultists in Guyana. On the other hand, there were also problems with Henry’s reaction. Soon after the Aynesworth story broke, Lucas smuggles a letter to authors Jerry Potter and Joel Norris, claiming that he had been drugged and forced to recant. A local minister, close to Lucas since his 1983 “conversation,” produced a tape recording of Henry’s voice, warning listeners not to believe the new stories emerging from prison.

The most curious part about Henry’s new tale was the role of Hugh Aynesworth, himself. In his newspaper series, Aynesworth claimed to have known of the “hoax” – hearing the scheme from Henry’s own lips – since October 1983. A month later, on November 9, Aynesworth signed a contract to write Henry’s biography. In September 1984, he appeared on the CBS-TV “Nightwatch” program, offering no objections as videotapes of the Lucas confessions were aired. As late as February 1985, Aynesworth published a Lucas interview in Penthouse magazine, prompting Henry with leading remarks about Lucas “killing furiously” and claiming victims “all over the country” in the 1970s. Through it all, the Times-Herald maintained stony silence, allowing the “hoax” to proceed, while dozens (or hundreds) of killers remained free on the basis of Henry’s “false” confessions.

In retrospect, the Aynesworth series smells strongly of sour grapes. A clue to the author’s motive is found in his first article, with a passing reference to the fact that Lucas had signed an exclusive publishing contract – with a Waco used-car dealer – shortly after his June 1983 arrest. The prior existence of that contract scuttled Aynesworth’s deal, concocted five months later, and prevented him from winning fame as Lucas’s biographer. The next best thing, perhaps would be to foul the waters and prevent competitors from publishing a book about the case. (It is worth noting that Aynesworth omits all mention of his own contract with Lucas, while listing carious authors who tried to “cash in” on the “hoax.”)

Aynesworth produced an elaborate time-line to support his “fraud” story, comparing Henry’s “known movements” with various crimes to discredit police, but the final product is riddled with flaws. Aynesworth rules out numerous murders by placing the Lucas-Toole meeting in 1979, while both killers and numerous independent witnesses describe an earlier meeting, in late 1976. (In fact, Lucas was living with Toole’s family in 1978, a year before Aynesworth’s acknowledged “first meeting.”) The reporter cites pay records from Southeast Color Coat to prove that the killers seldom left Jacksonville, but office manager Eileen Knight recalls that they would often “come and go.” (At the same time, Aynesworth places Lucas in West Virginia while he was working in Florida, the same error of which he accuses police.) According to Aynesworth, Lucas spent “all the time” between January and March 1978 with girlfriend Rhonda Knuckles, never leaving her side, but his version ignores the testimony of a surviving witness, tailed by Lucas across 200 miles of Colorado and New Mexico in February of that last year. The woman remembers Henry’s face – and she recorded his license number for police – but her story is lost in Aynesworth’s account. At one point, Aynesworth is so anxious to clear Henry’s name that he lists one victim twice on the time-line, murdered on two occasions, four days apart, in July 1981.

Authorities reacted in various ways to Henry’s turn-around. Arkansas filed new murder charges against him on April 23, eight days after his change of heart, and other jurisdictions remain unimpressed by his belated pleas of innocence. In Marrero, Louisiana, relatives of victim Ruth Kaiser point out that Lucas confessed to stealing a stereo after he killed the 79-year-old woman: a theft that was never reported and therefore could not have been “leaded” by police. As they recalled, “He described things we had forgotten about, details that never appeared in the paper and that we never put in a police report.”

Investigator Jim Lawson, of the Scotts Bluff County sheriff’s office, in Nebraska, questioned Lucas in September of 1984, regarding the February 1978 murder of schoolteacher Stella McLean. “I purposely tried to trick him several times during the interview,” Lawson said, “but to no avail. We even tried to ‘feed’ him another homicide from our area to see if he was confessing to anything and everything in an effort to build a name for himself, but he denied any participation in the crime.”

Commander J.T. Duff, intelligence chief for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, describes Henry’s April 1985 tour thus: “Lucas was not provided with any information of directions to any of the crime scenes, but gave the information to law enforcement. When a crime scene was encountered, Lucas voluntarily and freely gave details that only the perpetrator would have “known.”

By November 1985, police in 18 states had reopened 90 “Lucas cases,” but what of the other 108? And what of the telephone conversation between Lucas, in Texas, and Toole, in Florida, monitored by police in November 1983? At the time, Henry and Ottis had not seen or spoken to each other in at least seven months, deprived of any chance to work up a script, but their dialogue lends chilling support to the later confessions.

Lucas: Ottis I don’t want you to think I’m doing this as a revenge.
Toole: No. I don’t want you to hold anything back about me.
Lucas: See we got so many of them Ottis. We got to turn up the bodies. Now this boy and girl I don’t know anything about.
Toole: Well maybe that’s the two I killed my own self. Just like that Mexican that wasn’t going to let me out of the house. I took an ax and chopped him all up. What made me – I been meaning to ask you. That time when I cooked some of those people. Why’d I do that?
Lucas: I think it was just the hands doing it. I know a lot of the things we one in human sight are impossible to believe.

Indeed. And yet, the victims were dispatched, if not by Toole and Lucas, then by someone else. The truth may never be revealed, but in the meantime, Henry’s jailers are convinced of his involvement in at least 100 homicides.

On June 26, 1998, then governor of Texas, George W. Bush commuted his death sentence to life without the possibility of parole.  The true number of murders he committed is still unknown.

“Sex is one of my downfalls.
I get sex any way I can get it.
If I have to force somebody to do it, I do… I rape them;
I’ve done that.
I’ve killed animals to have sex with them,
and I’ve had sex…..
While they’re alive.”

HENRY LEE LUCAS