A native of Jacksonville, Florida, Toole was born on March 5, 1947. his alcoholic father soon took off for parts unknown, leaving Toole in the care of a religious fanatic mother and a sister who dressed him in girl’s clothes “to play.” Toole’s confusion was exacerbated by his grandmother, an alleged Satanist, who branded Ottis “the devils child” and sometimes took him on the graveyard runs that yielded human body parts for use in “magic” charms. Toole ran away from home repeatedly but always drifted back again. He suffered from seizures and derived satisfaction from torching vacant houses in his neighborhood. Questioned later about his choice of targets, Toole relied, “I just hated to see them standing there.”
By his own admission, Toole committed his first murder at age 14. The victim, a traveling salesman, picked him up outside town and drove him into the woods for sex. Afterward, Toole “got nervous” and ran the man down with his own car.
Classified as retarded with an IQ of 75, Toole dropped out of school in the eighth grade. His first arrest, for loitering, was logged in August 1964, and others followed, building up a rap sheet filled with counts of petty theft and lewd behavior. He married briefly, but his bride departed after three days’ time, repulsed by Toole’s over homosexuality. By 1974, Toole was drifting and touring the western states in an old pickup truck. Acquaintances though knew nothing of it, but later evidence suggests he may have claimed at least four victims in a six-month period.
Police suspect Toole in the death of 24-year-old Patricia Webb, shot in Lincoln, Nebraska, on April 18, 1974. Five months later, on September 19, a lone gunman invaded a massage parlor in Colorado Springs; employee Yon Lee was stabbed, her throat slashed, before the attacker moved on to rape, shoot and stab her coworker Sun Ok Cousin. Both women were set on fire, but Lee survived to describe her assailant as clean-shaven, six feet two, and 195 pounds, driving a white pickup truck. Police, for reasons yet unclear, arrested – and ultimately convicted – Park Estep, a mustachioed soldier who stood five feet ten, tipped the scales at a mere 150 pounds, and owned a red pickup truck. Meanwhile, on October 10, 31-year-old Ellen Holman was abducted from Pueblo, Colorado, shot three times in the heard and dumped near the Oklahoma border. Homicide investigators now believe Toole also pulled the trigger in that crime.
Two years later, Toole met killer Henry Lee Lucas at a Jacksonville soup kitchen, taking him home for a night of drinking, conversation, and sex. The men had much in common, sharing memories of murder, looking forward to a time when they might hunt together. By 1983, according to police, they had traversed the continent together several times, annihilating random victims at a dizzying pace.
On January 14, 1977, Toole startled relatives by marrying a woman 24 years his senior. The relationship was curious from day one, and Novella Toole soon found herself sharing Ottis with Henry Lucas and other strangers. “A few nights after we were married,” she said, “he told me he got nervous a lot, especially if he couldn’t get a man. He’d get angry, he said, and then couldn’t get excited with a woman.” They were separated by 1978, Lucas and Toole moving in with Toole’s mother, sharing quarters with sister Drusilla Powell and her children, Frank and Frieda.
The homicidal soul mates found work with Jacksonville roofing company, Southeast Color Coat, but office manager Eileen Knight recalls that they disappeared frequently, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. “Ottis would come and go,” she told Jacksonville newsmen. “We’d hire him whenever he came back because he was a good worker.” Toole’s landlord, Betty Goodyear, said of Ottis and Henry, “They went out of town, always disappearing. All [Toole] cared about was that old car. I think they were using it for robbing people because they always seemed to have a lot of money.” Along the way, Toole allegedly introduced Lucas to a Satantic cult, the “Hand of Death,” that kidnapped children, practiced human sacrifice, and cranked out snuff films on a secret ranch in Mexico.
Toole’s mother died in May 1981, following surgery, and the loss hit him hard. Ottis haunted the cemetery, sometimes at night, stretching out on the ground by her grave, supposedly feeling the earth move beneath him. A short time later, sister Drusilla died of a drug overdose, considered a probable suicide, and her children were packed off to juvenile homes. Alone fro once with Lucas off on his own or in jail, Toole brooded, drinking heavily and popping pills. It was around this time – on July 27 – that six-year-old Adam Walsh disappeared from a Hollywood, Florida, shopping mall, and his severed head was later recovered from a Vero Beach canal on August 10.
Lucas returned in October, discharged from a Maryland jail, and together the mend contrived Frieda Powell’s escape from a Polk County Juvenile home. By January 1982, authorities were looking for the girl in Jacksonville, and she fled westward with Lucas. They were gone two days before Toole learned of their departure, and he lapsed into “a world of his own,” pacing the floor and muttering over Henry’s betrayal. He wandered to forget and killed along the way, reportedly claiming nine victims in six states between January 1982, and February 1983.
On May 23 and 31, 1983, two houses were burned in Toole’s Jacksonville neighborhood. Teenage accomplices fingered Toole on June 6, and he freely confessed to setting an estimated 40 fires over the past two decades. Convicted of second-degree arson on August 5, he drew a term of 20 years in prison.
By that time, Lucas was singing in Texas, and Toole backed his partner up with more confessions. Toole’s statements “cleared” 25 murders in 11 states, and he admitted participating with Lucas in another 108 homicides. A practicing cannibal, Toole also dropped hints about his interested in Satanism but stopped short of naming alleged fellow cult members.
On October 21, 1983, Toole confessed to the murder of Adam Walsh, startling Assistant Police Chief Leroy Hessler with the details that were “grisly beyond belief.” As Hessler told the media, “There are certain details only he could know. He did it. I’ve got details that no one else would know. He’s got me convinced.” In spite of that endorsement, officers reversed their stance a few weeks later, issuing statements that Toole was “no longer a suspect” in the crime.
Another troubling case harked back to 1974 and the carnage in Colorado Springs. Toole confessed to the massage parlor attack in September 1983, again providing details of the crime, but embarrassed prosecutors swiftly mounted their counterattack. After hours of hostile grilling, Toole threw in the towel. “Okay,” he told authorities, “If you say I didn’t kill her, maybe I didn’t.” (In a strange, unsatisfying compromise, Park Estep was later released – on his first parole bid – though his name was not formally cleared, the curious display of mercy by Colorado’s parole board convinced some observers that the state accepted Toole’s guilt but refused to publicly acknowledge a mistake.)
On April 28, 1984, Toole was convicted in Jacksonville of setting the fire that killed 64-year-old George Sonnenberg in January 1982. Sentenced to death for that crime, he was indicted one month later for the murder of 19-year-old Ada Johnson in Tallahassee, during February 1983. Conviction on that charge brought a second death sentence, but both were commuted to life imprisonment on appeal. In 1991, Toole pled guilty to four more slayings in Florida, receiving a superfluous quartet of new life sentences. Police in Hollywood, Florida, were reviewing the Adam Walsh case when Toole died of cirrhosis in September 1996, and authorities were embarrassed to learn that all traces of critical DNA evidence had vanished from their files. The case remains officially unsolved, though Adam’s parents (and a number of police investigators) are convinced of Toole’s guilt.
Ironically, Toole’s name was seldom mentioned in the controversy over Henry Lucas’s Confessions and his later change of heart in April 1985. No effort has been made to challenge Toole’s involvement in at least a score of homicides from coast to coast, and it is just as well, considering his dialogue with Lucas, taped by Texas Rangers in November 1983.
Toole: Remember that one time I said I wanted me some ribs? Did that make me a cannibal? Lucas: You wasn’t a cannibal. It’s the force of the devil, something forced on us that we can’t change. There’s no reason denying what we become. We know what we are. Toole: Remember how I liked to pour some blood out of them? Lucas: Ottis, you and I have something people look on as an animal. There’s no way of changing what we done, but we can stop it and not allow other people to become what we have. And the only way to do that is by honesty.
Otis Toole died in September of 1996 in prison from cirrhosis of the liver.