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 false confessions.
Was Henry Lee Lucas really responsible, as he alleged, for the murders of as many as 3,000 people? Or did he simply make hundreds of false confessions to receive special privileges in jail? We may never know the whole truth. But at least three murders can be conclusively linked to Lucas, including the grisly demise of the disturbed man’s own mother.
Henry was the youngest of Viola Lucas’s nine children and was raised in the rural mountain town of Blacksburg, Virginia. Viola, a sex worker, reportedly forced young Henry to watch her have sex with her clients. She was also neglectful of her youngest child’s physical health. When Henry injured his eye in a fight, she ignored his injuries for three days, during which time he acquired an infection. Henry’s eye had to be removed.
By the age of 10, Henry was an alcoholic. By the time he was a teenager, he was torturing animals and having sex with his half-brother. The rest of the Lucas family wasn’t in great shape, either. Lucas’s father, Anderson, was also an alcoholic. He had lost his legs in a railroad accident, and was often beaten by Viola. In 1949 Anderson froze to death after passing out outside during a snowstorm.
If his own account is to be believed, Lucas was only in his early teens when he committed his first murder. He claimed that at age 14 or 15 he murdered 17-year-old Laura Burnsley when she denied his romantic advances. However, he later withdrew this confession. In 1954, Lucas was sentenced to six years in prison for 12 counts of robbery. He escaped in 1957 but was recaptured two days later and released in 1959.
During his years in prison, Lucas became engaged to a penpal. Prior to his release, he intended to find her and marry her, but his 74-year-old mother demanded that her newly freed son come care for her in her old age. That would prove to be a deadly request.
On January 11, 1960, Lucas and his mother got into an argument while drunk. He later claimed that she slapped him, and he retaliated by slapping her back — with a hand holding a knife. After being stabbed in the neck by her son, Viola had a fatal heart attack. Lucas was arrested and convicted of second-degree murder, with a sentence of 20-40 years in prison.
However, Lucas only served a decade for his mother’s death; he was released in 1970 due to overcrowding in the prison. A mere 18 months later though, he was back in jail, this time for attempting to abduct three young girls. In 1975, he was out on the streets again, and engaged once more to another penpal. They married, but Lucas left the marriage and the home after his stepdaughter alleged that he was sexually abusing her.
Soon, Lucas fell in with another drifter, Ottis Toole. After meeting in Jacksonville, Florida, the pair became friends and lovers. Some believe they even killed together while wandering across the United States. Eventually, Lucas meet Toole’s nice, Frieda Powell. Frieda and Lucas also became lovers, then eventually common law spouses. Lucas was 30 years older than his new girlfriend.
In 1982, the couple traveled to Ringgold, Texas where they worked as hired hands for Kate Rich. However, Rich soon accused her new employees of cashing bad checks, so the two relocated to a religious commune in Stoneburg, TX called “The House of Prayer.” Powell longed to return to Florida, and the couple reportedly fought over what their next step should be.
It’s believed that at this point in their travels, Lucas brutally killed his much-younger girlfriend, taking her out to an isolated field where he murdered and dismembered her. Powell’s remains have yet to be found. He then returned to Ringgold, where he convinced Rich to come with him under the pretense of searching for Powell. He slaughtered his former employer and concealed her body in a drainage pipe. Although Lucas would retract his confession of these crimes, the murders of Powell, Rich, and Lucas’s mother are the three deaths he can be concretely linked to.
Lucas remained living in Texas and, in 1983, was taken into custody on an illegal weapons charge. While in custody, the floodgates opened, and Lucas confessed to hundreds and hundreds of murders. Based on Lucas’s onslaught of confessions, authorities cleared over 1,000 unsolved crimes.
Although some of his claims were credible given the brutality he’d shown Rich and Powell, many of his admissions were outlandish and contradictory. For instance, a 1985 report from the Dallas Times-Herald calculated that Lucas would have had to drive 11,000 miles in one month alone to commit all the murders he had confessed to. The media remained critical of Lucas’s claims, believing that authorities were taking advantage of his confessions in order to indiscriminately clear cold cases.
Later, Lucas would retract many of his initial confessions. According to him, his confessions gave him freedoms as a prisoner that he otherwise never would have had. For instance, during the long journeys to the various crime scenes, Lucas was unrestrained, allowed to order meals from fast food restaurants, and even to walk freely though police stations at some stops.
Still, some authorities who interacted with Lucas during this time say that he demonstrated knowledge of crimes that they believe only the killer could have known. One Texas Ranger recounted Lucas effortlessly leading him through the forest to a deer park where a murder occurred. Another says he saw Lucas navigate a crime scene as confidently as if he had been there before.
Lucas was eventually convicted of 11 murders and sentenced to death for the slaying of a Texas Jane Doe referred to as “Orange Socks.” But after further scrutiny, it became obvious that Lucas’s accounts of this murder were full of contradictions. It’s also believed that he may have been working in Florida during the time the murder of “Orange Socks” took place. In 1998, Texas governor George W. Bush commuted Lucas’ sentence to life in prison. Lucas died of heart failure while behind bars just three years later, on March 12th, 2001.
Featured photo via Wikimedia Commons. Body images (in order) via Murderpedia; Wikimedia Commons; Murderpedia; AFP / Getty.