Depending on who you believe, notorious killer Henry Lee Lucas was responsible for either hundreds of murders, dozens of murders…or maybe only three murders.
Regardless of the final body count, there’s no doubt that Lucas was a disturbed man who survived a horrific childhood and, later, spent large stretches of time drifting around the United States. But what Henry Lee Lucas did or did not do during his drifting years has been the subject of scrutiny for over 30 years.
Lucas was born in Blacksburg, Virginia in 1936 to an alcoholic, prostitute mother and a father who lost his legs in a railway accident. The family lived in a dirt-floored log cabin in the hills, without plumbing or electricity. At the age of 10, Lucas lost an eye when his brother stabbed him in the face. Lucas’ mother, Viola, would dress him as a girl and make him and his father, Anderson, watch as she had sex with customers in the cabin. Anderson Lucas died from hypothermia after passing out drunk outside during a blizzard when Henry was 13-years-old.
Lucas dropped out of school in sixth grade and ran away from home, drifting around Virginia. At the age of 17, he was convicted for over a dozen burglaries in and around Richmond and sentenced to four years in prison. Lucas escaped briefly, was recaptured, and eventually got out of prison in September 1959.
Lucas’ time on the outside, however, did not last long. Soon after he was released from prison, he moved to Tecumseh, Michigan to live with his half-sister. On January 11, 1960, Lucas – only four months free – murdered his mother, who was visiting for Christmas. During a drunken argument, he stabbed her in the neck and fled. Lucas’ half-sister discovered the body later that night when she returned home.
Lucas was apprehended in Ohio soon after the murder. He pled self-defense, but was sentenced to 20-40 years in prison. However, due to prison overcrowding, he was released in 1970 after serving only 10 years. In 1971, Lucas was sent back to prison, this time for the attempted kidnapping of a 15-year-old girl at gunpoint. He was released yet again in 1975.
In 1976, Lucas landed in Jacksonville, Florida, where he met a deviant and arsonist named Ottis Toole at a soup kitchen. Toole had wandered around the U.S. and was suspected in a number of unsolved murders in various different states. Lucas and Toole became friends and, some sources claim, lovers, and Lucas moved in with Toole and his parents. Over the next 7 years, they spent much of their time drifting around the United States in, depending on whom you believe, what may or may not have been a cross-country murder spree. Toole later claimed that the duo killed over 100 victims together.
During this period, Lucas also became romantically involved with Toole’s 15-year-old niece, Becky Powell, who had a minor mental disability. In 1982, Lucas convinced Powell to run away with him, and the two left Florida together, roaming the country and taking menial jobs to survive. While in Ringgold, Texas, Lucas worked briefly for an 82-year-old woman named Kate Rich, but she soon fired him when her family accused Lucas and Powell of cashing bad checks in her name.
Becky Powell eventually decided she was homesick and wanted to go home to Florida; Lucas decided she needed to die instead, and, in August 1982, he killed and dismembered the teenaged Powell. Three weeks later, he convinced his former employer Kate Rich to help him look for the “missing” girl. Lucas killed Rich and stuffed her body into a drainage pipe. The police suspected Lucas in Kate Rich’s death, and, when he was arrested nearly a year later in Texas on a weapons charge, authorities grilled him about the missing elderly woman.
After being held in jail for four days, Lucas admitted to the murders of Becky Powell and Kate Rich. But then something strange happened: Lucas began admitting to hundreds of unsolved murders from all over the country. The Texas Rangers formed a “Lucas Task Force” to investigate his claims. Authorities flew Lucas around the country, where he stayed in hotels and enjoyed nice dinners in exchange for providing information about unsolved cases.
Two detectives in Dallas eventually grew suspicious of Lucas’ claims and presented him with fabricated murders to see if Lucas would confess to them: he did. This cast a cloud of doubt over Lucas’ outrageous confessions. In 1985, a Dallas newspaper concluded that Lucas would have had to drive 11,000 miles in one month to commit all the murders he claimed.
Lucas later retracted most of his confessions, but investigators still believed he was responsible for many murders across the country. Beyond the murders of Powell and Rich, Lucas knew specific details about several murder cases, details that only the killer should have known.
Authorities ultimately charged Lucas in the murder of 11 victims. He was convicted of all 11 and sentenced to death in the case of “Orange Socks,” a woman found murdered in 1979 who, to this day, has never been identified. Lucas later recanted his confession in the Orange Socks case, and then-Texas Governor George W. Bush reduced his sentence to life imprisonment in 1998.
Henry Lee Lucas died in a Texan prison in 2001, at the age of 64. His partner in crime, Ottis Toole, who had also been in prison since 1983, died from cirrhosis of the liver at the Florida State Prison in 1996. Toole’s legacy is every bit as horrifying as Lucas’: Not only did he kill several people, he is also the prime suspect in the 1981 murder of Adam Walsh, the 6-year-old son of America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh.
We’ll never know for sure how many victims Henry Lee Lucas murdered, but it is very possible that, solo and with sidekick Ottis Toole, he left a body count much higher than he is given credit for.
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