Dead Wrong

How consummate con artist Henry Lee Lucas resurrected the dead and went looking for a sucker. He almost found one.

Location: Denton County, Texas

Victim: Frieda Lorraine (Becky) Powell, w/f, 15

In June 1983, Henry Lucas described to officers that he and the victim were in Denton County...He and the victim began arguing, and she slapped him, at which time he drew his knife from his belt and immediately stabbed her...After killing her, he had intercourse with her and then dissected her body...

--From a Texas Department of Public Safety summary of offenses cleared by Henry Lucas

On a recent spring morning, the man once viewed as the most diabolical serial killer in American history was put to rest in a Texas prison cemetery. With a dozen of his fellow inmates on hand to perform the dual duties of grave diggers and pallbearers, the body of 64-year-old Henry Lee Lucas, claimed by neither family nor friends, was buried in a simple wooden coffin.

The perverse and unlikely celebrity from the impoverished hills of western Virginia had died quietly in his Ellis Unit cell just north of Huntsville, having told his last lie; never again would he embarrass law enforcement and reporters as he had done consistently for almost two decades.

Uneducated though he might have been, he was a con man cum laude. I know. Like most journalists who for years had dutifully followed his exploits and listened to his nightmarish stories, I was suckered by the sick games he invented. I wasn't alone, since the same embarrassment had visited everyone from television network big shots to lauded investigative reporters.

For a time, before his star faded in the shadows of the next celebrity murderer, Lucas' story chilled the nation like no other had before him. His was a bizarre, vivid and gruesome accounting of a coast-to-coast series of murders that staggered the imagination. A fifth-grade dropout with an IQ that didn't reach triple digits, he became an instant household name in 1983 when he stunned a sparsely attended hearing in Montague County, Texas, by announcing that he had killed 100 people, probably more.

Journalists from around the country came running. By the time Lucas' death count had risen to 360, he was staring into television cameras and from the pages of newspapers and magazines the world over. He was also being courted by hundreds of law enforcement officers from throughout the United States, all hoping Lucas might help with some of their unsolved homicides. Even the Royal Canadian Mounted Police came calling after Lucas described a series of murders north of the border.

He gave all who came what they wanted, confessing to homicides in 26 states and Canada. He was, by his own admission, "the most worst serial killer in history."

A special task force, manned by the late Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell and members of the Texas Rangers, was formed to help other agencies sort out the stream of horrors that Lucas couldn't confess to fast enough. Soon, he was being jetted all over the country to lead investigators to crime scenes and recount the terrifying manner in which his victims had met their fates.

"I done it every way imaginable," he liked to say. "Shootings, stabbings, strangulations, drownings. Killing somebody, to me, was just like walking outdoors." For good measure, he occasionally added details of post-mortem sex or experiments in cannibalism.

In retrospect, the most interesting aspect of the 18-month period in which he was at the height of his crime-clearing binge was the fact that in no instance was Lucas tied to a murder by anything but his own admission. Physical evidence--a weapon, a witness, fingerprints, even a hair sample--simply never existed.

Admittedly, there were occasional signs that perhaps he was stretching the truth. He said he killed former Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa; he delivered the poison to James Jones for his infamous religious cult's mass suicide in Guyana; and, oh yeah, he was a member of a Louisiana-based satanic cult that called itself the Hand of Death and delivered babies into slavery in Mexico. So physically draining was his murderous odyssey, he once told a New York journalist, that "to regain my strength I'd sometimes cut out [the victim's] heart and hold it in my hand." Never mind what he meant, it made for the kind of headline tabloids live for.

By early 1984, the body count of his alleged killing spree had gone off the charts, climbing to the 600 range. That was Lucas' story, and he stuck to it. And why not? In his Georgetown, Texas, jail cell--where the task force watched over him and scheduled his interviews with parading law officers--there was carpeting, a color television with a cable hookup, midnight milk shakes on demand, art lessons and home-cooked meals served by a friendly lay sister named Clemmie Schroeder. Son of a Blacksburg, Virginia, prostitute and a double-amputee father who sold pencils from a hat, Lucas was finally living the good life.

Books were being written ("The Henry Lee Lucas Book Derby," Dallas Observer, June 27, 1985) and a movie, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, based loosely on his homicidal rampage, quickly developed a cult following. A Japanese documentary film crew came to tell his story, and he was featured on his very own serial killer trading card.

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