Dead Wrong

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

Then, thanks to the Pulitzer-nominated investigative efforts of Dallas Times Herald reporters Hugh Aynesworth and Jim Henderson, Lucas' obscene bubble burst. Retracing Lucas' movements from the time he had been paroled from a Michigan prison (where he'd served a sentence for the admitted murder of his mother) to the day he was arrested in Montague County and charged with killing an elderly woman named Kate Rich, they methodically debunked the Lucas legend. With work records, they proved he had been in Florida when dozens of faraway crimes to which he had confessed occurred. The reporters found receipts that showed where Lucas had been selling blood in one state on the same day a murder had occurred in another. Short of owning his own private jet, there was no way he could have made his way from one murder site to another in the unaccounted time available to him.

Lucas just flashed a toothless grin at the new revelations and changed his story to a better one. He had always despised people in law enforcement, he explained to baffled reporters, and had made it his life's goal to embarrass them. The bogus confessions, he explained, were his way of seeking revenge and committing a strange form of slow suicide. The confessions, he said, were fashioned from information fed to him by investigators too anxious to clear their books. They described the crimes, showed him photos, left reports lying around for him to read, then he simply told them what they wanted to hear. Cases closed.

As late as 1999 he was telling of his fascination with the infamous deeds of Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, the so-called Railroad Killer charged with at least eight murders in Texas, Kentucky and Illinois ("The Other Victim," Observer, June 1, 2000). "You know," Lucas said, "if this was 1983, I'd be claiming them murders, too."

Phylis Wilcox poses with a picture of 12-year-old Frieda "Becky" Powell, the love of Henry Lee Lucas' life. Wilcox, shown as a young woman in her 20s at the bottom, claimed to be Powell, whom Lucas confessed to murdering.
Phylis Wilcox poses with a picture of 12-year-old Frieda "Becky" Powell, the love of Henry Lee Lucas' life. Wilcox, shown as a young woman in her 20s at the bottom, claimed to be Powell, whom Lucas confessed to murdering.
Former McLennan County District Attorney Vic Feazell was among the first to question how the Texas Rangers and others handled the Lucas case. Feazell soon found himself the target of an investigation.
Former McLennan County District Attorney Vic Feazell was among the first to question how the Texas Rangers and others handled the Lucas case. Feazell soon found himself the target of an investigation.

By then it was too late. His conviction for the murder of an unidentified female in Williamson County had earned him a death sentence. Yet it had been only after months of gentle persuasion from investigators that he'd finally agreed to admit to that particular murder. Did he actually do it? "Nope," he told me.

I had, in fact, tagged along with Aynesworth on one of his many visits to the Georgetown jail and listened as the reporter asked Lucas about how many people he had actually murdered. Lucas pondered the question briefly, then held up three fingers.

From that day forward I was convinced that this simpleminded con artist had been responsible for the death of his mother, the killing of 80-year-old Kate Rich and the slaying of his teen-age traveling companion, Frieda "Becky" Powell. Bad enough, but far shy of the hundreds he'd once claimed.

Lucas, however, could never stick to any one story for long. In time, he decided to reduce the count to a paltry one. He began to insist that the only person he had ever killed was his mother. He said he had no idea who murdered Rich, and the last time he'd seen Becky, the love of his life, she was being driven away by a long-haul trucker.

My fascination with the story began to wane. The truth, hidden somewhere at the core of a monumental Gordian knot, seemed impossible to reach. Lucas was a headache I didn't need.

Still, throughout the '80s, it remained a tar baby. At the urging of a grand jury, the Texas Attorney General's Office began to investigate claims that dozens of Lucas' confessions were worthless. Verbal warfare erupted between keepers of the task force and a controversial McLennan County district attorney named Vic Feazell, who was hurling charges of corruption at those clearing cases. No sooner had word leaked that Attorney General Jim Maddox's report was going to be highly critical of the Lucas task force, Feazell found himself in more trouble than he ever bargained for. The once-popular prosecutor suddenly was the target of a months-long investigation by the FBI, IRS, Texas Department of Public Safety and Waco police. Finally charged with bribery, conspiracy and mail fraud, Feazell was tried in Austin in June 1991 and acquitted of all charges. Later, in response to a series of reports about his alleged misdeeds aired by Dallas' WFAA-TV, Feazell won a stunning $58 million judgment against Belo Corp. and its station. "None of this would have happened," he said, "if I hadn't stepped on some big toes" ("The $58 Million Man," Observer, August 29, 1991).

Meanwhile, questions about Lucas only raised more questions. Was this guy really smart enough to have duped so many? Were we all guilty of being too eager to believe his impossible stories? Could it be that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of killers remained free, their crimes assigned to a man willing to take on the sins of the world? Had so many lies been told that the truth would, in fact, forever remain hidden?

For months I continued to follow the twists and turns. I spoke with a mother and father in Lubbock who were certain Lucas had nothing to do with the death of their daughter despite the fact he'd confessed to her murder. I learned of a Dallas homicide investigator who put together a fabricated crime, then listened as Lucas happily confessed to it. I begrudgingly stayed in touch with Lucas, replying to his rambling letters, accepting his occasional long-distance phone calls, all in hope of one day being able to write some defining end to the strange tale. In retrospect, I'd have been better off to cut my losses.

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