Dead Wrong

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

It was in the fall of 1994 that I first began to hear the suggestions that Becky Powell, one of those I was sure Lucas had killed, was alive and in hiding. Feazell, by then in private practice and having signed on as Lucas' newest lawyer, said he was determined to find her. I was convinced he would find nothing. Lucas' initial version of Becky's demise not only had a rare ring of truth to it, but there had actually been some physical evidence to substantiate his story that while hitchhiking back to Florida they had quarreled while sleeping in a field near a Denton truck stop. He'd initially admitted that he stabbed her, dismembered her body and buried it in several shallow graves he'd dug with the murder weapon. When the authorities later searched the location, they had found skeletal remains that a medical examiner ruled were likely those of a teen-age female. I gave the matter little thought until I received one of those invitations a reporter can't refuse: Did I want to interview Becky, who, at that very moment, was in Feazell's Austin home and ready to tell a story that would put all the lies to rest and even provide Lucas an alibi for the one homicide for which he'd received the death penalty?

How could I say no? It wouldn't be my first wild goose chase since first hearing Lucas' name.

Henry Lee Lucas on Texas' death row: At one point his list of confessions topped 600 murders. The real number was probably closer to three.
AP/Wide World
Henry Lee Lucas on Texas' death row: At one point his list of confessions topped 600 murders. The real number was probably closer to three.

Sipping from a Coke and chain-smoking Cambridge cigarettes, her hazel eyes were pinched as if to somehow help her remember small, forgotten details. Frail-looking at 5 feet 7 inches and 109 pounds, she looked older than the 27 she claimed to be, a fact she attributed to a three-pack-a-day habit and a hard life. For years, she explained, she had hidden her past, calling herself Phylis Wilcox. "But you can call me Becky," she added.

She shared childhood memories of her prostitute mother dying of a drug overdose, being raped by her stepfather and finally being sent away to a children's home. Later, there would be a cheerless common-law marriage, an addiction to painkillers and minor run-ins with the law. Hardly a happy story.

Still, she looked remarkably good for someone who had been officially dead since age 15, remembered only as one of the hundreds of victims Lucas had originally claimed. There was a smile on her face, mirroring the excitement she was feeling for a trip she had planned for the following day. She was going to pay a visit to the man who long ago had confessed to killing her.

"I've asked him why he said all those things," she noted in a voice that sang with childlike innocence, "and he explained that he did it to protect me."

And now, it seemed, she was about to come to Lucas' rescue. For starters, the fact that she was alive would automatically eliminate one of the 13 murders for which he had been dealt life prison sentences. And, if true, the story she had to tell could well prompt second thoughts about the lone death sentence he'd received.

It had been on the night of October 31, 1979, when the body of the unidentified victim was found in a culvert just off Interstate 35 near Georgetown, nude except for a pair of fuzzy orange socks on her feet. For four years the case remained unsolved until Lucas was asked if it might, in fact, be one of "his." By then a virtual confession machine, Lucas claimed responsibility, was tried,convicted and sentenced to death by injection.

Now, however, this woman swearing to be Frieda "Becky" Powell was explaining that it had been in '79 when she met Lucas after her uncle Ottis Elwood Toole had brought him to the Jacksonville, Florida, home of her grandmother. She recalled in great detail how Lucas had taken her and her younger brother, Frank, trick-or-treating the first Halloween he lived there--the same night "Orange Socks'" body was found in Texas.

"There's no way he could have committed that crime," she insisted. "He was with me and my brother."

In many of Lucas' most outlandish confessions, he had included Toole as an accomplice on his cross-country murder rampage. In prison in Florida on charges of his own, Toole had happily agreed with whatever story Lucas told. Both men had routinely told authorities that Becky and Frank Powell had accompanied them on their travels. Henry said he'd often used Becky as a decoy to gain entrance into strangers' homes, sending her to the door to say their car had broken down, that they were out of gas or that they were cold, hungry and looking for a place to stay for the night.

Reminded of that, the woman only shook her head. Never happened, she said. Her story of life with Lucas differed remarkably from that police officials had been hearing for years.

"While he was living in Jacksonville," she said, "he would take me with him to pick up scrap metal and junk. Sometimes we'd go through people's trash before the garbage trucks came. You can find a lot of good stuff that way--like lamps and things that Henry could fix up and sell.

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