Dead Wrong

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

It was there, she recalled, that a long-haul trucker named Curtis Wilcox offered her a ride that would dramatically change both their lives. In a videotaped deposition that I later viewed, Wilcox took up the story: He had promised to drive the teen-ager to Jacksonville, but by the time they got there Becky had cooled on the idea of returning to relatives and possibly being sent back to the girls' home.

"I was already regretting leaving Texas," she said, "and wanted to go back to Henry. But I couldn't ask Curtis to drive me back." Instead, she said, she and Wilcox rented an apartment in Jacksonville, where they resided for several months.

To hide her real identity, she took the first name Phylis and assumed Wilcox's last name. "After a while, Curtis suggested that we go live in Cape Girardeau [Missouri] where he had family." It was there that Frieda Lorraine "Becky" Powell disappeared and Phylis Wilcox came into a generally unhappy existence. As the years passed, she would have two children, get her G.E.D. and work for years as a cashier in a Texaco station eight miles down the road in Jackson. Putting her previous life behind her, she never attempted to contact her family. Or Lucas.

Clearly no student of current affairs, she insisted that it wasn't until 1991 that she learned of Lucas' murderous claims, recantations and legal tangles. "I was in a bookstore one day," she remembered, "and saw Henry's picture on the cover of a paperback." The title: HENRY LEE LUCAS: The Shocking True Story of America's Most Notorious Serial Killer.

"It scared me," she said. "As I read it, I couldn't believe it was saying that Henry had done all these terrible murders. It even said I had been with him and helped him bury bodies. It just wasn't true."

Curious, she made some phone calls, located the prison in which Lucas was being held and began to write him, always signing her married name. She even traveled to Texas to visit him and, in time, began to drop hints that she knew where Becky might be.

With his date in the Huntsville death house fast approaching, Lucas finally confided to Feazell that there was someone who might know where Becky was hiding. If she could be found, Lucas said, she could provide him an alibi that might help stay his scheduled execution.

Not convinced, Feazell nonetheless scheduled a trip to the Cape Girardeau address Lucas provided him. "I knocked on the door," he recalled, "and this woman I assumed to be Phylis Wilcox answered. I asked where I might find Becky Powell. She smiled at me through the screen door and said, 'I'm Becky.'"

The stunned lawyer spent hours listening to her story, mentally matching it to facts he knew about his client's wandering life. Her detail and recall were remarkable. Her husband, whom he also interviewed at length, didn't seem at all reluctant to fill in the blanks about Becky's long ago disappearance, nor did he demonstrate concern over the fact his wife admitted she had never stopped loving Lucas. "It was all pretty strange," Feazell said, "but that kind of thing had always swirled around Lucas. Everything about him seemed to come out of the twilight zone."

Would she accompany him back to Texas and submit to a polygraph test? "If it will help Henry," she replied. She passed with flying colors.

Later I looked over the questions and her responses: Is your real name Frieda Lorraine Powell? Yes. Were you born February 27, 1967? Yes. Were you called Becky? Yes. Did Henry Lee Lucas ever hurt anyone when you and he were together? No. Were you and Henry Lee Lucas in Jacksonville, Florida, on October 31, 1979? Yes.

I was convinced. The story she had told me as a tape recorder played, the physical resemblance (she even had a tiny scar on her upper lip, much like the one I'd seen in a photo of a younger Becky), the videotaped deposition from Curtis Wilcox, the results of the polygraph test fit together like a child's puzzle. I had one hell of an addition to the never-ending Henry Lee Lucas saga and was ready to write.

Until an embarrassed Feazell phoned a few days later to tell me is was all a lie, carefully constructed and coached by--who else?--the man who had made a career of conning people. The attorney had found a series of letters from Lucas to Phylis Wilcox in which he had provided her the details of the story she agreed to tell. Confronted, Wilcox had tearfully admitted playing the role of his long dead Becky Powell.

Why? "Because I love him," she said. Go figure.

I phoned Phil Ryan, the former Ranger who had originally investigated the murder of Becky, listening to Lucas' confession and locating her skeletal remains in the field where he'd said the murder occurred, for his reaction to the latest scam. "Hey, that's just the way Lucas is," he said. "The guy is like a circus that won't leave town."

Phylis Wilcox, it turned out, wasn't born in 1967, wasn't 27. She was a 40-year-old homemaker who had spent her entire life in Cape Girardeau, working at menial jobs, married for 19 years. Like so many weary-of-life women across the country, she had become fascinated by the serial-killers-as-pop-culture-celebrities. She read everything she could find on Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy. Then she'd happened on the book about Lucas. "There was something about him that really got to me," she said. "Soon, he was all I thought about. We started corresponding, and then I went to visit him in prison. One thing led to another." After seeing that she resembled Becky Powell on their first face-to-face visit, Lucas proposed the plot. "I started thinking like Becky," she admitted. "I was beginning to believe I really was Becky. She took over my life." In time, her sad scam was of interest only to the supermarket tabloids. "Back From the Dead," screamed one headline. Then the story went on to detail the deception that had occurred. After a couple of goofy TV talk-show appearances, Phylis Wilcox's 15 minutes of fame passed.

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