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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
"We became real close. He acted like he was my daddy, very protective."
Though raised by her grandparents, she recalled a time when she and her brother briefly lived with her mother and stepfather. "My stepfather raped me," she remembered, "and I was put in a girls' school. Frank went to a boys' school. I hated it and ran away, back to Henry. That's when he told me that he was afraid they [the authorities] would come and take me back, so we decided to leave." Toole, she said, accompanied them.
The strange threesome, joined by the girl's pet Chihuahua ("I had a little dog named Frieda," she said, "and my brother had one named Frank"), traveled westward in an old Oldsmobile driven by Lucas. After two weeks they arrived in Texas, and Toole, already weary of the road, turned back to Jacksonville, never to again be seen by Lucas or Becky. She told of how she and Lucas continued on despite growing hardships. He would, she remembered, regularly sell blood at local blood banks for gas money.
"Finally, somewhere in Texas the old car ran out of gas, and we just left it on the side of the road and started hitchhiking," she said. Ultimately, a truck driver named Jack Smart gave them a ride, and they wound up in Hemet, California, in January 1982. For several months, she and Lucas lived with the Smarts. (Smart and his wife would later insist that Lucas had, during a four-month period, never been out of their sight for more than a day. Meanwhile, police in other parts of the country used later Lucas confessions to clear eight murders that had occurred during that same time period.)
"I remember one time when Jack and his wife, Obera, took us with them over to Palm Springs to go to a bunch of flea markets," Becky recalled. "That was the only time I remember ever leaving Hemet until we decided to come to Texas."
Their new destination was the tiny North Texas hamlet of Ringgold, where Obera Smart's aged mother, Kate Rich, lived. "Mrs. Smart said her mother needed someone to take care of her and help her around the house. They gave us some money, put us on a bus, and off we went." The arrangement: In exchange for room and board in Rich's home, Becky would cook and clean while Henry did repairs to the house.
"Ringgold was a tiny little ol' place," she recalled. "Sneeze as you pass through, and you'll miss it. All it had was a grocery store. I hated it." She remembered the 80-year-old Rich as being "kinda crazy," her house filthy, littered with dirty clothing, dirty dishes and cat feces.
And there was a daughter who lived in a nearby town who took an immediate disliking to the visitors. "She came to see Kate and said that we weren't taking care of her. She claimed we were spending her money and sleeping too much and that the house was still a mess. So, she threw us out."
Next stop, a ramshackle religious retreat just a few miles down the road called the House of Prayer. Taken there by the Reverend Ruben Moore, Henry and Becky took up residence in an "apartment" modeled from an old chicken barn. "It didn't even have a kitchen," she recalled. "We had to go into the church dining room to have our meals."
Still, it was a place where the wandering Lucas felt comfortable, tinkering with old cars and working at occasional roofing jobs. For Becky, 14 at the time, life wasn't much fun. She would watch Lucas work on cars, at times allowed to drive them around the grounds once he had them running. She played piano inside the church. In time, she began longing to return to Jacksonville. "I was tired of being broke and hungry," she said. And that's where her story and Lucas' reached a dramatic crossroads.
In one version, Lucas told authorities that he'd finally agreed to return with her to Jacksonville and they'd set off hitchhiking. They got only as far as Denton before nightfall and decided to sleep in an open field just off the highway. They had argued, Becky had slapped him, and in what he described as an instinctive reaction, he pulled a knife and stabbed her to death. In an attempt to hide his crime, he'd dismembered her body and buried it in several shallow graves dug with the knife he'd used to take her life. Though Lucas had later returned to the House of Prayer with a tearful story of seeing Becky leaving with a truck driver, she was never heard from again.In yet another version, he recalled how Becky ran away and he later left to search for her.
Now, I was hearing a new version: "Yes, I was homesick and wanted to leave," she said, "but Henry didn't. So a guy who lived at the House of Prayer named Gilbert Beagle gave me a ride to a truck stop in Bowie." All her belongings, she remembers, had been stuffed into a grocery sack.
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.
And, of course, Lucas had his own explanation for it all. A new story. He told members of the press who made their weekly prison stop for inmate interviews that he was "hurt bad" by Wilcox's recanting. "Now," he said, "she's lying. I just don't get it. She knowed things we'd done together, things nobody else could have knowed." This time, however, he got little mileage from his weary listeners.
The truth about Lucas had turned to fool's gold. Even in the pen, I was told, fellow inmates who once held him in awe viewed him as a hillbilly joke. In a highly critical report on the Lucas task force's handling of the landslide of confessions, then-Attorney General Jim Maddox wrote, "Lucas would use information provided him during questioning by law enforcement personnel to fabricate confessions." Eventually, even Governor George Bush, a strong death penalty advocate, stepped in and commuted Lucas' lone death sentence--for the "Orange Socks" murder--to life in prison.
The furor over the latest Lucas scam attempt had already died when, one evening, I answered the phone to hear a long-distance operator say that I had a collect call from Lucas. "Will you accept charges?" she asked.
"No," I replied for the first time. Then, realizing that he was likely listening for my response, I added emphasis. "Not only no," I said, "but hell no." Finally, I had too belatedly realized, the time had come to put the life and lies of Henry Lee Lucas behind me.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- Greg Abbott Does not Give a Damn What He Says on Twitter
Sun., Oct. 11, 3:25pm
Sun., Oct. 11, 3:25pm
Tue., Oct. 13, 7:30pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 6:30pm
- Don't Blame Texas for Textbook's Slavery Whitewash. For Once.
- The Untold Story of the Dallas Park Department's Crackdown on Rogue Soccer