Longform

Dead Wrong

Page 2 of 7

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).

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers