Longform

Dead Wrong

Page 4 of 7

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."

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers