Longform

Dead Wrong

Page 5 of 7

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.'"

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers