Longform

Dead Wrong

Page 6 of 7

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.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers