World's Most Dangerous KillerAfter Thanksgiving in 1983, the Texas Rangers spearheaded the Henry Lee Lucas Task Force. In a one-day event sponsored by the Texas Department of Public Safety, on December 7, Texas lawmen questioned Lucas in the hope of closing their open cases. At this time, Lucas had taken credit for around 126 murders, and the Rangers believed that thirty-five were clearly associated with him. However, they were also aware that Lucas had lied about some and had said he was unclear about details of others because he'd been under the influence of alcohol of drugs. While they collected information and contacted other agencies, they filled in gaps about Lucas's whereabouts as best they could during his murdering years.
Then for three days in January 1984, 107 officers from eighteen states and the District of Columbia filled the Holidome in Monroe, Louisiana for a second conference about the homicides allegedly committed by Henry Lee Lucas (the first one, drawing not quite as many, had been in October). At that time, it was announced that 72 cases had been cleared on Lucas and Toole, and they were suspects in 71 more cases. He was going to be allowed to book interviews by phone or in person until his murder trial in March for the Orange Socks murder. He had two court-appointed attorneys looking after his rights. The Rangers urged officers not to give Lucas too many details or photographs, because they wanted to be certain that cases that were cleared stayed cleared.
Lucas did appear to close cases and accurately lead investigators to crime scenes. He knew details about murders to which he confessed that had not been published in the press. In a case in Kennewick, Washington, he described the murder of a woman in impressive detail, and his blood was matched to blood on a towel—which he said he'd used to wipe his hand after cutting himself with the murder weapon.
"I had no feelings for the people themselves, or any of the crimes," he stated. "...I'd pick them up hitchhiking, running, and playing, stuff like 'at. We'd get to going and having a good time. First thing you know, I'd killed her and throwed her out somewhere."
Finally, he faced his most serious charge.
Orange SocksThe trial for the murder of the victim known only as Orange Socks took place in March in San Angelo, Texas. District Attorney Ed Walsh was the chief prosecutor, while Don Higginbotham and Parker McCollough defended Lucas. The case was to be heard before Judge John Carter, who had recently presided over the trial of nurse Genene Jones for the murder of a child.
The trial began with reports of how the victim had been murdered, including Lucas's edited confession. In a written statement and on tape, he had described how he'd picked her up as a hitchhiker, had sex with her, killed her, had sex again, and dumped her in the culvert, skinning his knee on a guard rail. A videotape showed Lucas directing police officers to where he had dropped the victim's body.
However, the defense attorneys proved that the unedited tape revealed that Lucas sometimes contradicted himself and suffered from key lapses in memory. The sheriff even had had to refresh his memory at times during the interview, which suggested that Lucas simply "read" the sheriff's desire for information and gave him what he wanted. The defense also used work records to show the Lucas had been in Florida on October 31 and had cashed a check on November 1, and they tied it all up with psychiatric testimony to show that Lucas was insane. Psychologist Tom Kubiszyn said that Lucas had an IQ of 84, a desire to feel important, a feeling of inferiority, and a belief that he could not direct his own actions. He also had schizophrenia. Lucas cried in court when he heard all this, forcing a recess.
The prosecution hit back with evidence that suggested that Lucas's boss might have recorded his presence at work when he was not there. They also supplied psychiatric testimony that Lucas was not insane. In addition, on one of the tapes, Lucas claimed 360 murders: "We killed 'em most every way there is except poison," detailing exactly what he meant.
Despite the defense's best efforts, not the least of which was a client who had proved most helpful to the other side, the jury convicted Lucas and sentenced him to die. Afterward, he seemed unfazed, even happy. It was if he'd finally become someone of importance. Yet not everyone who had been at the trial agreed with the verdict. It seemed that Lucas only knew key facts about the crime after the sheriff had "refreshed" his memory. "It was the worst confession," said Hugh Aynesworth, a reporter for the Dallas Times-Herald, who decided to do some more digging.
Lucas's case occurred in the midst of an incident in Texas that provides some context for its eventual unraveling, so let's first look at that one. Roger Draper, in a lengthy 1994 article about the one-time "frontier ethic" of the Texas Rangers for Texas Monthly, discusses Lucas in the context of what he refers to as the "infamous Brandley case." Draper states that this "epitomized the wrongheadedness of the Ranger Way."
On August 28, 1980, Ranger Wesley Styles investigated the assault and strangulation murder of a high school cheerleader. He arrested the custodian, Clarence Brandley, the next day, without having questioned a single witness. He was quickly charged with capital murder. A jury later convicted him on nothing more than tenuous circumstantial evidence. But Styles' tunnel vision approach was reviewed in 1989 by the Court of Criminal Appeals, and the justices found that he had ignored evidence that pointed to other suspects. He had also threatened the state's star witness and lied on the stand. Brandley, on death row, was freed.
Before that conviction was overturned, and the Rangers embarrassed by one of their own, they were already going through a much more humiliating process at the hands of Lucas. Their zeal was commendable but not their approach. One Ranger in particular bought the whole package.
Whisper of DemonsMax Call was one of the Texas Rangers who took over the Lucas case. Although Call's book, Hand of Death, is generally discredited, since he not only befriended Lucas but also accepted everything Lucas said at face value (Call even named Lucas as a member of the Lucas Task Force), it may nevertheless the best account available about what Lucas actually said. Call makes it clear that Lucas was getting plenty of attention, a high-security cell, good food, and numerous trips in the company of two Texas Rangers. That's motivation for a man with nothing to keep making up whoppers.
"Henry worshipped Satan," Call writes, "and believed his lies because he found justification for his fantasies in Satan's service." Call believed that Lucas had joined Toole in the so-called Hand of Death cult in the Florida Everglades, and he thought that by writing the book he would be warning people about this dangerous organization. He seems to genuinely believe that Henry Lee Lucas assisted in 360 rapes and murders at the behest of the Hand of Death, which supposedly had links to organized crime and practiced the sacrifice of females. In fact, Lucas indicated that they had recruited and trained him specifically to become a killing machine and he was able to describe just how these supposed sacrifices worked.
Call's gullibility is obvious when he says that Lucas wanted to confess as a way of exposing the cult and it's likely that Lucas keyed into Call's own religious beliefs to hook him and play him. The book is replete with religious ideology, especially when it seems that Becky has found the way out through the Bible. Call seems to like this moral angle, playing it up whenever he can. In addition, he accepts whatever Lucas tells him. For example, Lucas apparently described Toole as a "nice-looking young man," when in fact Toole is closer to winning the contest for homeliest serial killer.
Unfortunately, most of Call's chapter about Lucas's childhood experience with his mother was clearly uncorroborated, and there is no way of knowing how much is factual. Lucas was angry at his mother and he likely skewed the story to make her look as evil as possible. Other authors have picked up on this account, including psychologists and criminologists, so it's important to reiterate that there is little in Lucas's account of his childhood that bears the stamp of corroborated fact. Anything that Call writes about must be viewed with some skepticism, especially since he recreates it as a story, with dialogue and incidents he never witnessed.
As Lucas's death toll climbed to some 600 victims in twenty-seven different states and in Canada, according to some accounts (though others cap it at 360), it began to seem as if he was just a compulsive confessor. He had added in the Satanic cult activity, which at the time seemed to justify his numbers, but it only made some people suspicious that it was all a hoax.
Cox describes how reporter Hugh Aynesworth, co-writer with Stephen Michaud on a book about Ted Bundy, sat through Lucas's trial and had his doubts. He did some sleuthing and found that Lucas had been out of state or in prison at times when some of the murders to which he had confessed had occurred. That inspired McLennan County DA Vic Feazell to look into Lucas's confessions to two murders in his own area. Apparently Lucas had written a letter to a reporter in Fort Worth suggesting that he was not actually responsible for all the murders he had claimed, and then the parents of one of Lucas's supposed victims decided after reviewing his statement that he was not the killer of their daughter. Aynesworth had interviewed Lucas himself and wrote a lengthy piece that was published on April 14, 1984. He asked the important question: was it all a hoax? He believed it was and accused the task force of failing to follow leads that may have undermined Lucas's credibility, such as noting the distance between crime scenes that made it virtually impossible for Lucas to have committed some murders that were close together in time. He thought the information about many of the murders had been fed to Lucas in order to close the cases. Supposedly Lucas had finally admitted that he was good for only three murders in his life: his mother, Becky, and Kate.
But Lucas told a lay sister who then told other reporters that he had lied to Aynesworth and was in fact the monstrous killer he'd claimed; his newfound religion forced him to tell the truth. Officers involved insisted that they did not believe everything Lucas said, but when he knew key unpublished details and could lead them directly to a crime scene, that was convincing evidence. He certainly had killed far more than three. In fact, by that point, writes Cox, 189 murders had been cleared and attributed to him. On April 23, he said that the only person he'd ever killed was his mother, and that had been an accident. He'd been able to "clear" so many murders because the Rangers had given him everything he needed to do so — pictures, reports, and even leading him to the crime scenes. He got a live appearance on Good Morning America to repeat his allegations. His decision to recant, he said, was based on his belief in God (the same reason he'd earlier given to confess to so many murders).This news was just as stunning as his initial confession, and the officers involved quickly mobilized to try to piece together some dignity.
ShapeshifterApparently Lucas enjoyed shocking law enforcement with numbers, perverse activities and gruesome details. Nevertheless, he did point to places where victims were found and it's now estimated by some that he was responsible for some 40 to 50 murders. On the other hand, those who make this estimation may also be saving face, not willing to admit they may have fed him information.
Ryan reports the manner in which Lucas typically confessed to a number of unsolved murders: If a police agency suspected Lucas, and if Lucas admitted involvement—and his total of some 3,000 confessions suggests he rarely denied complicity—they would send the Lucas Task Force a case file with information pertaining to the unsolved crime. Lucas would be questioned at length and sometimes even allowed to read police reports, thus learning any number of details previously known only to police, which he could then regurgitate at will.
The Rangers insisted that Lucas was a serial killer, and they were reportedly annoyed with Feazell for interfering. They claimed that they had taken much more care in keeping details from Lucas than they were being accused of. Yet Draper says that one Ranger told the DA, "I'm going to make you regret this if it's the last thing I do."
But the damage had been done. The media had picked up on this hoax, that was nearly too good to be true, and Lucas's status changed from one of the world's most notorious killers to one of the world's most notorious liars. No matter what he said now, no one would believe it. This made all those in law enforcement who had rushed to interview him and who had closed cases look rather lame. Several retired Rangers later said that it was their impression during the interrogations that Lucas was a liar. Still, it was difficult for them to accept that in cases where Lucas led them to the right spot where a body had lain, he had nothing to do with it. He simply knew too much about certain crimes on his own, without assistance.
Then on April 29, Lucas returned to some of his original statements. He gave an interview to a radio show personality, indicating that "I have killed the people I said I killed." He again put the figure at 360. Then he said that everything was a lie and indicated that the Hands of Death cult was going to assassinate him. No one knew quite what to make of a killer confessing to so many crimes he did not do, but then he insisted that he'd been forced to recant. His persistent waffling further reduced his credibility.
False ConfessionsPolice are familiar with several types of false confessions, including from people who confess spontaneously to something they did not do. That's usually in response to a high profile case, in the hope of becoming famous. Sometimes it's about misplaced guilt, where the confessor believes he should be punished for something...anything. There are also coerced confessions, usually offered when the person under interrogation is exhausted, naïve, frightened, or mentally impaired. Some people fear that the interrogation will be stressful so they capitulate quickly, but on rare occasions, a person may internalize the event and actually believe he or she did it. That occurs when an interrogator seems confident of the suspect's guilt and may even lie or use manipulative tactics. The characteristics of those most likely to falsely confess include youth, a low IQ, mental illness or confusion, a high degree of suggestibility, a trusting nature, low self-esteem, high anxiety, and a poor memory.
But the person seeking to attach himself to a specific case seems closest to what Lucas did. In Texas Monthly, Draper indicates that the Rangers had been over-eager in their desire to close open cases, so they provided Lucas some of the details he needed to confess. They called it helping to refresh his memory, and he fully exploited it for his own ends. He had nothing whatsoever to lose, but plenty to gain by way of entertainment and feeling empowered.
In fact, Lucas confessed to a murder in Little Rock, Arkansas that had already been solved, which made a D.A. there suspicious of his admissions. The same thing happened with West Virginia officials when Lucas claimed credit for killing a police officer whose death was determined to have been a suicide. In another Arkansas case, Lucas could not offer details until after state police had shown him a crime scene video they had made. It was easy, then, for him to give them whatever they needed to tie him to that murder. He also confessed to a killing in Delaware in which there was already a suspect in custody; that suspect eventually confessed as well.
"I set out to break and corrupt any law enforcement officer I could get," Lucas said. "I think I did a pretty good job."
Through "dubious methods," says Draper, "the Rangers extracted literally hundreds of confessions from Henry Lee Lucas." Perhaps Lucas was living by the principle that Egger attributes to him: "If rules benefited him, he went along. If they did not, he broke them." In other words, he cleaved to whatever he thought was in his best interest in the moment.
On June 11, 1984, further investigations of open cases were halted, while many of the "cleared" cases had already been reopened. Lucas was transferred to the state prison at Huntsville, claming that his rights prior to the trial for Orange Socks had been violated. Somehow, he believed that by undermining law enforcement as he had done, he would regain his freedom. He told one officer he would be free in a month.