Henry Lee Lucas was born in Blacksburg, Virginia, in the Appalachian Mountains, on 23 August 1936, to Anderson & Viola Lucas. Following the loss of both of Anderson’s legs in a drunken train track accident, Viola was the sole source of income in the house, a squalid two-room log cabin where the entire family shared the single bedroom. Most of Lucas’ siblings, eight in all, were fortunate enough to have been farmed out to relatives early on in their lives, but Henry and his half-brother were forced to stay with their mother, a vicious, brutal tyrannical woman who earned a living as a prostitute. She moved her lover and pimp, a man named Bernie, into the family home, and would regularly force the boys to observe her having sex with a succession of strangers. She provided absolutely no nurturing, either physically or emotionally, and believed that the sole purpose of her children was to do her bidding. Lucas’ disabled father gave the young boy some comfort, when he could, but was generally as brutalised as his son. Anderson was responsible for the brewing of bootleg whisky to supplement their meagre income, but he consumed more than he sold, also encouraging his young son: Lucas later claimed to have been practically an alcoholic by the age of 10.
Viola Lucas had a sadistic nature, inexplicably forcing the young Lucas into girl’s clothing, and curling his hair, before sending him to school where he suffered the mockery of his schoolmates. When teachers tried to intervene, Viola made it clear that she would raise the boy her own way, and she brooked no interference. Lucas was regularly beaten by her, on one occasion into unconsciousness for a couple of days; on another, he lost an eye due to his mother’s lack of action following an accident at school, his mother ignored the injury for four days, and subsequently the eye grew infected and had to be replaced by a glass eye. Following the death of Anderson, who froze to death in a drunken stupor, Viola’s boyfriend Bernie introduced Lucas to bestiality, and also indoctrinated him into the practice of brutal animal torture. In addition to witnessing his mother’s sexual acts from a very early age, Lucas also engaged in sex with his half-brother, and he became obsessed with all forms of sex and torture. He also became a prolific burglar, and spent a good deal of his teens in Young Offenders institutions, where the authorities noted his sexual activities with other inmates.
"All I remember was slapping her alongside the neck, but after I did that I saw her fall and decided to grab her. But she fell to the floor and when I went back to pick her up, I realized she was dead. Then I noticed that I had my knife in my hand and she had been cut.”
She was not in fact dead, and when Lucas's half-sister Opal returned later, she discovered their mother alive in a pool of blood. She called an ambulance, but it turned out to be too late to save Viola Lucas's life. The official police report stated she died of a heart attack precipitated by the assault. Lucas returned to Virginia, then says he decided to drive back to Michigan, but was arrested in Ohio on the outstanding Michigan warrant. Lucas claimed to have attacked his mother only in self-defence, but his claim was rejected, and he was sentenced to between 20 and 40 years' imprisonment in Michigan for second-degree murder.
Wandering aimlessly around the American South following his divorce, Lucas met a kindred spirit, named Ottis Toole, with whom he began a homosexual affair, in early 1978, and he moved in with Toole’s family in Jacksonville, Florida. Lucas also began an affair with Toole’s niece, Frieda Powell, known as Becky, who was not yet in her teens at the time. According to Lucas, he and Toole developed a close relationship, moulded by crime, and made money by holding up convenience stores and banks. Depending on whether one accepts Lucas’ multiple confessions to murder or not, he also began a murder spree of epic proportions, that continued virtually unabated until his arrest in June 1983. Toole later corroborated Lucas’ claims, but Lucas’ later recantation of all confessions leaves a question mark over whether Lucas, Toole and even Becky, were complicit in a homicidal spree or not.
They were then taken in by Ruben Moore, who gave them board and lodging at his religious commune in Stoneburg, Texas, known as ‘The House of Prayer’, and Lucas found work as a roofer. Despite their poor treatment of Kate Rich, she remained in contact with Becky during this time. All was well until August 1982, when Becky decided she was homesick and insisted that they return to Florida. On 23 August, they left the commune, but Lucas returned the next day claiming to Moore that Becky and he had argued at a truck stop, and that she had hitched a ride with a trucker, leaving him behind. Apparently a witness corroborated this story, although he later confessed that he had killed her during a fight, had sex with her corpse, chopped her into small pieces and returned later to bury the remains
Short of money and desperate, Lucas eventually contacted Ruben Moore again in May 1983, who promised to help him out if he returned to Stoneburg. Unbeknownst to Lucas, Moore contacted the police to apprise them of his impending return, and he was held on outstanding car theft charges, released, and then arrested for the last time on 11 June 1983, on possession of firearms charges. Sheriff Conway was determined to hold Lucas this time, but he refused to admit any knowledge of Rich’s death. In an attempt to get at the truth, Lucas was deprived of cigarettes and caffeine, and refused legal counsel; by 15 June 1983, Conway had his confession and much more: Lucas admitted killing Rich, as well as Powell (who had been presumed alive until that time). He also admitted having killed indiscriminately over the previous 10 years, claiming a victim count in the hundreds, initially.
The Lucas Task Force was set up in late 1983, and what is clear is that Lucas had a tremendous sense of power, as police forces from across the country assembled to try to clear unsolved cases. Lucas spent a great deal of time travelling around the country, during which time he was treated extremely well, granted unheard-of freedoms for a convicted murderer, and his eventual confessions totalled over 3,000. More than 200 cases were closed as a direct result of his confessions. Those who doubted his confessions grew increasingly uncomfortable as they became increasingly outlandish, but the desire to clear hundreds of ‘cold’ cases was irresistible.
On 15 April 1985, a reporter at the Dallas Times-Herald, Hugh Aynesworth, published a series of stories, following interviews with Lucas, claiming that Lucas’ confessions had been a hoax. He claimed that Lucas had soon realised the advantages to be had, in personal comfort terms, if he continued to ‘assist’ the police, and therefore maintained the charade as long as possible, with the collusion of police authorities. Lucas then recanted almost all of his confessions, and police officials who had been sceptical expressed their own doubts publicly.
‘The Lucas Report’, published in 1986 by Attorney General Jim Mattox, uncovered a raft of contradictory evidence that resulted in the re-opening of a large number of the cases that had been previously closed as a result of the confessions. Lucas’ appeals were eventually exhausted and, on 24 June 1998, he conducted an interview with the press, in what was expected to be his last public appearance before being executed by lethal injection. He was not hopeful of reprieve, according to the gathered reporters. Amazingly, just 48 hours later, on 26 June 1998, George W. Bush, then Governor of Texas, commuted his death sentence to a life sentence, on the recommendation of the Texas Parole Board, which concluded that he could not have killed ‘Orange Socks’. It was the only time during his tenure as Governor that Bush showed clemency to a Death Row prisoner.
"Once I've done a crime, I just forget it. I go from crime to crime." - Henry Lee Lucas
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