Love in PrisonIn 1991, Ottis Toole received four more life sentences for the murders of three women and a man in Florida between 1980 and 1981. Lucas was charged along with him but not brought to Florida for prosecution. Five years later in 1996, Toole died in prison from cirrhosis of the liver. Before that happened, a curious incident involved his former partner, Lucas.
Many serial killer attract groupies, and while Lucas was not among the best looking men, he was certainly notorious and had his share of admirers. One woman, Phyllis Wilcox, even came up with a plot to free him by posing as his supposedly murdered former girlfriend. Ryan MacMichael includes an interview with her on his Web site, given after she wrote to him in 2000 when he posted an online blog about Lucas.
According to this story, in October 1992, Wilcox posed as Becky, all grown up (although some fifteen years older than Becky would have been at that time), claiming that she was still alive so that she could get him out of that murder rap. She was actually a mother and grandmother, age 40 and living in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. She met Lucas via correspondence after reading a book about him, and she soon visited. She indicates that although she was nervous about going into prison and quite intimidated by the sight of Lucas in handcuffs surrounded by guards, she had a wonderful time and made many more visits thereafter. Among the subjects they discussed was Becky Powell.
Lucas apparently claimed that he'd seen Becky get into a truck, but he'd told authorities that he'd killed her so they wouldn't attempt to implicate her in the murders that he'd committed. In other words (she says), he told Wilcox that Becky was still alive.
Lucas also denied killing Kate Rich and Orange Socks, indicating that the oven in which he supposedly had burned Kate was too small for a woman as fat as she was and would not have gotten hot enough to have burned her to ash. He was sure that the authorities found some chicken bones, nothing more, and exaggerated their significance. About Orange Socks, he claimed that the bruises around her neck did not even fit his hands. But he did admit that he'd murdered his mother.
Wilcox bought it all and confessed to MacMichael that despite being married she soon became obsessed with Lucas, thinking and dreaming about him all the time. She knew she was falling in love. He accepted her feelings and told her he loved her, too. It wasn't long before Wilcox grew afraid that Lucas might be executed, so she devised a plan to make sure that didn't happen. She believed that he was innocent of the charges. She had even come up with a way to exonerate him in her mind of killing his mother by blaming someone else. So she posed as Becky and Lucas backed her up. He said that he'd only confessed to murdering Becky because he wanted to embarrass the police. (He seems to have forgotten that they actually picked up Becky's remains, as Lucas showed them where each piece was.) They didn't get away with it.
Frasier indicates that Wilcox was revealed when this hoax unraveled as a diagnosed schizophrenic who had also corresponded with John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson. But Lucas was still determined to beat his death sentence.
Legal ChallengeWhile it was clear that Lucas had committed four murders, including his mother, even one of those—"Orange Socks"—eventually came under doubt. The only thing linking Lucas to "Orange Socks" was, essentially, his confession. In fact, some 213 cases had been "cleared" through Lucas's confessions, which concerned the writers of the "Lucas Report," a document commissioned by the Texas Attorney General's office.
Ultimately, Lucas was convicted of only eleven homicides, says Egger, though some criminologists believe he was responsible for between forty to fifty murders. Still, no one knows for sure. The death sentence for the murder of Orange Socks stood for many years, although Lucas received two stays of execution because the evidence was too slim. Apparently it was now the case that the work records that had been discredited at the trial were now considered viable evidence on Lucas's behalf. That's because a lot more research had been done.
Former Attorney General's investigator Michael Feary had developed a thick file about Lucas's whereabouts on the night that Orange Socks had been murdered. The documentation made it clear that he was indeed in Jacksonville, Florida. Feary had utilized records such as paycheck stubs and insurance reports to track Lucas as he drifted around the southeast. He was ready to submit all of this on Lucas's behalf, and it was entered into evidence when Lucas received a hearing in 1996 about his death sentence.
Lucas took the witness stand, writes Jean Pagel for the Associated Press, to say that he did not kill the woman known as Orange Socks. He cried and for about fifteen minutes spoke in a trembling voice before U. S. District Judge Sam R. Cummings. Lucas said that he'd given false information when he'd confessed to the murder and added that he was able to give a lot of facts about the crime because he had read the case file. In fact, he had an alibi — he was in Florida putting out a car fire. The Assistant Texas Attorney General, Gena Blount, took him to task for playing games with investigators, and Lucas denied that it had been a game. "I had my reasons," he responded. He received the stay and two years later, the matter went to the governor.
Bush's Only CommutationIn 1998, based on a lack of evidence connecting Lucas to the murder and the existence of contradictory evidence, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush commuted Lucas's sentence to life — the only man to receive this during Bush's reign. Seven years later in 2005, in the New York Review of Books, Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, wrote about Bush's decision.
She suggested that he had been motivated "more by expediency than conscience," and offered the relevant supporting facts: during his six years a governor of Texas, Bush had presided over 152 executions — more than any other governor in any other state in recent history. He had commuted no other death sentences to life, although there were factors as significant as any that Lucas's attorneys offered. Journalist Alan Berlow apparently discovered that Bush's examination of at least 57 of these cases involved only cursory reviews of brief death penalty memos on the day before a scheduled execution. In one case, Bush had skipped over evidence that the convicted man was mentally retarded and therefore not even eligible for the death penalty.
Prejean calls the Texas Board of Pardons and Appeals a "farce" that Bush did nothing to reform. Then she writes about Lucas: "In the Henry Lee Lucas case in 1998, Bush showed where the real power lay." He intervened with the board before they had a chance to make a recommendation, and afterward the board approved his decision in a 17—1 vote.
Prejean points out that it was common knowledge by then that Lucas could not have murdered the woman known as Orange Socks. "Additionally," she writes, "it was clear that Lucas would never be a threat to society because he was already serving six life sentences for other murders, which he may or may not have committed, since on a fairly regular basis he confessed falsely to hundreds of murders. Bush pointed out that jurors at his trial 'did not know' certain facts that later came to light." Thus, he took the opportunity, she claims, to exercise apparent compassion, although in the context of his actual record, his compassion diminishes into mere politics.
No one knows exactly how many murders Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole committed. Given Lucas's trickster methods and propensity to lie, it's likely that no one will ever know, beyond his mother, Kate Rich and Becky Powell. There seems to be good evidence that he killed others, but judges would not admit his confessions, so it was difficult to bring the cases to trial.
In March 2001, Henry Lee Lucas died in prison of natural causes. Thus ended one of the most unusual cases in the annals of criminal psychology.
On a side note, during the 1990s, Lucas's distant cousin, Bobby Joe Long, was convicted in Florida of ten murders. He had also raped as many as fifty women, he admitted, finding them through classified ads.
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Frasier, David K. Murder Cases of the Twentieth Century. North Carolina: McFarland, 1996.
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