One of America’s most notorious serial killers was born to a poor family from Blacksburg, Virginia. He would go on to claim hundreds of lives—or so he said.
By Erica Corder, Editor-in-chief, and Andrew Pregnall, Managing editor
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As the Texan judge set his bail for $1 million, Henry Lee Lucas laughed. The Blacksburg, Virginia-native was being charged with the brutal murders of three women, ranging from 15 years of age to 80. “I will finish what I have started,” he tells the judge. “I will finish giving back the dead that I have taken.”
He is later photographed walking out of the courtroom with a slight smile, dressed in a collared shirt, with facial stubble and a mop of curly dark hair. He is not in handcuffs, but he is flanked by officers, perhaps a foreshadowing to the future special treatment he would receive while in jail in the years to come.
For some time, Henry Lee was widely considered one of the most dangerous serial killers in U.S. history. His story begins at home, in a dirt-floor shack at the edge of Blacksburg.
Henry Lee’s early life reads like a twisted origin story—and with all that’s contested about his life, perhaps it could be just that: a story. Here are the facts: Henry Lee was born in 1936 to a poor family living eight miles out of Blacksburg in a shack on Craig Creek, a quiet road on Brush Mountain. According to a Montgomery News Messenger article, the Lucas family was one of the poorest families in Montgomery County, and many took pity at the site of the children, who seemed to always look “dirty.”
His mother, Viola Lucas, was a harsh, abrasive woman, and his father, Anderson Lucas, was an unemployed double amputee known as “No Legs” Lucas around town. Around the time Henry Lee was in fifth grade, his brother stabbed him in the left eye while the two were supposedly playfighting. Later, Henry Lee would get a glass eye which he would take out and show his classmates. “I will never forget him taking that glass eye out and rolling around in his hand,” said former elementary school classmate Gilbert Hale in a Montgomery News Messenger story from 1984.
From there, it’s the stuff of legend—some of it reported by Henry Lee himself, some contested by those who knew “Little Henry” and his family at the time.
Some reports claimed that Anderson would roll down Brush Mountain in a small wagon into Blacksburg to sell pencils or beg for money. This spectacle quickly garnered him a reputation with locals. Some liked to cruelly joke that “No Legs” had intentionally sat on the train tracks and let a passing train sever his limbs so that he could collect disability money.
Viola had another sort of reputation around Blacksburg. According to multiple reports and Henry Lee himself, Viola, as the breadwinner, prostituted herself—right on the floor of their shack, in front of Henry Lee and Anderson. Given the nature of Viola’s supposed work, there is some speculation that Henry Lee may have been a bastard child; the majority of sources, however, agree that Anderson was, indeed, the father of Henry Lee.
In a 1985 book, Hand of Death: The Henry Lee Lucas Story, Max Call recounts the story of Henry Lee after recording over 40 hours of audio interviews with him in addition to doing interviews with the law enforcement involved with Henry Lee’s cases. What follows are many of the stories told by Henry Lee which made their way into Call’s book; they are corroborated by news reports wherever possible and otherwise left to stand on their own.
According to Call, Viola gave her pimp—a man who supposedly stayed in residence with the Lucas family more often than not—free reign to beat her husband and children. Call also writes that for a long time, Viola forced Henry Lee to wear women’s clothes before sending him to school because she one day hoped that he could be prostituted to men and women alike. However, after complaints from Henry Lee’s schoolteachers, a Montgomery County Court order soon put an end to Henry Lee’s forced crossdressing.
Viola’s other forms of emotional and physical abuse took stranger forms. One day she killed Henry Lee’s pet mule out of spite. This much has been corroborated by multiple news outlets, including a 1997 article from The Roanoke Times. She also beat her husband and children with blocks of wood—once knocking Henry Lee into a coma—and sent her children out without socks or shoes.
In Hand of Death, Call details the story of how a Blacksburg resident once bought shoes and socks for Henry Lee and one of his brothers. Henry Lee showed off his new shoes to his mother when he returned home. In turn, Viola beat him and his brother for not asking for the cash equivalent.
At some point in Henry Lee’s early childhood, his father died from pneumonia. The details surrounding his death are mixed at best. Call reports that, after many years of Viola’s abuse, Anderson consistently drank himself into a stupor, and died when Henry was 14.
Other retellings say that on a snowy winter day in the Blacksburg mountains, Viola was servicing a client on the dirt floor of their shack, and Anderson, sick of the abuse, dragged himself outside to the snow to catch pneumonia and die. According to a Montgomery News Messenger report, “it is not clear when the father died of pneumonia, but his passing was reportedly hastened by his wife.”
Still, there are some individuals who defend Viola. Robert M. Price, a retired Blacksburg schoolteacher who knew Henry Lee’s family, said the rumors about Viola weren’t true. According to a story by The Roanoke Times, Price believed that she was “nothing more than a hard-working mountain woman.”
After this point, the details of Henry Lee’s life become somewhat hazy. By the time he was 16 in 1952, Henry Lee was no longer attending school. His mother was found guilty by the Montgomery County General District Court of allowing her son to commit truancy.
While it’s unclear when exactly Henry Lee left Montgomery County, he left Virginia in 1959 after being released from a Richmond prison for two charges of breaking and entering. He moved to Michigan and was eventually booked for the same crime there.
In January 1960, 23-year-old Henry Lee and his 74-year-old mother were visiting Viola’s daughter, Carol Jennings, in Tecumseh, Michigan. At some point on the night of Jan. 12, Henry Lee and Viola visited a tavern, and, depending on which newspaper report you read, the pair had either returned home or began an argument in front of the tavern. Viola wanted to return home to Blacksburg, and she complained of Henry Lee’s lack of a job.
The argument escalated. Viola slapped her son across the face. Henry Lee struck back, knife in hand, at his mother’s neck. He saw her collapse and then left the scene.
Henry Lee later admitted to police that he struck her with a paring knife, but claimed he did not know the knife was open or that he had killed Viola. Her body was found by Carol in a bedroom of her house. The cause of death was a stab wound in the neck.
“I hated my mother because she always lied — especially about my father,” Henry Lee later told police.
By the time the body was discovered 12 hours later, Henry Lee was nowhere to be found. He admitted to police later that he fled in a stolen car, which he abandoned in Cincinnati, then hitchhiked the remainder of the way back to Blacksburg. He then began hitchhiking back to Michigan and was picked up by State Highway patrol near Toledo, Ohio because he was dressed suspiciously, according to a report by wire news service UPI.
He didn’t fight extradition and was shipped back to Michigan, where he admitted everything and was sent to a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane. After six years there he was transferred to a prison. After four more years he was released on parole in 1970.
In 1971, he was returned to jail on a conviction of kidnapping two teenage girls. When he was released from that sentence in 1975, he took up residence with his new wife. She quickly ended the marriage, accusing Henry Lee of molesting her children from another marriage.
So began Henry Lee’s drifter years, a span of eight years in which Henry Lee picked up odd jobs across the South, “traveling and sleeping in his car, making the missions, getting a roofing job here or there,” a Texas Ranger said in 1983.
“All he did was drive,” said another Ranger named Phil Ryan. “All he needed was cigarettes and gas and an old clunker car. A month at a time was all he stayed in most places.”
These were also the years Henry Lee said he spent committing hundreds of murders around the U.S.— though he later told the Texan judge who set his bail at $1 million that he sought help for his murderous tendencies.
“I keep asking for help,” Henry Lee said in court. “I know it ain’t normal for a person to just go out and kill a girl that won’t have sex with them.
“They turned me loose and told me to go back home.”
For many of his drifter years, Henry Lee lived and worked in Florida. Here he met Ottis Toole, who would come to be known as Henry Lee’s partner in crime, and Ottis’ young niece, Freita Loraine Powell, also known as Becky.
When Becky was 13, her grandmother died and her mother committed suicide, leaving Becky in the care of a youth detention center—but not for long. Becky escaped to be with Henry Lee and the two left for Texas. Henry Lee claimed her as his common-law wife. Once in Texas, Henry Lee and Becky befriended and began living with 80-year-old Kate Rich. The year was 1982.
By 1983, both Kate and Becky had disappeared.
Police initially questioned Henry Lee after learning of Kate’s disappearance. He was released after three weeks, but police stayed on him and nine months later arrested him for possession of a firearm, a .22-caliber pistol—a violation of his parole. Five days later, news reports said Henry Lee led officers to the remains of the women in North Texas. Additionally, a bone fragment believed to have belonged to Kate was found in Henry Lee’s wood stove.
The floodgates had opened. Henry Lee’s body count jumped to 100 women killed throughout Texas and 15 other states. Police began looking into his potential connection to the “I-35 murders” of 20 women who had been killed while hitchhiking or having car troubles along Interstate 35 from Austin, Texas to northern Oklahoma.
Henry Lee was linked to one: the 1980 slaying of a unidentified hitchhiker in Georgetown, Texas. She would later come to be known as Orange Socks, because it was the only thing she was wearing when her body was discovered. Henry Lee admitted to raping her before and after decapitating her.
He was tried for Kate’s death first and pleaded guilty. He received a 75-year sentence.
He was tried for Becky’s death some months later. Henry Lee admitted to Becky’s death, telling the jury on the case that he had stabbed her with a butcher knife—unintentionally—after she slapped him in the face during an argument that escalated to a fight in a field. It was retaliation, he claimed.
“It happened immediately, and it happened involuntarily,” Henry Lee’s court-appointed defense attorney Tom Whitlock said. “I think it happened in such a way that it was strictly an accident.”
After he killed her, Henry Lee told the jury he sat next to her corpse and “talked to her about trying to figure out what to do with her body.” He decided to dismember her by cutting her into “little teeny pieces.”
He told the jury he “didn’t mean” to kill her.
“I was in love with Becky. If I could give my life for her, I’d do it,” Henry Lee said. “I’d give everything I had for her.”
After two hours of deliberation, the jury found him guilty, sentencing him to life behind bars. But until death, Henry Lee maintained that he cared deeply for Becky.
“I raised her from nine years old,” he said.
He was eventually also charged with the murder of the victim known as Orange Socks—a sentence that carried the death penalty. This brought his total charges up to three, for the killings of Kate, Becky, and the still-unidentified young female hitchhiker.
Despite his confessions, newspaper reports of that time began shedding light on something new about Henry Lee: doubt.
According to a Roanoke Times & World News (now know simply as The Roanoke Times) report from June 25, 1983, one Texas Ranger investigating Henry Lee at the time held reservations against the confessions.
“I don’t believe he’s intentionally lying,” Weathers said. “There are things he’s specific about and things he’s very vague about. Who knows for sure how many (slayings) are involved?”
Henry Lee later remembered being held in a cell where the air conditioning was on full blast. He told a reporter from The Roanoke Times in 1997 that police denied him phone calls, coffee, and cigarettes. On a jailer’s suggestion that a statement could help him out of his miserable condition, Henry Lee began confessing.
For over two years, Henry Lee kept confessing. According to his estimate at the time, Henry Lee said he gave 3,571 confessions over the course of two and a half years. Out of those, the Texas Rangers task force cleared 650 cases. He was convicted of 11 killings, with sentences from 60 years to life and the death penalty for the Orange Socks case.
A task force was formed to investigate Henry Lee. Police from across the nation called him via telephone to question him on cases left open in their districts. The Texas Ranger task force began carting Henry Lee around the country to the sites of various murders.
In California alone, one report by the LA Times-Washington Post Service said Henry Lee traveled 4,000 miles on a secret 12-day trip throughout the state. As a result, 15 California murder cases were solved, the state’s attorney general announced in August 1984.
These tours were not about Henry Lee proving his innocence. They were about proving his guilt for the killings across the nation he had confessed to at that time. Investigators asked him for details of the killings to ensure that he committed the crimes he said he did, and Henry Lee obliged.
In one such case—the May 1980 murder of two young girls, ages four and five—Henry Lee escorted officers to the alley where he and his partner, Ottis, supposedly abducted the girls. According to police, he led officers to the bridge where the girls’ bodies were found two weeks after their abduction and pointed out the positions of the girls’ bodies. Henry Lee confessed to raping the five-year-old girl as Ottis severely beat the four-year-old, and he drew a sketch of marks that “generally coincided with marks found” on one of the children. All this was enough to declare the case closed.
The doubt in Henry Lee’s confessions exploded in 1985, when a Dallas Times Herald investigative series began questioning the validity of the confessions. Reporters found evidence that placed both Henry Lee and Ottis far from the scenes of crimes they had allegedly committed.
Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox and his office led an investigation into Henry Lee’s claims, finding that a majority of Henry Lee’s confessions were bunk. Among other findings, Mattox’s team discovered that investigators apparently missed one huge discovery that shed light on the reality of Henry Lee’s confessions: he hadn’t met Ottis until February 1979. Thirty crimes had been charged to the pair before they had ever even met.
“It’s as obvious to me as it is to professional law enforcement individuals that Henry was taking a lot of people on a ride and that it appeared some of them wanted to be taken on a ride,” Mattox said.
“At the very least … there was a massive amount of sloppy police work done,” he added. “That’s assuming that there was no intention to deceive anybody. That’s the very best light in which it can be looked at.”
As a result of Mattox’s investigation, 90 cases spanning the U.S. that were supposedly closed by the Texas Rangers task force were reopened. Forty-three of those cases were pinned on Henry Lee, 14 on Ottis, and 33 to both acting together.
As cases were reopened, new suspects emerged and were charged with the crimes Henry Lee had originally been charged with. Henry Lee began telling reporters, lawyers, and judges in 1985 that he had lied under pressure from officers eager to close unsolved crimes.
In the 1980s, a former Newsweek bureau chief and former investigative reporter for ABC’s “20/20” named Hugh Aynesworth began writing a book about Henry Lee. At the time of a 1984 news report, Aynesworth had spent at least 35 hours interviewing him.
“Lucas is not an articulate man,” said Aynesworth, “but he’s very street smart.”
In prison, Henry Lee enjoyed comforts he never had in his impoverished life outside of jail, like his private jail cell’s TV set and free travel across the U.S. to make confessions at the scenes of crimes. Many speculate it was the splendors of life in jail, in stark opposition to his poverty-stricken life on the outside, that bred Henry Lee’s confessional tendency.
“I was a king. I had everything I wanted—everything possible that a man could want, I had,” he said to documentary filmmakers. “I had money I didn’t have before. I had a colored television I didn’t have before. I had cable TV that I didn’t have before. I had all kinds of food, even stacks of cigarettes in cartons in my house. That’s coming from nothing.”
“It’s like being a movie star,” he said in the same interview. “You’re just playing the part. You don’t think of it, you just play it. Make out that you’re the worst serial killer in the history of the United States. And that’s what I did.
“I got so that I thought I was the biggest movie star in this country,” he said.
Later in his life, Henry Lee showed regret for his false confessions.
“I want the truth out,” he said. “All those lies, all they did was hurt the families of the victims.”
Near the end of his life, he clung to a new stance: he hadn’t killed anybody at all, not even his mother. “I just made up my mind,” he said, a death penalty looming, “that I’m going to live.”
Henry Lee said that the murder of his mother was committed by someone else—a half-sister who confessed on her deathbed to the slaying—a statement multiple half-siblings confirmed.
The killing of Orange Socks in Texas? Not him. Pay stubs revealed he was in Florida at the time—and therefore, he felt the death penalty for that slaying should be revoked. Lucky for him, then-Governor of Texas George W. Bush commuted his death sentence over these lingering concerns. Henry Lee was the lone person to have a death sentence commuted during Bush’s six gubernatorial years, which saw the executions of 152 people.
And Becky’s killing never really happened after all, he claimed. She left him to go back to Florida. He last saw her alive, driving away with a trucker on his birthday. At that point, he was “just fed up with life itself,” he said. He would just “let the state kill” him by way of claiming he was a murderer.
In subsequent years, Henry Lee would claim that Becky was actually alive and well—that she had contacted him after a fake Becky came to visit him in prison in 1994. The real Becky had told him she wanted to come forward. He said he told her not to.
Was he was a liar, a killer, or both? It’s the question that still lingers. Henry Lee’s timeline is made up of both fact and fiction, but it’s hard to distinguish between the two, not least because newspaper accounts at the time all contradicted one another, between misspellings of names and misquoted dates to purely sensationalized accounts—or so they seem to be.
By the end of his story, even Henry Lee was tired. He only wanted to convince authorities of his complete innocence, so that he could be released and return to his family’s home on Brush Mountain.
“I’d be back in Virginia,” he said. “That’s where I want to be for the rest of my life is in Virginia.”
Henry Lee died in prison in March 2001 at age 64 when his heart stopped. He held steadfast to his newest claims of innocence and rejected his old ones that took the world for a ride that seemingly went nowhere.
“That’s just a bunch of garbage I put together,” Henry Lee said. “I’m not some kind of saint, but I do believe I’ll go to heaven. And I do believe those who did the killings will be punished by God.”
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