Henry Lee Lucas, who died on March 12, 2001, stands as one of the most fearsome and familiar names in the annals of sick and sadistic serial murders.
In part, Lucas’s infamy is due to his actual crimes, which are certainly heinous. It also stems in part, though, from his fantastical and unsubstantiated claims to being the most prolific slayer in American history.
Then, in addition, a lot of people know Lucas by way of the 1985 cult horror classic, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
The truth is that, in constructing the loathsome legend of Henry Lee Lucas, many facts got mixed up with the killer’s fictional fantasies and the filmmakers’ artistic liberties.
Here now are five actual facts regarding the life and deaths of Henry Lee Lucas.1. LUCAS LAUNCHED HIS DEATH SPREE WHERE HIS LIFE BEGAN: WITH HIS MOM
Although he claimed to have strangled a teenage girl in 1951, Henry Lee Lucas’s first confirmed murder victim was Viola Lucas, his alcoholic prostitute mother.
Viola Lucas raised Henry along with eight siblings in the rural mountain hamlet of Blacksburg, Virginia. She beat Henry relentlessly, and neglectfully allowed an infection to force the removal of his left eye. Viola also forced her son to dress as a girl in public and watch her sexually service clients.
The results were not good. Henry himself drank alcoholically as a child. He also tortured animals and had sex with one of his brothers.
In 1960, Viola and 24-year-old Henry argued in her kitchen after she apparently suggested he move back home to take care of her as she got older. Henry took care of her, all right: He stabbed Viola in the neck and fled.
Lucas did 10 years for the crime, before getting sprung due to prison overcrowding. He didn’t stay sprung long. In 1971, Lucas got a five-year sentence for attempting to kidnap three schoolgirls.2. HENRY LEE LUCAS AND OTTIS TOOLE: A MATCH MADE WAY SOUTH OF HEAVEN
Following the stint for matricide, Lucas drifted and hitchhiked around America before moving in with fellow serial murderer Ottis Toole and his teenage sister Becky Powell in Jacksonville, Florida.
Lucas sometimes worked as a roofer, but he never stopped randomly robbing and killing strangers. Often, Ottis Toole and Becky Powell came along with him.
Toole had an I.Q. of 75. He later said he and Lucas routinely raped and killed women, many of them sex workers, and sometimes raped and even ate their corpses.
In 1983, Toole went to jail for six counts of murder. He remains most notorious for allegedly killing and decapitating six-year-old Adam Walsh in 1981, a case that awakened the country to the plight of missing and exploited children. Lucas at one point said he’d been in possession of Adam’s head.
The 1985 book Hand of Death: The Henry Lee Lucas Story by Max Call is based on Lucas’s claims that he and Toole committed these atrocities as a part of a Satanic cult network. If such allegations could be substantiated, we’d certainly all know about them.
Ottis Toole died of liver failure, behind bars, in 1996.
3. HENRY LEE LUCAS WAS CONVICTED FOR 157 MURDERS; THE ACTUAL NUMBER IS UNKNOWN
Sometime in the early 1980s, Lucas killed Becky Powell, as well Kate Rich, an infirm 82-year-old whose family had hired Henry to work on her roof.
After getting arrested in 1983, Lucas admitted to those crimes, but then began a berserk spree of confessions to a multitude of unsolved cases, many of which seemed credible.
In time, officers from 40 separate states talked to Lucas about their old files. Police eventually used Lucas’s words to shut down 213 open and cold cases.
Ultimately, Lucas “confessed” to as many as 3,000 killings. And every time he supplied authorities with another account, he got better treatment behind bars — including trips to outside restaurants and access to powerful tranquilizers. So he was motivated, to say the last.
Later on, though, Lucas recanted hundreds of his confessions, creating huge confusion as to which crimes he’d done and which he hadn’t.
In 1985, The Dallas Times Herald investigated Lucas’s confessions and effectively proved that almost all of them were bogus. Still, the authorities had him dead-to-rights on 11 murders, one of which — the killing of an unidentified woman known only as “Orange Socks” — got him sentenced to death.
4. TO THE DISAPPOINTMENT OF MANY, HENRY LEE LUCAS DIED OF NATURAL CAUSES
Of all people, in 1988 Texas Governor George W. Bush commuted Henry Lee Lucas’s death sentence to life in prison. During his final years behind bars, Lucas proclaimed himself a born-again Christian and reportedly lived as a model prisoner.
On March 12, 2001, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice stated that Lucas reported to the prison infirmary with chest pains. Some time in the subsequent hours, Lucas fatally succumbed to a heart attack. He was 64. His grave in Hunstville, Texas, is unmarked.
5. HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER IS NOT A DOCUMENTARY
Many, if not most, people who know of Henry Lee Lucas have done so by way of writer-director John McNaughton’s acclaimed 1985 hair-raiser, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Michael Rooker delivers a bone-chilling performance for the ages in the title role, playing a serial slaughterer who share a name and some similarities with the real-life Lucas. The same is true of Tom Towle in the role of Henry’s homicidal henchman, Otis.
The movie is effective in its own right, but not to be considered anything close to a factual account of this tragic saga. To the film’s credit, an opening card makes clear that what the viewer is about to see is based more on Lucas’s flights of fancy than on anything that in fact occurred.
Still, McNaughton’s Henry beats every other cinematic crack taken at the Lucas story, which includes The Confessions of a Serial Killer (1985), Drifter: Henry Lee Lucas (2009), and, most ludicrously, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer 2 — Mask of Sanity (1996).
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Main photo: Henry Lee Lucas [Texas Department of Criminal Justice]