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Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole

Notable Quotable
Toole enjoyed crucifying his victims, after which he would often barbecue and eat them. Lucas said he never joined Ottis in these unholy feasts. When asked why not, he replied, “I don’t like barbecue sauce.”

If serial murder has a poster child, Henry Lee Lucas is surely a candidate. It has been said that he killed more than three hundred people, and while this is undoubtedly false, one thing is for sure: He murdered a lot of people. There’s no question he was a very dangerous man. His compatriot and lover, Ottis Toole, was no slouch in the murder department, either. Lucas and Toole traveled across the country in the 1970s and 1980s, committing many of their murders along Interstate 35, which stretches from Laredo, Texas, to Gainesville, Florida.
Henrry Lee Lucas
Henrry Lee Lucas

The Clearance Factor

There has been some debate over whether Lucas was actually the perpetrator of all the murders he confessed to. The Texas Rangers, a law enforcement organization that assists local police departments in a kind of “have expertise, will travel” capacity, say that Lucas was a genuine serial murderer, and in the mid-1980s he cooperated with law enforcement departments all over the country. The Rangers let Lucas travel to various states and be interviewed by various departments, and he helped “clear,” as they say in police parlance, hundreds of murders by confessing to them.

But there are local law enforcement groups, such as the Texas state attorney general’s office, that say that Lucas the serial killer is more myth than fact. In 1986, Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox published the “Lucas Report,” a thick document that examines a number of murders Lucas confessed to and that allegedly proves how Lucas couldn’t be the killer.

There are also ordinary people who do not believe Lucas is the killer he confesses to be. One family, the Lemonses of Lubbock, Texas, went to great lengths, including selling their house, to finance an investigation of Lucas’s claims that he had killed their newly married daughter, nineteen-year-old Deborah Sue Williamson. Their conclusion, as reported by Ron Rosenbaum in a September 1990 article on the controversy in Vanity Fair magazine, was that Lucas was not the killer; they claimed that Lucas did not know details of the case, such as the layout of the house, and believed the killer of their daughter was still at large. The Texas reporter Hugh Aynesworth also analyzed Lucas’s confessions. The result was a report in the Dallas Times Herald that discredited dozens more of the murders Lucas claimed.

At the core of the controversy seems to be the “clearance” factor. Detectives like it when cases are cleared or solved - it makes life easier and makes them look good. In this case, it would also make the Rangers look good, because they “owned” the clearance weapon in so many cases from the 1970s and 1980s: Henry Lee Lucas and his confessions. So it could be possible that there are other murderers involved in these crimes and the police just don’t want to solve them.

It’s impossible to know for sure how many murders he actually committed, but Henry Lee Lucas was beyond a doubt a serial killer, and a most active one. It’s definitely possible that he lied about some confessions or was somehow cajoled or coerced or conned into giving them - or perhaps he was the con, confessing to more and more crimes to boost his notoriety or just mess with the authorities. But lies aside, there have to be other murders he confessed to - many murders - that he did commit.

A Horrific Childhood
There is no doubt that Lucas had a childhood that could incite a murderous rage. He was raised, as Ron Rosenbaum reports in Vanity Fair, “in a fairly primitive log-cabin-like dwelling in an isolated backwoods county in western Virginia, the kind of hillbilly milieu that produced the predators of Deliverance.” Appropriately, the name of the town was Blacksburg (the same town, in fact, where a gunman went wild at Virginia Tech and killed thirty-two people in April 2007).

But it wasn’t the town that did Henry Lucas in. It was mainly his mother. “I was brought up like a dog,” Lucas told Rosenbaum in a death-row interview. “No human being should have to be put through what I was.”

His stepfather, nicknamed “No Legs” by townsfolk, was an alcoholic who had lost his legs to a slow-moving freight train. For whatever reason, perhaps lack of money, he did not buy prostheses for his limbs - instead, he slid around the bare dirt floor of the shack the Lucases called home, propelling himself on his stumps. Said Lucas of his father, as stated in Joel Norris’s book Serial Killers, “He hopped around on his ass all his life.”

Lucas’s mother, Viola, was part Cherokee - and all monster. She was a part-time prostitute who used to service men in the cabin and liked to force “No Legs” to watch. The legless man would watch as long as he could and then get sick. On the final occasion he watched, a winter day in 1950, he was so overwhelmed by what he was seeing that he dragged himself out into the cold, snow-covered landscape and lay there all night. Within a week he was dead of pneumonia.

Viola Lucas also made Henry Lee watch her practice her profession, from the ripe old age of eight until he was fourteen. To add to the event, she liked to dress him as a little girl when he watched. She also dressed Henry Lee as a little girl when he went to school, taking pains to curl his then-long blond hair. When he wasn’t dressed as a girl, he went to school dirty and smelly and dressed in ragged clothes. One teacher there remembered that he was particularly pathetic among a group of students who came from poverty-stricken families and that the other children constantly taunted him, particularly for his glass eye (Henry Lee had lost an eye to an accident when he was seven).

One would have to search very hard to find a mother who was crueler to her son than Viola Lucas was. She relished her cruelty, even reveled in it. She was the antithesis of warm and nurturing, what we expect a mother to be. Verbally, she constantly tore him apart, detailing what a worthless person he was, what a burden. Physically, she was a savage. She beat him constantly with anything that was handy - including two-by-fours. Years later, the damage from her beatings would show up in CAT scans taken of Lucas’s brain.

Viola’s cruelty was not only constant but also inspired. For example, Henry Lee came to love a mule on the farm, and one day Viola asked if he liked it. He told her he did, very much. That was enough for Viola. She went into the shed, came out with a shotgun, and killed the mule as Henry Lee watched. Then she beat Henry Lee for burdening her with having to pay for the animal’s removal.

His diet was minimal. He suffered from malnutrition and later, as Joel Norris reports in Serial Killers, there were excessive amounts of lead and cadmium found in his body. Henry Lee would often try to supplement what he got at home by foraging through garbage cans.

The effects of his mother’s savagery started showing up fairly early. In Henry Lee’s case it was cruelty to animals, a typical symptom of a budding serial murderer. Henry Lee and his half brother got into the habit of killing farm animals and then having intercourse with them, a practice Henry Lee would continue years later with human beings.

Henry Lee would also pleasure himself by skinning small animals alive. By the age of ten, he was drinking like a fish and had become an accomplished thief.

By his own admission, Henry Lee started to kill people when he was fifteen. He attempted to rape a girl in the county and she resisted, so he strangled her and buried her body.

Later he would state that it was his “worst murder” - not because he felt remorse, but because he was afraid the police would track him down. They didn’t, and Lucas eventually left home and began his pattern of crime, which was usually to steal cars, money, whatever, get caught, and be incarcerated. He served time in Virginia State Penitentiary and a federal reformatory in Ohio.

Killing Mom
The year 1959 was a good one for Henry Lee; he murdered his mother. At the time, Viola was staying in Michigan with Lucas’s sister, and Lucas, freshly discharged from the penitentiary in Virginia, met her there. He introduced his mother to a woman he had met named Stella, whom Lucas said he was going to marry.

Viola didn’t approve of Stella - and she also accused Henry Lee of molesting his sister’s children. They argued. Both were drunk, the argument got physical, and Henry Lee stabbed her in the chest. She lay on the floor for half a day, bleeding, before her daughter found her; she subsequently died.

Henry Lee was sentenced to forty years for his mother’s murder and was to spend the time at the Michigan State Penitentiary. Prison changed him, but not in the way law enforcement would have liked. Before prison, he had killed out of fear or rage. After, he was bent on killing anything with a heartbeat.

In prison, Lucas heard his mother’s voice ordering him to kill himself. He pulled a razor across his abdomen and wrists to comply but failed. It was to be one of many suicide attempts. And he heard other voices that told him to do bad things. Prison doctors diagnosed him as schizophrenic, a sexual psychopath who felt potent - and became physically potent - only when he was having sex with dead bodies. (An FBI agent once asked Lucas why he only had sex with women after he killed them and his answer was, “I like peace and quiet.”).

Lucas knew he was dangerous, and when he was granted parole in 1970, he begged Michigan authorities to keep him caged up. He knew he would kill. But they let him out anyway, and he fulfilled his own prophecy by murdering a young woman the very same day in Jackson: She lived only a few blocks from the state prison.

A Match Made in Hell
After the murder in Jackson, Michigan, Lucas was on the move, and soon he met Ottis Toole - a man who always seemed to be smiling. Ron Rosenbaum, in his Vanity Fair article, described Toole as “a six foot tall occasional transvestite with a build like a linebacker’s and a voice like Truman Capote’s.” Born in Florida, Toole grew up with a skewed sexuality helped by the fact that his sister Drusilla had raped him. Years later he would enjoy watching Drusilla’s young daughter Betty have sex with men that Toole picked up. Among other claims to fame for Toole was the abduction, murder, and decapitation of Adam Walsh, the seven-year-old son of John Walsh, host of the television show America’s Most Wanted. This could be a Lucas-like faux confession - Toole was never charged with or convicted of killing Adam Walsh, though he confessed to it a number of times (and retracted his confession almost as often).

Ottis Toole
Ottis Toole

Precisely what Lucas and Toole did and didn’t do is debatable, but it’s a safe assumption that their life together was a spinetingling amalgamation of sodomy, strangling, stabbing, cutting, shooting, necrophilia, dismemberment, and cannibalism. Lucas told Rosenbaum that Toole enjoyed crucifying his victims, after which Toole would often barbecue and eat them. Lucas said he never joined Ottis in these unholy feasts. When asked why not, he replied, “I don’t like barbecue sauce.”

The duo’s main murder scene was Interstate 35. During the 1970s and 1980s the highway was virtually littered with bodies, hundreds of them. As Joel Norris points out in Serial Killers, there was no consistent MO in the murders, so police could not be sure whether they were dealing with one perpetrator or many. The victims were sometimes sexually assaulted, sodomized, shot, strangled, beaten, and/or dismembered.

Although the number of murders may be debatable, everyone agrees that Lucas killed Kate Rich, an elderly woman who lived in Wichita Falls, Texas. Rich lived near the House of Prayer, a chicken farm that had been converted into a church that housed homeless people and others down on their luck in the former chicken coops. Two of these people were Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas, and the House of Prayer is where they would carry out many of their crimes. Lucas stabbed Kate Rich to death, chopped her up, and destroyed her remains by burning them in a stove on church property. He also burned her house to the ground.

Another murder Lucas definitely committed, and the one that put him on death row, was the killing of “Orange Socks,” an unidentified young woman, found facedown on the side of Interstate 35, strangled, and nude except for some long, pumpkin-colored stockings that were pulled down around her ankles. She was an attractive young woman with reddish brown hair, perfect teeth, a nice body, and a venereal disease.

Lucas said she was hitchhiking; he picked her up in Oklahoma City and they drove toward Texas. At one point they stopped and Lucas made an exception for her: He had sex with her while she was still alive. Then they continued on, and Lucas wanted to make it an even rarer day: have sex with her again. She told him, “Not now.” Lucas did not take no for an answer. Joel Norris describes what happened in Lucas’s words in Serial Killers:

She tried to jump out of the car and I grabbed her and pulled her back. We drove for a little piece further than that, and I pulled off the road because she was fighting so hard that I almost lost control of the car. After that I pulled her over to me and I choked her until she died.

Then he had sex with the corpse and dumped the body in a culvert.

Lucas was tried for Orange Socks’s murder in San Angelo. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection. He did not seem chagrined by the idea. He had tried to take his own life many times, and now he would give the state a crack at it.

However many people Lucas and Toole killed, they were clearly capable of scores and perhaps hundreds of killings. Indeed, how many people would want to go for a ride with them along Interstate 35 on a moonless November night? Chances are that not many folks would be clamoring for seats.

Where are Lucas and Toole now?

Taking a dirt nap. Ottis Toole died of cirrhosis of the liver in September 1996 while in prison in Florida and Henry Lee Lucas died in prison in Texas on March 13, 2001.

Would You Believe?
Henry Lee Lucas had been sentenced to death for his murder spree, but Texas Governor George W. Bush commuted his sentence to life in prison. It was the only one of 153 death penalty cases in which Bush intervened, and it involved the killing of Orange Socks. Bush explained: “The first question I ask in each death penalty case is whether there is any doubt about whether the individual is guilty of the crime. While Henry Lee Lucas is guilty of committing a number of horrible crimes, serious concerns have been raised about his guilt in this case.”
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