He Confessed to Murdering 600 Women. It Was All a Lie.
The new Netflix series “The Confession Killer” examines the case of Henry Lee Lucas, who said he killed as many as 600 women. It turns out the real story is far more complicated.
In the early 1980s, Henry Lee Lucas claimed that he had murdered 100 women. Wait, make that 150 women. Or was it 200? No, 360. Actually, he thought it could be as many as 600. Such boasts instantly made him the world’s most prolific serial killer, and a monster that law enforcement thought “makes Charles Manson sound like Tom Sawyer.”
Thing is, it was almost certainly a lie.
Directors Robert Kenner and Taki Oldham’s incisive, infuriating five-part miniseries The Confession Killer (premiering Dec. 6 on Netflix) is the story of a man intent on mythologizing himself—and, just as crucially, about the media and law enforcement’s desire to mythologize him, to their own benefit (and don’t forget the movies too: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was inspired by his tale). A poor Virginia native with a droopy eye, few teeth, and an IQ of 87, Lucas was convicted at an early age of murdering his abusive mother. Upon his release, he was pinned for slaying both his girlfriend Becky Powell and his 82-year-old landlord Kate Rich. When questioned about the latter double-homicide, Lucas began talking, first about his outstanding warrants, and then about how and where he had offed the two women. It was, by all appearances, an open-and-shut case—until, at his arraignment, he asked the judge what they should do about the other 100 women he’d killed, and all hell broke loose.
Lucas immediately became a national-news sensation, and the star attraction for Williamson County Sheriff (and former Texas Ranger) Jim Boutwell, a Stetson-wearing legend who set up a task force to coordinate interstate investigations into Lucas’ supposed crimes. Alongside colleague Bob Prince, Boutwell became the conduit for every detective in the country to gain access to Lucas, whom the sheriff kept in a Georgetown, Texas, jail where the suspect was allowed to walk about freely (often without handcuffs), drinking strawberry milkshakes procured for him by his wardens and carrying on like he was a friendly assistant—and task-force member—rather than a man suspected of ending the lives of countless innocent women.
The number of Lucas victims was always a fluid (and skyrocketing) figure, because the fiend was more than happy to oblige any and all interrogators with confessions. The fact that Lucas had killed his mother bolstered his increasingly outlandish assertions. So too did his ability to lead the Rangers to a buried bag of bones which, he said, belonged to Becky Powell. Also helping his credibility was his knowledge of key details in numerous cases, from the locations of victims, to key items found on their bodies, to the manner in which they had been assaulted (often including necrophilia).
Still, it wasn’t long before serious doubts arose about Lucas’ reliability. Granted access to the accused while he was incarcerated in Georgetown, journalist Hugh Aynesworth quickly identified discrepancies between Lucas’ admitted crimes and indisputable whereabouts. His subsequent 1985 Dallas Times Herald news article (written with Jim Henderson) made plain that Lucas’ avowals were logistically impossible; in October 1978 alone, he would have had to drive 11,000 miles in order to carry out eight separate murders. “How ridiculous can you get?” says Aynesworth.
“It was simple enough to see the folly of the whole thing,” adds Henderson, and that turns out to be the true subject of The Confession Killer. Overflowing with cannily edited archival footage (dominated by Lucas police-confession videos, and TV news reports) and illuminating chats with principal players, directors Kenner and Oldham persuasively contend that most, if not all, of Lucas’ declarations were pure make-believe. Recognizing that copping to hundreds of atrocities would net him the attention—and stature—that he otherwise couldn’t have attained on his own, Lucas willingly agreed to play the bogeyman: a drifter (aided by buddy Ottis Toole) who cruised I-35 looking for prey whom he’d dispatch in every conceivable manner, including running them over, strangling them with pantyhose, and stabbing them with a ballpoint pen.
As former FBI profiler Greg Cooper opines regarding Lucas’ wholesale lack of behavioral patterns: “From a probability perspective, it’s fictional.” The Confession Killer agrees, and spends considerable time looking into how such a hoax was perpetrated. The answer, it’s obvious to all, is that Boutwell, Prince and the rest of the Texas Rangers fed Lucas intel about cases so he could take responsibility for them. In this fraudulent bargain, everyone made out well: Lucas became a celebrity; Boutwell and Prince looked like heroes; and myriad cops across the country got to close unsolved homicides, all without having to produce any actual evidence save for Lucas’ under-oath statements.
Of course, justice predicated on a lie isn’t justice at all, and The Confession Killer is awash in heartbreaking stories about the collateral damage wrought by this sham. Those come from relatives of the dead who were falsely led to believe that Lucas was the perpetrator they sought, and from assistant district attorney Vic Feazell, who challenged the Texas Rangers’ findings, then had to clear his name after they retaliated by trying to convict him of bribery, and ultimately won the largest libel suit in American history against the local news network (in league with the Rangers) that defamed him. Even Feazell’s ensuing attempt to exonerate Lucas—via the appearance of a woman claiming to be Becky—only led to misfortune, muddying a saga already drowning in deceptions.
It’s no surprise to learn that, in the past twenty years, DNA has verified that Lucas didn’t kill twenty of his supposed victims; by all accounts, he was a people-pleasing idiot who relished the spotlight (and Boutwell friendship) he received from his notoriety. Nor is it a shock to discover that Lucas eventually changed his tune, and so convincingly that then-Texas Governor George W. Bush commuted his death sentence to life in prison in 1998 (he died of natural causes in 2001). Yet that doesn’t diminish the outrage-inducing tragedy of Kenner and Oldham’s portrait of people exploiting circumstances to further their ambitions at the expense of grieving families and citizens at large (remember: the real culprits were by and large never apprehended). In that regard, The Confession Killer isn’t just about a charlatan and cops collaborating in a you-scratch-my-back, I’ll-scratch-yours scheme—it’s about the ugliness of individuals, and systems, prioritizing their own interests ahead of the public good.