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Drifter Tied to 600 Murders Bides Time on Death Row : Henry Lee Lucas: He confessed to scores of slayings, but then recanted to all but the killing of his mother.

September 12, 1993|MICHAEL GRACZYK | ASSOCIATED PRESS

HUNTSVILLE, Tex. — If the subject matter had not been so serious, so abhorrent, the scenes would have been almost funny, like a bad drive-in horror movie.

A grizzled one-eyed drifter, his fingers and teeth stained brown by endless cigarettes, his arms spotted with thick green tattoos, delights police by describing scores of unsolved killings: Texas. Florida. Louisiana. Arkansas. Maryland. More than half the country.

But after regaling eager officers and caravans of salivating reporters throughout the nation, Henry Lee Lucas changed his tune. He had made it all up, he said. The only person he had killed was his mother, he said.

By then, hundreds of murders had been pinned on him--the result, Lucas says, of authorities who "helped his memory" by providing details of unsolved killings they hoped he would claim so they could clear them from their files.

"It all seemed fun to start with," he said. "Now, it isn't. I should have my tail kicked for that. I just didn't have any willpower."

It was 10 years ago that the saga of Henry Lee Lucas began with his arrest for a simple firearms violation.

It wasn't long after that before he started talking about murders--lots of them. But when the seemingly unending series of revelations reached almost 600, he began recanting. And even the Texas attorney general at the time, Jim Mattox, admitted Lucas had taken people for a spectacular ride.

Home for Lucas these days is Texas' Death Row, where he was sent in 1985 after his conviction on charges of killing an unidentified hitchhiker known only as "Orange Socks."

It is his only death sentence, although by his attorney's count he has at least 10 other life terms.

The state's appeals courts have upheld his death sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court in June returned the case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for further review.

"I've given up hopes of getting out," said Lucas, 57, as he peered through his bifocals. "I've accepted this. This life is gone. Maybe God will find something. I've left it in his hands. I just have to accept it.

"I can't say 'believe me' and expect people to believe. My character as far as telling the truth back then hurt me."

Lucas denies participating in the "Orange Socks" slaying and the others for which he is facing decades of prison time. The only killing he does acknowledge is that of his mother in 1960 in Michigan.

That, however, hasn't stopped authorities from continuing to press for additional convictions. He faces trial this fall in Tyler, Tex., on capital murder charges in connection with the 1982 slaying of a 35-year-old woman found shot in the head in her rural home.

"It's interesting Henry never led law enforcement to a single body that had not already been discovered and had surveyor flags all over it," said his attorney, Vic Feazell, a former McLennan County district attorney. "This was the biggest botched mess in the history of U.S. law enforcement. Henry was such a pawn of law enforcement."

Feazell, who as district attorney began investigating Lucas when officers tried to pin the drifter with murders in his central Texas county, notes that only two of Lucas' convictions resulted from jury verdicts.

"If any case had to be tried again, there's absolutely no way the prosecution could win," he said. "There's no evidence. I've been standing on this soapbox for years."

One who doesn't agree is Jim Boutwell, the sheriff in Williamson County, where the woman known as "Orange Socks" was found.

"I'm not in a position to say all of the cases that he admitted to were correct," Boutwell said. "The vast majority didn't have anything to do with this county. But I would say (he's responsible for) between 100 and 200, all over the United States.

"He's soft-spoken, frequently pretty quiet. I think that was one of the secrets of his success. He would fool people, primarily women, because of his nature."

Boutwell thinks Lucas eventually will be executed in Texas; Feazell says the future is uncertain.

"I think what they're likely to do is sweep it under the rug and hope it would go away," Feazell said. "He's not a danger to himself or anyone else. I don't think he even belongs in a hospital."

Lucas describes his tenure in Texas as the worst of his life. The decade since his time in the limelight began seems "like a hundred years," he said, even though being behind bars is not new.

As a 17-year-old, he got three years in prison in his native Virginia for breaking and entering and burglary. Then he was in a federal lockup in Michigan on charges related to auto theft, and a Michigan state prison for the 1960 murder of his mother. He was transferred to a Michigan state hospital a year later and released in 1975.

"Michigan was like heaven compared to here," he said. 'This is a concentration camp, not a prison. Of course, I realize I'm on Death Row."

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