Episode 46: A Review of “The Confession Killer”

A murder suspect bonds with his jailers and makes a special connection with a female jailhouse minister. He’s given agency to confess to more than 300 murders, but becomes a most unreliable narrator. A seasoned journalist who’s written a book about notorious serial killer Ted Bundy conducts hours and hours of interviews with the suspect and begins to question everything about what he is saying. A district attorney goes against a respected law enforcement agency and finds his life and career in jeopardy.

This sounds like a fictional film, right? But no, think more along the lines of “Erin Brockovich” or “Dark Waters.” The storylines I mentioned above can be found in the Netflix documentary “The Confession Killer,” which profiles professed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. And it has more twists and turns than you can imagine, including ties to the Carolinas.

I first came across the name Henry Lee Lucas a few years ago when I was researching a few of the early episodes for this podcast. Some old newspaper articles mentioned that he was being questioned for a slew of unsolved cases in the Carolinas involving missing and murdered people. I finally got around to watching the “The Confession Killer,” which features the story of how Lucas duped an entire team of investigators, in both Texas and scores of other U.S. states. I wanted to share my thoughts here because I have ties to both the area of Texas where Henry spent a great deal of time in the Georgetown jail and have written about some of these North and South Carolina crimes he allegedly confessed to.

Who Was Henry Lee Lucas?

Here’s a little backstory on Henry Lee Lucas, which is mostly what the first episode of “The Confession Killer” covers. He was born to an impoverished family in 1936 in Blacksburg, Virginia. His father was a double amputee and his mother worked as a prostitute to help support their family. Both parents are reported to have been violent alcoholics. When he was in fifth grade, his brother stabbed Lucas in the eye, supposedly while they were playing, resulting in Lucas losing that eye and getting a glass once put in. In 1960, when Lucas was 28, he was convicted of murdering his mother and sent to prison in Michigan. His father had died while Lucas was a teenager.

Paroled in 1970, he was sent back to prison after the attempted abduction of a 15-year-old girl. He was released again in 1975 and was married for a brief time before the woman accused Lucas of molesting her two daughters. A year later, he met a man named Ottis Toole from Florida, and the two formed an unusual bond as they traveled together, often working odd jobs to support themselves. It was through Ottis that Lucas met his niece, 15-year-old Frieda Lorraine Powell, also known as “Becky.” Lucas and Becky ended up in Texas. Lucas later claimed Becky had been his common-law-wife, but admitted that on Aug. 24, 1982, he stabbed her with a butcher knife after they got into an argument. After he disposed of her body, he then murdered 82-year-old Kate Rich, a woman with whom he and Becky had been staying with in Denton, Texas. 

When Kate Rich went missing, a family member called the police and said they were worried, and suspected a man named Henry Lee Lucas that had been living with her might have been involved. Police realized 15-year-old Becky Powell was also missing. Investigators picked Lucas up for questioning. He mentioned he had a warrant out on him in Michigan for violating his probation. They put him in jail for that, and he ended up confessing to the murders of Kate Rich and Becky Powell.  He took the officers to the gruesome remains of both Kate and Becky—he had dismembered Becky and attempted to burn the body of Kate.

But at the arraignment for Kate’s murder—Lucas said to the presiding judge, “What are we going to do about these other 100 women I killed?”

At that point, Lucas started claiming he had victims all across the country. Law enforcement officers in other states began calling Texas to inquire about other victims. Media outlets flocked to Georgetown. “It was a circus that would not leave town,” said retired Texas Ranger Phil Ryan, who was interviewed in “The Confession Killer.” The Texas Rangers, which is a criminal investigative branch of the Texas Department of Public Safety, formed a special task force to help coordinate meetings between Henry Lee Lucas and detectives from more than 40 other states. One of the Texas Rangers, Bob Printz, said in the documentary that more than 1,000 officers had visited Henry in Texas to inquire about unsolved murders in their states.

In Episode 20 of Missing in the Carolinas, I discussed the case of South Carolina teenager Eve DeBruhl, who went missing from a small town near Rock Hill in 1977 while mowing her family’s front yard. Here is some of what I shared in that episode:

Authorities organized a search in 1984 because of a tip they had received from notorious serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. At the time, Lucas was incarcerated in Georgetown, Texas, after confessing to the murders of two women there. Because Lucas had spent so many years as a drifter, often traveling with his companion Ottis Toole between the years of 1976 and 1981, investigators wondered if he could be responsible for some their cold cases. Lucas told the York County Sheriff’s Department Detective Burch Grant that he had picked up a young woman matching Eva’s description around the time she disappeared, murdered her, then left her body in the Landsford Canal State Park, pointing out the area on a map investigators showed him. But after searching for two weeks, the search for Eva’s remains turned up nothing.

Victims Lucas Claimed to Have Murdered

An article that ran in The Charlotte Observer in August of 1984 bore the headline: “Odyssey of Murder: At Least 10 Crimes in Carolinas Bear Hallmark of a Killer named Henry Lee Lucas.” A map of the North and South Carolina ran with the article, and mentioned the following cases along with Eva’s:

  • The unidentified murdered couple known as Jacques and Jane Doe, who were found shot to death in in Sumter County in August of 1976. We profiled that case in Episode 27: Unidentified People in the Carolinas. That couple was identified in 2021 as James Freund and Pamela Buckley. Their murder remains unsolved.
  • Harriet Simmons, who went missing after traveling on I-40 in April 1979, and her car was found in Iredell County. Her remains were located a year later in Buncombe County. We featured the resolution to her case in Episode 26: Missing Moms in North Carolina. A man named Terry Hyatt eventually confessed to her murder in 1999.
  • In October of 1978, Lucas said he murdered 54-year-old Della Jernigan, who was shot about 20 miles outside of Four Oaks.
  • In September of 1979 Lucas claimed he had killed a woman about 20 miles southwest of Raleigh.
  • In May or June of 1981, Lucas said he had killed an 8 or 9-year-old little girl near Four Oaks, off Interstate 95.
  • He was suspected of the July 7, 1981 murder of 21-year-old Lenn Pittman, who was found in in the Savannah River in Hardeeville, South Carolina.
  • On October 29, 1981, authorities found the remains of an unidentified female in Iola, Texas. Lucas claimed he had abducted her from Durham before murdering her in Texas.
  • In April 1980, Lucas said he dumped the body of a hitchhiker he had picked up in Winston-Salem near four Oaks.

Once you watch the entire documentary, you’ll realize that there is little chance Henry Lee Lucas had anything to do with the above-mentioned crimes in the Carolinas. “The Confession Killer” is so surreal and sensational it almost feels like you’re watching a fictional whistleblower film. The documentary has everything you can imagine—brutal crimes, an unusual friendship between a female jailhouse minister and a prisoner, a group of Texas law enforcement officers who will do anything to appease a prisoner so he’ll keep him confessing and closing cases all over the country, an astute journalist who started realizing the pieces didn’t all fit together, and a district attorney who dared to question the Texas Department of Public Safety and almost lost his life. I was riveted and on the edge of my seat by the third episode. It all starts to unravel when journalist Hugh Aynesworth began to question the more than 300 people Henry claimed to have murdered.

Aynesworth has said, “Lucas said, I only got three, really. But they’re goin’ wild every time I tell ‘em about some more . . . I’m gonna show ‘em. They think I’m stupid, but before all this is over, everyone will know who’s really stupid. And we’ll see who the real criminals are.”

Breaking the Story

Aynesworth and another reporter, Jim Henderson, began to take scraps of information Lucas gave them and began a side investigation into the timeline of murders Lucas had confessed to. They tracked down work records, traffic tickets, insurance forms, interviews with landlords and employers, and other written evidence. The two reporters shared this information with reporters from The Washington Post, who published an article in April of 1985. This was just after Aynesworth and Henderson had published their own explosive piece in the Dallas Times-Herald on April 14, 1985.

A syndicated article that ran on November 11, 1983, featured an interview with Lucas’s attorney at the time, Tom Whitlock. He said he didn’t believe Lucas was legally insane. He explained that in talking to Lucas one on one, he appeared a nice, congenial man who didn’t even utter a curse word. He said he thought Lucas had always wanted friends, but he never learned the proper model on having and keeping friends throughout his lifetime. This led to him wanting to please the members of law enforcement who questioned him about unsolved murders.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, investigators did not have the means to test DNA. From what I can tell, there isn’t much in the way of physical evidence that would have ever linked Lucas to any of the crimes outside of the three confirmed.

Yet Lucas was convicted of 11 of the murders he confessed to, but it was the conviction in a 1979 murder of an unidentified young woman called “Orange Socks” that sent him to death row. Side note: This victim was finally identified in 2019 as Debra Jackson. Henry had no incentive stop with his tall tales, though. As long as he kept confessing, the Texas Rangers flew him all over the country to visit other crime scenes and discuss how he murdered the victims. (Spoiler: Lucas says in one of the interviews that police showed him crime scene photos before he visited the scenes so he would already know the details). While in Georgetown, he slept in a cell with a television set, was provided all the cartons of cigarettes he wanted, and got daily strawberry milkshakes as a treat.

Citing a lack of evidence connecting Lucas to the murder, apart from his confession, which he later recanted, then-Governor. George W. Bush commuted the death sentence in 1998, marking the first and only time Bush did so as governor.

Lucas spent the rest of his life in prison and died in 2001 of a heart attack.

What Texas Says about Henry Lee Lucas

The Texas Department of Public Safety maintains their belief they conducted themselves in a professional manner while coordinating the task force. The documentary presents their side with interviews.

Robert Kenner, who produced the documentary Food, Inc. and Australian filmaker Taki Oldham, put together “The Confession Killer’ using hours and hours of archived footage of Henry, including recordings of his jailhouse confessions. What attracted Oldham to the project was his realization that so many of these cases that were attributed to Lucas remain closed—and that’s an injustice to the victims and their families. Kenner said, “If we were to take a conservative estimate, 70 to 100 cases are still crediting Lucas for the crime, whether formally or informally. Probably 160 or 170 were never re-investigated, which is an incredible number.”

In 2021, a case long linked to Henry Lee Lucas, the 1983 murder of Laura Purchase, was solved through DNA testing. Authorities arrested 75-year-old Kansas City resident Thomas Elvin Darnell of the murder. There are other cases that have been solved profiled in the final episode of “The Confession Killer.” My question is, how many more of the cases attributed to Henry Lee Lucas could be solved with a new set of eyes and testing of evidence?