It was a head.
I mean a skull.
Just a skull. Laying there on the ground.
And I realized why I was there.
I was there because of the radio message:
“Eighty-nine, Meet Texas Ranger Phil Ryan at the southwest intersection of Highway 55 and Juniper Road.”
That message came over the air and not from the regular police dispatcher, but rather from my CID Captain. That was unusual for him to be on the radio sending anyone, anywhere.
“Ten-four,” I said, wondering what was going on. Ranger Ryan worked the next county over and not ours.
I drove across the city to the west side and under Interstate 55. West of the highway, south of Juniper was nothing but scrub brush fields. North of Juniper was hotels and stores and a truck stop. Why was I going to the south west corner?
Clearing the overpass, I looked over the fields and saw several men walking around in the distance. I could see that two of them were county deputies from neighboring Brooks County, along with a small, thin man. It was easy to spot Phil Ryan, who dressed like the classic Ranger, white shirt, white hat and big, tooled, brown gun belt.
I turned onto the field and parked my unmarked sedan on some low grass, got out of the car and made my way to these wanderers.
It was then I saw it. The human skull. Laying in the open. Not 40 feet from the road and right across the street from a busy truck stop, cars buzzing by every which way. The loud hum of interstate traffic loomed.
“And that,” I said aloud, “is why I am here.”
I walked across the field and up to Ranger Ryan.
“Hi, Hock,” he said quite normally.
“Hi, Phil,” I said.
“We’re out here looking for a body,” he said.
I saw the strange, thin man with a bad eye, unhandcuffed, standing around and he smiled at me.
“Hock this here is Henry. Henry Lee Lucas,” Phil said. “He killed a girl and cut her up out here. He’s killed some other folks too.”
“Well, I about stepped on a skull back up there by my car,” I pointed my thumb over my shoulder back toward Juniper.”
Phil looked at the deputies and Henry.
“I didn’t put no head up thare,” Henry said with a quizzical face.
Phil started out for my car and we all followed. We knew that animals would spread body parts all over and these fields had bobcats and coyotes to name a few critters.
I keyed up my handset and asked the dispatcher for our crime scene man, if Russell hadn’t already been notified.
Phil walked over by me to explain.
“Henry killed a woman in Brooks County. He confessed, and when I got him to talking, he wouldn’t stop,” Phil said. “He said he killed his girlfriend Becky here in this field. He killed her, had sex with her body, then cut her up and buried her in different spots.”
The longer story, the one I found out later was that an 80 year-old, Kate Poor of Ringsilver, Tx was a small landowner and she’d vanished. She let some travelers stay on her property frequently in exchange for some labor around the farm. She suddenly disappeared and her friends contacted the police about it. As the case grew more suspicious, the Ringsilver PD, a small department, asked for help from their local friend and Ranger Phil Ryan. I’ve written about Phil before in this book and Don’t Even Think ABout It. Phil was a terrific Ranger and a dedicated investigator. Phil began questioning everyone and Henry’s actions and words didn’t add up. Then, Phil found and collected a “deadly weapon” on Henry, and Phil put Henry in jail.
The next day Henry called out to a Brook County jailer, “I’ve done some bad things! I need to talk to that Ranger.”
That he had.
We walked up on the skull and we all solemnly looked it over. Henry kept sizing up the field and the distances.
“I kilt her over thar,” he said. “How’d her head get here?”
“Probably animals, Henry,” Phil said calmly. I knew that he’d stay calm and friendly with him for as long as possible to keep him talking. I would and the in the coming days, would more.
CID Sgt Howard Kelly pulled up and so did our crime scene guy Russell Lewis. We filled them in. Russell started on the skull and its area and we all walked back to the center of the field.
“I buried parts of her here,” Henry said. “You’ll find her leg bones over there and her arms bones over there.”
Sounds like a lot of digging. I looked at Howard Kelly.
“Hock,” he said, “bring Henry in. Get a statement from him, if you can.”
In meant book and arrest him. He knew I would.
“I’ll get some of the boys out and start digging.”
I have done some digging for bodies before, and I thought this arrangement might get me out of that ugly, shovel chore. I will go ahead and ruin the suspense for you right now. It didn’t.
“Hey, Henry,” I said, “we need to take a little trip downtown. And, I have to handcuff you.”
He was expressionless. I cuffed his hands around back and walked him all the way back to my car. I let him sit up front on the passenger seat. This was a detective car with no screen or cage.
“Where you from, Henry?”
And it went like that. Light conversation. Very light. I took him into our jail and drew up a quick arrest report. Printed him and got the classic mugshot below, a photo used in dozens and dozens of news reports and about 30 or so books.
“Come on with me,” I walked him down to my office in the CID section of the building.
I sat at my desk and put my feet up. He sat in a chair, now cuffed around front and we relaxed.
“What in the world is going on?” I asked.
“Well, like I told Ranger Phil, I killed that ol’ lady in Ringsilver, and…”
“Before we talk about this,” I interrupted, “let me go ahead and read you your rights, otherwise you know we can’t talk. And I want to talk to you for sure.”
And that we did, but first I got us some coffee. Then covered the classic Miranda warnings. He told me that he and his girlfriend, Becky Rowlett, this girl in the field, hitchhiked away from Brooks County and were dropped off at the Interstate by the field. They bought some food from the stores at that intersection, with stolen money from Kate Poor, walked to the center of the field, started a fire and camped.
They had some kind of an argument. She slapped him and he pulled his knife from a sheath on his belt and stabbed her right in the chest. He watched her die. Then he had sex with her body. (As you get to know Henry, you learn this happens a lot). With that same knife, he cut up her body, head off, arms off, legs off. He put some parts in pillowcases that he traveled with. He decided to gather up his belongings and cross the street to stay in a motel.
He hitchhiked around and walked around for about two weeks and returned to that campsite. He told me he wanted to bury her.
“Why,” I asked.
“Because I loved her.”
“Okay,” I said.
Henry said that when he walked out onto the field that dark night and saw her decomposing body parts, he buried most of them he could find. He told me that his and 14 year-old Becky’s relationship was like a father/daughter “thing.” He had pictures of her in his wallet and he carried those photos from jail to jail, state to state, thereafter. How did this Texas killer go state to state later? A Texas Ranger Task Force, that’s how. Stand by on that.
We were about three cups of coffee into this by now.
“I need to get this down in writing, Henry. We need a statement about all this from you. Can we do that?”
“Yeah. I already fessed up to Phil. So, yeah.”
And I got a statement on the murder, which was my job. Other crimes in other jurisdictions would be secondary to me tightening up this one. We finished off that typed statement. I typed line by line as he told me line by line.
“I’ve got a problem,” he said.
As if I needed to confirm my suspicions.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been killing things. Dogs, Sheep. Cattle…and having sex with them. Something just snaps in my head, a sex thing. He told me about a man named Bernie who “taught” him how.
“When I kilt my mother…”
“You killed your mother?’”
Keep in mind this was the early 1980s. There wasn’t much literature and psychology collected and disseminated on serial killers. The FBI VICAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program) was fairly new and largely unheard of at the time, and frankly were not very helpful when we needed them through the years. In short they match up violent crimes around the US and develop profiles of suspects. So, what has become this textbook case of someone killing small animals and the sex was news. Serial killer movies like the “Silence of the Lambs” were not popular. (But Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was! Huh? Norman Bates killed his mother and dressed up in her clothes. Weird was weird.)
Lucas killed his mother when he was 24 years old. He told me (and other psychiatrists) that he had sex with his dead mother, but years later he denied that. He killed her in the kitchen with a knife and then fled the state in a stolen car. He ditched the car and was arrested while hitchhiking in Ohio. He said that was his first murder.
So, I am sitting in this office with a lunatic who killed his mother about 20 years ago. What was he doing roaming the streets? Obviously, somehow released, like…parole or something?
“How did you get out of jail,” I asked him.
“I was in mental prison. The doctors said I was alright one day. I wasn’t. But they said I was. One morning they just let me out the front door.”
He started to tell me about all kinds of murders, all over the country that I just found hard to believe. It started to look like he wanted to shock me, like a braggart. I still have these details in my notes. And I knew we would be talking about all that again and all too soon.
I walked him back into the jail and locked him up.
Then I jumped back in my car and drove to the site by the highway. A lot was underway there. Four detectives and Howard Kelly were combing the area and digging up body parts. Newspaper and TV crews were showing up.
“You get a confession?” Howard Kelly asked me.
“I did. He’s a real nut-job. He killed his mother, that woman in Brook county and this girl. And he started telling me he’s killed a bunch of women all over while hitchhiking.”
Howard’s eyes widened and head tilted. He had a certain way of looking at you over his glasses.
“We are going to have to spend a lot of time with him,” I said.
We had about four unsolved murders in recent years that we would have to run by him. Then, there’s the county, the state and what now? All 50 states? Boy howdy, how far could this go?
“Well, Phil will hep’ us on all that,” Kelly said.
I got my “crime scene shovel” out of my trunk. (This wasn’t my first dead-body-rodeo.) and got with the guys and started digging.
The Justice of the Peace was finally called. I say “finally” because I remember he was really mad at us. He’d heard the news at about 11 a.m. He needed to be called out to the death scene. And he knew that we knew. We had a body parts he needed to officially presiding over. No one called him all day until it was his dinner time. He got out to the field at about 6 p.m. and he really pitched a high-holey, embarrassing fit.
“You know I could have you all arrested!” he yelled at us. “By law you are supposed to notify a magistrate as soon as reasonably possible! I could have all of you arrested right now.”
Whew! The judge looked like he was about to have a heart attack, but he finally calmed down. Dinner is really important to some folks! But apparently not so much to us as we worked well into the night. We called a funeral home to transport the remains of the body to the forensic morgue in Dallas.
Nowadays, police agencies have special forensic, like “archaeological” teams that sift through the turf like they look for Tyrannosaurus Rex bones. Not back then. We just had five shovels, a Polaroid camera and some trash bags. (More or less. We also had a tape measure and a 35mm camera. I am just being dramatic.)
I drew up diagrams of the parts in relation to fixed objects in the filed, triangulating the dig sites. Ranger Phil Ryan and the Brooks deputies went home. Lucas was in our jail, and we felt we could leave the field until the next day. End of day one.
I drove home a filthy mess and stripped naked in the back yard. Bad news. The itching started. It was getting worse and worse. I was covered in chigger bites that were growing and expanding into a leper’s landscape on my skin from my sock line up to my chest. I ran into the bathroom and got into the bathtub while my wife tried to look up in a medical encyclopedia what to do. It started to drive me insane. Finally, I took pain-killers we had left over from my various injuries. That took an edge off. That and a little whiskey.
I know some folks reading this won’t know what a chigger is. I hope you never do. A chigger is a bug I’ve only run across in Texas. Virtually invisible, they get on you and scamper up as far as it can. They they bites and burrow into your flesh. Lives. Parties, and legend has it, procreates in there until for some reason the clan dies off. (Experts say they die quick and don’t reproduce, but once bit, it sure feels like chigger generations stay and have an orgy.)
I arrived at work the next morning and all of us that had toiled in the field, even the poor angry, judge I heard, were suffering from these chigger bites. And we had to go out there again! Not without a visit to the pharmacy for nuclear, bug protection, though. But Detective Jack Breasley had another plan.
“You see this raw potato?” Jack said, holding one up.
“If you keep a raw potato in your pocket, chiggers won’t bite you.”
“That so,” I said.
“I got some potatoes out in the car for us.”
“I think I will stick with the nuclear, bug spray, thank ya kindly.”
“OKAY then!” Jack said, as though I were a fool.
We returned to the field and worked all morning. By lunchtime, we were through. I hadn’t accumulated any more bites, that I could tell anyway over the red rubble of my lower chest and legs. But Jack? Jack’s chigger bites had chigger bites. I can’t really say I remember for sure? But I think he went to the emergency room at the hospital that night. I think the chiggers even ate the potato.
In the afternoon, we sat back down with Henry at the police department. We ran some unsolved murders past him, showed him photographs. This is routine in a situation like this. A kidnapped and killed young teen, found in a Dallas gravel pit. Strangled woman found out in the woods by some railroad tracks. At first, he said no to them, then fudged on his “no,” and said maybe. I watched him look at photos of the victims and had a feeling that they were strangers to him.
Howard and I talked in the hallway. We didn’t believe him, but we were obligated to test him through and through.
“Me and Breasley will run him around these crime scenes. You catch up here,” Howard said.
There was plenty for me to catch-upward-with. Reports. Warrants. Body parts in the morgue. Confirm Henry was at that hotel. Etc.
Howard and I spoke about two full days later and in summary, he discounted all the other Lucas verbal confessions.
We filed the only case we had in our jurisdiction, the murder of Becky in the field. Henry was then quickly out of our hair, and Ranger Phil Ryan’s hair too.
Henry was convicted and sentenced to many decades in prison. Phil Ryan had his case over in Ringsilver. But Henry would not shut up about killing a lot of people. I mean a LOT of people. So mnay, Henry was next embedded with a special Texas Ranger Task Force to look into his stories.
The Dallas Observer newspaper reported, “A special task force, manned by the Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell and members of the Texas Rangers, was formed to help other agencies sort out the stream of horrors that Lucas couldn't confess to fast enough. Soon, he was being jetted all over the country to lead investigators to crime scenes and recount the terrifying manner in which his victims had met their fates. Henry said, "I done it every way imaginable," he liked to say. "Shootings, stabbings, strangulations, drownings. Killing somebody, to me, was just like walking outdoors.’ For good measure, he occasionally added details of post-Mortem sex or experiments in cannibalism. ”
None of us locals, including Phil Ryan thought Henry had killed all the people he’d suddenly claimed at the time. We read in the newspapers the toll was running up to 300 people. What?
Phil told me early on, that he’d accompanied one of these crime scene visits with other detectives from another Texas city and murder. The body was found under an overpass. With two detectives, with Phil and Henry in the back seat, Phil recalled for me what happened on that trip.
“Henry had been shown, and had studied all the crime scene photos before we left the station. He collected the crime story and evidence in the course of the first interview. As we drove up the highway, they kept asking him. ‘Look familiar? Look familiar?’
Finally, Henry said, ‘Stop here.’ We all got out and looked around. Henry pointed to this or that. Back at the station he gave them a bare-bones confession to the killing. I said to Henry later,
‘why did you take that killing, Henry. You didn’t do that?’
Henry smiled at me.
I asked, ‘how did you know which overpass to stop at?’
Henry said, ‘well, the driver kept slowing down and slowing down and I just guessed.’ Henry didn’t kill all those people, Hock. He’s working the cops.’ ”
Working the cops. Then one morning, about two years after I snapped that popular mugshot of Lucas in our jail, I bought a weekday copy of the Dallas Times Herald and a headline declared that the Henry Lee Lucas murder spree was all false. A local reporter Hugh Aynesworth, had constructed a map and a time line of Henry’s confessions and found it physically impossible for him to travel all across the United States and commit most of them. Hugh inserted into the time-line, proven facts of Henry’s whereabouts. For example:
Henry collected a paycheck on one date, than claimed he killed a girl six states away later that same day. Anyesworth concluded, “Lucas would have had to drive 11,000 miles in the space of a month to have murdered all of the victims on his confession list.”
Now, I ask you, why didn’t this Texas Ranger Task Force run a simple chart like this on their headquarters wall? We all asked this. Phil Ryan too, and he couldn’t believe the mess. Why did it take a local newsman to do this?
In the middle of this is an odd tale of the Waco, Tx. prosecutor Vic Frizzell, which is another complicated story, too long to shoot off-course here with, but that you might care to look up on the web.
The New York Times concluded, “After his arrest in 1983, Lucas claimed to have killed as many as 600 people around the country, and detectives from 40 states talked to him about an estimated 3,000 homicides. Mr. Lucas later recanted, and many of the murder cases attributed to him were never reopened. He attributed the false confessions to a steady diet of task force tranquilizers, steaks, hamburgers and milkshakes fed to him by investigators, along with crime scene clues that he said he had parroted back to detectives.” Henry also got to travel, play cards and watch television and enjoyed numerous other benefits at the “Lucas Headquarters.”
Lucas’ lawyer Don Higginbotham, said that, “Henry lies to everybody. That`s how he maintains control over his situation. Anybody in authority. He`s playing with the system.”
Get this mess. While I was hanging out with Henry before he wet hog-wild with tall tales of killing, he told me about his traveling, murdering buddy Ottis Toole, and how they killed people. He also told me that Ottis had kidnapped and killed young Adam Walsh, the son of John Walsh. John had gone on to become the famous host of “America’s Most Wanted” TV show. Was this yet another lie? Not up to me to decide, so when the dust settled a bit, I called the detective division of the Hollywood, Florida Police Department and reported all these details to them. Never heard back from them.
Years later, Toole became infamous thanks to Henry’s popularity. But, apparently my early 80s phone call to Hollywood, Florida CID fell upon deaf ears! And unchecked? Then months later I learned the Texas Ranger, Lucas Task Force called them also with the same news. Read what Time Magazine wrote about this:
“While the FBI would credit “America’s Most Wanted” for helping nab at least 17 of the agency’s “10 Most Wanted” fugitives, John Walsh had to wait 27 years for the Hollywood Police Department to both admit that drifter and serial killer Ottis E. Toole abducted and murdered his son and apologize for investigative mistakes that transpired during the early years of this investigation,” as police chief Chad Wagner said in a news conference.
Toole first confessed to the Walsh killing in October of 1983, but, as the department’s police chief told TIME in the mid-’90s, Toole and his accomplice Henry Lee Lucas were notorious for ‘confessing to crimes they didn’t commit.’ Toole would end up dying in prison in 1996 while serving five life sentences for other crimes.”
But, there was also supporting evidence against Toole. Walsh would later write a book about this. In the late 1990s, Walsh was on a book tour and I was hired to assist FOX security with protecting John on his trip through Texas. I had a chance to get to know John and we discussed this overall situation. Ironic, isn’t it?
And now for even more madness and weirdness, in the mid 1990s, then Sheriff, Weldon Lucas (no relation) called me at home. Weldon was a former Texas Ranger and was indirectly involved in Henry’s local case with us. He told me there was some new ado about a woman claiming to be Becky Rowlett in the media. Becky alive and well? Whose skull was that I’d almost tripped over that fateful day? He warned me that there might be a quick, new court date/hearing over the issue.
But, this was quickly dismissed as a fraud. Some bizarre married woman named Phyllis had befriended the imprisoned Henry. You know, first pen pals. Jail visits. Then, “prison love.” She thought she could somehow throw a monkey wrench into the works of Henry’s death sentence by suggesting Becky was still alive. She was quickly arrested for this fraud. Like the entire Henry Lee Lucas penumbra, this too was very, very strange. Years later, even Geraldo Rivera did a TV show on Henry and Phyllis.
Of course, Henry’s story morphed into books, documentaries and, even a movie. All of these are available on the internet for further investigation, with the proper names and locations. I was
interviewed once in awhile by them, but Lucas disgusted me so, I didn’t add much more to their stories. I have only decided to tell my small involvement in this book, for the purpose of history.
But, I feel as reporter Carlton Stowers felt when he wrote in the Dallas Observer: “The furor over the latest Lucas scam attempt had already died when, one evening, I answered the phone to hear a long-distance operator say that I had a collect call from Lucas (in prison). "Will you accept charges?” she asked.
‘No,’ I replied for the first time. Then, realizing that he was likely listening for my response, I added emphasis. ‘Not only no,’ I said, ‘but hell no.’ Finally, I had too belatedly realize, the time had come to put the life and lies of Henry Lee Lucas behind me.”
I guess I should sum up by saying that Lucas died in prison from a heart attack. All the stories about Henry’s killing spree, lies, and manipulations still fascinate people, but all agree that he did kill “some” people, and the murders they mention as real include our Becky case and Phil Ryan’s case.
Of course, I and all others are also convinced he killed Becky in our city. I still remember that afternoon, all of us standing in the field west of the interstate, and Henry pointing to the ground and telling me, after I almost tripped over a human skull, “If you dig here, you’ll find a pillowcase with arm bones in it.”
Hock's email is HockHochheim@ForceNecessary.com
This story appears in Dead Right There
Dead Right There! – Coming in May, 2017