In the mid-1980s, Henry Lee Lucas was a star – at least in the context of America’s exploding fascination with serial killers. The subject of anxious news features and four feature films, Lucas confessed to murdering hundreds of people – at first 100, then 200, then around 600. An odd-jobs drifter with three teeth and a lazy eye, Lucas would recall, often on camera, precise and grisly details about each victim. Police officers from across the country interviewed him for more than 3,000 murder cases, to much fanfare; at least 200 cases were attributed to him, closing them to further investigation and making Lucas the country’s most prolific serial killer.
Except that it was all a lie, one spun through a toxic brew of people-pleasing, power, and convenience on the part of law enforcement, and documented in the Netflix series The Confession Killer, directed by Taki Oldham and Robert Kenner. Over the course of five 45-minute episodes, the series illustrates how the Lucas story spiraled from a by-the-book murder case – the killings of his housemate Kate Rich and girlfriend Becky Powell in Texas – into a media frenzy in which Lucas and his handlers, the Texas Rangers (a statewide investigative unit with the most Texas of uniforms) enabled confessions which shut down numerous departments’ botched or incomplete investigations.
Forty years on, it’s difficult to know the exact number of cases falsely attributed to Lucas, who was far more pathological liar than serial killer. But there are “certainly dozens of cases where either killers are walking free because they’re still credited to Lucas, or dozens more cases that were never properly reinvestigated because it was credited to Lucas,” Oldham told the Guardian. Though the first episode focuses mostly on Lucas – his arrest in 1983 and his relationship with the Texas Rangers taskforce established to “investigate” his ever-expanding claims – the series ultimately explores the larger environment fostering his lies. A respected Rangers department, led by the imposing Sheriff Jim Boutwell, drawing widespread acclaim for “catching” a prolific serial killer. A tragic pattern of unsolved murders, almost all of women, left underinvestigated or ignored. A symbiotic relationship between the Rangers, various investigators and Lucas that ran on easily obtained, low-evidence confessions (the series openly suggests the Rangers fed Lucas information on several cases he confessed to, and Lucas was clearly amenable to the desires of whoever he was talking to), milkshakes and mutual goodwill. Case closed.
But not for many of the victims’ families, several of whom are interviewed throughout the series. The Confession Killer, said Oldham, is a chance to reopen their cases – less a true crime story of Henry Lee Lucas, who died of natural causes in prison in 2001, than a “launching pad for the true work to begin”.
Some of that corrective work is already being done, thanks to advances in DNA technology since Lucas confessed to a spree of killings in the late 1970s that even circumstantial evidence suggests would be almost impossible (as veteran Lucas journalist Hugh Aynesworth points out in one episode, Lucas would have crisscrossed 11,000 miles across the country on no sleep for his supposed murders in October 1978 alone). Just this year, several cases attributed to Lucas have been reopened or resolved.
The potential to change cases in the present is what drew Oldham back to the story of Lucas, which he originally covered in the early 2000s. Several years ago, “I decided to do a quick Google search and sure enough, I found one or two cases that had been Lucas cases where the real killer had been found,” he recalled. Soon he had a list of about 10, and “a chance to write a new chapter to a story that had kind of been lost to confusion and uncertainty”.
Much of the series is composed of extensive archival footage of Lucas from the height of his confession spree in the 1980s – news coverage as well as internal footage from his defense team and the Rangers, which show his confessions and officers’ interview tactics. But “the more we got into it, the more we began to realize it wasn’t a story about Henry,” Kenner told the Guardian, “because Henry was this cipher where all these people saw in him what they wanted to see, and Henry was willing to be that for everybody.”
Thus, later episodes take a number of unexpected twists into interconnected stories which add extra layers to the Lucas confession hoax: an upstart district attorney framed for corruption charges after he challenged the conduct of the Rangers taskforce, more fraud, a power struggle between different departments of Texas law enforcement. Texas Rangers and law enforcement officials who signed on to false Lucas confessions, many of whom defend the methods used at the time, are also interviewed. However, Oldham and Kenner noted that not every department was willing to re-evaluate their association with Henry Lee Lucas. “The reluctance of police to talk about controversial cases where they may have done wrong in the past was certainly something that we encountered,” said Oldham.
The series offers ample evidence that several institutions acted in bad faith at numerous points in the Lucas saga, but Kenner maintains that “we didn’t think it was a conspiracy story; it’s really a human nature story,” one that ultimately focuses on the families who, four decades on, are still searching for justice for their cold cases.
“We met with a lot of victims’ family members,” said Kenner. “They’re still in pain – they want to know what happened to their loved ones. Some of them thought Lucas had been the killer, and now some have found out he wasn’t and they’re feeling betrayed.”
Kenner and Oldham believe that the series has the potential to reopen numerous cases that were not properly investigated because of Lucas’s claims. “Justice was denied by what happened,” said Kenner of the Lucas media and law enforcement blitz. “And there’s a chance to reopen it, and I’m hoping the juries will and the series can bring about some comfort to the victims’ family members.
“We’re really trying to give [the family members] as much of a voice as possible,” said Oldham. “To us, it’s a project and it means a lot, but to these people – this is their lives. They’ve been living with this for 40 years.”