by K M Brown
Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters.
The Orlando Sentinel describes Jim Boutwell in his 1993 obituary as the “…legendary Texas lawman who tried to shoot down sniper Charles Whitman from the University of Texas bell tower in 1966…” According to the obit, Boutwell was then “…a reserve deputy and owner of a local airport…when Whitman started shooting people from the top of the bell tower…Boutwell took to his small plane and buzzed the bell tower, exchanging gunfire with Whitman and allowing people to escape…”
He sounds bigger than life, doesn’t he? And after the UT tower shooting, he was. There’s no question that taking a small plane within the firing range of a mentally unbalanced gunman takes guts. People respected that, and the event established Boutwell as a risk-taker who’d do whatever he needed to do to get his man.
And in the process, he would destroy more lives than he saved.
Jim Boutwell, aviator, 1948–1958
The incident on the UT tower wasn’t the first time Boutwell had combined his skill as a pilot with his love for law enforcement. In 1948, as a Department of Public Safety (DPS) radio operator-technician, Boutwell had “…rented a surplus PT-22 to assist in apprehending an arsonist who was setting brush fires in the hills west of Austin.”¹
Boutwell relied on his DPS connection and his interest in aviation again in 1949 when he learned that “…a convicted felon had escaped from the Jourdanton, Texas, jail…”¹ Boutwell contacted local aviation pioneer Robert L. (Bobby) Ragsdale, who picked Boutwell up in his plane and headed for the woods where the convict was believed to be making his way toward Mexico.
Ragsdale piloted the plane while Boutwell stayed in contact with the Texas Rangers via radio, guiding them toward their prey. A shootout followed and ended with the escapee’s surrender.¹
Aviation was a promising new field at the time, and Bobby Ragsdale was a significant influence in promoting the use of aircraft for law enforcement.¹ Boutwell, in the meantime, set his sights in a different direction, on the development of an airport and flight school.
To that end, he leased 20 acres from Theodore R. Timmerman shortly after Timmerman purchased a 250-acre plot in 1956. He held the airfield only briefly before giving it up to Timmerman’s son, Ted Jr., after taking a job with Champion Aircraft Corporation.¹
It seems that he held on to his dreams of a flying school for at least another decade, though. Or perhaps, his ambitions were revived in 1966 after the UT shooting. This incident, more than any other, came to define Boutwell’s life but the facts surrounding his participation in it are muddy.
Jim Boutwell, 1966 tower shooting
On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman made his way to the top of the University of Texas tower observation deck carrying multiple firearms. Once there, he began firing randomly at people below.
Law-enforcement officers and armed civilians surrounded the tower and worked to put an end to the carnage.
Police lieutenant Marion Lee, reporting from a small airplane noted that there was a single sniper firing from the observation deck. The airplane circled the tower while Lee tried to shoot Whitman, but turbulence made it difficult for him to get a clear shot. The airplane, piloted by Jim Boutwell, was hit by Whitman’s rifle fire but continued to circle the tower from a safe distance until the end of the incident.²
That image of Boutwell carrying a law officer and circling at a safe distance has a different tone than the Orlando Sentinel’s description of airport owner Jim Boutwell buzzing the tower while he exchanged gunfire with the shooter. Maybe Boutwell wasn’t the one shooting. Maybe he wasn’t the owner of an airport.
Maybe it wasn’t his plane. TowerShooting.com, a website with a mission to provide a factual base for journalists, historians, and researchers interested in the event, identifies the plane’s owner as Marvin Childress. According to this site, Childress was on board, along with Boutwell “a civilian pilot,”³ and the APD lieutenant Marion Lee. Although TowerShooting.com doesn’t credit the plane’s occupants with saving lives, it does acknowledge their role in keeping on-ground law enforcement advised via radio about the shooter’s position.
They needed all the help they could get. Before the shooting spree from the UT observation deck was over, Whitman had killed or fatally wounded 17 people and nonfatally wounded 31 others. And however large or small his role was in the incident, Boutwell was a star.
Jim Boutwell, testimony to the U.S. Senate, 1967
The Orlando Sentinel is likely exaggerating the facts in its description of Boutwell engaging in gunfire with Whitman while buzzing the UT tower. The gunman he was carrying, Marrion Lee, may not have been able to fire off a shot, and he wasn’t flying the plane.
But the Orlando Sentinel wasn’t the only source guilty of hyperbole when it came to Boutwell. After the tower incident, he started frequently being described as “a legend” and “bigger than life.”
He started living a bigger life, too. In 1967, he spoke to the United States Senate as a representative of the Action Committee for Veteran’s Flight Training and identified himself as the president of Aviation Training Centers, Inc. of Austin, Texas. Boutwell described the Action Committee as a national organization of individuals who were working to establish eligibility for VA benefits for aviation training schools.
Boutwell told senators that he’d been engaged with the field of aviation for many years, as a DPS pilot and, at the time of his appearance, as the president of an aviation company “employing a fair number of people.” I was unable to corroborate those claims.
The history of DPS pilots doesn’t mention Boutwell on their website, though it does name the 2 men who were employed in that capacity by the DPS between 1953 and 1967, including the year of Boutwell’s testimony. By the time he spoke before the committee, the airfield he had leased from Timmerman had long been under the control of Timmerman’s son and was being operated as Tim’s Field. Boutwell apparently still had an interest in Aviation Training Centers, Inc., which was based at Tim’s Field, as he is reported to have sold it in January of 1968.¹
In the next record of his activity, he’d left the aviation industry and was sheriff of Williamson County, Texas.
Bigger than life
Not much was known about the effects of celebrity when Donna Rockwell and David Giles began exploring the topic by examining the inner lives of 15 famous people. Their subjects were selected across a wide spectrum reflective of American culture including sports, entertainment, television news, and government.
The researchers found that “(a)fter fame, life is never the same.”⁵ When people become famous, even within their own local or career circles, the nature of their relationship with others is forever changed.
Suddenly, the celebrities don’t know who to trust. Do others want to be near them for who they really are? Or are they only sought out so that others may bask in the light of their fame?
In order to deal with the intense attention, many celebrities report creating two selves, one an image to offer to the public and the other reserved for moments of privacy and intimacy… the famous person creates a “celebrity self,” an “other self,” to emotionally survive the experience of being famous.⁵
The rules as they are written for the rest of us don’t apply to the celebrity. He or she is measured by a different set of standards, created around the perceived needs of the public.
Since fame depends on ongoing attention and adoration, the public may be experienced as the celebrity’s boss, a boss that must be satisfied in order for stardom to continue. And continue it must, for there is an addictive quality to fame.
The lure of adoration is attractive, and it becomes difficult for the person to imagine living without fame. One participant said, “It is somewhat of a high,” and another, “I kind of get off on it.” One said, “I’ve been addicted to almost every substance known to man at one point or another, and the most addicting of them all is fame.” Where does the celebrity go when fame passes; having become dependent on fame, how does one adjust to being less famous over time? “As the sun sets on my fame,” one celebrity said, “I’m going to have to learn how to put it in its proper place.”⁵
But what if the sun never has to set?
Sheriff Jim Boutwell, 1979–1985
In order to keep a legend going, bigger-than-life lawmen need bigger-than-life criminals. Jim Boutwell had found such a one in Charles Whitman. In 1983, as sheriff of Williamson County, Texas, he found another.
Henry Lee Lucas had been arrested by Texas Ranger Phil Ryan for the murders of his girlfriend, 15-year-old Freida Lorraine (Becky) Powell, and of an elderly woman, Kate Rich.
He’d already served time for one murder. In 1960, at the age of 24, Lucas had killed his mother. He’d been sentenced to 20–40 years in prison for the crime but was released after only 10 due to prison overcrowding.
Interestingly, Charles’ Whitman’s first murders were also of those closest to him, his mother and his wife. He’d killed them both before carrying his weapons to the top of the UT tower. Looking back, the random spray of bullets that followed feels like a sinister foreshadowing of what was to come in the saga of Henry Lee Lucas.
At the Rich arraignment, the judge asked Lucas if he understood that he was being charged with Rich’s death. Lucas said that he did. Then, without warning or provocation, he asked the judge what he was going to do about the other hundred women he’d killed. That was the beginning of the media/law enforcement SNAFU that Ryan would refer to in the Netflix documentary, Confession Killer, as “a circus that would not leave town.”
Immediately, calls started coming in to Ryan from law officers all around the country. They wanted to know if Lucas’ blanket confession might help them solve their own open cases.
Ryan worked with Lucas to gather information, sitting with him for hours as he drew pictures of his victims and recalled endless details about their murders. Whenever the narratives his prisoner gave him seemed to match up with unsolved crimes, Ryan would contact the sheriff for that jurisdiction and relay the information. One of those he contacted was Sheriff Jim Boutwell of Williamson County.
Boutwell had been unsuccessfully investigating a number of murders along Interstate-35 that he believed to be the work of a serial killer. After Ryan’s call, he obtained a bench warrant and picked Lucas up, then brought him to his own jail. “And then from that point on,” Ryan recalls as he tells his story to the documentarians, “You never saw Henry without Boutwell.”⁶
Boutwell may have craved the spotlight but Ryan was weary of it. When Boutwell usurped the role of intermediary between Lucas and law-enforcement officers, Ryan seems to have relinquished it without protest. “I was ready for some fence-cutting and some goat-stealing,”⁶ he says.
But Boutwell envisioned something bigger. He went to James B. Adams, Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety and head of the Texas Rangers, with a request to set up a task force for the purpose of processing Lucas’ confessions. The task force was assembled and headed up by Bob Prince, a Texas Ranger. For over a year, the group worked through a nationwide backlog of unsolved murders. Lucas increased his estimate of the number of murders he’d committed from the 100 he’d mentioned at the Rich arraignment upwards to 150, then 300, then 600.
When it came to describing his alleged crimes, Lucas didn’t stop at the believable. He “…bragged of murdering in every possible way. He said he was Seattle’s Green River Killer, Jimmy Hoffa’s assassin and the man who supplied poison to Jim Jones for his massacre in Guyana.” He told Japanese filmmakers who visited him in prison that he had committed some murders in their country, too. When questioned about how he got to Japan, Lucas responded that he drove.⁶
That didn’t seem to matter. Neither the facts nor the outlandish nature of Lucas’ claims could deter Boutwell from his quest to expose his confession-giver to as many law-enforcement officers and as much publicity as possible. In return for “cooperating” with investigators, Boutwell allowed Lucas extra privileges, regular contact with his spiritual advisor, a good bit of free time unshackled outside his cell, a TV, and a milkshake for every murder victim whose life he claimed to have taken.
Other people started noticing the absurdity of the situation, even if Boutwell didn’t. Journalist Hugh Aynesworth was one of these. As the author of a book about serial killer Ted Bundy, Aynesworth was the sort of celebrity Boutwell might have hoped to rub shoulders with. As such, he was given open access to Henry Lee Lucas. He came and went in the jail as he wished and interviewed Lucas at length.
He described the work of the task force as consisting of the provision of 20-minutes slots made available to law officers across the country. The officers would talk with Lucas, often feeding him facts about their cases that should have been withheld for trial. Lucas would then confess to the murders and the task force members would stick a pin in a U.S. map they had hanging on the wall to mark the location. The officers would close their cases and notify the next-of-kin.
Aynesworth quickly determined that the zig-zagging pattern that emerged on the map would have been impossible for Lucas and his accomplice to have driven in real life. It would have involved constant movement without stops for food or gas.
Aside from the logistics, Aynesworth had another reason to doubt. Lucas had started telling him that the stories he’d been creating were just that — stories. It’s likely he was guilty of the 3 murders he’d been arrested for before his confabulated confession mill began. But that was the extent of his reign of terror.
Aynesworth checked out Lucas’ alibis and easily collected proof of his innocence in Boutwell’s original case, the murder of a young woman called by the nickname “orange socks” because her identity wasn’t known. But Boutwell didn’t want to hear it. Instead of delving into the evidence Aynesworth had collected, he responded by limiting the journalist’s access to his prisoner, instead.
Aynesworth wasn’t the only one to see the hoax for what it was. Dallas homicide detective Linda Erwin had been given some of Lucas’ sketches and notes, alleged to be relevant to murders he’d committed within her jurisdiction. She wanted to question him and was invited by the task force to the Williamson County jail. She was advised to bring Lucas a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes and was assured that in return Lucas would tell her what she “needed to know.”⁶
Erwin arrived with the smokes as agreed and listened while Lucas described 10 murders he’d committed around Dallas. His confessions were not a match to the details of any of the open cases she was investigating. She knew he was lying.
When she returned to the office and gave her supervisors the disappointing news, they decided to put together a murder case file for an imaginary person and see if Lucas took the bait. On her next visit to see him, she left this “totally bogus murder file” containing “bogus forensic reports” and “bogus crime scene photographs” within his reach. He shuffled through the file and presented a totally bogus story of his own, relating details about the way he’d broken into the house, stabbed its occupant, and disposed of the body.
In the documentary, Erwin doesn’t come right out and say she believed that Boutwell and his task force were knowing participants in the fraud. But she didn’t tell the Texas Rangers about her experiment, either, presumably for that reason. Instead, she went back to work on her open cases and predicted to her supervisors that “This is all going to come crashing down.”⁶
The damage caused by the task force scam went way beyond the false convictions. Lucas had already forfeited his life; he had little to lose with his confessions. But every case he claimed as his own left a killer at large to kill again. Erwin was right when she said that Boutwell’s house of cards would all come crashing down. It did, eventually, but not before another life was taken.
Waco district attorney Vic Feazell refused to accept Lucas’ confessions in his open cases. He lacked Erwin’s circumspection, though, and didn’t follow her lead by confining his doubts to a trusted circle of colleagues.
That was heroic. It was honest. But there was a risk to going against Boutwell’s celebrity and the untouchable Texas Rangers.
They took their orders from Adams, a retired FBI agent who’d previously served as the agency’s acting and then its associate director. The Netflix docuseries suggests that Adams may have picked up some of Director J. Edgar Hoover’s unethical surveillance tactics, including “warrantless wiretaps and false indictments.” They retaliated against Feazell by poisoning his dog, filing false charges against him, arresting him, and conspiring with a local TV station to discredit him. He was eventually exonerated of all wrongdoing but before that happened, he lost the life he’d built.
It wasn’t taken by Henry Lee Lucas. It was destroyed by the Texas Rangers.
Confession Killer is chilling to watch. It’s such a clear depiction of the abuse of power, of the helplessness of innocent citizens who are attacked by those in authority, of the authorities who close ranks against the powerless.
The evidence that Lucas did not kill most of his proclaimed victims is insurmountable. It’s beyond question. Yet task force member Bob Prince still clings to Lucas’ discredited stories. And others who benefitted from closing their cases based on Lucas’ confessions refuse to reopen them and subject them to the scrutiny of clearer eyes and new technologies. They’re invested in the lies.
Sheriff Jim Boutwell, 1986
Vic Feazell’s case and Hugh Aynesworth’s story in the Dallas Herald finally drew the attention of Attorney General Jim Mattox. “In May, 1986, Mattox issued a special report on the Lucas confessions, saying that the Rangers had done nothing to bring an end to the hoax.” He called the claim that Lucas had committed the murders he’d confessed to “highly unlikely” and noted that the officers who’d taken advantage of the fraud to justify closing their cases were guilty of a “miscarriage of justice.” They “had been taken for a ride.”
Boutwell wasn’t mentioned by name in Mattox’s report and it’s likely that the findings had little impact on him. If he was bothered at all, it was not for long. He’d just landed his next starring role. Christine Morton had been bludgeoned to death in her home, and the legendary lawman was on the killer’s trail.
In a brilliant 2-part telling of the story, journalist Pamela Orloff describes Boutwell in the way he is often described, as “larger than life”⁷ to his followers. She generously recalls his role in the Texas tower shooting, saying he distracted Whitman as officers on the ground moved in. It’s almost as if Boutwell can’t be mentioned without providing the tower event as context.
In 1986, almost 20 years to the day after the tower tragedy, Boutwell was waiting at the Morton home when Christine’s husband, Michael, arrived from work. Boutwell read Morton his Miranda rights and began his questioning. It didn’t really matter what the answers were, though; Boutwell had already made up his mind. Morton was the killer, and Boutwell would do whatever he had to do to see him convicted of the crime.
Boutwell had formed his opinion based on a note Morton had left his wife before going to work that day. In it, he’d expressed disappointment that she hadn’t been in the mood for sex when the couple had returned home from an enjoyable dinner together. It was his birthday. He expected more.
And in Boutwell’s imagination of the events that followed, Morton had beat his wife to death in retaliation and masturbated over her dead body. Then he’d gone to work, leaving his 3-year-old son at home alone with his mother’s body.
There were plenty of facts that conflicted with Boutwell’s story, just as there had been in those he’d co-authored with Henry Lee Lucas. Neighbors had seen a green van in the neighborhood, and they’d watched while a man got out of it and wandered through a weedy area behind the Mortons’ privacy fence. Boutwell reassured the neighbors and let them know they didn’t have to worry about a killer in a green van. The sheriff had already identified the perpetrator.
Fingerprints taken from the scene couldn’t all be linked to members of the Morton household. Several of them, including one that was taken directly from Christine’s body, could not be accounted for. They were disregarded.
Footprints were found outside the Mortons’ yard. Boutwell told reporters they had nothing to do with the case.
A blood-stained bandana was found behind the house by Christine’s brother. He turned it over to police who didn’t bother searching the area, either before or after the bandana was found. Boutwell later claimed it was from a construction accident.
Eric, the Mortons’ 3-year-old son, told his grandmother about a monster who had attacked his mother. He said his father had not been home at the time. The investigators suggested that Michael must have been dressed in his scuba-diving gear, and so had appeared to be a monster.
A check made out to Christine was cashed after her death and a man tried to use her credit card in San Antonio. The check and the credit card had been in her purse, stolen at the time of the murder. Prosecutors told the jury that the purse and one of Michael’s guns, purported to also be missing, had been disposed of by him on his way to work on the morning of the murder. There was no mention of the check or the credit card in the trial.
Though Boutwell played an outsized role in the case, Sergeant Don Wood was the lead investigator. Rather than follow up on his many leads, he devoted his time to gathering evidence against Michael by interviewing the couple’s friends and acquaintances, instead.
Holly Gersky, who spend days on end being interrogated at the sheriff’s office, was deeply shaken… “The whole time, I kept insisting that Mike could never have hurt Chris. I told them that he was incapable of abandoning Eric. One morning Sheriff Boutwell sat me down. He didn’t raise his voice — he was to the point — but he had a very big, intimidating presence. He said, ‘You’re either lying or there’s something you’re not telling us.’”⁷
Using tactics such as this, Boutwell and Wood scraped together a picture of a troubled marriage from friends who recalled hearing the couple argue or Michael speaking harshly to Christine. After his interviews, Wood would write out longhand summaries of his conversations with the couple’s friends. He’d later review them with Boutwell before typing them up.
When the 2 men thought they had enough to make a case that would stick, they arrived at Morton’s front door and arrested him, leading him away in handcuffs while Eric, quickly passed off to a neighbor, screamed for his father.⁷ Ken Anderson, the Williamson County District Attorney, took it from there.
There wasn’t any physical evidence in the case. Michael had passed 2 lie detector tests and he and his lawyers thought he had a good chance of beating the charge. Oddly, Wood didn’t testify at the trial. Boutwell was called instead. He held his flimsy 3 pages of notes and under questioning, stuck to his guns. Morton, he told the jury, had killed his wife.
Boutwell concocted a convincing story of a husband enraged after being sexually rebuffed. Morton had rented an adult film the day before his birthday and the judge allowed prosecutors to play part of it for the jury. As a result, some developed an impression of Morton as a sexually frustrated deviant. Semen found on the sheets seemed to corroborate Boutwell’s story of a husband, spurned and avenged, masturbating over his wife’s dead body.
Nothing like that really happened. But it would take 25 years and the aid of the Innocence Project to clear Michael Morton’s name. By then, Christine’s real murderer, who hadn’t been pursued, would have killed another young woman in a nearby town. And another 3-year-old child would be left without a mother.
Boutwell would be dead. His glowing obit, describing him as a legendary Texas lawman, would be printed in the Orlando Sentinel. And that’s how some remember him still.
Sheriff Jim Boutwell, August 1987
A year after he destroyed Michael Morton’s life, Boutwell took another. He was with a group of lawmen who’d responded to a call about a convenience store robbery. A man had been seen running for the nearby woods. The lawmen entered the area in pursuit.
No one was around when Boutwell shot him. At least that’s what Boutwell’s report says. But then it also says that the man reached with his right hand for his gun while fleeing. Tony Pina, the man who was killed, was left-handed.
The report doesn’t mention that the gun was found 5 feet away from the body. It doesn’t mention that the gun was a toy.
The report doesn’t mention why officers broke protocol and loaded the body into a hearse before the justice of the peace, Judy Hobbs, arrived. They were surprised when she showed up; they hadn’t bothered notifying her but the EMS dispatcher had done so, as required.
Alarmed to discover the scene of the killing had been disturbed, Hobbs ordered an autopsy on the body. One was performed the next day by the Travis County Medical Examiner, Roberto Bayardo.
According to Bayardo, neither of the bullets entered Piña’s body at an angle indicative of Piña running away from Boutwell. Bayardo stated there was no evidence Piña was moving, running or walking away from Boutwell when he was shot. In fact, Bayardo said it appeared Piña was either lying on his stomach or kneeling down when he was shot.
Boutwell killed him in cold blood, while he was kneeling or lying down. You’d think the County District Attorney would be interested in that, wouldn’t you? But it was still Ken Anderson, Boutwell’s old friend, the one who’d helped him put Michael Morton behind bars.
Anderson went through the motions. He scheduled a grand jury to look into the case. He said it was the right thing to do, even though there was “…no reason to suspect any wrongdoing.”
R.T. Montgomery was assigned by DPS to look into the shooting. Like Don Wood in the Michael Morton investigation, he spent most of his efforts talking to the victim’s friends instead of looking for evidence. He reported that some of them recalled Pina saying he wouldn’t make it till Sunday. It was speculated that Pina’s death was a “suicide by cop.” He’d wanted to die, according to that line of thought; he just didn’t have the guts to pull the trigger.
Montgomery’s reports didn’t mention Bayardo’s autopsy or the fact that no fingerprints had been found on the toy gun.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered.
According to one grand juror who asked to remain anonymous, Anderson pushed for a specific outcome from the very beginning of the hearing. Anderson was reluctant to share the autopsy report and photographs of the body with the jury, the same juror said. Only after persistent appeals from the grand jury panel did Anderson provide Bayardo’s autopsy conclusions.
The grand jury “no-billed” Boutwell. He got away with murder. He was a legend, after all, bigger than life, and he did whatever he had to do to get his man.
Michael Morton is out of prison now but he’ll never be completely free. He’ll always bear the wounds Boutwell and Anderson inflicted on him. He’ll never get back those years. He’ll never raise his son.
“To this day, I wrestle with what might have been — and what continues to be — their motivations,” Michael wrote. “I still wonder, why? Careerism? Peer pressure? Hubris? Misplaced duty? A warped longing to ‘get’ the bad guys? I don’t know. I only know what they did.”⁷
Hubris? Yes, that’s likely.
Researchers have identified hubris as a characteristic that often accompanies the experience of success, a word they use in much the same way that I used “celebrity” earlier. People who achieve great success (or fame) may develop oversized egos. They may start thinking they’re above the rules. They may develop “…an exaggerated self-endorsement that leads to a lack of conscience.”⁶
A need for praise and adulation, a pass on the rules, a lack of conscience. That’s a perfect storm.
It’s easy to make light of Sherrif Jim Boutwell for his embrace of the lawman stereotype but maybe he was doing what celebrities do, creating a false self as a way to emotionally survive the experience of his sudden fame. Perhaps that is a harder thing than most of us can imagine.
What if he became addicted to fame after getting his first short taste of it in 1966 when he circled the tower where shooter Charles Whitman was crouched? That’s what people do. And up until that point, he’s always portrayed as being on the right side of the law. Afterward, he regularly crosses the line. It’s as if he was blinded by his desire for publicity, the way Icarus was blinded by his desire to touch the sun.
I’ll leave the last word to Ashlie D. Stevens, writing about Confession Killer for Salon.com. “…this is a story of a megalomaniac — a self-identified pathological liar — who went to extreme, almost laughable lengths, to keep the spotlight on him.”
Just to be clear, she’s talking about Henry Lee Lucas.