by Doug Swanson
Around 3 in the morning on June 23, 1981, someone walked into a 7-Eleven in Baytown, at McKinney Road and Alexander Drive, and shot the clerk — a young woman — in the face at close range. Diana Lynn Underwood, 23, fell to the floor behind the counter and died.
This was no robbery. “The cash register was not opened,” a police investigator told the Baytown Sun. “We don’t know of one single thing that was touched in the store.” Police had no motive, no suspects and no breaks in the case until 1984, when none other than Henry Lee Lucas admitted to the crime.
Lucas was at that point establishing his reputation as the greatest serial killer in American history. In the custody of the Texas Rangers, he confessed to slaughtering hundreds of men and women in random and brutal fashion across the United States.
As we now know, it was a grand hoax — one perpetrated with the unwitting, if eager, assistance of dozens of police agencies. But the fraud went far deeper, and was far more scandalous, than anyone admitted at the time.
Diana Lynn Underwood’s case, and some records stored deep in the state archives, ultimately proved that.
A fifth-grade dropout with an IQ of 87, Lucas drifted into North Texas in the 1980s with his live-in companion, Frieda “Becky” Powell. He was 45. She had just turned 15.
Lucas had grown up in a filthy shack near Blacksburg, Va. His father, a legless illiterate, found occasional work selling moonshine. His mother, a snuff-dipping prostitute, turned tricks at home while he watched.
Young Lucas lost an eye in a childhood accident. Youthful burglaries put him in a Virginia state reformatory. As an adult, he did a seven-year prison stretch for killing his mother. Prison doctors diagnosed him as a severe schizophrenic.
After arriving in Texas, Lucas did odd jobs for an 82-year-old woman, who soon disappeared. Young Becky Powell vanished, too. Arrested for their murders, Lucas then claimed he had killed 77 people in 13 states.
This got the attention of Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell, who brought Lucas to Georgetown. There, Lucas confessed to killing a woman known to police only as Orange Socks after the few shreds of clothing she wore when her body had been found in 1979 along I-35. “That is the one I killed,” Lucas said when he saw a photo of her corpse, “and there ain’t no doubt about it.”
He began to admit to even more murders, and in so doing, Lucas found himself on the road to criminal superstardom. He emerged as a specter from the American heart of darkness who roamed from state to state, picking his victims by chance and dispatching them with gleeful ease. This was Jack the Ripper with car keys and a road atlas.
Worse, there were two of these master fiends. For many of these crimes, Lucas said, he had a sidekick and traveling companion, a hulking bi-sexual pyromaniac named Ottis Elwood Toole. The pair operated, in Lucas’ telling, as homicidal Renaissance men. “We cut ’em up,” he said. “We ran ’em down in cars. We stabbed ’em. We beat ’em. We drowned ’em. There’s crucification. There’s people we filleted like fish. There’s people we burnt. We strangled ’em. We even stabbed them when we strangled them.”
Naturally, police from around the nation wanted to speak with Lucas, in hopes of clearing unsolved murders. Sheriff Boutwell, who had been a Texas Ranger in the 1950s, sought help from Col. Jim Adams, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Adams gave him the full-time services of two Rangers to operate the Henry Lee Lucas Homicide Task Force.
Investigators from across the country traveled to Georgetown to talk to Lucas. The Rangers also flew with him to California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and other jurisdictions.
Police were struck by the way Lucas could, even years after an incident, summon minute details: the color of a victim’s hair, for example, and the dress she wore, or the look on her face, and the way he killed her.
In 1982 alone, he said, he murdered 35 people. And while committing one savage, random homicide after another, he somehow never left a single piece of evidence — not a hair nor a fiber, fingerprint or drop of blood. He drove to crime scenes, often in remote wooded areas, but police never found a tire track to match. No weapon had been recovered. No witnesses had seen him leaving the sites of his butcheries. He established no pattern.
Admitting to a vast catalog of unsolved murders had its advantages. Lucas occupied his own individual cell at the county jail with carpet on the floor. He wore civilian clothes. He watched cable shows on his private color television, complete with remote control. His supply of milk shakes and Pall Malls never ran low. All Lucas had to do was keep the confessions coming.
The grand Lucas tours also meant celebrity status for the Rangers who traveled with him. They were welcomed as law enforcement royalty, and were showered with gifts and proclamations.
Ultimately, with the task force’s coordination, police agencies in 26 states closed the books on 229 murders. Almost none of them advanced to the trial stage, though the Orange Socks case did go to court. On the strength of his confession, Lucas was found guilty and sentenced to die.
* * *
Then it all collapsed. In April 1985, the Dallas Times Herald said Lucas “may be the perpetrator of the largest hoax in law enforcement annals.”
By meticulously cross-checking Lucas’s confessions with his court documents, work papers, rental receipts, jail rosters and other records, reporters found that Lucas probably did not commit more than three murders — that of his mother, his common-law wife and the old woman for whom he had worked.
As for the hundreds of others to which he admitted, Lucas simply could not have been where they occurred when they were committed.
About the same time, District Attorney Vic Feazell of Waco decided to investigate the Lucas task force. Feazell brought Lucas before the grand jury, which heard some alarming testimony about the Rangers’ techniques. Lucas testified he was allowed to review case files before he confessed. “I go through them,” he said. “I read this one. I read that one.”
Armed with foreknowledge, Lucas could direct police to the scenes of murders by simply picking up cues. It wasn’t all that difficult when detectives drove him past a house several times, slowed the car and asked, “Henry, does anything look familiar?” On one case, he said, police flew him over the crime locale in a helicopter. “So I said, ‘Yeah, down there is the scene where the…case was,’ and so I could be pointing a mile away, and it wouldn’t make no difference.”
A 1986 report by Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox found “numerous discrepancies between Lucas’ confessions and obtainable evidence regarding his whereabouts,” and substantial evidence that officials had cleared cases simply to take them off the books.
With that, the Rangers quietly folded their task force and shipped Lucas to death row, where he could await execution for the murder of Orange Socks.
But in 1998, Gov. George W. Bush commuted the sentence to life in prison. Lucas died of natural causes in 2001 at the age of 64. No family members claimed the body, so his white coffin was borne by six inmate pallbearers to the cemetery for indigent prisoners.
He might have been much more than a nobody buried in a state potters’ field, if only the facts had not intervened. “Henry once said, ‘I was as famous as Elvis,’” Vic Feazell remembered. “He said, ‘If they had just let me keep confessing, I would’ve had more murders than Hitler.’”
A number of pending court cases against Lucas were dropped in the ensuing years. Police quietly re-opened some of the investigations — though not all. In Chambers County, the 1980 murder of Betty Choate is still attributed to Lucas, though the attorney general’s report determined he was in Florida at the time.
* * *
In the mid-1980s, when the Lucas extravaganza initially fractured, the Rangers dismissed any criticism of them as unfair. It was not their job, they said, to document Lucas’ actual whereabouts when the crimes in question occurred. “We didn’t feel like that was our responsibility,” said Ranger Bob Prince, head of the task force. They had served as a mere conduit of information, he said, a clearinghouse.
But to accept that, one must ignore the hidden files.
In 2008 DPS shipped some of its inactive internal records to the state archives. Among them were Lucas case papers. At the Texas State Library, no one but archivists touched these Lucas documents for most of a decade.
I examined the records while doing research for a history of the Rangers published this month. They show that contrary to what the Rangers had said, they did indeed try to track Lucas’ itinerary. Four black binders contain an eight-year, day-by-day log of Lucas’ whereabouts, and the murders to which he confessed. It is a catalog of wild time-space impossibilities, echoing the findings of newspaper stories and the attorney general’s report. The Rangers never acknowledged this publicly.
The real bombshell, however, can be found in the Underwood case papers.
Lucas never stood trial for the Baytown murder, but the department closed the case. The attorney general’s report noted that Lucas was believed to be in Florida at the time of the killing, but Baytown police were not swayed. “Our case against Lucas is closed and will remain closed,” Baytown police chief W.A. Henscey said in 1986. “We feel that he did it.”
Henscey, now 86 and retired, said last month he had nothing to add. “I would rather not comment on this old case,” he wrote in an email.
To his credit, Henscey could not have known at the time in 1986 that the Rangers were sitting on evidence proving without a doubt that Lucas did not kill Underwood.
The files in the state archives include records from a company called Commercial Metals in Jacksonville, Fla. They show that Lucas sold the company scrap metal, and was paid $19.80 cash, on the same day that he was said to be in Baytown shooting the 7-Eleven clerk. Baytown is 850 miles west of Jacksonville.
The Rangers had an explanation. They believed Lucas’ scrawled signature on the Commercial Metals receipt was a forgery. To prove this, a DPS handwriting analyst examined the document in 1986.
The analyst, however, determined the signature from June 23, 1981, was indeed Lucas’, as was the signature on a receipt from the next day. He could not possibly have been in Baytown.
Baytown police say now the Rangers never informed them of this handwriting analysis.
In response to this new information, which I provided to the Baytown department, investigators have re-opened the Underwood case. They also have re-opened the investigation of another 1981 murder — that of a women Lucas confessed to killing in her home. Baytown police asked that her name be withheld because her family has not yet been notified.
“He was not even here,” Baytown police Lt. Steve Dorris said last month of Lucas. “We can’t attribute those cases to him.”
Re-investigating two 39-year-old murders presents an exceptional challenge for a small department that does not have a separate cold-case unit. “My homicide detectives work on these cold cases between their active cases,” Dorris said. “And with those old cases, people who were witnesses might have passed away by now.”
One investigator added: “We’re starting from scratch.”
Why did the Rangers never turn over the evidence to Baytown investigators? Prince, the head of the Lucas task force, said last year he was not aware of the handwriting analysis. Adams, head of DPS when the task force was in operation, rebuffed my attempts to interview him before he died this year.
Whatever the reason, the consequence is clear. When Lucas confessed, the police investigations stopped.
That was decades ago. In the meantime, the real killer of 23-year-old Diana Underwood walked free. This the Rangers knew.