“If you conduct your cases like you should do then you shouldn’t be afraid of the light.”
Henry Lee Lucas was, for a time, ‘credited’ with being the most prolific serial killer in American history. The softly spoken Virginian born drifter with a drooping eyelid, single-digit number of teeth, and sickening body odour, certainly had the look of someone who would kill repeatedly. His own estimation of his murder spree – conducted primarily on interstate roads but spanning most of the country – upped from 60, to 100, to 200, before settling briefly on 360. His death count was so high that a special administrative task force had to be set up just to organise the vast amount of officers who wanted to see if a dead body on their books was one of his. Throughout the 80s if you had an unsolved murder, Lucas would probably have confessed to it.
And yet, as The Confession Killer shows through its 5 episodes, it should have been evident that Lucas’ claims were at best implausible, and frequently verging on impossible. “It’s definitely a learning curve for law enforcement,” says once Texas Ranger, seemingly unaware of the gravitas of this understatement. The show focuses on the investigations into Lucas and how his detailed confessions, full of facts only the killer would know, led to over 200 cases being cleared with him named as the perpetrator. That is despite there being often no evidence of any kind to link him to the nationwide crimes beyond his own confession.
What makes The Confession Killer a compelling show is that around the mid-way point of each episode you start to feel like its told all the story it has to tell and is now just spinning its wheels with archive footage and interview tapes. And yet each episode manages to close with another jaw-dropping twist to the tale. Such as case files full of crime scene specifics being given to him in order to ‘refresh his memory’.
The finger of blame is firmly waved at The Texas Rangers. Lucas’ rising star of fame was indelibly linked to those law enforcers who had him under their watch. With the story of a drifter who killed indiscriminately across the country, every unsolved case under the sun was shoved under his nose in an effort to get it cleared and off the books. It took investigative journalism to point out that in order to have committed all the crimes, Lucas would have had to have travelled a rather unbelievable 11,000 miles in one month.
Shockingly, as it became more and more essential to maintain that Lucas was the killer in so many now ‘solved’ murders, we see that those who did speak out were sometimes actively threatened to stay quiet. That includes the construction of a false racketeering and corruption claim against one District Attorney who would have been jailed for 80 years because he had the audacity to refuse to prosecute Lucas. “I’ve put people away for murder who got out in less,” he says.
The show tries to cover all angles and most of the key players are alive to tell their side of the story. Various Texas Rangers put forward counter points of view, showing that many probably honestly believed they were helping rather than hindering. In this respect, thankfully, the latter episodes extensively cover the relatives of the murder victims themselves who went through emotional turmoil through 30 years of uncertainty. “I think the most horrifying thought that goes through my head,” says one talking of her murdered sister, “is the thought that the person who killed her got away with it.”
The Confession Killer is a fascinating look at how a man who should have been convicted of a small number of murders found that, by taking ownership for more, he was rewarded with respect, attention, and even affection never previously experienced. The sight of Lucas walking around the jail with no handcuffs and enjoying the latest strawberry milkshake award he got for a fresh confession, plus the facilitating Rangers thanking him for solving the unsolvable, is a broken system that no griever should have to fight against.
Words by Michael Record