Famed serial killer Henry Lee Lucas shocked the world in the 1980s when he confessed to murdering as many as 600 people, snuffing out their lives in every way imaginable, he claimed.
Victims’ families got the closure they’d sought for so long. Law enforcement felt triumphant for bringing justice to so many.
Lucas, a one-eyed, toothless ne’er-do-well, benefited. Besides the preferential treatment he received, he shot to a stardom of sorts, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans as eager investigators lined up to talk to him about unsolved murders that stymied them.
Like serial killer Samuel Little, who recently confessed to killing as many as 93 people (and who law enforcement has allegedly tied to more than 50 murders), Lucas drew detailed pictures of his victims, down to their individual eye colors and smiles.
Then Lucas’ confessions began to unravel.
DNA testing and major discrepancies in his timelines began to contradict the grisly crime scene details he divulged to investigators.
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The riveting story of how a low-IQ drifter ended up fooling so many members of law enforcement and upending so many families’ lives — while also becoming an international sensation — is the focus of the new Netflix original documentary series, The Confession Killer, which debuts Dec. 6. (An exclusive clip is shown below.)
The five-part series is the latest work from acclaimed documentary director Robert Kenner, director of the Oscar and Emmy-nominated 2008 documentary Food Inc., which took a deep dive into how corporations have overtaken the nation’s agribusiness, resulting in unhealthy food, animals, and people.
His eye-opening 2014 documentary, Merchants of Doubt, shows how a handful of scientists with strong political ties dispelled misinformation to the public about the dangers of tobacco and climate change; his 2016 documentary Command and Control exposes the precariousness surrounding the safety of nuclear weapons.
Now Kenner, along with Australian filmmaker Taki Oldham, exposes flaws in the U.S. justice system by telling Lucas’ unbelievable story.
Rife with examples of human nature at its best and worst, the film shows how the story’s main players manipulate each other to get what they want.
“It’s more than a serial killer’s story,” says Kenner. “It’s really a psychological drama. That’s what drew me to it so strongly.”
Following a 1983 arrest in Texas for unlawful possession of a firearm, Lucas told Williamson County Sheriff Jim Boutwell and members of the Texas Rangers he killed two women: a young woman believed to be his girlfriend and his elderly landlord.
That wasn’t much of a surprise since Lucas had already spent 15 years in prison for murdering his mother in 1960.
But then came the unexpected when he began confessing to dozens of additional murders, for reasons the documentary explores.
“All of a sudden he became the person that Sheriff Boutwell was looking for,” says Kenner. “He had a theory there was a mass killer and Henry certainly filled the bill. Henry gave information that only a killer would know. He became everything law enforcement needed to solve these cases.”
Rewarded with milkshakes and hamburgers and the ability to walk around without handcuffs, Lucas began confessing to more murders to the Texas Rangers Task Force responsible for vetting the details he gave them.
“He filled people’s needs, and in a way, he had never been happier than when he was with Boutwell and the Rangers,” Kenner says. “That was probably the happiest moment of his life. He was thrilled by the attention, and when you see him ordering milkshakes, and ordering his hamburger, answering the telephone, or putting pins in the map, that footage is amazing.”
Using old photographs, videotaped footage and other archival material the filmmakers painstakingly tracked down, they reveal how dozens of cases were supposedly solved — except they weren’t.
“For a guy with a low IQ, he was very smart and was able to … gather information about cases, many of which have now been proven that he didn’t do,” says Kenner. “And yet he was able to give them the information, and they believed it. They believed it so much, they began to overlook facts.”
Devastated families who thought they’d gotten the answers they’d long sought found themselves wondering if the real killers were still free.
Lucas was sentenced to death for the 1979 murder of an unidentified victim known for years only as “Orange Socks.” Given the uncertainty surrounding the facts of that case, George W. Bush commuted the death sentence – the only time he ever did that as governor.
Lucas died in 2001 of a heart attack, and with him died the truth about the people he killed and the people he didn’t.
Kenner hopes justice will win in the end. “I hope this series will open up a cascade of willingness on law enforcement’s part to reopen these cases,” he says.
“If we were to take a conservative estimate, 70 to 100 cases are still crediting Lucas for the crime, whether formally or informally. Probably 160 or 170 were never re-investigated, which is an incredible number.”
“Hopefully we can get law enforcement at least to re-examine these cases, find out what the truth is and help these poor victims’ families.”
“I think Lucas is certainly guilty for having misled so many people,” says Kenner. “But I think they’re also upset that law enforcement was also culpable in being misled.”
The Confession Killer debuts on Netflix on Dec. 6.