The Netflix documentary series The Confession Killer is filled with more twists than a feature film. Convicted murderer Henry Lee Lucas actually changed law enforcement procedure. The Texas Rangers and the state’s police both wanted a piece of him. District Attorney Vic Feazell wanted to ride the case to a political career. Dallas homicide detective Linda Erwin submitted a fake file to catch the lies, but wound up catching the Texas Rangers.
The case happened at the very beginning of the awareness of the existence of serial killers, Ed Gein and Jack the Ripper had not yet been classified, but it served as a template. The murderous Lucas had fans, including prison nun Sister Clemmie Schroeder, and a groupie who also paid calls on Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. The 1986 film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is based on Lucas’ crimes.
Henry Lee Lucas was labeled the most prolific serial killer in history. Convicted of murdering 11 people and condemned to death, he admitted around 600 additional murders to the Texas Rangers in the early 1980s. Lucas sketched pictures of the victims and gave unreleased details from attacks. Some people thought Lucas confessed just to get time away from his jail cell. He would get field trips to visit murder scenes. He would be able to eat junk food and drink strawberry thick shakes.
The confessions closed many unsolved cases. Police were instructed to only believe Lucas’s stories if they could confirm the information. The documentary makes it seem as if the state of Texas is different from the rest of the country, law-wise. During the investigations, the different branches of the police were at cross purposes in a rush to convict. Journalists and attorneys poked holes in the timelines before the new science of DNA testing contradicted his claims. Law enforcement defended their work.
Lucas was a complex figure caught up in a flawed justice system. He was convicted of murdering his mother in March 1960. According to some reports, Lucas’ mother was a prostitute who forced him to watch her during encounters. Sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison and sent to Jackson State Penitentiary in southern Michigan, he was transferred to Ionia State Mental Hospital after two attempted suicides. Lucas was paroled in 1970. He served ten years. Lucas met Ottis Toole, who Wikipedia labels a cannibal and necrophile, at a soup kitchen in 1976. The pair traveled across 26 states picking up hitchhikers, prostitutes, and migrant workers, and killing them. Toole confessed to killing Adam Walsh, the son of future America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh. Lucas recanted his confessions, but many of the murders attributed to him were never reopened.
The Confession Killer comes from Taki Oldham who directed the 2011 documentary The Billionaires’ Tea Party, and Robert Kenner, the Academy and Emmy Awards-nominated director of the 2008 cinematic expose Food Inc. Oldham and Kenner sat down with Den of Geek to present their testimony.
DEN OF GEEK: What brought Henry Lee Lucas to your attention in the first place?
Robert Kenner: Taki saw a film which had been made which basically said “We’ll never know how many people Henry really killed.” Because he had the ability in 2014 to go look at the internet, we now have the ability to find out that Henry didn’t kill a lot of these people. After a year and a half doing research we found isolated cases that said “Oh, in this case Henry didn’t really do it.” All of a sudden there were 20 cases where Henry didn’t really do it. So it becomes a much bigger question. How did this happen? And did he do any of them? Other than the three, which we believe there was evidence for. The others, there were no evidence.
At that point, after Taki had been researching it for a year and a half, he brought it to me and our team here. Taki and I had worked together once before. I’d been doing films like Food Inc. that looked at systems. Here was this incredible tale about a serial killer, but it really was much more than a story about a serial killer. It’s really a story about justice system and a psychological tale of how did people get sucked into Henry’s story. Henry was an incredibly convincing character for a guy with his low IQ. He was very adaptive and he wanted to please people. He wanted to please Sister Clemmie and have his soul saved, and he wanted to please.
And ultimately he wanted to please so much he came up with the false Becky story. He was what everyone was looking for and it just felt like an amazing story. We worked for about another year and a half, and then two years with Netflix. So it was about five years in production, which is way longer than we’d normally work on a film. But it was just such a riveting tale with so much access to so much footage. After digging and digging and digging, you never come up with this kind of footage, and it was a great opportunity to tell a five part story.
Were you surprised by the infighting between the police departments, the Texas rangers and the DA’s office?
RK: Yeah, it’s even more. It’s like the attorney general of Texas versus the governor of Texas, which we didn’t totally go into. The state was split and that was interesting how that could happen.
TAKI OLDHAM: I think that that element of the story where you have the journalists and then you had this big guy trying to get Lucas to recant and getting Lucas away from the Rangers, the backlash they suffered, really gave the story a cinematic view. It really does start to take on the feeling of a conspiracy at that point. This was never a story that was a battle for us, but at the same time when you have people trying to reveal the truth and other people try to stop it from coming out, what else could you call it at that point?
RK: But one thing that we really believe is that this didn’t start out as a conspiracy. I think people were willing to be misled by Henry. And yet when it came down, when this showdown between the different forces, the establishment, and law enforcement just put up there a stiff front and didn’t want it to be questioned. It’s a little like Ted King, the D.A. from Bakersfield said, “Law enforcement can either be transparent or they can say, we do no wrong.” That was the battle that was being fought out in Texas in ’83 and ’84 and ’85. The Rangers were saying, “We do no wrong,” and others were saying, “Hey, we need more transparency.” That’s a battle that goes on today as well. Ultimately this is about more than just what happened there. I think it’s a good tale to be told that reflects justice in our society.
Actually what is the difference between the Texas police and the Texas Rangers?
RK: The Rangers basically work statewide, as where a police department is county or local, to a municipality. The Rangers in small towns provide really good service. And they were an elite law enforcement agency that could help. But as Linda Erwin, the Dallas detective who questioned what happened, said, she thinks she had a lot more experience in homicides working in Dallas than the Rangers did working statewide because they do lots of different cases. But they are an overall state force. They provide support to local law enforcement.
This particular case came at the very beginning of the awareness of serial killers. Did you even know there were serial killer groupies?
TO: I was a fan of the True Crime genre, so I have certainly seen the footage of Richard Ramirez going into court in L.A. and he’d be “hail Satan” with Ray-Ban aviators on, and there’d be screaming girls, and there were fans. So on that level, sure, but obviously once you meet, you feel it. And he would just say that it made it a lot more real, the fandom of the serial killer.
RK: I have to say, I personally find the fascination with serial killers to be a strange one. But I think the story is much more than just that. It’s really a psychological tale and a tale about justice. How we look at things, and how we can be fooled by things. And we’re all fooled by things.
When you were making the film, did anyone approach you as opposed to the people that you went out looking for? Did you uncover anything besides what you were exposing?
TO: We tried to stay a bit under the radar because a lot of the people we were dealing with from early on were still pretty scarred by their experience. They felt it was a travesty of justice. And there was a lot of paranoia about retribution from police or the Rangers. So we didn’t advertise our presence. Obviously, the Rangers today are incredibly different. We felt there was no blow back. And on that level we weren’t really out there turning over rocks too much or trying to investigate cases.
RK: Well, actually Taki, you did a lot, amazing amount actually, I’m not used to as much real investigation that went on.
TO: Well, we did convince Bakersfield to reopen their case. That’s true actually. We did convince a number of police to reinvestigate their cases.
RKr: I’ve made 20 films and I’ve never seen any have so much effect right away. Taki is speaking to these places. They began to think about things very differently.
Since Netflix puts out all the publicity since the publicity for the series began, have any of the other law enforcement agencies reopened cases to ward off what might be coming?
RK: Good question because it’s happened and not necessarily because of the publicity. It happened in the last week.
TO: So yeah, neither of these had anything to do with us, but we had one case in Utah that was reopened. Subsequently, with a different group we’ve got in contact with Provo police and they have reopened that case. We’re not taking credit for that, but certainly it’s a case that we looked at.
RKr: Just to reiterate, the Provo case was a case that was closed and now they’ve decided, like Bakersfield, it’s their duty to reopen.
TO: They took another look at the evidence and realized it was nothing, and that Lucas’ confessions should not be believed without corroborating evidence. There was none in most of these cases. And from there in another case, one was a murder. DNA eventually pointed us to the real killer. So neither of those had to do with us, but what we’ve seen as a trickle has become a flow of these cases, and one may be a tidal wave. We’d like to see some large body of water representing a lot of cases being reopened.
RK: We’re not going to say that Lucas didn’t do any of these murders. We don’t know. But we think that the public and the families should find out. They should have the right to know who murdered their loved ones. You see the pain this has caused people. That’s something that we came in touch with firsthand and it’s very powerful and very honorable. And they are owed that right to at least to who have been investigated, because these cases were closed without evidence and too many killers were left on the street.
There’s a part where Lucas, he says he’ll prove his story from the beyond the grave. Did you get the feeling he was talking about your documentary?
TO: Yes. He knew we were coming. You can’t trust anything Henry said or if his lawyer said it, so he’s a very unreliable narrator in this film. But ironically here he is, I think, they are starting to prove it beyond the grave.
The Confession Killer debuts on Netflix on Dec. 6.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.