By most definitions of the term, Henry Lee Lucas was a serial killer. He likely killed at least three people in separate incidents that occurred a significant amount of time apart. A district attorney who prosecuted him later estimated the number of his victims as between three and a dozen, musing: “I don’t think he knew exactly.”

Lucas did not, however, kill hundreds of people.

Sadly, this didn’t stop Lucas from confessing to hundreds of killings. Hundreds of killings he wasn’t linked to by any physical evidence. Indeed, evidence sometimes suggested it was outright impossible he committed these murders. But that didn’t prevent police from attempting to link Lucas to even more crimes, with detectives from 40 states discussing 3,000 unsolved killings with him.

Just what the hell happened here?

“Police flocked, eager to clear up those homicides that just couldn’t be solved. And Lucas wallowed in the attention, making statements like: ‘Killing someone is just like walking outdoors. If I wanted a victim, I’d just go and get one.’ ”

Trouble from the Start

If you were trying to find an upbringing almost designed to produce a future serial killer, you’d look to Lucas. Born on August 23, 1936 in Blacksburg, Virginia, Lucas described his parents as being alcoholics and abusive.

His mother worked as a prostitute. Lucas himself engaged in deeply troubling behavior, claiming he had sex with a half-brother and dead animals.

At age 23, Lucas was sentenced to prison for killing his mother. He was ultimately transferred to a mental hospital after two suicide attempts. He was paroled in 1970, only to attempt to kidnap a 15-year-old girl at gunpoint and get sent back to prison.

Incredibly, Lucas was free again by 1975. And if you ever saw the 1986 film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, this chapter of his life will seem oddly familiar to you.

Lucas wound up traveling the country with the troubled and mentally handicapped Ottis Toole and Toole’s teenaged niece, Becky Powell, who was allegedly mentally handicapped herself.

Lucas reportedly became romantically involved with both. The coming together of this trio had horrific consequences, to a degree we may never fully know.

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Killers on the Loose

Lucas almost certainly murdered Powell and an elderly Texas woman named Kate Rich. Toole’s victims may have included Adam Walsh, the six-year-old son of the future America’s Most Wanted, John Walsh.

Both Lucas and Toole were arrested in 1983, with Toole taken in for arson in April and Lucas busted for possession of a deadly weapon two months later. Soon the confessions started, as Lucas confessed to (and Toole later confirmed) hundreds of killings between the two of them.

”You sit down and talk to them for 20 minutes and you come away a babbling idiot,” Sgt. Jay Via said in 1983. ”You can’t get it out of your mind.” The crimes became even more unnerving when Toole revealed he was a cannibal.

The pair seemed unbelievably sinister, with Toole eating human flesh and Lucas—who had lost an eye as a child—a “one-eyed drifter.”

No wonder police flocked to them, eager to clear up those homicides that just couldn’t be solved.

And Lucas wallowed in the attention, making statements like: “Killing someone is just like walking outdoors. If I wanted a victim, I’d just go and get one.”

It made it easy to downplay the lack of corroborating evidence and take them at their word, ignoring the fact their word was basically worthless.

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Incalculable Consequences

A false conviction sends the wrong person to prison, but it also lets the real guilty party go free, cleared of suspicion and, if they so desire, able to continue to commit crimes.

So when Lucas and Toole started recanting confessions, authorities had to confront the horrifying possibility that they hadn’t unexpectedly solved a mother lode of crimes: They’d just been wasting time.

Take the conviction in Texas of Lucas for the 1979 killing of an unidentified woman dubbed “Orange Socks.” (That was all she was wearing when they found her body.)

Lucas confessed to the crime four times. Then he changed his tune. And then work records and a cashed paycheck seemed to confirm he was in Florida at the time.

Ultimately, the case proved so troubling that Texas governor (and future U.S. President) George W. Bush commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment, sparing Lucas from lethal injection. He was the only man Bush spared from execution during his time as governor.

Lucas gloated about his many false confessions: “’I made the police look stupid. I was out to wreck Texas law enforcement.”

Toole died in prison in 1996 of cirrhosis of the liver. Lucas lived until 2001, dying in prison as well at age 64. Former Texas attorney general Jim Mattox may have best summed up his weird legacy:

“Nobody should have any sympathy for Lucas as a result of his convictions. But I think after you’ve dealt with the individual, you had to give him some credit for being able to engage in the kind of hoax he engaged in.”