Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole were by many accounts the most prolific serial killers in history. They were notorious for the many women they raped and killed and allegedly engaged in a homosexual relationship themselves. But from their humble beginnings, a merging of two minds became a cross-country killing spree that may have been touched by the hand of Satan, and a cult called The Hand Of Death. While there have been many rumors and some killers have suggested to be part of the cult, Lucas and Toole were the most vocal about their participation in the training, crimes and activities.
Lucas was born in Blacksburg, Virginia on August 23, 1936. From all accounts his early years were spent in a miserable, filth-strewn two-room cabin. His parents brewed liquor and his mother, Viola was the local prostitute. Henry later claimed that while she turned the tricks of her trade, she would force him to watch. This, coupled with her grim amusement in dressing Henry in girls dresses, styling his hair in curly ringlets and laughingly parading him about, left a psychological imprint that would result in her bloodshed years later. Henry’s father, Anderson, had suffered a railroad accident, which had taken both his legs. His days were limited to dragging himself around the house, drinking himself into a stupor and avoiding the wrath of Viola as much as possible. Although Henry had 9 siblings, most of them were sent into foster care. Being one of the two children considered lucky enough to remain at home, he suffered abuse, mostly at the hands of Viola. Anderson died from a case of pneumonia after refusing to watch Viola’s sex show, he crawled out into the frigid Virginia night and the hypothermic snow proved to be too much for his drunken state. Henry was with Viola and her lovers. It was up to him to survive, and in a fashion, he did. He was bashed in the head with a plank of wood and was unconscious for several days. He had to be given a glass eye, courtesy of another of Viola’s fits of temper.
But the thing that made the biggest imprint on Henry’s young mind at this time was that he learned about sex. First from Viola, who occasionally beat him if he wouldn’t watch her service the local men who came by to purchase her homemade liquor, then from her live-in lover who moved in after Anderson died. “Uncle Bernie” showed him that animals could be used for sex, torturing and killing them after using them sexually. Having watched his mother for so long, at age 15 Henry finally decided to try and have sex with a girl for the first time. Being inexperienced and far from attractive, Henry picked up a local girl and made advances. When she rebuffed him, Henry strangled her and buried her corpse-after he had made use of her sexually, beginning a practice that would last for many years. A dead woman can’t say no, and Henry realized that becoming a killer was probably the easiest thing he’d ever done. If all he had to do was kill to get his way, then life was going to be easier and a lot more fun than he thought.
Henry knew that a life of crime would be the easiest way to earn a living and he became involved with a number of small-time crooks and petty thieves. He was arrested and spent time in prison for robbing a bank with several others and while he managed to escape twice, he spent about 6 years in prison. When he was released in September of 1959, he went to stay with his half-sister in Tecumseh, Michigan. This would wind up being the scene of his final confrontation with his mother. Viola showed up there, looking for Henry and at age 74, she was hardly in the position to fight him. Still, while drinking and bickering with Henry about returning to the family home in Blacksburg, they became violent. She swore at him that he had a duty to care for her in her old age, and struck at him with a broom. He responded by grabbing a knife and stabbing her to death, then raping her corpse. When he was later confessing to many of his crimes while incarcerated, he said he never raped her that he’d made the whole thing up. But he’d already shown a predilection for necrophilia that makes it hard to know what the truth was. He was convicted in 1960 and given a sentence of 20 to 40 years. He was to spend part of his sentence in a hospital for the criminally insane, and was released in 1970.Heading back to Michigan to stay with family seemed like the best idea to him, and he took a job, briefly marrying the widow of a cousin of his. But traditional home and family was something Henry had never known, and this wasn’t going to work out. He had been accused of molesting not only two teenage girls, but also the two daughters from his wife’s former marriage and she divorced him in the summer of 1977.
Murderous Minds Meet
About this time, in late 1976 Henry met Ottis Toole, a drifter and criminal not unlike himself. Being that he was divorcing his cousin’s widow named Betty, he needed a friend and Ottis turned out to be just that, and much more. Women of course would always be their preference but there has long been speculation that the two were occasional homosexual lovers. Henry boasted to his new friend that he’d slashed a killing field as far as Maryland and beyond. Ottis had many a tale of his own: blazing an arson and murder trail across the country. They smiled at each other, I’m sure and at that moment the blood of hundreds of innocents were destined to be spilled. Some strangers, some prostitutes, some kind souls wanting to help the two drifters, and some relatives, such as Ottis’s own sister, Becky.
Ottis Toole had a childhood full of as much dysfunction as Henry. Born in Florida in 1947, his father saw no reason to stay with the family and leaving his son the legacy of alcoholism, went off for good. But Ottis had the opposite of Henry’s mother: instead of promiscuity, his mother was violently religious and took her beliefs out on everyone in the home. He had a sister who in an interesting parallel to Henry, liked to dress him up in little girl’s clothing and parade him around. His Grandmother however, was reputed to be a Satanist and had decided Ottis was the devil’s child. He later claimed it was because he was an Epileptic and the seizures made him appear possessed. Later both he and Henry talked about being possessed, but at the time Ottis was just a child and an Epileptic. Ottis claimed she took him out on runs to cemeteries for body parts for rituals. He also claimed to be an arsonist as a child, torching empty houses just because he “Didn’t like the look of them.” As he got older, he dropped out of school. It was too difficult with his low IQ and he was too interested in drinking and committing small time crimes. He was arrested for lewd behavior and theft before he started killing. He was suspected in the death of a 24-year-old woman who was shot in the head, and later confessed to it being his first kill. He was accused of 3 other slayings over the next two years before he found himself in a Jacksonville soup kitchen looking for something to eat-and finding Henry Lee Lucas. Ottis took Henry home to stay with his family. Novella Toole, the woman who claimed to be his wife later elaborated that Ottis could not perform sexually with a woman unless there was a man involved as well. Henry was his ideal companion: a partner in crime, in bed and willing to look for the next thrill. By 1978, the two had separated and Novella threw both Henry and Ottis out. It was time for them to enjoy themselves.
When they found themselves without a home, Ottis told Henry he’d done more killing than he told him about. He’d been made a member of the Satanic cult the Hand of Death and wanted Henry to join, too. This wasn’t the first time that Henry would have killed, raped or even possibly cannibalized another human. But this was very detailed and had repercussions that would lead to your death without exception. Lucas later confessed that he wanted to join and told Ottis. He understood he would be killed if he did anything to betray the cult and that the only way out was death. His parents hadn’t taught him about religion, so there was nothing in Henry’s way of becoming a Satanist. Worshipping the Devil really meant nothing to him. When confessing all this to police years later, many people didn’t believe Henry’s claims. But in other cases, there was evidence and the police were convinced enough to organize a task force.
Ottis told Henry that the Satanic rituals would keep them safe and from being caught. There was a power there they would be protected by, as long as they obeyed the cult. Henry and Ottis went to Florida to have Henry see the training camp that was set up in the Everglades. There, in an isolated spot, they met a man named Don that Ottis seemed to know well. It was becoming clear to Henry that Ottis had already proved himself to the cult many times over and now he must do the same if he wanted to join. They went to a tent where a young man was drinking and smoking. Don looked at Henry and told him, “Kill him. And make it clean. Only then will you be one of us.” The man was a student, had betrayed his oath to the cult and must be killed, Don explained. Ottis had a bottle of whisky and was ready to go. They walked down to the water with the young man, who was still drinking and talking. Henry waited until he stood at the edge of the water and was tipping his head back for a drink, when he grabbed him from behind and slit his throat so deeply that the whisky poured out, mingled with blood, flowing down his hands.
Don smiled at such a clean kill. The body, according to Henry, was used in a cult ritual where the body was mutilitated, the heart cut out and some of the flesh eaten.
After that, Henry was a member and in training, according to him, all new members had a sponsor. The camp had both men and women and had both day and night activities: days were for training in all forms of crime: Murder, kidnapping, rape, drug selling and the making of pornographic movies and photos. At night, there were liquor and drugs for everyone and Henry claimed sex was plentiful. There were evening sacrifices, transient people or sometimes people who had in some way or another betrayed the cult and was considered a liability. It was as if there were no shortage of bodies to kill, and Henry was quite willing to kill as many as he possibly could. Engaging in the training activities with his partner assigned by the cult, Henry was trained for 7 weeks in almost every form of criminal activity imaginable. Shortly after his training was completed, he was assigned to the kidnapping division of the organization. Ottis was there to work with him and they were told they could make a lot of money by kidnapping. There would be no killing and it would be much easier. In 1978 the chances of being caught were much slimmer, the Amber Alert not having been instituted yet. Henry and Ottis took their first job by kidnapping 3 babies and running them across the border of Mexico to a ranch in Chihuahua. Henry claimed he and Ottis also kidnapped several teenage girls that were used in pornographic snuff films. Knowing they would die at the end wasn’t troubling for him. By that time, he’d killed so many people; he said it just didn’t matter anymore. But the stakes were higher in the killing game than in the kidnapping operations and after nearly a year, Henry asked to be transferred there. In a year, he claimed to have carried out 6 high profile executions. Most of these were in Texas and Mexico, with one in Canada. He told the police at the time of his incarceration that he was offered the job of delivering the cyanide to Jim Jones in Guyana and assassinating then President Jimmy Carter. How much all of this is fact and not a figment of Henry’s imagination, one is left to speculate. But what happened next is fact, and not open to interpretation.
Henry and Ottis had traveled extensively, killing and raping at their discretion. But Ottis had a young niece named Becky that Henry had his eye on for a long time. He’d met her when she was 10, when he and Ottis had first started crashing around. But now she was in a youth center, her parents having passed away and being made a ward of the state. Henry went to get her and soon they were on the road together. Becky was young and loved Henry. She had very little experience in the way of men or homicidal cannibals, so there was a shock waiting for her. They obtained work for a couple doing odd jobs, finishing furniture and cleaning for room and board. The couple had the idea to have Henry and Becky move in with their mother, Kate Rich, who at 80 years old needed help By the next week, Kate’s family threw them out and Henry and Becky were hitchhiking down the country road in Texas to find a place to stay. Becky was crying, and telling Henry she wanted to go back to Florida. He didn’t want to hear it. She slapped him across the face and that was a first for him, never being disrespected by a woman. He grabbed a knife and plunged it into her chest, stabbing over and over. There was no one to hear her screams in the cold back woods. There was no one to see him rape her ripped and bloody corpse, cut it into pieces and scatter it across the field they were nearby.
Becky was soon missed: by Kate Rich, by a local young minister who had tried to help her. Henry told Kate they could go look for her and they set off on a drive to do just that. While Kate peppered Henry with questions, he heard little of it. He had a 6 pack of beer and finally, when he’d had enough, he pulled over and did to Kate what he’d done to Becky: ferociously stabbing her as she fell out of the car and then raping her dead body until he was exhausted. None of this meant anything to him. He thought about the cult and Ottis. There is no doubt that he had killed 2 women in a few days time and there were going to be people looking for them. Shortly afterward, Kate Rich’s farmhouse burned down and was quickly dubbed the work of an arsonist. Ottis? He has never confessed but surely his predilection for setting fires that started in his younger days comes to mind. And the fact that Henry had burned Kate’s corpse in her wood-burning stove makes further speculation that the old friends were back in business together. But if they were, it would be a short-lived reunion, indeed.
The police in Stonesburg, Texas were looking and waiting for Henry. That was the closest place anyone had seen Becky alive. Henry at first acted as though he didn’t kill Becky and that he wanted to clear his name. Unfortunately, he had a handgun on him, and was picked up for being an ex-con possessing a firearm and taken to jail. Henry was charged with the murders of Kate Rich and Becky Powell. There was a lot of evidence against him, and he had practically led them to the site of the remains. But still, he told an officer guarding him late one night, “I done some real bad things.” There had to have been visions of blood and bones draining from the bottom of Henry’s cell that night, and in the morning, he was brought before a judge, a roomful of cops and reporters and confessed to killing both Kate and Becky. He told them where the remains were-what little there was left. He admitted to having sex with both dead bodies and while they all stared stunned, he said he’d killed hundreds more. At least, he smiled grimly, at least hundreds more. “Will I be able to go on helping y’all find dead bodies?” he asked. It has been rumored that several reporters had to leave the courtroom, on the verge of becoming physically ill.
Soon, Texas jurisdictions were leapfrogging over each other to clear cold cases that they hadn’t been able to solve for years, all pinning them on Henry. And Henry was as good as his word, going where they wanted him to and pointing out where remains would be and where they would found. He had killed many. It’s hard to say how many because of his penchant for exaggeration. He told the police about The Hand Of Death. His confessions were believed by so many people, even though forensic evidence didn’t always match up that there were two books written on the subject: “The Confessions Of Henry Lee Lucas” by Mike Cox and “Hands Of Death” by Max Call. Over the next 18 months, Henry talked about the cult, probably knowing he would never see the outside of a prison cell, and fearing no retribution, confessed to first 75, then escalating to 150, and finally a whopping 300 body count. By this time, Ottis was in prison for arson and was implicated in many of these murders, being that he was the one who had introduced Henry to the cult. Toole corroborated many of Henry’s tales and told of his taste for human flesh, usually with barbeque sauce.
Ottis and Henry had one last phone call that is telling in nature:
Henry: “I don’t want you to think I’m doing this as a revenge.”
Ottis: “No, I don’t want you to hold anything back about me.”
Henry: “See we got so many of them, Ottis. We got to turn up the bodies. Now this boy and girl I don’t know anything about.”
Ottis: “Well maybe that’s the two I killed my own self. Just like that Mexican that wasn’t gonna let me out of the house. I took an ax and chopped him all up. What made me? I been meaning to ask you? Why’d I do it?
Henry: “ I think it was just the hands doing it. I know a lot of the things we have done in human sight are impossible to believe.”
There were journalists who tried to discredit Henry and Ottis, but according to Texas law enforcement, it was all about money. Henry was leading them to the sites where there was physical evidence. That was irrefutable. Could he have been hired to assassinate Jimmy Carter? Could he have been a contract killer to fly cyanide to Jim Jones at the People’s Temple of Guyana? Very doubtful. But he was a murderer, a cold-blooded killer, and with Ottis Toole, they soaked the raw Texas farmland with enough blood to satisfy the thirst of a cult called The Hand Of The Death.
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