The Deadly Lovers Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas: Our month of horror continues but this time with a love story. The tale of two star crossed lovers who met by chance and were instantly struck by one another. It may have helped that the two men also happened to be brutal serial killers. Every couple has their thing.
Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole
In our story we track the lives and descent of the cruel murderers. As well and their sensational imprisonments and the aftermath of their bloody affair. So join us for a queer tale so dark it’s sure to make your toes curl.
We’re continuing our month of gore, bloodshed and terror with a love story. That is if your definition of a love story is roaming the country while randomly, brutally, and mercilessly murdering people. For at least two men, this was the case. And those men were the infamous serial killing duo Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas. And we want to put in our standing October trigger warning here. This story will contain rape, incest, torture, and murder; including the harming of children and animals.
So if you have no interest in this brutality, please check out our other episodes. Such as, Lucy Hicks Anderson – a black transgender business woman in the early 20th century. Or how about bisexual spy and world wide entertainer Josephine Baker? In May we covered Mr. Spok himself George Takei. So catch up on our past episodes or check out the blog on our website at https://yourqueerstory.com/blog/.
Gay serial killers meet
On a warm day in Jacksonville, Florida while waiting outside of a soup kitchen, two soul mates met for the first time. Twenty-nine year old Ottis Toole towered above the older Henry Lee Lucas who was eleven years Tool’s senior. Both men were gruff and dirty with crooked teeth and darkness that seemed to radiate from their presence. Henry squinted slightly from his left eye which was a fake and occasionally oozed with uncontrollable drainage.
Ottis had thinning hair and a large gap in his front teeth due in part to his horrible hygiene. But the two men must have sensed something in each other because they were immediately drawn together as partners; both in love and in cruelty. Within weeks of meeting each other Ottis was sharing a bed with Henry. What would follow would be a crime spree that – if true – is one of the deadliest in history. But where did these men come from and what truly drew them together?
Henry Lee Lucas’s Childhood
Henry Lee Lucas was born on August 23, 1936 in Blacksburg, Virginia. His childhood was filled with abuse and neglect. Henry’s father lost both his legs in a railroad accident and as a means to support the family Henry’s mother Viola became a sex worker. Which in itself would not have been a shame. But Viola physical and sexual abuse of her son was tragic. She beat him regularly once putting him in a three day coma; as well as forcing Henry to watch her have sex with her clients. She also forced him to wear girls clothes -according to Henry – and shot his favorite pet, the family mule.
According to Henry, she also sexually abused him forcing him to have sex with her and pinching and torturing his genitals when he misbehaved. It is most probable that Henry did suffer sexual abuse. However we do need to state early on that both Henry and Ottis are liars who have made their names known through exaggerations and made up stories. So any information they give is always taken with a grain of salt.
Sometime in his early teens, Henry’s left eye was sliced with a knife by his brother. An infection set in and the eye had to be removed and replaced with a glass one. But as this was the 1940’s and the family was very poor, the eye was not set well. And as a result Henry’s tear ducts would often leak involuntarily. Naturally this deformity set Henry up for more ridicule around the neighborhood and amongst his family members. Shortly after the eye accident, around age 12 or 13, Henry ran away from home and began his life as a drifter.
Herny Lee Lucas’s first crime
He claims to have committed his first murder at age 14 when he met 17 year old Laura Burnsley at a bus stop and propositioned her. Laura turned him down so Henry beat her, raped her and then strangled her to death. He continued to drift around Virginia, claiming that during this time he took up a relationship with his half brother. But in 1954, Henry was arrested for more than 12 counts of burglary and sentenced to 4 years in prison. He probably would have been released early had he not temporarily escaped in 1957. Instead Henry remained locked up until 1959.
Henry kills his mother
During his time in jail Henry fell in love with one of his pen pals, and upon his release Henry set about to marry the woman. But his mother Viola would have none of such nonsense. She insisted Henry come back home and take care of her. As the argument became heated Henry claims Viola whacked him upside the head with a broom. To which he responded by stabbing her in the neck. Or as Henry stated:
“All I remember was slapping her alongside the neck, but after I did that I saw her fall and decided to grab her. But she fell to the floor and when I went back to pick her up, I realized she was dead. Then I noticed that I had my knife in my hand and she had been cut”.
Henry fled the scene leaving his supposedly dead mother on the ground. However, Viola was not quite dead. Henry’s half sister Opal found Viola struggling to survive and Opal called an ambulance. But on the way to the hospital Viola died of a heart-attack precipitated by the stabbing. Henry was found guilty of 2nd degree murder and in 1960 he was sentenced to over 20 years in prison. As Lucas sat in prison his lover was only 13 years old at the time.
Ottis Toole’s childhood
Young Ottis Toole was born March 5, 1947 in Jacksonville, Florida. Like Henry, Ottis also suffered a horrific and abusive childhood.
His father was a raging alcoholic and often absent, eventually abandoning the family all together. His mother on the other hand turned to religion to soothe her pain and became a fanatic. Using religion to justify her cruel beatings and neglect of her child. Because of the abandonment of both parents, Ottis was prey to incest and abuse by other family members and friends.
He recalls that as early as 5 years old he was raped by one of his father’s friends. He says though that the real abuse in his family started when he came out as gay around 10 years old.
Again, this could be true given the time period, the conservative area, and his mother’s extreme religious fanaticism. Toole says his mother forced him to wear dresses to church and called him Susan as a way to bully him for his orientation. But we do not know how much of this is true, as he continued to seek attention through lies until the day of his death.
What we do know is that Ottis enjoyed cross-dressing throughout his life, and perhaps he felt guilty and needed a reason for what he perceived as a deviancy. It is also interesting to note that Henry Lee Lucas also claimed to be dressed like a girl as a child, and the media’s incredible attention to this detail.
You cannot read or listen to anything about the two without this fact being mentioned. We certainly do not condone parents forcing a gender expression on a child. And absolutely call out the abuse of using it as a bullying tactic. But as a queer podcast we also call out the homophobia and transphobia surrounding the remarks and fixation on this fact.
Ottis Toole’s first victim
Whatever the reason, things became unbearable at home and Ottis ran away around the age of 12 or 13. It was at this time that he had his first relationship with a young neighborhood boy and began to visit the local gay bars. By 14, Ottis had become a sex worker as a means to provide a living for himself. And it was through this work that Toole claims to have taken his first victim. A traveling salesman who Ottis murdered after the man propositioned him for sex. According to Toole, the man took him to the woods and when he got out of the car, Ottis ran over him and left the man for dead.
Over the next 12 years the young man drifted all over the country from the southeast up to Nebraska and even to Colorado. Crashing in abandoned houses and picking up work where he could. He had a love and sexual inclination for fire and developed skills as an arsonist.
Throughout this time he was arrested a few times on small charges such as loitering and was the prime suspect in two murders. But authorities didn’t have enough evidence to arrest and in the late 1970’s Ottis headed back to Jacksonville.
During Ottis travels Henry had been released early from prison due to overcrowding. After serving just 10 years for his mother’s murder, Henry walked free in 1970. He lasted one year before being sentenced to another 5 for trying to kidnap 3 young girls. Once again he fell in love with a pen pal and married her upon his release in 1975. But the marriage fell apart when his wife found out that Henry was sexually abusing her daughter.
Henry is chased out of West Virginia
After splitting up Henry took up with another woman, but just a few months later the same incident played out. Only this time the woman’s entire family chased Henry out of West Virginia down to Florida. Where Ottis was himself just getting out of a three-day marriage. According to court documents and the killer, he married a woman 25 years older than him. But while on their honeymoon Ottis revealed he was gay and she left him.
Toole would later say that he only went through with the marriage as a coverup for his sexuality. But with no place to go, Ottis headed to the local soup kitchen for some food and there he met Henry. Instantly the two men seemed to hit it off. Though it definitely was not a domesticated, lovers paradise.
Gay lovers and serial killers
Over the next 5 years, the men claimed to have murdered 1,008 victims. The vast majority of which hold no evidence and in fact, many claims have been proven to be outright lies. Still, there is definite certainty that they did rape, assault and kill several people.
Over the years the men crossed 26 states and obtained countless victims. Two main reasons they didn’t get caught was their constant movement and the ways in which they mixed up their killings. Henry would later confess
“I killed ’em every way there is except poison. There’s been strangulations, there’s been knifings, there’s been shootings, there’s been hit-and-runs…”.
The killer continued explaining how he trained Toole
“He was doing his crimes all one way. I started to correct him in his ways, in doing the crime where he wouldn’t leave information.”
And it worked. For years the two men left a trail of unexplained deaths across the country. Most of the victims were sex workers and hitchhikers, many of whom were never identified. On the other hand, one victim was a prominent sheriff who was beaten with a tire iron and then shot in a convenience store.
The victims ranged in ages, gender, and class which meant authorities often didn’t tie the murders together. They didn’t seem to have a rhyme or reason and this was true because the only connection was two lovers obsession with killing. In addition to the rape, sexual assault and murder, Ottis began to add cannibalism to his list of crimes.
Henry says he never got on board with eating the victims, Ottis disagrees. We do know from a secret recording of one of the mens’ conversations after an arrest that there was certainly cannibalism involved. A fact of which Ottis has played up heavily. Offering to send people his recipe for human barbeque sauce free of charge.
Lucas leaves Toole
But true love doesn’t last forever, especially among moraless crooks. And soon Ottis lost his lover to his 13 year old niece. Reports vary as to how young Becky ‘Frieda’ Powell was when she and Lucas began their relationship, but we know she wasn’t older than 13. For a brief time both Becky and her younger brother traveled with Lucas and Toole around on their murder spree.
Becky’s mother had allowed the kids to go off with their Uncle and his friend. Both children admit they were witnesses to a few murders. But when the mother died Becky and her younger sibling were taken in as wards of the state. The young man (we could not find his name) remained in the state shelter, but Becky ran off with Henry. Who reportedly simply walked into the shelter, grabbed Becky, and walked back out. The two fled to Texas leaving Ottis alone and betrayed. He later said he had to kill at least 9 people to “blow off steam”. It does seem true that Ottis was always a lot more taken with Henry than Henry was with Ottis.
Down in Texas things with south quickly for the young girl. Henry and Becky (who was by now 14 or 15), got a job as caretakers for an elderly woman. But were released after a few months when the family claimed the two weren’t doing their job properly and were in fact stealing from the old woman. The couple continued to drift until finding a commune where Henry found a job as a roofer.
Henry Lee Lucas kills Becky
But Becky became homesick and began to argue with the much older Lucas as teenagers tend to do. In a fit of rage, Henry murdered his rape victim and former lover’s niece. Dismembering Becky’s body and scattering the parts around an empty field, Henry then returned to the house of the elderly women who had employed the two drifters. Telling her Becky and run away and asking for her help, Lucas lured 82 year old Kate Rich to a nearby field and murdered her as well. This time stuffing her body in a drainage pipe.
Because of suspicion already aroused through his theft from the woman, Lucas became the prime suspect. He eluded arrest for a few years but in 1983, Henry was caught and processed for illegal possession of a firearm.
After Becky and Henry had left him, Ottis became even more aggressive and deranged. In January of ‘82, Toole got into an argument with a 64-year-old gentleman named George Sonnenberg. Ottis managed to barricade the old man in his house and then lit the structure on fire, burning him alive. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison. But just as that trial ended for Toole another began and in 1984 he was convicted of the murder of 19-year-old Ada Johnson.
Ottis Tool sentenced
For this killing Ottis received a life sentence. With both men behind bars they could have faded into obscurity. However, another terrible trait the murderer’s shared was a love of the spotlight. And thus both men sparked a decades long confession spree which shot them into the limelight and had police all across the country tracking down thousands of false leads. Eventually earning the two ex-lovers the title “The Confession Killers”.
The Confession Killer
Four days after his illegal possession’s charge and during his plea hearing, Henry abruptly confessed to the murder of Becky Powell and Kate Rich along with 100 other murders. He also incriminated his former partner Ottis Toole. Initially Toole denied he had any part in the crimes, but his tune soon changed when he saw the notoriety and good treatment Henry was receiving.
By November, Henry had upped his claims to 210 murders and police from all across the country began to visit his cell or fly him out to cold-case crime scenes. Henry had the luxury of eating a restaurants, giving countless interviews, and leaving the prison often. Ottis wanted to get in on the ride and soon began backing up Henry’s claims.
The biggest – and most likely true – bombshell that Toole dropped was the 1981 murder of Adam Walsh. The disappearance and murder of six year old Adam Walsh was one of the biggest headlines of the 1980’s. Comparable today to perhaps the Casey Anthony story or 1990’s Jonbenet Ramsey. The brutality that followed an everyday parental mishap gripped the nation.
A mother left her son to try the new Atari Game in Sears while she walked just a few aisles away. When she turned around he was gone. A frantic search began which exploded into a 24 hour news cycle over the next few weeks as investigators and the parents plead with the kidnappers to return their son. After two weeks, the severed head of Adam Walsh was found in a drainage canal.
Toole’s confession to Walshes murder soon turned into taunts. He could no longer physically torment victims on the outside, but other methods were at his disposal. He wrote letters to the press, disney world and John Walsh (the father of Adam Walsh) boasting of how he had killed the young boy. But due to lack of DNA evidence, authorities did not feel comfortable convicting Toole of the crime.
It wasn’t until 2008, 27 years after after the murder and more than a decade after Toole’s death than authorities finally claimed he was the killer and closed the case.
Aside from Adam Walshes case, most of the confessions between Lucas and Toole were fabrications, almost comical. Their biggest conspiracy was “The Hand of Death”. A supposed cult that instructed Henry and Ottis who to kill and was the real criminal behind their actions. According to Henry, he had killed Jimmy Hoffa and supplied the poison to the Jonestown massacre in Guyana, South America.
He led police all over the country to false grave sites, even once having them dig up an entire portion of the highway only to find nothing. But every time authorities were just about done with Henry Lee Lucas, he’d lead them to a real grave site and give specific details to a murder only the killer would know. Toole often did the same though he wasn’t quite the celebrity as Lucas. Once after a long confession to the murder of a woman authorities pointed out that another man had already confessed to the crime. To which Ottis simply replied
“Okay, if you say I didn’t kill her, maybe I didn’t”.
In and interview Ottis also compared the slaughter of people to the slaughter of animals.
“Ain’t no difference. If you stomp a bug you killed something. If you kill a hog you killed something. Ain’t no different to killin people”.
In total Lucas confessed to over 3,000 murders but was convicted of only nine. Though police believe there were probably close to 100. Toole was convicted of six though as many as 60+ have been attributed to him. And though the men were not convicted of all the crimes, police closed a total of 213 cold cases with the assumption that they were committed by the two men.
Some have since been refuted, but a large majority still hold that Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas were the killers. The two men would remain in contact through phone calls for several years. But later in life Henry would find god and become a poster boy for religious redemption.
He recanted all of his confessions except for the killing of his mother. He also adamantly denied that he had ever molested or hurt a child. And interestingly enough, the ONLY time George W. Bush commuted a death sentence to a life sentence was for reformed christian Henry Lee Lucas. Still, Henry knew there was no hope of getting out.
He told an L.A. Times reporter
“This life is gone. Maybe God will find something. I’ve left it in his hands. I just have to accept it.
Ottis thought Henry’s recantations were ridiculous and continued to give salacious stories to the press until his death in 1996. He died of cirrhosis having been a hard alcoholic just like his father. Henry followed 5 years later in 2001 dying of heart failure. He was buried in an unmarked grave for fear of vandalism. As far as the homophobia one would suspect surrounding this case, it was much more subtle than for other queer killers.
Though inexplicably Jeffery Dahmer was tied to Ottis Toole with people claiming the two knew each other. This was also due to the strong theory that Dahmer had been connected to the Walsh murder. A theory that had no evidence and which even the father denied. We aren’t saying that homophobia didn’t persist. Just look at the way Henry was treated by cops versus Ottis. Merely that there wasn’t the media evidence usually so prevalent in these cases.
Yes, both men were labeled as sex deviants. But in this case, it was true and it is hard to know if reporters were referring to their mass rape and assaults or their affair or both. What we do know is that the world is slightly safer without Henry and Ottis roaming the streets in search of prey.
Your recommended resource is the Documentary Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas available on YouTube. Or the book Henry Lee Lucas by Joel Norris. We don’t have a good book recommendation for Ottis Toole as Evan tried a few and they were all awful. However, there are some great episodes on various True Crime podcasts such as Criminal Musings hosted by our friend J.V. Hampton-VanSant. J.V. is a queer black person who hosts several podcasts, but specifically covers true-crime as it pertains to queer people and people of color. So check them out and send some love to the podcast Criminal Musings.
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Clips To Watch
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- YouTube – Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas – Serial Killers Doc https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z5lOzm84v9I