Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole:  Unsafe Under Any Conditions

Psychiatrists labeled Toole schizophrenic, psychopathic and retarded. Said one, "To him, life itself is so unmeaning, and the distinction between living and dead people so blurred, that killing is no more than swatting an annoying fly.... He trivializes the distinction between living and dead, believing himself to be dead. Retarded and illiterate, he has been out of control since early childhood. A severely drug-dependent individual, he is unsafe under any conditions outside of a secure prison, and perhaps unsafe there."

These men worked as a team from the time they met in 1976, and after they were caught and imprisoned, both confessed to an unbelievably high number of murders, and later Lucas recanted many of them. Then he said he'd been forced to recant.  Toole claimed to be a cannibal, but Lucas said that he'd abstained because he did not like the taste of barbecue sauce.

Ottis Toole, in the words of his crime partner and lover Henry Lee Lucas, was one of "the worstest killers in the world." Alone and with Lucas, this killer drag queen restlessly roved all over this country robbing, raping, burning and killing, attacking America more like an epidemic plague than a human being. Estimated casualties vary from 50 to 500 victims. He has confessed to numerous cases, and many are considered closed, even though largely due to the economics of prosecuting a murder case, formal charges were never even brought.

It is impossible to consider this barrage of criminal acts without wondering what unleashed this extraordinary destruction. During three 3-hour sessions Tolle described an life story that to most people just doesn't seem real. It was as he were telling us about another form of life. We may vaguely sense this sort of thing is out there, but we don't want to get too close to it. Scuttling through the sludge in the bottom of the swamp, always searching for prey, these are the real Gators.

Ottis Toole was as rare a specimen as an albino alligator, and it is with that rare dangerousness in mind that I entered his world and explored his reality. It was with a great deal of emotional tension that he told me he was sitting at the bottom of his grave. "The sides just ain't caved in on me yet." And in a sense, he spent his entire life in a grave. At the bottom of the gene pool, to be born is to die.

Ottis Toole may be naive, and he may employ the provincial speech of the underclass, but in his own poignant way, he has succinctly summed up the crux of the problem he embodies, which is the failure of every human system to understand, support, and assist him from the time of his conception to the present. While we do not sympathize with his atrocious crimes, if we fail to account for the contributing factors, we will never be able to confront and eventually to change those elements of our society that allow this sort of virulent pathology to flourish unchecked.

While medical research has been conducted for years on the connection between brain dysfunction and criminal behavior, in Florida it has been systematically suppressed by a criminal justice system that sees such work as a threat to the established remedies relying on capital punishment. Florida executes more criminals than any state in the union, and fearfully prevents researchers from having access to the condemned. Hypocrisy and denial are strangling the South just as surely as the kudzu that blankets the fields and the moss that drapes the trees. Our story begins and ends in the Deep South, but its implications extend throughout the entire country.

This is characteristic of the denial underlying our response to all of society's rejects -- those who have fallen into the underclass in any way -- whether they be incarcerated, unemployed, abused, neglected, insane, physically or mentally infirm or defective, involved in prostitution, drugs, gambling or petty crime -- or merely of a less than desirable age, weight, nationality, sexual orientation, or complexion. The difficulties experienced by these elements of the population are not being addressed, and since they make up the majority not only of offenders, but of victims, the underlying dynamics that contribute to the unchecked proliferation of not only serial murder, but repeated crimes of every kind, are allowed to fulminate to the extent that the damage extends beyond that strata of throw-aways and write-offs, and impinges upon the lives of the happy, shiny people that expect to be protected and defended from such chaos.

Serial killers embody the most extreme forms of social pathology possible, and it is in the process of learning to understand these unfathomable creatures that we are compelled to discover disturbing truths about ourselves, the world we have created, and its inevitable strange fruit. While the disease of serial murder is not confined to the disadvantaged, Ottis Toole represents society's ultimate scapegoat, combining every possible deficit.

Ottis Toole on A Current Affair


One of Toole's defense attorneys once said facetiously, "The best way I can describe Ottis Toole is that he represents the lower end of the gene pool." While his dismissive comment was not intended to be taken literally, it was actually very descriptive of Toole's legacy.

Prenatal factors including poverty, alcoholism, and marginal nutrition, combined to give him little opportunity to maximize his genetic heritage, which was not overly predisposed towards success in the first place.

He has suffered frontal and limbic brain damage resulting in numerous seizures. His tendency to black out results in confusion about the details of his crimes. When asked about his crimes, he explained, "Well, some of them I don't even remember doing until it's been done, until the next day somebody says you done this, you done that, I don't really remember, you know. Cause I'm an epileptic, too, you see."

His self-awareness and memory were further impaired by years of consumption of commercial and bootleg liquor, along with an unrelenting barrage of street drugs, starting with his mother's "nerve pills." "Oh shoot," Ottis said, "I would take it all. Whatever I could get my hands on, is what I would take. Something to get me real high, you know."

The abuse of alcohol and drugs not only affected his psychology, it undermined whatever moral training he might have had. "Dope makes you wild... it really brings out the hate in you more, because you don't care who you would have to rob to get it. You'd probably rob your own mama to take her pocketbook." He would go so far as to blame his string of murders on drugs. "If I was in my right mind at the time, it wouldn't have never happened. I was on dope, strung out, just wild and crazy, you know?"

In prison, he was consistently medicated with Thorazine and Dilantin, given a regular balanced diet, and punished when he was caught with drugs or jailhouse brew. Though the rigid control of his environment provided some ballast for his fragile equilibrium, it was not enough to restore him to a soundness he had never known in the first place.

His life in prison was more stable and healthy than his life outside ever could have been, and while he realized he would probably die behind bars, he still dreamed of freedom. "They's always a chance, you don't never give up," he told me. "If you give up, you just as well go lay down and say shut the damn top on the coffin and smother me to death."


Psychiatrists variously diagnosed Toole as schizophrenic and psychopathic. His IQ had been tested between 54 and 75, which is considered borderline retarded. Functionally illiterate, he dropped out of his special-education classes in the eighth grade. A court-ordered psychological report concluded in 1985, "He is a creature of impulse that seems incapable of premeditation. He has always acted instantly on impulse without the slightest sense of right or wrong at the time. Life itself, to him, is so unmeaning, and the distinction between living and dead people so blurred, that killing to him is no more than swatting an annoying fly is to normal people. A severely disturbed individual who is competent and sane in spite of his bizarre history, Ottis Toole seems incapable of premeditation or self-control. He trivialized the distinction between living and dead, believing himself to be dead. Retarded and illiterate, he has been out of control since early childhood. A severely drug-dependent individual, he is unsafe under any conditions outside of a secure prison, and perhaps unsafe there. He is neurologically damaged, definitely in the frontal area, and the psychological evaluation indicates other neurological deficits. He is a classic case of severely diminished capacity to control his impulses."

As a child, Toole was dressed as a girl, and later he dressed as a woman and solicited sex as a prostitute. Although he was twice married briefly, he denied enjoying sex with women. "Tried 'em. Didn't like 'em."

He always considered himself homosexual. "Well, I was raped when I was a little kid. A real little kid about six years old. I told my mother about it, and she said he wouldn't do nothing like that, you know."

Since early childhood, he obtained sexual satisfaction from setting fires, which culminated in his conviction in 1983 of murder by arson. "I been doing fires since I was a little kid. See, the little fires don't excite me, you know. Only big fires excite me. Just like if an ugly woman don't look good to you, you don't get excited. You have to get a pretty woman to get excited. It's like the same way with fires, you know. The bigger the fires, the more I get excited."

The psychology of arson involves damage to the limbic brain resulting in a stimulation to the central nervous system which is felt in the genitals, resulting in a sexual interpretation of a phenomenon essentially arising from brain damage.

Toole was a member of the lowest social stratum of the poorest part of the country. The South has always been widely known for its prejudice against blacks. Less recognized but as prevalent is the attitude that "poor white trash" are even lower than blacks; in the Deep South, white trash have always been considered the absolute dregs of society. While the precise meaning of the term "white trash" is debatable, most would agree with the definition similarly applied to pornography: "I know it when I see it." And few would quarrel with assigning that appellation to Ottis Toole's origins. Suffice it to say, there were few redeeming features in his social milieu.

If the Bible Belt had a buckle, it would be Ottis Toole's home town, Jacksonville, Florida. Entwined with the near-hypnotic hysteria of the holy-roller, hardshell Baptist is a neurologically-based hyper-religiosity that fuels the more extreme forms of fundamentalist Christianity.

Similar in style and intensity, but profoundly opposed in content and intent, is what Toole called "devil worship." "If you believe in God, you believe in the Devil," Ottis said. "If you believe in the Devil, you believe in God."

It is believed that the cannibalism Toole allegedly practiced was a perverse sacrament first learned at the altar of the devil-worshipping cult he was inducted into through his own family literally from the cradle.

The ritualistic symbolism of the satanic cult provides an emotional experience similar to that of the Christian church, without the spiritual and moral support. In place of the reinforcement of society's generally-accepted moral principles, the satanic cult provides the direct opposite: a libertine endorsement of unlimited sensuality, disorder, deception, high crimes and misdemeanors up to, including, and ultimately even surpassing murder.

Before we can understand the likes of Ottis Toole, it is truly necessary for us to examine ourselves, and to face the unpleasant evidence of the growing epidemic of the breakdown of our social fabric into the impersonal violence that is everywhere we look. In this sense, cases like these serve as evolutionary drivers, insofar as the challenge of coming to terms with them forces us to evolve into a higher consciousness of ourselves.