Review of Crimes Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (Netflix)

We are in a quasi-spoiler zone here.  Read on at your own risk.

I’m going to use the word ‘refreshing’ here in that this is not your typical true crime drama.  It is less about crime and more about the dangers of people on the internet who consider themselves sleuths.  As a true crime author, I know all about treading carefully.  I have outted suspects before in my books, and I do so by presenting hard facts – not conspiracy theories. I attempt to engage the individuals I am writing about, to let them express their side of the story. If nothing else, this series on Netflix makes you see the dangers of people at their computers, assigning blame based on their own half-assed investigating. 

The Cecil Hotel is creepy, and a lot of bad things have happened there over the years.  Every city has a Cecil or two lurking in the shadows.  In many respects, the hotel is a character in this drama as it unfolds – which is interesting.  Elisa Lam, a Canadian, disappeared while staying there.  The police could not find her at first, and a number of self-proclaimed investigators start tearing into the bizarre elevator video taken of Ms. Lam prior to her disappearing.  They find a creepy song-writer who stayed there once and begin to label him as a suspect.  There are claims that the hotel staff and the police are involved in a conspiracy to cover up the crime.  You are drawn in, wondering where this true crime drama is going to take you. 

If there was an award for best character in a true crime documentary, it would be her.

Then it hangs a hard left in Albuquerque (Bugs Bunny fans will get the reference) 

Without ruining this series, it masterfully draws you in, then gut punches you.  I enjoyed it because it was different, because it showed the dangers of people using their podcasts or digital forums irresponsibly.  

The truth about Elisa Lam is sad and tragic.  It is something that was not preventable, unfortunately.  The real crime was what happened after she disappeared, and the producers get you there abruptly, almost without warning.  It is a cautionary tale, and one well worth watching. It ends, not as you want it to, but with a cold dose of reality.    

Review of the Netflix Documentary – Operation Odessa

Would you buy a used Soviet submarine from these three guys?

I stumbled across this true crime documentary on Netflix and started watching it on a lark. It is…well…unique.

I remember bits and pieces of the news reports about this. Right after the fall of the Soviet Union, a Columbian drug cartel tried to purchase a Soviet submarine to smuggle drugs. No, I’m not making this up. Like many news stories, it disappeared off the headlines and faded away. Well, this series covers what happened.

Part of this series came across to me as almost like a comedy. I mean seriously, purchasing a submarine to smuggle drugs? And the cast of characters are so ‘quirky’ that you cannot imagine them actually getting together to try and pull this stunt off. Remarkably, however, it is a true story.

This series has elements of the Russian mob, crooked (if not crazy) cartel members (I mean, one guy stole $10 million from the cartel and is still on the run), corrupt Soviet officers (“Would you like to purchase some nuclear material?”) and more. If I were writing this as a piece of fiction, no one would believe the individuals involved, let alone the thought that they might very well have pulled it off.

This is not your typical true crime fare – it isn’t about murders or serial killers. I couldn’t bring myself to shut it off, it is entertaining enough to hold onto you. It’s only a single documentary episode, so you don’t have to commit to a series.

It’s worth it for the helicopter landing in the city square to get directions alone.

I am giving it five out of five stars simply because it made me chuckle and wince at the same time. Enjoy!

Transcript of our podcast, Tantamount – Episode 8 – The Phantom of St. E’s

Episode 8

St. Elizabeths – 2019

The following is the transcript of our latest episode on the Freeway Phantom

Hello, this is Blaine Pardoe.  Welcome back to our podcast.  I’m joined, as usual, with my daughter and co-author, Victoria Hester.

Welcome back everyone.  We hope you are all enjoying the Tantamount Podcast.  We certainly are having fun pulling them together.  With this episode is an important one for this case.  We call it the Phantom of St. E’s, but the real meat of what we are going to cover is around the topic of geographic profiling. 

I have to admit, when we started working on the book about the Freeway Phantom, I really only had a bit of surface knowledge about geographic profiling.  I’m not an expert now, but I have read a fantastic textbook on the subject. 

We really didn’t have a choice.  One of our confidential police informants gave us a copy of the geographic profile done of the murders in 2005.  That forced the issue because it was very revealing about potential suspects. Geography plays a key role in these murders.  The killer operated in a relatively small number of neighborhoods.  The roads were important to him and that was where he dumped the remains of his victims. If you analyze the geography, it can really focus on what was important to him, what was his tie to the communities.  And in this case, the geographic profile puts you right on ground zero. 

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.  Let’s talk about how geographic profiling works. When I started this I thought it was a matter of drawing circles around the crime scenes and seeing where they interlock.  There is a lot more to it than that.  This is some pretty serious math in play here.  Geographic profiling looks at where the victims resided, where they were last seen – which is where they had contact with their killer, and where their bodies get dumped.  These then factor in along with a variety of other factors including road systems, traffic patterns and volumes at the time of day.  They look at things like the time travel to the crime scene and other criminal theories such as rational choice. 

Geographic profiling is not intended to tell you where the killer lives or works – but that can be a result.  What it does is zero in on what are called Anchor Points. These are places where the serial killer has a special connection of some sort.  Now, in some cases, that can be their home.  Likewise it may be where they work. Many times it is neither.  An Anchor Point is merely a place where the murderer has a high degree of familiarity.  They frequent these spots.  These are often the places where they are most comfortable being. It may not even be where they have ties now, but where they had a strong connection in the past. 

The person that did the Freeway Phantom geographic profile was D. Kim Rossmo, out of the Center for Geospatial Intelligence and Investigation, at the Texas State University. He was invited to pull it together by Detective Jim Trainum of the Washington DC Metropolitan Police.  It was a technique that was not available to the original investigators in the 1970’s and Trainum hoped that the use of this tool might help him as he reopened the Freeway Phantom murders.

Geospatial intelligence originated out of the research done at Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology in British Columbia, Canada, in 1989.  Dr. Rossmo is a pioneer in this field.  It has helped investigators narrow their search for killers in active investigations.  What I found interesting is that they really refined the formula and the techniques by looking at serial killings that had already been solved.  In the case of the Night Stalker in California, they were able to retro-fit the analysis and it showed the very block that Richard Ramirez lived at when he had been committing the crimes.  Rossmo has also applied this to a number of cold cases. 

I liked the analysis done of Jack the Ripper’s murders. It is so cool to see a technique like this applied to these high-profile unsolved cases. 

I agree!  That was pretty neat.

What is also interesting is that Geographic profiling can’t be used in every case.  You really need a string of connected murders for it to be effective.  Also, you need a certain kind of serial killer.  You need a killer who is not a rover.  If you have a serial killer that, for example, travels the country and kills in a wide spread of geographies over time, the tool’s effectiveness diminishes because that kind of killer does not have relevant anchor point. 

Well, in the case of the Freeway Phantom, we know he operated in a fairly tight area, concentrated on the southeast neighborhoods of DC and just inside Prince George’s County, Maryland. 

True.  I found Dr. Rossmo’s textbook on profiling fascinating to me.  A lot more interesting than the textbooks I read in college.  Not so much the math, but the thinking behind how serial killers operate.

Why don’t you go into that for a minute?  I’m sure the listeners would like it.

Sure.  A serial killer is often a hunter.  There are multiple varieties of how they hunt.  Some lure their victims to their place and kill them there. 

Like Jeffrey Dahlmer. 

Exactly.  Other killers stalk their prey and kill them either where they make contact with them, or take them somewhere else after gaining control of them, then kill them there. 

Then they must dispose of their victims.  Some do that locally, burying them at their house.  Most try and put some distance between the victims and where they were slain.  As you know, some killers use dump sites to dispose of multiple victims, while others spread out where they leave their victims. 

Well, that’s the Freeway Phantom.  We know he took seized his victims, took them somewhere, most likely his house, killed them, then drove their bodies to where he left them.  He started doing a dump site initially.  Carol Spinks and Darlenia Johnson were found in a very small area, less than 15 feet apart.  His other victims were left all Southeast DC and Maryland. 

Right.  Now some of the theories that I found in Dr. Rossmo’s book was that there are zones where a serial killer will and won’t operate.  Think of these as concentric rings and imagine his home or place of work in the center.  The neighborhood around that anchor point is well known to the killer.  He knows the roads, the side streets, traffic, everything.  The problem is he is known there too.  So if he tries to pick up a victim, the people in that center ring may very well know who he is and make him easier to capture.  So a killer is less likely, in most cases, to operate in that center ring around their anchor point. 

The next ring out is where the real hunting for victims takes place.  These are neighborhoods and streets that the serial killer knows very well.  At the same time, he is not known there.  For the most part he’s as stranger there. 

The familiarity with the streets is pretty important.  The killer has to be able to navigate with the victim to wherever he intends to kill them.  To me, it feels like these are the areas where he has spent a lot of time looking for potential victims.  He’s probably even made some trial runs from there back to where he kills them.  If he’s smart, he knows something about the police patrols there too. 

Exactly.  The final outermost circle is huge.  This represents geography were the killer is not likely to operate.  He isn’t familiar with the area, there isn’t that comfort he has.  It’s not his turf.  This area is where the killer is uncomfortable that he can pull off his crime and not get caught. 

I like to think of these as hunting zones.  They factor into the calculations for geographic profiling as well. So as you can see, it’s not as easy as pulling up Google Maps and drawing circles on it.  There’s a lot you have to consider with this kind of profiling. 

For me, as an author, going to some of these neighborhoods some 40 plus years later, it is surreal.  You can cruise the same streets, see the same thing that the killer did.  Sure the cars are smaller and the apartments and homes are different, some better, some worse…but you get a vibe of what it was like for the Phantom roaming, looking for prey. 

Detective Trainum didn’t mess around when he wanted his geographic profiling done.  He had Dr. Rossmo do it.  And while it was done in 2005, the results still should stand as valid.  

I would like to point out that the geographic profile done for the Freeway Phantom cases did NOT include Teara Ann Bryant.  We know that the FBI considered her as part of the Freeway Phantom killings because she is part of their profile of the killer.  When the Washington MPD asked for their geographic profile, they didn’t include her.  Even so, I doubt it would have affected the results greatly.  The location where she disappeared and where her body was found is, as I like to call it, ‘in the zone’ of where the Phantom operated. 

By now you probably want us to cut to the chase, so I will.  Where did the geographic profile say the anchor point for this serial killer was?  St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. 

St. Elizabeth, or St. E’s as a lot of locals call it, is not your typical psychiatric facility in the 1970’s.  It was built around the time of the Civil War. It was huge, a campus really, consisting of many buildings, gardens, etc. Even today, as they tear it down for new homes, it has a creepy-factor about it.  The windows all are barred, the doors and stairs have industrial screening. For decades, this hospital was where the government sent their criminals and citizens that suffered the worst mental conditions. They used shock treatments and experimental medications there.  Those bars on the windows, they are not to keep people out, but keep patients in. 

When we were down there, I have to admit, it gave me an ooky feeling.  I mean this was an anchor point for the killer, a place that he had a special connection to.  When you looked through the chain link fencing that now surrounds the site, it is easy to picture patients peering out of the windows.  Every door has flat faded green mesh or bars.  It was like a prison, but far worse. I would hate to be there at night.  Not because of any fear in the neighborhood, but you can stand there and imagine the sounds that came from those buildings, the muffled screams from padded cells – the cries of the mad in the night.  It really is a place right out of a Hollywood horror film.  

Remember, the first two victims, Spinks and Johnson, they were left on I-295 on the shoulder.  Some 20 feet away was the perimeter fence for St. E’s.  That’s how much this facility was tied to the killer.  You have to wonder, did he wander the grounds there at some point and scope out where he was going to leave his victims years later? 

For me – this profile brings us back to looking at the suspects.  From what we were able to gather through our research and reviewing court records, none of the Green Vega Gang had a significant tie to St. Elizabeths prior to their arrests.  One was sent there after he was arrested for an evaluation, but before, none of them worked there or had been patients there.  That doesn’t rule them out entirely. But the profile essentially is telling us that whoever the killer is, he had a tight bond with that location – and these guys just don’t show that. 

That makes me turn to my favorite suspect, Robert Askins. 

I knew you were going to go there! 

Duh.  The guy spent decades in St. E’s as a patient. That was where he was sentenced after his first murder conviction. Look, there’s a number of suspects that the police looked at, but only one had any connection to St. Elizabeths, and that was Robert Ellwood Askins.    

I felt the same thing when I read the report. However, being impartial, I have to point out that there were thousands of patients that had been in and out of St. E’s.  It is entirely possible that it was a doctor or a worker there.  Remember, that hospital is an anchor point for the killer.  He has some connection there.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that he was a patient.  It could be he had a relative that was a patient and spent a lot of time there visiting.  There’s a lot of scenarios that can be concocted that could link people to St. E’s.

But what do you think?

To me, it’s another nail in the Robert Askins coffin.  It points to him.  However, we are looking at it from the lens of the police and who they had as suspects.  If that is your sample, then it is Askins.  If, however, it was someone that the police didn’t have as a suspect, well, it means it could be thousands of potential individuals. 

Our book presented the information on the geographic profile to the public for the first time. It is an important bit of information.  I only wish the police had released this information earlier themselves.  It may have generated some tips, got people thinking about friends or relatives that had links to St. E’s. 

It still can.  Remember, this is a cold case.  There’s information at the end of each episode if you have any information that might assist authorities in closing these cases.  This little nugget of information might just trigger a thought or memory that can close these cases.

In the next episode of Tantamount – serial killers rarely contact the authorities.  The Freeway Phantom did.  He had one of his victims write a note, a grizzly message that he left on her body.  The note is important because it is the killer speaking directly to the public, and to the authorities.  Please join us for Episode 9, The Voice of the Killer.

Review of HBO’s: Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered

The Atlanta Child Murders were an American tragedy.  Anytime a serial killer targets small children it is horrific.  What the authorities did after Wayne Williams was convicted of two of the 29 murders was gut-wrenching.  They closed all of the murders – slamming the door on the victim’s families.  If you watched Netflix’s Mindhunter, it isn’t too far off from the reality. 

This short series cracks open the case files as the City of Atlanta starts looking into the cases anew.  I came into it hopeful to get a well-rounded documentary series that would give me a solid sense of the crimes, evidence, and witnesses.  My expectations were not met – despite the stunning production quality. 

It is clear that this series is focused on Wayne William’s being innocent of these crimes, almost the point where they gloss over and downplay the evidence against him.  The producers throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall, hoping some of it sticks with the viewers.  We get everything from Klan informers to pressures allegedly from the White House to smother the investigation because it was bad for Atlanta’s public image.  The producers quickly mention that many of the accounts and alleged killers were cleared by alibi and polygraph, but instead drill in on a web of speculative intrigue that is hard to contemplate.

I wanted something that was balanced, but what I got was something crafted to try and manipulate me.  As a true crime author, I know that pushing an agenda is dangerous. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I strongly doubt that Williams was responsible for all of these murders. That isn’t the same as being innocent.  Three of the witnesses against him admitted that they lied, but there were other witnesses, including family members, who saw Williams with some of his victims. 

The claim that the fiber evidence was tainted by the FBI overlooks the fact that the GBI did their own analysis and could map fibers and hairs from William’s environment to 23 of the victims.  Remember as well that Williams was first on their radar when he was caught on a bridge when a splash was heard in the river, and a body was found a mile downriver days later.  He lied about his reason for being out at 2am on that bridge, just as he lied about his music promotion business being a viable entity.     

Much of this series is William’s defense team making the pitch that he is innocent.  Rather than admit they didn’t do a good job, they point of a vast conspiracy by the prosecution against them and their client.  I get it, that’s their job.  Again, evidence contrary to their theories is disregarded or ignored by the producers. 

Williams revels in the role of victim.  He accepts zero responsibility for any of his crimes.  That is maddening and sick.  Did he kill all 29 victims though?  No.  I doubt it. 

Some of the misdirection presented was obvious.  A person claimed a Klan member said he killed one of the victims who had run into his car with a go-cart.  In reality the victim was at a shopping center with a family member at the time of his abduction, left alone for only a few minutes.  There was no go-cart. No witnesses saw a go-cart.  Rather than point that out the producers chose to ignore the inconsistency to plant the seed that this alleged confession was valid.

Material presented said that another victim had been seen with a known pedophile who was named at or near the time of his disappearance.  That is useful information, but we don’t know why that individual was excluded at the time.  I have spent hundreds of hours of my life reading police reports from that era.  Often times in a murder you will get a half-dozen different witnesses who will point out completely different suspects. Investigators run those things down – they want to solve crimes.  We don’t know why investigators cleared this individual – either the case files were incomplete or the producers simply didn’t say. 

In the middle of all of this is the surviving family members.  Some believe Williams is guilty of some of the murders, others believe he is innocent.  They have been told so many things over the years, sometimes by those in authority, some appear unsure what to believe.  One thing they all share however is the anger and frustration that the authorities arbitrarily closed their cases. 

Reopening the cases is good public relations and long overdue with the family members – but it is unlikely to result in new charges or change anyone’s mind in the end.  The seeds of doubt were planted decades ago and even compelling evidence for or against Williams is going to change most people’s minds.

Having said that, this was a good and compelling documentary series.  You are torn emotionally by the stories and the terrible way that the community and victims’ relatives were treated during all of this.  At the same time you get a sense of frustration on the part of the investigators interviewed because most are quite sure they caught the right man.  As much as I have taken shots at the approach of the series, I still recommend it. 

A Live PD Bingo Game For Your Quarantine Fun (Some True Crime Fun!)

Being a true crime author I am a huge fan of A&E’s LivePD  Things I learned watching Live PD  I figured since everyone is forced to sit and watch TV this weekend, I would provide you a fun little game to add to your viewing pleasure.

Just like regular Bingo, you want to get five across.  The first one that does, wins.  I’m providing four game boards, but you can easily make your own.  You can come up with your own prizes, be it shots or cookies — whatever floats your boat.  Simply print and cut these out, use pennies, beans, pickles, or whatever to mark your progress.  Good luck!

Feel free to share this and have some fun watching Live PD while stuck in your house!

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True Crime Series Review – HBO’s McMillion$

Mcmillions
Dipped in awesome sauce!

Okay, this isn’t your typical true crime series – there is only one dead body.  This is about the greatest scam in modern times.  It covers the crimes tied to McDonalds’ Monopoly game and that for years, the game was 100% rigged.

You didn’t know?  I remember bits and pieces of this story, but I never knew the entire story.  A friend turned me onto this HBO series and my wife and I got hooked.  The FBI agent who started the ball rolling made it for me.  I wish everyone in the FBI was a gung ho as this guy.  The undercover sting videos were wonderful!

The series begins with a simple tip – that the McDonald’s games are all rigged by someone called “Uncle Jerry.”  It turns out to be much bigger than that.  The mob is involved, as well as multiple Jerry’s.  There’s a questionable death, shady characters, and some remarkably bizarre twists. The spider web of winners and middlemen in all of this is incredible.

You are left, until the last episode, not knowing just how the pieces got stolen and switched out – or who the informant was.  We were shocked on the last episode, which means the producers did it right.

Some of the winners try desperately to paint themselves as victims which I disliked.  All but one, in my opinion, knew exactly what they were doing as part of this criminal conspiracy.  They paid money to middlemen for the winning tickets.  They knew the game was rigged and were cheating not just McDonalds but everyone who played and thought they had a chance of winning.

We were riveted to each episode, so the pacing is good.  I think if you tune into this you will not be disappointed.  It is a top-notch true crime production.  You’re stuck in the house anyway, so use your social distancing time appropriately and watch this series.

Tantamount Podcast Episode Six – The Mysterious Case of Robert Askins – Supplemental Material

Of all of the suspects in the Washington DC serial killings attributed to the Freeway Phantom, none stand out more than Robert Ellwood Askins.  Episode six is dedicated to him and can be accessed via iTune (search for Tantamount) or via the link below:

Tantamount – Episode 6

Obviously I encourage you to follow our podcast and to share it with your friends.

It was hard to find a photograph of Askins after all of these years.  We did track down a lineup photo of him:

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That’s Robert Ellwood Askins, in the middle.  He would later claim he was identified because he was the only one in the lineup that had a shirt tucked in.  In reality, he was one of four that had their shirts that way.  

Askins was involved with multiple murders in his life, but only convicted of one – and that one, the poisoning of Ruth McDonald, was overturned on a technicality.  He spent most of his early life locked up at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington DC.  That is important in a future episode of the podcast.

Askins died in prison, but we were able to get copies of most of his prison records via a FOIA request.  It includes his psychiatric evaluations.  I have included a few for those of you who want to dive into the nitty-gritty work of a true crime author.

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Review of the True Crime Book – Blood & Money: The Classic True Story of Murder, Passion, and Power by Thomas Thompson

Blood-Money
This is not a book, it is a journey

Okay, this is an older book but I just got around to reading it.  Thomas Thompson did a masterful job of taking me down roads with so many twists and turns that I was unsure of where I was going to end up.  Just when I thought I was on top of what was happening, I was blindsided with a surprise twist.

Set in the 1960’s, this begins with the murder of Joan Robinson Hill.  Adopted child of a rich Houston oil and land tycoon, you are drawn into the story of Ash Robinson, her father, and of her husband, Dr. John Hill.  Honestly, I can’t tell you much more beyond this without ruining the book.  Suffice it to say, halfway through the book, I was stunned with a twist that Hollywood could not have conceived.

Thompson takes us into the lives of unsavory assassins, prostitutes, the rich, and the demented. It is an American story of power, justice, justice-denied, and startling bravery.  I came away drained, knowing more about Houston of the 1960’s than I could have imagined – a mix of Peyton Place and the TV show Dallas.

This book has easily become one of my favorite true crime books and sets a bar in terms of investigative journalism.  I was enthralled with the book, but it took a long time to get there.  This book is a journey and one that is well-worth the trip.  Easily five-out-of-five stars for me.

Tips – One of the Chief Reasons I Write True Crime

Scooby
I am not a police officer nor do I play one on TV.

People ask why I write about cold cases.  The last few weeks brought the issue to the forefront and I thought I’d share.

In the last few weeks I have had two tips come in on two different serial murder cases I have written about.  I get tips at least monthly, if not more often.  They seem to come in batches, which begs some sort of scientific study.  When I get tips I pass them onto the authorities.  I do this because I’m not one of the Scooby Doo Gang out solving mysteries.  The crimes get solved and go to trial when the authorities do their job and investigate.

I don’t share names or even what the tips are with the public so please, don’t ask.  Again, that’s for the investigators to do. You have to remember that with some of these tips, people feel their lives might be in danger. They may be right, it is difficult to say.  While most of the cases my daughter and I write about are old, that doesn’t mean that the killer(s) want it resolved. I protect my sources, but at the same time, if you call me, I will pass on the info to the police.

One tip, I finally heard from, was a dead end.  It is pretty rare that the authorities tell me if it is a good tip or a dud.  It was very nice that they followed up with me.   I think for the person that reached out to me, and her family, it was welcome news.

The other person with a tip not only contacted me but the authorities and it sounded promising…very promising.  Time will tell.

Someone asked if I ever felt I was putting my life at risk.  The short answer is yes.  I am sure that most murderers don’t want attention drawn to their cases…and that’s what we do as writers.  My daughter/co-author and I do take photos of the crowds at our speaking events because there’s a chance that the killer is sitting in the audience.  I’ve even shared some with law enforcement, because you never know…   I have had one person we outted as a suspect show up at a book signing once, though he didn’t have the nerve to come up to us and confront us.  I recently had someone threaten me over the phone.

Remember though, we tend to write about crimes from the 1960’s-1980’s.  That means that a 25+ year old killer then would be in his 60’s now.  So while there are times I am reminded that I could be in danger, I am picturing someone trying to chase me down driving a Rascal or with a walker.

There have been times when cars have parked in front of our house for hours at a time, only to speed off when I approach them.  There have also been some plain white-panel vans with government plates that have parked out there…so I presume the good guys are nearby.

People that cover true crime; authors, podcasters, bloggers, reporters, we all take a calculated risk when we start poking into cases.  It’s not glamorous by a long shot.  Still, we do it because we can help the authorities with new tips and leads that might lead to a conviction.

Review of Netflix’s: The Confession Killer

Lucas
Liar, liar, pants on fire…

This is one of those stories that resonated with me as a true crime writer because I’ve seen it with my own eyes on a case.  More on that later.

The Confession Killer is the story of Henry Lee Lucas, a man that confessed to upwards of 300 (or more) murders in the 1980’s.  He was a killer.  He had murdered his mother and spent time in prison for that crime. Early on in his confessions, he led authorities to the remains of two victims…only their killer could have done that.

The local sheriff and the Texas Rangers had a person in Lucas who was willing to confess to countless crimes, all for a strawberry shake and some cigarettes.  He provided details that only the killers could know, or so it seemed.  Police from all over the country lined up for 20 minute sessions with Lucas where he would confess to crimes in their jurisdictions and allow them to close the cases.  It gave dozens of families closure finally.

Lucas loved the attention and the limelight.  He basked in it. For one time in his life, he had importance.

Then a dogged reporter started actually digging into Lucas and discovered proof that with many of his confessions, Lucas was not able to have committed the crimes – he was in other parts of the country.  The local sheriff and the Rangers ignored the evidence.  I have to say, at first, I thought that the reporter was the real hero of this true crime saga.

If this had been the crux of the story, it would have been a very good documentary.  But wait, there’s more!

A young and determined Waco prosecutor spotted the same errors and opened a grand jury investigation into the Lucas task force.  The Rangers, the FBI, and the IRS were brought to bear on him, framing him for bribery.  Lucas’s information disappeared from law enforcement computers.  A massive cover-up was eventually exposed, complete with law enforcement manipulating the media to go after the prosecutor.

So how did he do it?  Officers fed him information, led him to crime scenes, gave him photographs of crime scenes and pictures of the victims.  Lucas had an uncanny ability to read his audience and give them what they wanted, confessions.  They were able to overlook errors he made, or they even corrected him when he made mistakes.

Henry Lee Lucas played them like a cheap fiddle.

As a sidebar:  My daughter and I witnessed this ourselves when writing The Murder of Maggie Hume. Michael Ronning had confessed to her murder but it was, most likely a false confession.  We watched videos of them taking Ronning to crime scenes and it was eerily similar to what Lucas did.  When officers took him out to another murder site that he claimed credit for (Patricia Rosansky) along the river, Ronning didn’t point out the area where they should turn off.  One officer we heard on the tape said, “Michael, doesn’t that area over there look familiar to you?” as he pointed to it. Another officer off camera can be heard saying, “Damn it Denny, why don’t you just get out and show him where the body was?”

There are officers that swear to this day that Ronning’s confessions were solid, despite errors that cannot be overlooked.  Why?  Because they want Ronning to be a serial killer, they wanted to be the officers that closed cases involving such a murderer. That notoriety, of being involved with a serial killer is like winning the Super Bowl for law enforcement.

Which is how Henry Lee Lucas played authorities.

I really enjoyed this short series by Netflix.  A solid five out of five stars, perfect for your winter binge watching needs.