Killer’s Case a True Trial for Texas D.A.
Out back, Vic Feazell’s pool will soon be finished, as will the nearby waterfall. The Taraesque columns of his new, 8,000-square-foot mansion have been freshly painted and, soon enough, shipments of new furniture will fill the cavernous rooms.
Times had not always been so grand for Feazell, not so grand at all. There had been moments in the last few years when his life had seemed so unforgiving, so bleak, that he had wondered how all of it could have happened to him.
While he was the district attorney in the central Texas city of Waco, he had been handcuffed and led off to jail. His small son, Greg, had watched the humiliating arrest on television. His house had been searched by a small army of lawmen. There had been one trial and then another. In all, more than six years had elapsed from that day when the case of Henry Lee Lucas landed on his desk and sent events spiraling out of control.
Henry Lee Lucas. Now there was a name that had sent chills through the collective spine of the country. Beginning with his arrest in 1983, Lucas confessed to murders in every corner of the nation, more than 600 by the time it was over.
He bragged of murdering in every possible way. He said he was Seattle’s Green River Killer, Jimmy Hoffa’s assassin and the man who supplied poison to Jim Jones for his massacre in Guyana. If authorities asked him about a murder and told him a little about the case, he ponied up a confession faster than a blink. He confessed to three right around Waco.
Feazell did not believe Lucas committed the murders in his district, and that’s when his troubles began. His questioning of the Waco confessions was one of the key elements in raising doubt about Lucas’ role in other murders--a decidedly downbeat prospect for many lawmen who were clearing cases willy-nilly. Feazell believes--and so did a jury--that the racketeering charges that led to his arrest were trumped up because he challenged the methods of the Lucas task force, headed by the Texas Rangers.
After winning that battle, another jury awarded him $58 million in a libel judgment against a Dallas television station that had first called his honesty and integrity into question.
That amount--the largest libel verdict ever--would later be reduced significantly in an out-of-court settlement. Still, as Feazell put it while sitting in the study of the mansion: “I’ll never have to work another day in my life if I don’t want to.”
In the winter of 1984, Feazell was talking with Deputy Sheriff Truman Simons about Lucas and whether or not he could have committed the murders to which he had confessed in Waco.
They had a stake in this one, because a suspect--Joe Lehming--was already in jail. Simons had been working on Lehming and thought he had been only a hair away from convincing the man to confess to the killings. But when Lucas confessed, Lehming shut his mouth tight, “vapor locked” as Simons put it, hoping that Lucas would take the rap.
Simons went to the computer to see what kind of record Lucas had on the national crime reporting system. He typed in Lucas’ name and the oddest thing happened. Nothing showed up. Not a single petty crime. Clearly, someone with control of the file had pulled Lucas’ record. Why was another matter. At that point, neither had any reason to think of it as much more than a quirk in the system.
Simons pondered the blank screen for a while and decided to try something different. He typed in the codes for Lucas’ traffic record and he started getting “hits” on the screen. They began comparing dates on traffic tickets to dates of confessed murders and it started coming clear.
“There were about 30 cases on the Rangers’ list that Henry could not have done because of his traffic record,” Feazell said. “He was in other parts of the country.”
Weeks later and after disclosing what they had found to a state investigator, Simons pulled up the Lucas traffic record again to see if it was still there. It was not.
The two men began to suspect that there was a purpose behind this--that someone in authority did not want anyone messing with the Lucas confession bonanza. Simons, who is not one to mince words, said that he knew then there was going to be a huge controversy about the Lucas confessions. “I knew there was going to be one hell of a storm,” he said.
Feazell called Jim Mattox, then the Texas attorney general. Mattox recalls Feazell’s call well because he, too, had been having his doubts about the huge number of murders that were being cleaned up with Lucas confessions. Already, he said, he had called Col. James Adams, the head of the Texas Department of Public Safety, and told him so.
“Lucas was in the process of confessing to everything in the world,” said Mattox, who last year lost in his bid for the governorship. “It just seemed unreasonable.”
Mattox recalled that Feazell told him he knew many of the confessions were bogus. But Feazell also expressed concern about taking on both the Department of Public Safety and its subsidiary, the Texas Rangers, by himself.
The two men decided the best course was to convene a grand jury in Waco, with Mattox conducting the proceedings. But that was predicated on whether the Rangers would let Lucas out of their custody, where he had been for months. In one of the key events of the drama, they obtained a warrant and managed to separate Lucas from the Rangers and bring him to Waco to testify.
Lucas began to recant almost all his confessions and, in some cases, murders for which he had already been convicted and sentenced.
“Basically, he just spilled the beans,” said Mattox. “He acted as if he were relieved to be stopped of what he was doing.”
The grand jury also got additional information about where Lucas had been when the Waco murders were committed. In a stunning blow to the Texas Ranger task force, the grand jury refused to indict Lucas in the murder cases.
The testimony in Waco was followed quickly by the disbanding of the Ranger task force, a move that was embarrassing to that fabled law enforcement group. In effect, the Waco grand jury findings called the credibility of the Rangers into question because it had been so easy to prove that many of the confessions were bogus.
In May, 1986, Mattox issued a special report on the Lucas confessions, saying that the Rangers had done nothing to bring an end to the hoax.
That should have been the end of the controversy for Feazell, but it wasn’t. Some say that it might have been a bit different if Feazell had been less cocky, if the way he handled himself in the case had been a bit more subdued. Instead, he had thrown a few verbal roundhouses in the direction of the Rangers.
“Vic is the kind of guy you like very much or don’t like at all,” said Hugh Aynesworth, a Texas newspaper reporter who wrote a series on the Lucas hoax and also testified before the Waco grand jury. “He’s a caustic type. A lot of people don’t like him and I can understand why.”
Simons said: “Vic--I’ll give him that--he’s not afraid of anything. But he ran his head off a little much.”
Feazell started hearing things around town. Lawyers would call him up and say that a television reporter named Charles Duncan had been by asking questions. He heard that Adams had authorized a Department of Public Safety investigation of him and that the FBI and the Department of Justice were nosing around.
Adams said that the federal law enforcement units were called in because Feazell’s office, which normally would have been the place where the Department of Public Safety took its case, could not be expected to investigate itself.
Then came an 11-part series by Duncan that painted Feazell as a district attorney who, among other things, ran a very loose ship, whose ethics were suspect, a man who had poor relations with other law enforcement agencies and who was prone not to prosecute drunk driving cases.
On Sept. 26, 1986, Feazell was arrested as he got out of his car at the McLennan County Courthouse. He was charged with 12 counts of accepting $19,000 in bribes from local lawyers to influence his handling of criminal cases. Feazell was unceremoniously handcuffed and carted off to jail in what he later referred to as a “vulgar display of power.”
Feazell and his lawyer, Gary Richardson, contend that Col. Adams ordered the investigation of the Waco district attorney as soon as he learned about the grand jury being called to look into the Lucas case. Adams vehemently denies the charge.
Feazell had called Richardson, as well as Mattox, when he began to hear that he was under federal investigation. Richardson at the time thought that Feazell was overreacting, but he had also advised Feazell to start recording all of his telephone conversations.
The two men began to prepare their case, even as Feazell ran for reelection to the district attorney’s office. Feazell made the indictments a campaign issue, painting himself as the victim of lawmen out to discredit him because of the Lucas findings. Some of his ads depicted him being led out of a courtroom in handcuffs. Bumper stickers printed by supporters appeared that said: “Go Get’em Vic.” Billboards in Waco proclaimed such things as “Vic, We Care” and signed by “the People of Waco.”
Feazell won reelection handily. Then he filed a libel suit against WFAA-TV, the station that employed Duncan. He said that it was almost an afterthought, a matter of covering his bases before the statute of limitations ran out on the series that had run the year before.
A few months later, his federal trial began in Austin. Richardson, Feazell’s lawyer, said it was clear from the start how they were going to have to handle the case.
“The only way to win the criminal case was to prove that law enforcement was dishonest in this case,” Richardson said recently. “We had to decide whether we could truly convince the jury that law enforcement had conspired to convict him. The issue was whether law enforcement was corrupt.”
So the focus for the defense during the six-week trial became Henry Lee Lucas. And Richardson pointed out that the two key witnesses against Feazell had been given immunity from prosecution for their own serious tax problems in exchange for their testimony.
On June 29, 1987, Feazell was found innocent of all charges. “We felt like the whole deal was sort of a frame-up,” juror Martha Pearson told a Waco reporter.
“The smoke has cleared, the dust has settled, I’m still standing and I’m going back to Waco,” said Feazell outside the courthouse. And Richardson remembered several of the jurors walking up and asking him if he thought it was safe for them to walk to their cars alone. It was 2:30 in the afternoon.
Feazell went back to work the next day. He stayed on in the D.A.'s office for another year before resigning in 1988 to begin a private practice. One of the reasons was that his legal bills were well above $200,000 by then. The libel case finally went to trial early this summer in Waco. Richardson again represented Feazell. He contended that Duncan had worked with law enforcement in an attempt to indict and convict Feazell because of what had happened in the Lucas case. He dissected each of the episodes that were aired. WFAA-TV station executives testified that they had not considered the possibility that much of the information given to Duncan by authorities might be aimed at discrediting Feazell.
When it was over, the jury returned with the $58-million judgment in favor of Feazell.
Duncan has not returned telephone calls since being informed about the subject of this story.
The Texas Department of Public Safety has continued to maintain that, while Lucas may not have committed all the murders to which he confessed, he certainly committed some of them.
Adams, now retired as the Department of Public Safety director, said he believes without a doubt that Lucas killed at least three people and could have murdered many more.
Lucas remains on Death Row in Texas.
Simons, the deputy sheriff in Waco, contends that Lucas actually killed three people--his mother, an elderly Texas woman and his girlfriend.
Feazell is setting up his law practice in Austin. And he plans to represent Henry Lee Lucas at no charge.
“What bothers me in this whole thing is that the mechanics are still in place for this to happen to someone else,” Feazell said. “It’s the abuse of government and using power the wrong way.”