Ray and Faye Copeland

This is a bit of a strange case, not just for myself, but for the authorities also.  Ray and Faye Copeland are largely recognized as the oldest serial killing couple in the United States.  They also became the the oldest couple sentenced to death at the ages of 76 and 69.  Neither survived long enough to be executed (Faye's sentence was commuted but it's unlikely she would have seen the electric chair).

I will start with why this case was strange for the authorities.  When it comes to serial killers it is rare in which someone becomes such at an advanced age.  It is also the rare case in which there were few clues, criminally and behaviorally, that would have led authorities to the killer.  Ray Copeland, by all accounts had several run ins with the law and spent at least a few (some say several) short stints in jail but it appears that in retrospect they were really petty crimes.  Most his crimes involved him stealing and re-selling livestock for money.  Of course this would lead to other charges such as check forging and depending on the money involved, to charges of grand larceny.  However, beyond that there seemed little indication that murder would end up in his history.  I have never heard any accounts of things like animal cruelty or any of the other signs we know can indicate the mind of a serial killer.  However, then again, since he was not caught until he was in his 70's and his childhood was spent during the time of the national Depression who knows.  We also have to remember not just the age of Ray and Faye at the time their crimes were committed and discovered but also the era in which they grew up and were raised.

Ray was born in 1914 and Faye was born in 1921.  This was an era and a generation of people who lived a sort of life that many of us today think seems foreign.  Secrets were held; privacy was sacred; and shame was feared.  People did not talk about what happened behind the closed doors of their homes and others did not ask.  When people married, they married forever.  Abuse was not uncommon, nor was it announced.  Even when it was known there was still the idea that domestic abuse was, if not ok, then ignored.  I am not saying these things to make excuses for anyone, but to simply state how things were thought of in their era.  Shame was a huge thing for people of this time and things that we today would think were in essence silly were serious business to them.  Unwed daughters were shipped off and hidden and those open secrets were never discussed. People did not divorce because divorce brought shame to all families.  Again, I agree that these thoughts seem silly to us today but they were real fears for this generation of people.  Another thing that often kept couples together in this time period was financial stability, even if it was not completely stable.  It was still an era where for the most part, unless completely needed, women stayed in the kitchen and cooked and cleaned and in most cases had no say what their husbands did or how they did it.  If their husbands did illegal things and spent time in jail it was not uncommon for the woman to do what she had to to survive and feed her family until her husband was released and then as soon as he was back things went right back to where they were, with the man being in charge completely.  

Now, before I get completely into the crimes committed here I want to talk a little about why this case is a strange one for me.  There has always been much to do about the fact of whether Faye was also guilty of the crimes in which her husband obviously committed.  She always claimed innocence, saying she did not know that Ray had murdered people on their land.  However, there seemed to be clear evidence that pointed to the fact that there was likely any doubt that she did not know what was going on.  Of course there are those who argue she was simply naive and did exactly as she was told to do by Ray and that she truly did not know Ray had murdered anyone.  Then there are those who argue, sure she knew, but she still did as she was told by Ray in order to save herself... in essence claiming Battered Woman's Syndrome ...  as she did at her trial.  Then there are those who argue there is absolutely no way that she did not know what was going on and points to evidence that she had ample opportunity to remain safe and yet report her husband, or even save herself before going to trial, and yet she continued to stated she was completely innocent.  In my opinion, I think there is clear evidence that she knew what was going on.  Few argue that she actually committed the murders as most believe that Ray pulled the trigger, and with that I agree.  However, there is this twinge in me that wants to give some sympathy to Faye, thinking, maybe, just maybe she truly did not know.  I think that twinge comes to me for not other reason than her age.  It is difficult for me to picture a little old woman helping and then covering up these crimes.  Then the logical part of me kicks in and reminds me that first, had she been younger I would simply never question the evidence or her guilt, and secondly, it is not as if every old lady is sweet and innocent... history has shown us this.  Of course Faye's family believes in her innocence and there appears to be ample evidence that Ray was abusive to his wife and children, although admittedly this evidence comes from family and friends who are defending Faye.  However, word around town, as his criminal record, does show that he was not exactly the nicest of men.  At any rate... on with the story... and you can decide Faye's guilt or innocence yourself.

As I stated before, Ray had several run ins with the law but almost all of them involved him scamming people to buy cattle and then re-selling it for money.  He had pulled so many of these scams, in many different areas in which he lived, that he was so well known for it that it all but became impossible for him to even be able to buy cattle.  By the time he came up with his first idea, in the mid 1980's, he and Faye had finally been settled for several years on a farm in Mooresville Missouri. They had raised five children together, to which they were all grown.  Ray had decided that he would have farmhands buy the cattle at auctions with bad checks (I have been unable to determine if in this first scam who or where the checks came from, they may have had his name on them) and he would sell the cattle before the check came through.  It did not take too long before it was discovered what the scam was an through their investigation the police talked to one of their employees and Ray was arrested once again for forgery.  He spent a little time in jail once again but per usual he got out and wanted to continue his ways.  Obviously his last idea had not worked too well so he came up with another one.  This one was much the same, but with a few twists involved that allowed him to continue this scheme at least between 1986 and 1989.  He would hire drifters or hitchhikers to work the farm for him.  He would then have them open a post office box as well as their own bank account.  Once again, he and his employee would go off to the cattle auction.  This time the employee would buy the cattle using a check from his own account.  Per usual the cattle was sold quickly.  It appears that very quickly, probably before the check was able to bounce and be discovered, the employee would be shot in the back of the head and then buried on (or sometimes near) the farm.  Using this method, there was no trace back to Ray and since the employee was now dead authorities could not find them in order to ask them questions and risk implicating Ray (and Faye).  

In August of 1989 a tip came in from a former employee of the Copeland ranch.  The man, Jack McCormick reported that he had discovered this scam while working on the farm, he had seen human bones on the farm and that Ray had attempted to kill him.  In October a search warrant was issued using bloodhounds and the farm was searched.  They eventually discovered the decomposed bodies of five men and on October 17th both Ray and Faye were arrested.  Amid their search they found the .22 caliber rifle that was proven by ballistics to have fired the shots into the five men.  They also found two things that would all but seal the fate of Faye.  The first was a ledger or register of all the men who had worked on their farm.  The list was proven to be written in Faye's handwriting. Next to the names of twelve men were an X... five of those were next to the five men who were discovered. Now, while they determined the names were written by Faye, I am uncertain that they could definitively determine that she also wrote the X next to the names.  I have seen interviews in which family members argue that Ray was illiterate and so of course the writing would be in Faye's name and that if the X is also determined to be in her name she only did so at the urging of Ray.... or could the X been Ray's?  The other piece of evidence that authorities say proves Faye's guilt was a quilt that was being made with the clothing of the dead men.  

Before trial Faye was offered a plea agreement in which she would be charged with conspiracy or abetting after a crime and serve less than a year in prison if she disclosed the location of the seven men in which were in the ledger and had an X by their name.  She refused, continuing to proclaim that she knew nothing about anyone being killed.  She went to trial in 1990 and her defense continued to proclaim that she knew nothing of the murders and attempted the defense of Battered Women's Syndrome.  She was found guilty of 4 counts of murder and 1 count of manslaughter (I do not know the reason for this) and sentenced to 4 death sentences and 1 sentence of life without parole.  It has been said that after her conviction the only comment that Ray made was "Well, those things happen to some you know" and showed no kind of sympathy or remorse towards Faye.  In March of 1991 Ray also went to trial and was found guilty of 5 counts of 1st degree murder and given 5 death sentences.  Of course he did not do all of this quietly.  Apparently in the beginning he tried a plea of insanity and when it was pretty certain that this would not fly he tried to get a plea from the state, however they declined. 

Ray died in prison of natural causes in 1993.  Faye's family and attorney had continually appealed her convictions and especially her sentence.  I saw one reference that said one of the appeals was based on evidence of Ray's abuse was not allowed in her trial but I am uncertain of it's accuracy considered by all accounts her defense was using the Battered Woman Syndrome so it seems a bit odd that the claim of abuse not being heard by the jury with this defense.  At any rate it seems amid pressure in August of 1999 her death sentences were commuted to life in prison.  Her attorneys, family and even advocacy groups continued to fight for her and it appears that once again the Governor was being pressured and may have been on the verge of paroling her when she suffered a stroke in August of 2002. The following month she was given a medical parole and discharged to a nursing home.  She died there in December of 2003.

To her dying day she continued to claim to have no knowledge of the murders.  I saw a report where someone who supposedly worked in the nursing home (or maybe it was the jail) claimed that she continued to have many pictures of Ray posted on her wall until her dying day.  I find this interesting if this is in fact true.  First, although I do not agree with it, I can see her defending him initially, or at the very least not implicating him.  However, it is highly probable that she was given all the details of the crimes by the investigators and the evidence against her as well as Ray.  Of course if she really did not know about the murders then this was news to her.  If she did know about them then it's likely she knew they had her.  Was this a woman who believed if she just simply said she did not know she would be believed?   It is also likely that she was told of Ray's indifference to her situation, especially after her conviction. So I find it odd if the claim that she continued to seem devoted to him is true.  Many would argue that she suffered from something similar to Stockholm Syndrome where a captive becomes devoted and sympathetic to their captor but I am unsure I would find this credible.  

Regardless of what you believe there is ample evidence that at least 5 (and most people argue 12) people died on the Copeland farm in Missouri.  Five innocent people were killed... period. 

Comments

  1. Hello! I read your article. I am very surprised that it’s a real crime story. Thank you for share it. All these point that you mention in the article are really helpful for a common man while talking with stranger.

    criminal justice stories

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