The “Lethal Lovers” who made a game of murder

Gwen Graham and Cathy Wood

Cathy Wood started working at the Alpine Manor nursing home in Walker, Michigan, at the urging of her husband, Ken. He thought she needed to get out of the house, and that a job might cheer her up. He had no idea how badly his well-meaning suggestion would turn out.

Ken and Cathy had married in 1979, when she was just 17 years old — and pregnant. Later, Wood would say she allowed herself to get pregnant so she could leave her abusive home. However, Wood would later be diagnosed as a pathological narcissist, so it’s hard to know what’s the truth and what’s a lie — a dilemma that makes this case even more difficult to understand.

After the baby, a daughter, was born, Wood didn’t act like she wanted the girl. Ken says that Wood didn’t bond with her daughter, and seemed to be irritated by the fact that she needed caring for. Wood withdrew, isolating herself inside her home, which became cluttered and filthy.

Ken thought that if Wood got a job and got out of the house, she might start to feel better. So in 1985, she took his suggestion, and was hired at the Alpine Manor nursing home.

Once she was on the job, she met a group of lesbians who worked there. They were a pretty tight group of friends, but they welcomed Wood into their circle. She began hanging out with them after work at bars and parties. Later, however, they said that Wood was manipulative, a pathological liar who seemed to enjoy stirring up conflict and chaos.

In September of 1986, she began an affair with Gwen Graham, who had recently moved to Michigan. Graham had endured a tragic childhood. She was raised on a farm in Texas by parents who believed that holding infants “made them weak,” so she went without crucial physical contact and care during her earliest development. In addition, Graham said her father abused her, both physically and sexually. She would burn herself with cigarettes and cut herself with razors. One incident in her childhood stands out for its bizarreness: her brother, on the orders of their father, killed her pet dog for the sin of spooking a horse. Graham later dug up her dog’s bones, removed its teeth, and kept them in a little heart box. Later, she would be diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and other psychopathic features.

With Wood, Graham had found what she was so desperately craving: someone who would pay attention to her and make her the center of their world. But there would be a steep price to pay for Wood’s affections.

After a whirlwind romance with Wood, Graham began seeing another woman in the spring of 1987, and abruptly left Michigan to move back to Texas with her. Graham later said she had to flee in fear of Wood, who had tied her up and threatened her with a gun.

Wood’s marriage with Ken ended (unsurprisingly), but she quickly re-married another man, and just as quickly, divorced him. Yet she had stayed with him just long enough to confess to murdering five women in her care at Alpine Manor.

After their divorce, Wood’s most recent ex-husband went to the police with his story. The problem was, many people had died in the nursing home in 1987, and none of the deaths had seemed suspicious. Yet police knew that it would be fairly easy to conceal a murder among many natural deaths, so they brought Wood in for questioning.

What actually happened at Alpine Manor between January and April of 1987 is hard to determine — most of the facts of the case are based solely on Wood’s word, which was suspect to begin with, and changed over time. Under questioning, Wood did reveal some of the details of the murders to police in exchange for a plea deal. She portrayed Graham as the mastermind who coerced Wood into participating in the murders — and that she, Wood, had only acted as lookout while Graham smothered the helpless patients with rags.

The problem was, of the five alleged victims, none had had autopsies performed, and all but two of them had been cremated. So the police ordered the exhumation of those two. The coroner found no physical evidence of homicide, but if they had been smothered as Wood claimed, there wouldn’t be any evidence after so long. Based on Wood’s statements alone, the causes of death were changed to “homicide,” and arrest warrants were served for both Wood and Graham.

Graham maintained her innocence, claiming the roles were reversed and that it was Wood who initiated and carried out the murders. Later reporting by author Lowell Cauffiel in his 1992 book Forever and Five Days would seem to confirm her story. Cauffiel interviewed several of the couple’s friends and co-workers, and they all painted a very different scenario — one where Wood was the dominant partner who manipulated Graham into participating in the murders.

Graham claimed the murders had started as a kind of macabre game invented by Wood. The object of the game, according to Graham, was to choose victims by their initials to spell out the word “MURDER.” But that proved to be too difficult, so they gave up and just started killing patients at random.

The two women had even made their killing into a cutesy inside joke, writing letters to each other that said “I love you forever and X days,” where X= the number of people they had killed.

Apparently Wood wasn’t the only one who had slipped up and confessed to her partner — Graham’s new girlfriend testified that Graham had confessed the murders to her as well. Based on her and Wood’s testimony, Graham was found guilty of all charges (five counts of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder), and sentenced to five life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Wood, thanks to her plea deal, was charged with only one count of second-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit second-degree murder. She was sentenced to 20 years on each count, but after serving 29 years, was granted parole in October of 2018. As of this writing, she remains in prison while her parole is on appeal.

In his book, Cauffiel asserts that Wood was willing to sacrifice her own freedom in order to get revenge on Graham for leaving her — and, it seems, she might have been successful.

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I write true crime and twisted fiction. I also host a true-crime YouTube channel at www.thedeadlydigest.com.

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