Pensacola, Florida, June 25, 1983: The peaceful summer night was torn by an explosion in a restaurant parking lot. One man, John Gentry, was seriously injured.
Police at the scene quickly pieced together the events leading up to the explosion. Earlier that evening, Gentry was with a group of people having dinner to celebrate a birthday. All of them but Gentry were stylists who worked at the same salon, which was owned by Gentry’s girlfriend, Judy Buenoano.
Then the focus shifted from the birthday girl to Buenoano, who announced that she was pregnant. Buenoano suggested to Gentry that he go to a nearby liquor store to get some champagne to toast the happy news.
But as soon as Gentry started his car, it burst into flames.
Thankfully, the doctors and nurses at the emergency room were able to save his life.
Back at the scene, it didn’t take much investigation to determine that the explosion was no electrical malfunction; dynamite and gasoline were found in the trunk of Gentry’s car. As investigators worked on the evidence at the scene, others questioned Gentry in the hospital.
At first, Gentry had no idea who would have wanted him dead. When police asked if he thought his girlfriend, Buenoano, might be behind the bombing, he wouldn’t hear of it.
But as he thought over the last few months, he recalled a strange series of events. For a while, he had been struggling with a mysterious illness — one that made him dizzy and sick to his stomach. In December, it was so bad, he had to go to the hospital and ended up staying nearly two weeks.
Unfortunately, doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, and while he was in the hospital, he began to recover.
Buenoano, he recalled, had been giving him vitamin pills. Once he got back from his hospital stay — seemingly on the mend — she gave him more of the vitamins, and he fell sick again. Gentry told the police that he simply stopped taking the pills, and had felt fine since.
This peaked police suspicions, so they asked him if he still had any of the vitamins. He did. Gentry gave the pills to police, who immediately sent them off for testing.
Meanwhile, investigators discovered that Buenoano had taken out a $50,000 life insurance policy on Gentry — and later boosted it to $500,000 without his knowledge. She had also been telling friends that Gentry was suffering from a terminal illness — and had booked a cruise for herself and her two adult children to set sail the month following the car bombing.
As investigators began peeling back the layers of Buenoano’s life, they found that she was not at all who she said she was. Buenoano had told Gentry that she had attended nursing school, earned PhDs in biochemistry and psychology, and recently headed the nursing department at a large Florida hospital. It was all lies — including the pregnancy she announced at the dinner party. Buenoano had been surgically sterilized in 1978.
Judy Buenoano was born Judias V. Welty in 1943 in Texas, the third of four children. Their mother died of tuberculosis when Judy was only 4, and she, along with her younger brother, was sent to live with their grandparents in New Mexico for a time (her older siblings were put up for adoption).
When her father remarried, the children returned to live with him and his new wife. Judy described her father and stepmother as extremely abusive; they forced her to work long hours, beat her frequently, burned her with cigarettes, and often wouldn’t feed her.
Then, when she was 14, she apparently snapped. She scalded her two stepbrothers with hot grease and attacked her father and stepmother with her fists and anything else she could lay her hands on. She was arrested and sent to prison for two months.
Once she was released, she chose to attend reformatory school rather than return to the family home. There she stayed until she graduated in 1960. She immediately took a nursing job and began going by the name Anna Schultz.
The following year, she gave birth to her first son, Michael, and then married John Goodyear, a sergeant in the US Air Force. Goodyear adopted Michael, and the couple settled in Orlando. They had two more children together before he was sent to Vietnam.
After his tour of duty, Goodyear returned home in 1971. But very soon afterwards, he began to suffer from intense stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. After only three months at home, he was admitted to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Orlando. Doctors couldn’t explain his mysterious symptoms, and on Sept. 15, Goodyear died.
Judy waited five days before cashing in her husband’s three life-insurance policies totaling $23,000 — along with another $62,000 in veterans’ dependency compensation.
John Goodyear’s death would be only the first of a string of tragedies and deaths that seemed to follow Judy around. Not long after her husband’s mysterious death — which was deemed to be by natural causes — her home caught fire. Luckily for her, there was a $90,000 insurance payout afterwards.
The now-widowed mother of three moved her family to Pensacola, and soon found love again, this time with a man named Bobby Joe Morris. In 1977, Morris moved to Trinidad, Colorado. Not long after Morris left, Judy’s house once again caught fire. She waited until she could collect the insurance money, then moved herself and her children to Colorado to live with Morris.
There she began going by the name Judias Morris, even though the couple never married.
But bad luck seemed to follow Judy even to Colorado. Not long after she moved in with Morris, he became so ill he had to be rushed to the hospital. He, too, suffered from nausea, cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Like with Goodyear, doctors couldn’t identify the cause of his symptoms, so they released him after 18 days.
Two days after he returned home, Morris collapsed at the dinner table. He was rushed back to the hospital, but couldn’t be revived. He died Jan. 28, 1978.
Judy quickly cashed in on the multiple life-insurance policies she had taken out on Morris, which combined totaled $23,000, as well as his home, which was paid off by another policy.
Judy pressured his family to have his remains cremated. Morris’ family refused. They suspected Judy was responsible for Bobby Joe’s death, but because his cause of death had been ruled as due to natural causes, there was nothing they could do.
In May she legally changed her and her children’s last names to Buenoano, a bastardized Spanish version of her first husband’s name. Then the family moved to Gulf Shores, in the Pensacola area. There Judy bought a house near the ocean, opened a salon, and drove around in a white Corvette. She bought herself diamond rings and wore Chanel perfume.
By June 1979, her older son, Michael, had reached adulthood and joined the US Army. He was assigned to Ft. Benning, Georgia, following basic training. He had a little bit of time in between, so he stayed at his mother’s house for a few days before flying out to Georgia.
That’s when the bad luck struck again, and Michael began experiencing the symptoms that had become all too familiar to the Buenoano family: cramps, vomiting, diarrhea. At Ft. Benning, he was admitted to the base hospital where he was tested for arsenic poisoning.
He had over seven times the normal amount of arsenic in his body. But the Army concluded that since Michael was exposed to arsenic in the normal course of his duties, it must have been an environmental exposure.
Meanwhile, Michael got worse. He eventually lost the use of his hands and legs, and had to wear a prosthetic arm and leg braces.
Which is why it was baffling that Judy thought taking her sons — including her partially paralyzed son — on a canoe trip was a good idea. In fact, Michael’s doctor had specifically warned against it, since Michael couldn’t swim or even cast a line.
But on May 13, 1980, that’s exactly what she did. It’s not clear what actually happened on that day. The story told by Judy and her surviving son didn’t quite line up, with Judy saying a snake fell into the canoe, and in the ensuing panic to get it out, they hit a submerged log and capsized. Her son at first said nothing about a snake, only that they accidentally hit a log and capsized. Later he would revise his story to align with his mother’s.
Judy and her younger son were able to swim to safety, but Michael, with no life vest, weighted down with leg braces, paralyzed from the waist down, sank to the bottom of Florida’s East River.
While Judy was waiting for Michael’s life insurance policies to pay out, the sheriff’s office began to take a hard look at “Dr.” Judy Buenoano. They discovered that on the two civilian life-insurance policies, Michael’s signature appeared to be forged.
But nothing could be proven, so Buenoano went on with her life. After collecting the insurance money, she opened a beauty salon. Soon after that, she met Gentry, a well-to-do executive, at a mud-wrestling match. They began dating, and Gentry indulged her expensive tastes in jewelry, clothing, and champagne.
It was only after they became engaged and taken out life-insurance policies on each other that Gentry began to fall ill.
When the tests on Gentry’s “vitamins” came back from the lab, investigators were confused. The pills Buenoano had been giving Gentry had been filled with a little-used chemical, paraformaldehyde.
As a poison, it wasn’t a very good one — it’s more dangerous as a carcinogen than a short-term murder weapon. The only use for paraformaldehyde is as a disinfectant, and is commonly used in barber shops and beauty salons for just that. When investigators searched Buenoano’s salon, they found large quantities of the chemical.
The State of Florida declined to prosecute her for attempted murder, due to lack of evidence. However, the car bombing was a federal offense, and not one the BATF was willing to let go.
Federal investigators traced the dynamite used in the bomb to an acquaintance of Buenoano’s in Alabama, and numerous phone calls between the two prior to the bombing confirmed their contact. A search of her home turned up wire and tape similar to that used in the bomb.
Buenoano was arrested at her salon on charges of attempted murder. She was able to make bail and walk free until her court hearing.
Meanwhile, the evidence against her began piling up. On January 11, 1984, she was indicted for first-degree murder in the drowning of her son Michael, and grand theft for the insurance scam.
Now that investigators had uncovered the deadly pattern, they set out to re-open the cases of all the other mysterious deaths in her life. A month after her first indictment, they exhumed Morris’ body. It tested positive for arsenic poisoning.
In March, John Goodyear’s remains were also exhumed, and he also tested positive for arsenic.
The trial for Michael’s death began March 22, 1984. The prosecutor, Russell Edgar, gave her the nickname “the Black Widow” because, as he said, she fed off her mates and her own young.
After only nine days, she was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to life without possibility of parole for the first 25 years.
Not long after her sentencing, Florida authorities exhumed the body of yet another man who got involved with Buenoano and ended up dead: Gerald Dossett. However, no charges were filed in his case. Buenoano was also suspected in the death of an Alabama man, but no charges were filed in that case either, due to lack of evidence.
On Oct. 13, Buenoano stood trial yet again for the attempted murder of James Gentry. That case only took three days, and jurors only deliberated for two hours before handing down guilty verdicts. For that offense, she was sentenced to 12 years.
It would be another year before she stood trial for the murder of her first husband, James Goodyear. She was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to death by electrocution.
The State of Colorado didn’t bring charges against her for a couple of reasons: first, with a death penalty, there wasn’t any other punishment they could hand down. Second, they decided to keep that indictment “in their back pocket” in case she ever managed to be set free from Florida. Then Colorado could charge her with Morris’ murder and ensure she stayed behind bars.
All told, Buenoano had collected some $240,000 in insurance payouts. She had taken three (possibly five) innocent lives, and had seriously injured one man.
On March 30, 1998 — on what would have been Michael’s 37th birthday — Buenoano was put to death in the electric chair in Florida. She was one of four women who were executed in the span of only a few days, and the first woman to be executed by the State of Florida since 1848. She had no final words.