We’ll end the month of killer couples with the oldest couple ever sentenced to death for their crimes: Ray and Faye Copeland.
The Con Man and the Church Lady
Ray Copeland was born Dec. 30, 1914, in Oklahoma. His family moved around a lot, and eventually settled in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Like many who suffered through the Great Depression, Ray had to drop out of school in the fourth grade to support his family. This left him functionally illiterate for the rest of his life.
From early on, friends and family described him as spoiled and demanding. He committed his first known crime at the age of 20, stealing two hogs and selling them in another town. His father covered for him, and no charges were filed. He continued stealing and selling livestock, then in 1930, he was caught forging government checks in Harrison, Arkansas, and sentenced to a year in county jail.
In 1940, he met 19-year-old Faye Della Wilson, seven years his junior. Faye had been raised in a dirt-floor cabin in Harrison in a very religious family. The two got married six months later. In 1944 they moved, along with their oldest two kids, to California, where they had another child. They eventually ended up with five children.
Ray was violently abusive to all of them, beating them with anything he could lay his hands on, including cattle kickers and cast-iron skillets. Faye, raised a Christian fundamentalist, believed the husband was the head of the household and divorce was a sin, so she wouldn’t leave him. As she said, she bowed her head and took it.
The Scams of a Livestock Rustler
The year their youngest child was born, Ray was accused of stealing horses from a nearby farmer. No charges were filed, but he figured he needed to move on, and moved the family back to Arkansas. Less than a month after his return, he was arrested for stealing cattle and served a year in the State Penitentiary.
When he got out, he moved to Missouri. Again he was arrested for cattle theft. He kept moving the family around and getting arrested for writing forged checks pretty regularly. Finally, they bought a 40-acre farm in Mooresville, outside Chillicothe, Missouri. Faye supported the farm by working in a factory, and later, being a motel maid.
This is where Ray hatched the scam to use drifters to pass forged checks at cattle auctions. By the time the checks would bounce, Ray would have sold the ill-gotten livestock, and the drifter would be long gone. He was able to get away with it dozens of times until one of the drifters was caught and confessed to the police. Ray was again arrested and sentenced to jail for forgery.
From Scam Artist to Serial Killer
When Ray got out of jail this time, he knew he had to be smarter. Here is how the new, improved scam would go down: Ray would recruit homeless men from the missions and shelters in nearby towns, offering them $50 a week plus room and board to help out around the farm. For many, it seemed like a deal that was too good to be true. And it was.
He would then have his victim open a checking account in their own name with $200 that Ray would front them, using a P.O. box as an address. They would then go together to various cattle auctions, and Ray would signal the man which cattle to bid on and how much. When they purchased the cattle, the man would pay with his check, which would clear — at first. They would sell the cattle and come back and do it again — only this time, the checks would not clear. In the meantime, Ray would have sold the cattle, and the homeless man would be gone.
Dennis Murphy was one of these men. In 1986, he was wanted for writing bad checks at cattle auctions. Police had discovered that the cattle had been taken away in a trailer owned by Ray Copeland. The police questioned the Copelands about Murphy. The couple claimed that Murphy also written them bad checks, and that one day he just up and left. Since Murphy was known to be a drifter, the sheriff took the Copelands’ story at face value.
Then a deputy from a different county came looking for another man, Wayne Warner. The Copelands gave him the same story about Warner. In all, there were seven men who were wanted for these forged checks at cattle auctions throughout central Missouri, and and all of them were missing. And they all had a connection to Ray Copeland.
It wasn’t until in 1989 that a tip cracked the case open, when a man named Jack McCormick called the Missouri authorities from Nebraska. He told them that he thought he had seen human bones on the Copelands’ farm. The authorities searched the farm, including using cadaver dogs, but they found nothing. McCormick, who was taken into custody and questioned, recanted his statement about finding the bones, but he did reveal something else. He told them all about the check cashing scam that Ray had drafted him into.
He also told them that he was very afraid of Ray. He recounted that one night, Ray had asked him to come out to a neighbor’s barn under the pretense of shooting a raccoon that had gotten into the barn. Ray had his .22 bolt-action Marlin rifle, and he and McCormick went to the barn. But McCormick felt very wary of Ray, and kept his eye on him. When he went to poke a stick and get the raccoon out, as Ray had directed him to, he turned around and saw Ray had that .22 pointed right at his head.
He told police that he talked Ray out of shooting him with the promise that he would leave town and never come back. He told Ray that before he left, he wanted to make good the hot check that he had written, and convinced Ray to take him to the bank where he would deposit his earnings to cover it. Ray actually did this, and McCormick slipped out the back of the bank and over to a used car lot nearby. There, he convinced the salesperson that he wanted to take one of the cars for a test drive. Well, that “test drive” was his way out. McCormick waited until he was safely in Nebraska before he made his call to the police.
Though they did not find any remains on the Copeland farm, the police begin to piece it together: seven missing men, all wanted for writing forged checks at cattle auctions. All seven traced to the Copelands.
They got a tip from a local that Ray had often worked on a neighboring farm, and one of those barns had a smell like a dead animal. So they searched that property, and in that barn, they found a shallow grave containing the skeletal remains of three men, all killed by a .22 bullet to the head. In another barn on the same property, they found another body, then another in a well. This last man had been wearing a belt that said “Dennis.”
Searching the Copelands’ home, they found many of the missing men’s clothes, and, hidden in a camera case, a list of men’s names. Some of the names had X’s next to them. Nearly all of them had been wanted in connection with the hot check scam.
It was very difficult to identify the bodies of these victims. Since they were transients, any medical or dental records they had were very old or non-existent, and many had gone decades without dental care. Dennis Murphy was identified by the odd shape of his mandibular condyle, the joint of the jawbone. Forensic scientists were able to identify the other bodies: Paul Cowart, James Harvey, John Freeman, and Wayne Warner. All of them had X’s next to their names on the list.
In 1989, Ray Copeland was charged with five murders, as was Faye. They were tried separately, Faye first.
Faye was convicted on all five counts and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Ray was found guilty of the same, and given the same sentence. At 69 and 76 years old, they were the oldest couple ever sentenced to death in American history.
Was Faye Really Guilty?
Her son doesn’t think so. Her court-appointed psychologist didn’t think so. She was convicted on only two pieces of evidence: the list in the camera case that was in her handwriting, and the quilt she made of the dead men’s clothes. Neither of which actually proves her knowledge of the murders.
She was a battered wife, the victim of years of abuse and control. Her court-appointed psychologist stated that she suffered from textbook battered woman’s syndrome, a kind of learned helplessness where the victim becomes unquestioningly compliant. Faye stated time and again that whatever Ray did or said, she did not ask questions for fear of being beaten. She was offered a plea deal by the prosecution, but she didn’t take it because she swore she had no information to give them — she didn’t know where any bodies were because she didn’t know about the murders. On a technicality, her psychologist’s statement that she suffered from battered women’s syndrome was excluded from her trial. So no testimony or evidence about the abuse she suffered from Ray or how he controlled her was allowed in her defense. Subsequently, she was convicted on the flimsiest of evidence: the list and the quilt.
Most likely, Ray told her to write the list (throughout their marriage, Faye had to take care of any tasks that required reading or writing). Ray told her to put X’s next to men’s names. This could have simply meant the men left or were no longer willing to participate in the cattle scam. The fact that she made a quilt out of their clothes doesn’t point to her knowledge of their deaths, either, only that many of these transients would leave clothing behind, and she, like any thrifty country woman, found a way to recycle them into something useful.
Ray, who had controlled her and made her life miserable for decades, continued to do so even after his death in jail in 1993. Faye was never exonerated. In 1999, her sentence was commuted to life in prison. She suffered a stroke in 2002 and was released into a nursing home, where she died a year later. To this day, many still believe she was his willing accomplice, a cold-hearted killer rather than a beaten-down wife.
Besides the five known victims, the Copelands were also suspected in the deaths of seven other men. If Faye knew anything about them, she took that knowledge with her to the grave.