Ray (1914 - 1993) and Faye Della
Copeland (1921 - 30 December 2003) were convicted of killing
five drifters (and likely killed at least seven more, though no
bodies were recovered), and ultimately became the oldest couple
ever sentenced to death in the United States— Faye was 69 and Ray
was 76 at the time of sentencing. Faye was the oldest woman on
death row until her sentence was commuted to life in prison in
Prior to the murder convictions, Ray had a long
history of crimes, ranging from petty theft to grand larceny. He
was convicted of writing bad checks on a number of occasions. The
Copelands were caught and charged with murder after a drifter
spotted human remains on their land. Evidently, Ray had hit upon
the scheme of hiring drifters, having them pay for cattle at
auction with bad checks (which Ray by then was loath to do
personally, given his prior convictions), then killing the
drifters once they were no longer of any use, with a single bullet
to the back of the head. It is unclear if Faye had any knowledge
of this scheme, and her lawyers argued that she suffered from
battered woman syndrome.
On November 1, 1990, 69-year-old Faye Copeland
went to trial. According to articles in the Saint Louis
Post-Dispatch, Faye claimed she did not know her husband was a
murderer. Although her marriage to Ray was fraught with abuse, the
jury convicted her of four counts of murder and one of
manslaughter. Faye had written a list of names that included the
murdered drifters, each of whom had an X next to his name (as did
7 others, who remain missing).
As Faye was sentenced to death by lethal
injection, she sobbed uncontrollably. When Ray Copeland was told
about the verdict on his wife his reply reportedly was, "Well,
those things happen to some you know"; he apparently never asked
about Faye again. Ray is rumored to have been a spoiled child,
often demanding things. Although he came from a poor family, if
Ray wanted something, it was said to have been soon acquired for
him by any means possible. He was strongly disliked by neighbors,
who believed he beat Faye and their four children.
On August 10, 2002, Faye Copeland suffered a
stroke, which left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak.
Weeks later, in September 2002, Governor Holden authorized a
medical parole for Faye, fulfilling her one wish that she not die
in prison. She was paroled to a nursing home in her hometown. The
following year, on December 30, 2003, 82-year-old Faye Della
Copeland died at the Morningside Center nursing home in
Chillicothe, Missouri, from what Livingston County coroner Scott
Lindley described as natural causes (disease). She left behind
five children, seventeen grandchildren, and (at last count)
Ray had died (1993) previously of natural
causes while awaiting execution.
In other media
Their story has been fictionalized in a comic
book, Family Bones, written by Faye Copeland's nephew,
Shawn Granger. The case was also documented in a Forensic Files
episode and more recently in an episode of Wicked Attraction
titled "Murder at Twilight." The play "Temporary Help" by David
Wiltse, which appeared off Broadway in 2004, was also based on
Book, The Copeland Killings, by Tom
Book, Family Bones, by Shawn Granger
Serial Killers Couple Ray and Faye Copeland
By Charles Montaldo - About.com
Ray and Faye Copeland - Their Retirement
Serial killers share similar backgrounds and
often begin their killing spree when they are young adults.
However, for Ray and Faye Copeland, their lust for killing came
with their retirement years. Why this couple, both in their 70s,
went from being loving grandparents to serial killers, who used
the clothing of their victims to make a warm winter quilt to
snuggle under, is both morbid and perplexing. Here is their story.
The Copeland Investigation:
In October 1989, Missouri police received a tip
that a human skull and bones could be found on farmland owned by
an elderly couple, Ray and Faye Copeland. Ray Copeland's last
known stint with the law involved a livestock scam, so as police
questioned Ray inside his farmhouse about the scam, authorities
searched the property. It did not take them long to find five
decomposing bodies buried in shallow graves around the farm.
The Mystery 'X' Mark:
The autopsy report determined that each man had
been shot in the back of the head at close range. A register with
names of the transient farmhands who had worked for the Copelands
helped police identify the bodies. Twelve of the names, including
the five victims found, had a crude 'X' in Faye's handwriting,
marked by the name.
More Disturbing Evidence:
Authorities found a .22-calibre Marlin
bolt-action rifle inside the Copeland home, which balistics tests
proved to be the same weapon as the one used in the murders. The
most disturbing piece of evidence, besides the scattered bones and
rifle, was a handmade quilt Faye Copeland made out of the dead
victim's clothing. The Copeland's were quickly charged with five
murders, identified as Paul Jason Cowart, John W Freeman, Jimmie
Dale Harvey, Wayne Warner and Dennis Murphy.
Faye Insisted Knowing Nothing About Murders:
Faye Copeland claimed to know nothing about the
murders and stuck to her story even after being offered a deal to
change her murder charges to conspiracy to commit murder in
exchange for information about the remaining seven missing men
listed in her register. Although a conspiracy charge would have
meant her spending less than a year in prison, compared to the
possibility of receiving the death sentence, Faye continued to
insist she knew nothing about the murders.
Ray Attempts an Insanity Plea:
Ray first tried to plead insanity, but
eventually gave up and tried to work out a plea agreement with
authorites. The authorities were not willing to go along and the
first-degree murder charges remanined intact.
During Faye Copeland's trial, her attorney
tried to prove that Faye was another one of Ray's victims and that
she suffered from Battered Women Syndrome. There was little doubt
that Faye had indeed been a battered wife, but that not was enough
for the jury to excuse her cold murderous actions. The jury found
Faye Copeland guilty of murder and she was sentenced to death by
lethal injection. Soon after, Ray was also found guilty and
sentenced to death.
The Oldest Couple Sentenced to Death:
The Copeland's made their mark in history for
being the oldest couple to be sentenced to death, however, neither
were executed. Ray died in 1993 on Death Row. Faye's sentence was
commuted to life in prison. In 2002 Faye was released from prison
because of her declining health and she died in a nursing home on
December 2003, at age 83.
Source: The Copeland Killings by T. Miller
The case of the vanishing vagrants
By Mara Bovsun - Nydailynews.com
March 25, 2008
There have always been men like this. Hobos,
tramps, vagrants. When they wander into town, out of luck, money
and booze, most people view them with suspicion, dread and
One man, Ray Copeland of Mooresville, Mo., saw
something else in the never-ending procession of the down-and-out.
He saw dollar signs.
True, Copeland's scheme to make money off these
men meant that he'd somehow have to silence them, but that didn't
seem very difficult. These were people with no close ties. He
never picked one with a family or anyone who would miss him if he
He didn't count on one getting away.
At 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 20, 1989, Crime Stoppers
toll-free hotline received a bizarre, anonymous tip. The caller
accused Copeland of murdering farm hands. He told of seeing a
skull and human bones buried on the land, then he hung up.
Police were not surprised to hear Copeland's
name connected to such a horrible allegation. The old farmer had
been in the sights of the local authorities for at least three
years. Folks around Mooresville, population 130, had always viewed
him a menacing oddball.
"Real bitey and snappy," recalled the owner of
the local cafe. He yelled at waitresses. Others said that they had
seen Copeland intentionally run over dogs.
More disturbing was how he'd hang around places
where transients could get a hot meal and a bed, talking about big
money and making job offers.
Trouble at an early age
In addition to his temper and his peculiar
behavior, the farmer had a long history of crime, wrote Tom Miller
in "The Copeland Killings."
Born in Oklahoma in 1914, Copeland had a hard
childhood. He dropped out of school and started stealing during
the Depression, when he was around 20. First hogs from his father,
then government checks from his brother. He was arrested two years
later for forgery.
Marriage and children did not stop him, and he
was periodically arrested for stealing livestock or writing bum
checks; that is, when he wasn't dragging his young family from one
town to the next, fleeing the law.
Copeland; his wife, Faye, and their six
children settled in Mooresville in 1967. Faye took menial factory
and motel jobs while her husband worked the farm, buying and
selling livestock, forging checks and scheming.
Since the 1970s, Copeland had been known to
pick up hitchhikers to work on his farm. Uneasy neighbors watched
year after year as a parade of the scrappy, unsavory and unshaven
came and went. No one ever knew what became of them, and no one
cared. They weren't the kinds of characters who were likely to
It wasn't until late summer 1989, after the
anonymous call to the Crime Stoppers hotline, that the residents
of Mooresville had their worst suspicions confirmed.
For three years, local police had been tracking
a string of bad checks passed by transients who had been working
for Copeland. He and his hired man would attend cattle auctions
and bid exorbitant prices. The hired man would write a check, and
together the pair would take off with the livestock.
By the time the checks bounced, the cattle had
been resold, and the man who signed thecheck had vanished. At
least a dozen men had worked with Copeland from 1986 to the summer
of 1989. Five vanished after stealing a total of $32,000 with
phony bank accounts and bad paper.
Copeland said he knew nothing about what
happened to his workers. In fact, he told police that they had
bounced checks to him, too.
Then, in September 1989, cops tracked down one
of his former farm hands. At 56, boozy Jack McCormick had been
drifting for years. When police snagged him in Oregon, and charged
him with bouncing checks in Missouri, he offered details of how
Copeland operated. He also boasted that he knew where bodies were
McCormick, who described himself as a "common
gutter tramp and drunk," said he had been living at the Victory
Mission in Springfield, Mo., when Copeland came sniffing around
With a promise of a $20,000-a-year job, the
farmer lured the old drunk. He helped McCormick get a post-office
box and a checking account. Together, the men attended cattle
auctions, McCormick bidding on the animals Copeland wanted. Then
McCormick would pay by check, fully aware that the sums were far
beyond what was in his account.
This went on for a short time, until McCormick
fled after Copeland pointed a .22 at his head. "Icame close to
being killed before I got out of there," McCormick told reporters.
It was McCormick who had made the call to the
hotline in August, shortly after he had made his escape. The old
drunk's story was enough to arrest both Copelands on charges of
Soon, the 75-year-old farmer and his
68-year-old wife were in jail, and police were swarming all over
their 40 acres. "You'll find nothing on my place," Copeland told
The cops dug and dug and dug some more. But
Copeland was right. They came up with nothing more than a handful
of animal bones.
Looking further for clues
The police department's luck improved when the
cops broadened their search, moving 12 miles away to a farm in
Ludlow, Mo., where Copeland often took odd jobs.
Three corpses were buried in the barn in
shallow graves. All had been shot in the head with a .22. They
were identified as Jimmie Dale Harvey, Paul Cowart and John
Freeman, transients who had last been seen working for Copeland.
They were also three of the men who had written bad checks.
"He's dependable, a very hardworking guy," the
farm owner told reporters. "Very surprising to me that he had time
to get into mischief."
Later, investigators uncovered another corpse
in the barn, Wayne Warner, a drifter who had spent his last
moments with Ray Copeland. The final body was Dennis Murphy,
another one of Copeland's business associates, whose remains were
found in a well on another farm.
The farmer denied having knowledge of any of
the killings, except Murphy's. He told police that he had
witnessed McCormick dumping a body into the well.
There were questions from the start about the
level of Faye's involvement in the cattle scam and the murders.
Her husband was a brutal man, and there was the possibility that
his wife was just another one of his victims, a battered wife too
terrified of her husband to question or resist.
But one item recovered from the house suggested
she had full knowledge of what was going on. It was a list of
names in Faye's handwriting. Next to the names Freeman, Cowart and
Harvey, three of the murdered men, were big "X" marks.
The Copelands were charged with five counts of
first-degree murder. Faye was first to face a jury, on Nov. 1,
1990. It took 2-1/2 hours of deliberation to decide she was
guilty, and three more hours to set the penalty at death.
When her husband went to trial the following
year, the results were the same, giving them the unique
distinction of being the oldest couple on Death Row.
Ray didn't last long behind bars, dying in
October 1993 in the prison infirmary.
Faye's death sentence was overturned on appeal,
but not her conviction. After suffering a stroke in 2002, the
82-year-old grandmother was paroled and sent to a nursing home,
where she died the day before New Year's Eve 2003.