(born February 27, 1958) is an upstate New York resident and
convicted murderer and arsonist. Her victims included her
five-month old son, Ronald Winters III, in 1980 and 23-month old
Ryan Rivers in 2007. She has also been under investigation for the
1979 deaths of her two older children and the 1979 deaths of three
children of a friend.
In 1966, at age eight, Winters lost three
siblings (a 10-year-old brother and two sisters, ages four and 11)
as a result of an apparent carbon monoxide leak in the family
Prior to Ronald's death, Winters lost two other
children, Colleen and John Winters, ages three years and 20
months, respectively, in a 1979 fire in the family's cabin on Hyde
Lake in Theresa, New York, near Watertown. The cause of the fire
was determined at the time to be an electrical defect. The bodies
of those children were exhumed in March 2007 along with Ronald
III's; the autopsy showed that both Colleen and John suffered
blunt force head injuries prior to the fire.
The previous day, there had been a fire at the
home of Winters' friend in nearby Hermon, New York in which her
friend's three children died. St. Lawrence County authorities also
re-opened their investigation into that incident in 2007. The
three children were cousins of Ryan Rivers' parents.
Winters has been in close proximity to 17 fires
since the 1979 fire, nine of which have been determined to be
arson. She pleaded guilty to criminal mischief in 1981 in relation
to two of the fires, and in 1997 was convicted of arson in another
fire, one that burned her mother's home, for which she spent eight
years in prison; she was released in 2005. Her mother was killed
in a car accident two months before Winters' prison sentence
Another of the fires, on November 12, 1989,
occurred in a home in which Winters was staying in Syracuse with
her three children. She rescued her four-year-old daughter and her
two-year-old son, but lost track of her oldest living child, a
five-year-old daughter, who rescued herself.
Initially, Ronald's death on November 21, 1980
in Otisco, New York was considered to be due to Sudden Infant
Death Syndrome (SIDS), but after the body was exhumed during the
fourth investigation of the death in March 2007, she was charged
with second-degree murder on March 28, 2007.
The latest reopening of the investigation was
prompted after Ryan Rivers drowned in a bathtub at his
grandparents' home during a visit by Winters on November 28, 2006
in Pierrepont, New York in St. Lawrence County. Winters was
indicted by a St. Lawrence County grand jury in August 2007 of
second-degree murder, first-degree assault and endangering the
welfare of a child in the Ryan Rivers case. Her trial for the
second-degree murder of Ronald was initially scheduled to begin on
March 31, 2008.
On April 21, 2008, Winters pleaded guilty to
manslaughter in the Ryan Rivers case. Under the terms of the plea
agreement, she also agreed to plead guilty in Onondaga County
Court to first-degree manslaughter in the smothering death of
Ronald III in 1980. She was sentenced to approximately 20 years in
the Rivers case, and up to 25 years in the Ronald III case; the
sentences are to be served concurrently, and she will be eligible
for parole after serving 17 years. She is incarerated at Bedford
Hills Correctional Facility.
If Winters had been convicted of second degree
murder on each indictment, she was facing multiple life sentences.
The St. Lawrence County plea also allows her to avoid prosecution
for the 1979 deaths of Colleen and John Winters.
Inside the Mind of
By John O'Brien - The Post
October 5, 2008
Shirley Winters slipped in and out of the
mental health system for 30 years.
She landed in psychiatric wards 28 times with
more than a dozen illnesses.
While she was being diagnosed and released over
and over since 1978, Winters became a rarity: both a serial killer
and serial arsonist. She admitted this year that she killed two
children -- one her own -- over the past 27 years, and she's
suspected of setting fire to as many as 18 homes.
She was a suspect in the deaths of two of her
other children in a 1979 fire.
Her mental health record -- more than 300 pages
long -- tells the story of a problem the system could not solve.
The records were filed under seal in Onondaga County Court four
months ago when she was sentenced to prison for killing her
5-month-old son Ronald in 1980.
The records, obtained by The Post-Standard,
describe Winters' problems since she was first placed in a mental
health facility in California in 1978. They lay out the
development of her mental health from an early age. Among the
In 1990, she tried to jump off a bridge in
St. Lawrence County after visiting the graves of her first two
In 1997, she told a psychiatrist that
whenever she went job-searching, she made sure the workplace had
a quiet room where she could be alone so she could respond to
She claimed in 1999 to have nine alter
personalities, but later admitted she was just saying that to
appease a psychotherapist in prison.
She claimed in 2006 that she was hearing
"babies' voices," and when she turned around, there was no one
She feared she would die every year on the
anniversary of the accidental deaths of her three siblings in
In 2006, her therapist noted that Winters
felt compelled to bang her head against the wall and stab sharp
objects into her legs at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.
She told counselors she didn't stay on her
medications because she couldn't afford them, they made her feel
overweight, or she forgot.
The records list a catalog of psychological
ills. Among them: dissociative disorder, bipolar disorder,
borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, psychogenic
amnesia and pyromania.
At least seven times, she was readmitted within
two days after she was released. She was self-medicating with
alcohol and drugs, and would often be readmitted when she got
drunk or high, the records show.
Winters' records detail a life of frequent
contact with therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists.
The records are built mainly around Winters'
own recollections and claims. There's no way to know whether she
was telling the truth.
Winters, 50, declined repeated requests for
interviews at Bedford Hills state prison, where she's serving up
to 25 years for smothering her son in 1980 and drowning 2-year-old
Ryan Rivers in 2006. She was never charged with the deaths of her
first two children, Colleen, 3, and John, 1 1/2, who died in a
fire in 1979.
Their grandmother, Mary Lou Winters, said she
doesn't buy the claim that the crimes were the result of a mental
"At first I thought it was a psychiatric
problem," said Mary Lou, whose son Ronald Winters Jr., divorced
Shirley in 1988. "But I think she's too calculating."
Social worker Richard Luciani suggested in
court papers that the mental health system failed Winters.
Luciani, who was hired by Winters' lawyer, told Judge Joseph Fahey
in a sentencing memorandum that he hoped the records would help
the state prison system treat Winters.
Luciani refused to comment.
He wrote in court papers that he hoped a
psychotherapist in prison would see her long history and engage
her in long-term psychotherapy to address her "deep-rooted
issues." He believed it would be the first time she'd have a
chance for meaningful psychological intervention, because over the
years she moved from doctor to doctor, Luciani wrote.
But a psychiatrist who reviewed the file for
The Post-Standard thinks otherwise. The system was there for
Winters and she rejected it, said Dr. James Knoll. Knoll, a
forensic psychiatrist at Upstate Medical University, has written
medical journal articles critical of the mental health system.
In Winters' case, it didn't help that she
appears to be suffering from borderline personality disorder, he
said. Little is known about how to treat it, Knoll said. Someone
with the disorder is considered on the border between simply being
neurotic -- as many people are -- and being psychotic, he said.
"At this point in time, our treatment is not
that great," Knoll said. "What we can do is kind of
therapeutically hold their hands through the rough times, and
It's not like a hard-core illness like
schizophrenia, which is obviously based in biology, he said.
Winters appears to fall into a class of
mentally ill people who are difficult to treat, Knoll said. She
was functional enough that she couldn't be involuntarily treated
unless she became a danger to herself or others. And she sabotaged
any offers for help, he said.
Knoll said he saw something extraordinary in
Winters' records. They appeared to describe someone spending her
life repeating her own childhood tragedy with a severity and
magnitude that he'd rarely seen.
Winters' three siblings died in 1966 when a gas
furnace leaked and asphyxiated them in their beds. She was 7 and
wasn't home that night. Winters had tricked her sister Joyce into
letting her go that night, while Joyce stayed home, the mental
health records said.
The records indicate she was obsessed with the
In an interview on the 33rd anniversary of the
deaths, in 1999, Winters made this revelation to a prison
"I have always felt each year on this day that
I would die," the psychologist's report said. "It is scary. It
would be fate."
Even though it was a gas leak, it was similar
enough to a house fire that it appears to be a repetition, Knoll
said. In psychiatry, it's a concept called the repetition
compulsion, he said.
"The thinking is that it's an attempt to try to
master the anxiety from that trauma and go back and undo it
somehow," Knoll said.
For Winters, the deaths of her brother and
sisters presented not only survivor's guilt, but the guilt of
placing her sister in harm's way, Knoll said. On top of that, she
told counselors that she was molested as a child, beginning
shortly after the deaths of her siblings.
A year earlier, Winters had her first traumatic
brush with fire, the records show. Her sister's dress had been set
on fire when Shirley was 6, according to the records. Years later,
she talked with therapists about the impact of that event had, the
Winters' first contact with a therapist was
when she was in grade school, the records show. It was a few years
after her three siblings died, and her classmates were calling her
"Squirrelly Shirley," the records said.
A cousin, June Gross, said Shirley had become a
"She would bite, throw things, dig her nails
into you," said Gross, of Florida.
The violence escalated. Knoll said it appears
to have been an unusual response to her own trauma. Most people
who suffer such tragedies direct their abuse inward, he said. It's
rare to see someone respond by acting so violently against others
over and over, he said.
The mental health records say Winters may have
an anti-social personality disorder. That goes more toward
"criminalistic-type thinking," Knoll said. It's just someone who's
willing to violate social norms, he said.
Winters demonstrated plenty of evidence for
One of the fires Winters is suspected of
setting was to her home on Willis Avenue in 1989. Winters got out
with two of her children, but 5-year-old Joy was left behind. The
girl later told people her mother had ordered her to stay inside,
according to Joy's grandmother.
In 1997, Gross' son was staying at Winters'
house in Syracuse when Winters set it on fire. He escaped. She
later pleaded guilty and admitted she knew he was in the home.
Winters has had at least 18 fires in her homes
or related places. Nine have been attributed to arson, and Winters
was charged with arson in five of them. She was convicted once and
went to prison for eight years.
A week after Winters drowned Ryan Rivers in
2006, a police officer pulled her over in her pickup truck because
she was swerving. Her shirt was torn and she had deep scratches on
her wrist, neck, upper chest and face.
"The evil has to stop," Winters mumbled. "The
evil is trying to get out!" Winters told him she hadn't taken her
medication for schizophrenia, and that she was trying to get to a
psychiatric hospital in Ogdensburg but had gotten lost.
When she pleaded guilty to killing her son,
Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said Winters
was "the face of evil."
Her ex-husband initially supported her through
years of setting fires. But over the past two decades, he's seen
the light and has been wary of her, his mother said.
"He's always slept with one eye open," Mary Lou
Winters said of her son shortly after Shirley went to prison.
Timeline: The life of
The Post Standard
October 5, 2008
Feb. 27: Shirley Baron is
born. She is raised near South Onondaga.
All three of her siblings, Peter, 11; Joyce,
10; and Lita, 4 are found dead in their beds. Marilyn Baron, their
mother, survives. Investigators decide the children were
asphyxiated by fumes from a gas furnace. An exhaust pipe, likely
damaged by a dog, is suspected. Shirley Baron, 7, is at her
grandmother's a quarter-mile away.
Shirley Baron, 18, marries Ronald Winters Jr.,
Sept. 12: Fire in Theresa, in
Jefferson County, kills two of the couple's children. Shirley says
the children were asleep in a bedroom, while she watched
television in the living room. Her husband is at work. The
investigation points to a piece of hot kindling left near the wood
The day before the fire, three other children
died in another house fire 50 miles away. The victims' mother was
a friend of Shirley Winters. After the fire, Ronald and Shirley
Nov. 21: Ronald, the
Winterses' 5-month-old baby, dies in a trailer in Otisco. Cause of
death: sudden infant death syndrome. It is Marilyn Baron's
Jan. 3: Two separate fires
break out in Shirley Winters' trailer. Both are called arson.
Feb. 10: Two more fires at her
trailer. Winters is charged with arson.
Nov. 9: Before that case was
disposed of, she has another trailer fire. She was charged with
Winters has a daughter, Joy.
She has a daughter, Ashley.
Nov. 12: A fire in Winters'
apartment building in Marcellus. Cause: Undetermined.
She has a baby, Clayton Winters. She has
divorced Ronald Winters and moved with her children to Syracuse.
She goes on trial for another arson earlier in
the year in Syracuse. The first jury is deadlocked; the second
acquits Winters. As she awaits trial, fires break out at two
different houses where she lives, and at her aunt's garage.
Nov. 12: An arson fire races
out of control from a basement storage room where Winters lives on
Willis Avenue in Syracuse. Winters says she'd smelled smoke. She
takes two children to safety but loses track of Joy, who escapes
on her own.
Jan. 6: Arson at her house on
Split Rock Road. A Family Court judge removes Joy, Ashley and
Clayton from Winters and awards custody to her former husband.
After that, according to her mother, Shirley admits herself to
Hutchings Psychiatric Center for a few days.
April 10: Winters is indicted
on arson and reckless endangerment in the Willis Avenue fire.
March 18: Winters' flat at 124
Lakeview Ave. catches fire. Winters gets out, as do her downstairs
neighbors, a young couple with a 22-month-old child.
Sept. 21: Fire set in the
attached garage at 3853 Griffin Road, the home of Winters' aunt.
Oct. 5: Fire set in the same
garage. This time the garage and house are destroyed. The next
day, Winters is charged with making harassing phone calls to a
neighbor. When she's arrested, she hits a deputy and damages a
Nov. 14: Troopers charge
Winters with arson in connection with a fire at a Camillus bowling
alley, her fourth arson charge.
April 27: She sets fire to her
mother's home in Onondaga. She pleads guilty and admits she knew
her cousin was in the building at the time. She's sent to prison
for eight years.
Winters is released from prison on parole, then
violates terms of release by having a lighter.
June 14: Released from prison
March 16: Hospitalized after
suicide attempt, according to Onondaga County District Attorney
March 28: An Onondaga County
grand jury indicts Winters on a charge of murdering her
5-month-old son Ronald Winters III in 1980 at their home in
Sept. 19: A St. Lawrence
County grand jury indicts her on a murder charge in the November
2006 drowning of 2-year-old Ryan Rivers.
April 21: She pleads guilty to
first-degree manslaughter in Rivers' death.
April 24: She pleads guilty to
first-degree manslaughter in Ronald Winters' death, admitting she
tried to seriously injure him when she smothered him.
June 16: A St. Lawrence County
Court judge sentences her to 20 years in prison.
June 17: An Onondaga County
Court judge sentences her to 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison. She will
serve both sentences at the same time.
Shirley Winters pleads guilty
April 21, 2008
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- A woman accused of drowning a
toddler accepted a plea deal today with St. Lawrence County
Shirley Winters, 50, accepted a plea bargain of
first-degree manslaughter in connection with the death of
23-month-old Ryan Rivers. She originally faced a charge of
second-degree murder for allegedly drowning the toddler in a
bathtub at a Pierrepont residence in 2006.
Under the plea arrangement, Winters will be
sentenced to 20 years in prison and five years post-release
supervision. Sentencing is scheduled for June 9.
St. Lawrence County District Attorney Nicole
Duve could not be reached for comment.
Winters also is charged with the 1980 death of
her own son in the Syracuse area. The plea bargain is tied to that
murder charge in Onondaga County. She will plead to the same
charge there and receive the same sentence, which will be served
Onondaga County District Attorney William
Fitzpatrick said he was satisfied with the agreement.
Winters was charged in March 2007 with
smothering her son, Ronald Winters III -- whose death was
originally attributed to sudden infant death syndrome -- after
authorities exhumed the remains of the boy and two siblings killed
in a suspicious 1979 fire in Jefferson County.
Investigators renewed their interest in the
deaths of the Winters children after the Rivers drowning. The
toddler drowned in the bathroom of his grandparents house while
Winters was staying with the family.
Since 1979, Winters has been linked to 17 fires
at homes where she lived or the homes of family members. She was
convicted of arson in 1997 and served eight years in state prison
for burning down her late mother's home. She also served time in
state prison for assaulting a deputy.