Ray Copeland


Ray Copeland

Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Robberies
Number of victims: 5 +
Date of murder: October 1986 - May 1989
Date of arrest: October 17, 1989
Date of birth: 1914
Victim profile: Paul Jason Cowart, 21 / John W. Freeman, 27 / Jimmie Dale Harvey, 27 / Wayne Warner, age unknown / Dennis Murphy, 27
Method of murder: Shooting (.22 caliber Marlin bolt-action rifle)
Location: Mooresville, Missouri, USA
Status: Sentenced to death, 1991. Died in prison in October 1993

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 1999.

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) twenty-five great-grandchildren.

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 this story.


Book, The Copeland Killings, by Tom Miller

Book, Family Bones, by Shawn Granger


Serial Killers Couple Ray and Faye Copeland

By Charles Montaldo - About.com

Ray and Faye Copeland - Their Retirement Years:

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.

The Verdicts:

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 occasionally sympathy.

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 suddenly disappeared.

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 send postcards.

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 buried.

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 for workers.

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 swindling.

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 police.

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.

Copeland, Ray (1913-93); Faye (1920-)


VENUE: Mooresville, Mo.

MO: Man-and-wife farmers; killed hired hands on their ranch

DISPOSITION: Both condemned, 1991; Ray died in prison, Oct. 1993.

Ray with his sister, Mom and other members of his family.

Ray Copeland

Ray Copeland

Ray Copeland

Ray Copeland

Ray Copeland

Ray Copeland

Ray Copeland

Ray Copeland

Ray and Faye Copeland in 1980

Faye Copeland in 1937

Faye Copeland in court in 1991

Faye Copeland in 1994

Faye Copeland

The victims

Paul Jason Cowart, 21

John Wayne Freeman, 27

Jimmie Dale Harvey, 27