|“||I begged [Ray] time and time again to please stay out of trouble. We had our home and everything paid for. We were on Social Security. So why would he turn around and mess all that up just like he has?||”|
— Faye Copeland
Ray and Faye Copeland were a married couple moonlighting as a con artist duo; Ray would later resort to serial murder with Faye acting as an accomplice. At the ages of 76 and 69 respectively, they became the oldest couple ever sentenced to death in American history.
Ray was born on December 30, 1914, just after the start of World War I. He and his parents Jess and Laney moved around the country commonly during his childhood, until the Copeland family finally settled into the town of Ozark Hills, Arkansas. During their travels, Ray gained himself a younger sister and younger brother. The Copelands soon became one of the many victims of the Great Depression and Ray had to drop out of school during the fourth grade in order to help his family maintain their small farm. He appeared to have been a spoiled child, demanding things frequently that would shortly be delivered to him. At age 20, he committed his first crime, stealing two hogs from Jess and selling them in another town; though his father found out, no formal charges were filed. Ray continued to commit more crimes in the following years, usually stealing livestock, but he started turning to crimes more serious in nature, once being arrested in 1936 for forging government checks in Harrison, Arkansas, for which he was sentenced to one year in county jail. In the spring of 1940, Ray made a routine visit to a physician's office, where he met then-19-year-old Faye Della Wilson. Faye was born on August 4, 1921, to Rufus and Gladys Wilson, a hardworking couple from Harrison who despite having little money were able to raise seven children in a dirt floor cabin. She and Ray started dating and in six months, they were formally married. Within a year later, they had their first child, a boy they called Everett; following Everett two years later was another son, Billy Ray. In 1944, Ray decided to move his family to Fresno County, California, where he and Faye had their only girl, Betty Lou, the following year. Another two years later, their third son, Alvia, was born, and in yet another two years, in 1949, following Alvia was William Wayne. On the same year, William was born, Ray was accused of stealing horses from a local farmer, and while no charges were filed, his established reputation in Fresno County was left damaged and Ray had to move the family back to Arkansas.
Less than a month after their relocation, Ray was arrested, once again for theft of cattle. He was found guilty of grand larceny and sentenced to one year in jail. After completing his sentence, Ray moved the family to Rocky Comfort, Missouri, where he was arrested for cattle theft again; this time, he was sentenced to help in manual labor at the judge's farm. Starting in 1953, Ray began following the same pattern as his parents did to him in his childhood, moving his family around from town to town, and during these travels, he was arrested at least five times for writing forged checks. During the summer of 1966, the Copeland family returned to Missouri, where Ray and Faye successfully purchased a small farm with 40 acres of land in Mooresville. Faye soon took a job at a local glove-making company. Ray proved unpopular with the neighbors, who viewed him as a bitter elderly man and suspected he physically abused his family. Faye and the Copeland children would later deny these allegations. Wanting to gain money and yet knowing that another arrest for forgery would send him to prison for a long amount of time due to his lengthy arrest record, Ray formulated a scheme to scam people purchasing cattle and then getting away with it. His plan was to show up at cattle auctions catering hitchhikers and drifters, have a man he was purchasing cattle from writing out a check from Ray's book, sign said check, and then sell the cattle before the check could bounce. He would then claim innocence to the authorities who would eventually come to investigate and allege that the signatures on the checks were forged. Since the men he purchased the cattle from were hitchhikers and drifters, they would've already skipped town to continue with their travels, giving them liability to forgery. While the scheme was completely unoriginal, Ray was able to get away with the scheme dozens of times until one of Ray's scam victims, Gerald Perkins, was interrogated by police and he exposed Ray's scheme. Ray was soon arrested and sentenced to almost two years in jail for check forgery.
Arrests, Incarcerations, and Deaths
When he was released from prison, Ray tweaked his scam scheme a little: instead of having his scam victims write checks from his account, they would be told to get a post-office box and open up an account in their name, then have them write checks from their accounts at cattle auctions; his explanation for this to the scam victims were that auctioneers disliked him for one reason or another and would not give him "a fair shake". And after the scheme was carried out, Ray would eliminate the key witness by murdering him. Faye would come to act as an accomplice in this scheme. Ray's scheme worked, with the couple claiming five to twelve victims. During their crimes, they employed 57-year-old Jack McCormick, who soon caught on to their illegal activities. When Ray sensed McCormick's suspicions, he attempted to kill him, but McCormick was able to flee and alert the authorities, who were already aware of Ray's arrest record and gathered evidence to support McCormick's statements to secure a search warrant for the Copeland property. A week-long search on the Copeland property was eventually initiated, in which three bodies, a list of farm helpers by Faye, and a quilt made from the clothing of the victims were discovered. The following week, investigators searched another barn purchased by Ray and found two more bodies. Ray and Faye were arrested. Prosecutors quickly offered a deal to Faye: if she revealed to investigators the locations of more bodies, her only charge would be the conspiracy to commit murder which would result in only a few months in jail for her cooperation. However, Faye seemed to cover for her husband, telling the prosecutors of her unaware nature of Ray's killings. The Copelands were soon arraigned on five counts of first-degree murder.
On November 1 of 1990, then-69-year-old Faye went on trial and claimed that Ray committed the murders without her knowledge and that she suffered from battered woman syndrome. However, the evidence against her was solid and she was found guilty of all five charges against her, being sentenced to death by lethal injection for four of the counts and a life sentence without parole for the fifth. On March 7, 1991, then-76-year-old Ray went to trial, where he was also found guilty of the charges against him and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Two years later, Ray passed away while awaiting execution at the Potosi Correctional Facility. On August 6, 1999, Faye's death sentence was overturned because the evidence of her involvement wasn't enough to warrant such a sentence. However, she was to still remain in prison due to the still-standing murder convictions. This prompted outrage from several women rights activist groups, who protested against the imprisonment and argued that she was no longer deemed a threat to society. However, no one listened to these protests. In December 2000, after an attempt to reinstate Faye's death sentence a month prior, Tom and Jeanette Block, founders of the Missourians Against State Killing (MASK) organization, continued to fight for Faye's release from prison by requesting that people send in letters of support for Faye, with a petition for her release also preparing to be granted by the then-Governor of Missouri Roger Wilson. On August 10, 2002, Faye suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and incapable of speech; as a result, she was paroled weeks later to the Morningside Center nursing home in her hometown of Harrison, Arkansas. Finally, on December 30, 2003, Faye passed away at the age of 82.
The Copelands targeted hitchhikers and drifters aged in their twenties, whom Ray would kill after he gained their trust and had them purchase cattle using checks that he would later get from the accounts they established on his request. When they killed their victims, Ray would shoot them execution-style in the back of the head with a .22-caliber Marlin bolt-action rifle, and afterward, they would bury the bodies on their property or the property of another barn Ray used. In the case of victim Dennis Murphy, his body was dumped in a well. Faye also created a quilt made from the clothing of their victims. She also made a list of names of their farmworkers, which included their confirmed and suspected victims; at the ends of the victims' names, there would be an 'X', marking the fact that they have been killed.
- October 17: Paul Jason Cowart, 21
- November 19: John Freeman, 27
- October 25: Jimmie Dale Harvey, 27
- December 8: Wayne Warner
- May 1: Dennis Murphy, 27 (dumped his body in a well)
- August 20: Jack McCormick, 57 (Ray attempted to kill him)
- Note: In addition to their confirmed murders, the Copelands were suspects in the murders of seven additional drifters.
On Criminal Minds
- Season Six
- "Remembrance of Things Past" - The Copelands were both mentioned as an example of serial killers who are active at an old age.
- Season Nine
- Wikipedia's article on the Copelands
- TruTV Crime Library articles about the Copelands
- Summary of Ray Copeland's life by Radford University's Department of Psychology
- Murderpedia's article on Faye Copeland
- Google News excerpt of newspaper detailing the death dates of the Copelands' victims
- True Crime: Missouri. The State's most notorious criminal cases. (2011)