On 27 July 1987, in the quiet neighborhood of Buttonwoods in Warwick, Rhode Island, a 27-year-old mother of two was stabbed 58 times in her head and chest. Rebecca Spencer’s murder was brutal and violent, carried out by an offender who had broken into her home and used a 10-inch knife from her kitchen to take her life. Spencer’s two children would not be home to witness the slaying. Her body would be found by her brother the following morning on his return home from a night shift.
Two years later, on 4 September 1989, 39-year-old Joan Heaton, who lived just a few hundred yards away from the Spencer house, was stabbed 11 times to her chest, face, and neck and showed signs of blunt force trauma. This time the offender had cut through a window screen to gain access to the property, bringing a steak knife with him. Also in the house were Joan Heaton’s two young daughters. 8-year-old Melissa Heaton was beaten and stabbed seven times, while her older sister, 10-year-old Jennifer Heaton, was stabbed 62 times and had sustained a fractured skull. In what must have been a horrendous crime scene with huge blood loss from the victims, bloody prints and band-aid wrappers were found all over the house.
Retired Warwick Police Detective Kenneth Anderson who attended the scene told WPRI Eyewitness News:
“The bodies had been covered with a blanket, maybe two blankets, and a rug. Underneath the blanket were these three bodies that were absolutely destroyed. The perpetrator that day, to us, was unbelievable.”
The exceptionally violent murders that had been carried out in the small friendly neighborhood of Buttonwoods had residents scared and double-locking their doors at night. No one was prepared for the truth when two weeks later 15-year-old Craig Price, who lived in the neighborhood with his parents, confessed to the triple murder of the Heaton family and the murder of Rebecca Spencer two years earlier.
“I truly felt like getting away with it was my fate and destiny,” Price later said about the murder of Rebecca Spencer, which went unsolved for 2 years. “I really felt clever and supreme,” he continued. “I acted just like everybody else who thought a killer walked their neighborhood streets.”
After the Heaton murders, police were on the lookout for anyone with unexplained injuries to their hands, feeling confident from evidence at the crime scene that the perpetrator had cut themselves during the stabbings. When they spotted Craig Price with a group of teenagers from the neighborhood with a large cut on his finger, their suspicions were raised. Price was no stranger to the police, with a number of previous arrests for petty theft and burglary in the area. 15-year-old Craig Price was taken to the police station for questioning where he openly, calmly, and without any hint of remorse admitted to all four murders.
Court documents state a police search of his home found the murder weapons inside his garden shed. There was no doubt this 15-year-old boy had carried out these murders and it seems he was acting alone, killing his first victim, Rebecca Spencer, when he was just 13-years-old.
At the time of being charged with quadruple murder, Craig Price was one month shy of his 16th birthday. This meant, under Rhode Island juvenile criminal law at that time, he could only be charged as a juvenile and the maximum punishment that could be imposed by the Rhode Island Family Court was five years in Juvenile Training School and his automatic release when he reached the age of 21.
In the years that followed, an ongoing battle ensued for psychiatric assessments to be carried out with Craig Price. Psychiatrists appointed by the Family Court who reviewed the case had noted “unusual homicidal fury” in Price’s actions. Dr. Wesley Profit, deputy director at Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts, said:
“I suspect from all that I have seen and know of these murders that Craig was in a psychotic rage at the time of these events and that he should probably be classified as a serial murderer, disorganized type.”
Psychiatric treatment was viewed as essential for any chance of Craig Price being safely released back into society with a real “danger of repeating crimes similar to those to which he admitted his guilt” without it.
On the advice of his attorney, however, Craig Price consistently refused to participate in any mental health assessments or treatment programs. His attorney held concerns, to which Price agreed, that should he allow these assessments and psychiatric issues were identified, it could result under the current 1956 Mental Health Law that Price be placed into a psychiatric treatment facility that would keep him there past his 21st birthday. Craig Price did not want to discuss his crimes with any mental health professionals. He wished to complete his five years detention and be released as if nothing had taken place. After violently stabbing four people to death, including two children, this was a surprising expectation.
“There was something fundamentally wrong with a system that allowed someone who killed four people to simply go free at 21,” said Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Pine, who would become instrumental in ensuring Craig Price did not simply walk free from detention.
“He’s one of the most vicious, brutal murderers on the planet. California has Charles Manson. Milwaukee has Jeffrey Dahmer. Rhode Island has Craig Price.”
Kevin Collins, a police detective involved in the case, joined the victim’s families to form the Citizens Opposed to the Release of Craig Price (CORP), created through concern this boy would be released back into the community. Through their work and the support of the now Attorney General Jeffrey Pine, within months of Craig Price being arrested and his responsibility, lack of remorse, and flippant attitude towards the horrendous crimes he had committed revealed, Rhode Island passed state legislature ensuring those under 16-years-old could be tried in an adult court if the crime was serious enough. While it meant this situation could not repeat, it did not resolve the ongoing concern over Craig Price being released at age 21 with the new law unable to be applied retrospectively to his case.
From 1989 to 1993, Craig Price defied repeated Family Court orders to comply with mental health assessments. When he did eventually concede after being found in civil contempt of court, he lied to Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Barnum about his crimes. As a result, in 1997 he was found guilty of criminal contempt of court after a 4-day trial for his refusal to cooperate and sentenced to 25 years in prison, to serve a minimum of 10 years.
In a 2015 research paper published in Pace Law Review entitled Criminal Mind or Inculpable Adolescence? Christopher J. Menihan of the Pace University School of Law discusses the motives of African-American Craig Price, focusing on the racial prejudice he perceived to be towards him. Price claimed in the weeks before he murdered Rebecca Spencer a man had shouted racial insults into the neighborhood from her house. He had met the Heaton family just two weeks before he killed them. They were riding bikes in the neighborhood and he had helped them fix a chain. Price felt that Joan Heaton had an “aura of racial bigotry” as she watched him. He said afterward, “I knew the act of killing Joan Heaton was the answer.”
Craig Price relied on the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination as an argument to why he should be allowed to refuse participation in mental health assessments and subsequent treatment. He lost this argument at his appeal with prior rulings determining it could not be used to avoid psychiatric assessments and treatment in such cases. He also tried to claim he had not been given notice of the “necessity of his compliance,” which had no grounding considering the wealth of evidence showing just how many opportunities he was given to comply with the order. In refusing psychiatric assessment to try and ensure his release at 21-years-old, he had gained himself a further 25 years behind bars.
The National Conference of State Legislatures highlights that currently in 45 US states an offender under 17-years-old would normally be charged as a juvenile. This age is lower at 16-years-old in five states, which include Missouri, Texas, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin. However, all states have the power to charge a young offender as an adult for more serious crimes such as murder and serious violent felony cases.
The Providence Journal reported in 2013 how once again Craig Price’s attempts at release had been refused by a federal judge. At 39-years-old, Price argued that the 25-year sentence he was given for criminal contempt of court was ‘excessive’. He said it was a sentence never issued before at that length and the judge who gave it to him “abused his discretion.” After reviewing the evidence, U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith disagreed and denied his appeal.
The impact on the victims’ families has been immense. Each family member has struggled to find their own way to deal with the loss of their loved ones and their feelings towards the teenage boy who killed them. The brutality and overkill displayed by Craig Price at such a young age points to a very disturbed individual. With no psychiatric treatment, Price has grown from a teenager to a man with no exploration of his horrific behaviour and actions that took the lives of four innocent people.
WPRI Eyewitness News reported last year that Price has over 40 infractions since being incarcerated. Fights in prison against other inmates and prison officers have resulted in further charges and more prison time added to his sentence. Moved from the Rhode Island Adult Corrections Institutions in 2004 to a maximum security facility in Florida, the now 44-year-old Craig Price was charged in August 2017 with attempted first-degree murder after stabbing another inmate with a handmade weapon. His trial is set to take place in April 2018.
“At 13 he killed my sister and at 15 he butchered an entire family,” Rebecca Spencer’s brother Carl Battey has said. “I don’t believe any time in prison is going to stop him from doing it again once he’s released.”