On 1 November 1990, the trial of 69-year-old Faye Copeland began at Livingston County Courthouse in Chillicothe, Missouri. This elderly mother and grandmother was charged with five counts of murder with her husband, Ray Copeland, due to stand trial for the same five counts once her trial had concluded.
The case of Ray and Faye Copeland is one known around the world, not only for the brutal series of murders it entailed but because of the age of the couple, and the idea that these were a husband and wife working together to pull off fraudulent scams for money and committing cold-blooded murder afterwards to cover their tracks. Both the Copelands were found guilty and both were sentenced to death row until Faye Copeland’s death sentence was overturned on appeal.
The Copeland case broke in July 1989 after a man named Jack McCormick, a known petty criminal and vagrant in the area, telephoned police to tell them what was really going on at the 40-acre Mooresville farm of this elderly couple. He explained the cattle buying scheme and fraudulent check operation that Ray Copeland was running involving transients who strayed into the area looking for work.
His tale detailed how Copeland would pick up unsuspecting men passing through, offering them lodgings in return for helping him buy cattle for his farm. He was hard of hearing he told them, making it difficult for him to bid on the cattle during a busy and noisy market. Faye Copeland would provide them food and clothing if needed. Once they agreed, Ray would have them open a bank account in a local town and obtain a set of starter cheques in their name. It was these cheques that would then be used to pay for cattle at market in the knowledge that they would bounce due to insufficient funds in the account. As the account was in the vagrant’s name, that man would conveniently disappear leaving the cattle seller unable to do anything about the fraud, while Ray Copeland claimed ignorance.
Jack McCormick had tried to get out of the scheme he told police, but was faced with an angry Ray Copeland pointing a shotgun at his head. McCormick went on to tell stunned officers that he had seen bones at the Copeland farm, bones that were buried behind the barn and bones he was convinced were human.
Police immediately began an investigation into the Copelands and an organised search of their farm. Ray Copeland has been quoted telling police “they would find nothing at his farm” which the police didn’t in terms of human remains. They did, however, find paperwork relating to a number of transients known to have worked for the Copelands at some point but who police were now unable to trace. Banking details, rental agreements and most significantly a list of names were found, five of which had a large ‘X’ marked next to them.
After a tip from a local resident, the police searched a barn on another farm where Ray Copeland was known to do some work, and it was there they discovered the first shallow graves and the bodies of Paul Coward, John Freeman, and Jimmie Harvey. On another farm nearby they found the remains of Wayne Warner and Dennis Murphy. All five had been shot in the head with one bullet recovered being an exact match the .22 rifle owned by the Copelands. The same rifle McCormick had told police Ray Copeland had pointed at him when he tried to leave.
75-year-old farmer Ray Copeland was a man who liked to get his own way and would do so through any means. A man whose age no doubt duped many of his victims into a false sense of security thinking an old man could pose no threat. He has been described as controlling, dominant and abusive throughout his life and the question when it comes to these murders is how much this personality dominated his wife, Faye Copeland. Was she really as evil as her husband, fully involved in the killings, or was she under his dominant influence to the point she became his accomplice?
Many have questioned the level of involvement of his wife Faye believing her account that she knew nothing of the frauds or murders carried out at her farm and that she was an innocent bystander at the mercy of her husband.
Who actually pulled the trigger and shot these five men out of the two has never been established but it is widely believed to have been Ray Copeland. Once they had made the financial transactions he wanted he had no further use for them and to prevent them from telling anyone about the scam or more importantly informing the police of the Copelands true intentions at these cattle markets, they were murdered to ensure their silence.
When arrested Faye Copeland she claimed shock and surprise at the uncovered frauds and the remains of five men who had passed through her farm. She was offered a deal to testify against Ray Copeland to have her murder charges changed to conspiracy to murder if she provided information, however, she stuck to her story. Whether this was because she genuinely didn’t have any information to give or because she wouldn’t go against her husband it is not known.
At her trial her defence followed the line that Faye Copeland was another victim of Ray, quoting battered spouse syndrome. The couple’s children told the courtroom that their father was an angry and abusive man who had mentally abused their mother for years. Battered spouse syndrome is a condition were affected parties, usually women, can experience depression, social isolation, low self-esteem and ‘deference to the spouse’, allowing decisions and control to be made and held by their spouse.
Although psychologist Dr. Marilyn Hutchinson testified she believed Faye Copeland was suffering from this condition at the time of the murders, she also testified that Faye Copeland could tell right from wrong and was capable of “conforming her conduct to the requirements of the law”. The suggestion behind such a diagnosis was that Faye Copeland was coerced into being part of her husband’s schemes and murderous actions to protect his illegal operations.
The jury, however, took less than three hours to return a guilty verdict for Faye Copeland, with the prosecutor telling her “I’m sorry, Mrs. Copeland . We have exposed you and your husband in your vile little game.” She was sentenced to death soon after.
The key piece of evidence which the jury could not see past for Faye Copeland was the list of names found hidden inside the farmhouse which was written by Faye’s hand. If not for that list her defence of battered spouse syndrome may well have been accepted by the jury, but a list of vagrants and those which had already been found dead with an ‘X’ by their name written by Faye, suggests she knew exactly what she was writing. In her defence, she said she was told by her husband what to write and she didn’t know what the names or the marks next to them meant. There were a number of further names on that list, names believed to be other transients recruited by Ray Copeland into his cattle buying scam and who may also have been killed at his hands.
With Ray being illiterate, Faye’s argument that she simply wrote down what he told her for some is a plausible explanation. There are, however, a number of other factors which pointed to the guilt of Faye Copeland and her complicity in these crimes.
“Faye Copeland is a victim of the truth. She shall be shot down by the facts, and she shall be buried by the evidence.”
In her appeal lodged in August 1996, six years after her conviction, it was highlighted that along with the list of names written by Faye, the personal banking information of a number of the victims and other men who the Copelands employed as part of the fraudulent check scam was found on pieces of paper also written in Faye Copeland’s hand. This included the information of Jack McCormick and two other transients who had passed through their farm. Furthermore, rental agreements for two of the dead victims Wayne Warner and Dennis Murphy were found, again written in Faye Copeland’s handwriting.
This evidence combined highlights that Faye Copeland was at least aware of the financial transactions taking place involving these men suggestive that she was working with Ray Copeland in the scam and as far as the appeal Judges were concerned “had knowledge of the victims’ fate”.
After the arrest of the Copelands, they were held separately in jail prompting Faye Copeland to write a number of notes to her husband from her jail cell. These were indeed passed to Ray Copeland as requested by prison personal but not before their contents were read and noted as per protocol. These notes suggested Faye Copeland had knowledge of further incriminating evidence at the farmhouse that may be found by police during their searches as part of the ongoing investigation.
One year after Faye’s conviction, Ray Copeland went on trial facing the same charges and possible outcome. At the opening of his murder trial in March 1991, the prosecutor described the case as ‘like a book you are going to want to curl up with and read cover to cover’, a statement Copeland’s defence attorney argued was misguided with the correct analogy being ‘a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing’.
Ray Copeland, according to the Chicago Tribune reporting on the opening of his trial in March 1991, offered to plead guilty to the five murders he was charged with if the State dropped the death penalty verdict against his wife. A deal fully rejected by the Judge. Ray Copeland, like his wife, was found guilty of multiple murders and sentenced to death, making the couple the oldest to sit on death row.
Ray Copeland died less than two years after his conviction. For Faye Copeland, her appeal in 1996 got her sentence changed from death to life imprisonment. She never did speak out against her husband. Whether this was due to loyalty or fear that still hangs in the air is unknown, but it cannot be said the circumstantial evidence pointing to Faye’s complicity in these crimes was not substantial. Faye Copeland suffered a stroke in 2002 when she was paroled and moved into a nursing home, dying a year later in December 2003.