The Oldest Couple Sentenced To Death Row

Some elderly couples spend their last decade or two traveling the country, pursuing new hobbies, or spending precious time with grandchildren. But one silver-haired married couple in the nation's heartland decided to take up cold-blooded murder in their golden years. 

Ray and Faye Copeland ran a farm outside of Mooresville, Missouri. Since 1967, the Copelands had been operating on a small piece of property, with Ray buying and selling livestock while Faye worked various factory jobs to help make ends meet (per New York Daily News). Ray Copeland had earned a reputation as a thief and a swindler over the years. He had a long rap sheet that included forgery and livestock theft. Copeland was also known for purchasing large amounts of livestock at auction, only to have his checks bounce after the livestock was in his possession.

Banned from bidding on livestock and without any reputable farmer willing to do business with the Copelands, Ray Copeland hatched a plot that would allow the family to continue to get livestock for a minimal cost. Unbeknownst to the people of Mooresville, this plan included murder.

A fool proof plan

Ray Copeland's modus operandi was to lure transient workers to the family farm. They were promised wages, room, board, and help to get back on their feet. Ray Copeland would set the new worker up with a checking account, and the worker would attend livestock auctions with Copeland and bid on cattle and hogs. Barred from bidding himself, Copeland would have the hired hand bid on the livestock, which was then paid for from the unsuspecting worker's checking account (via New York Daily News). 

As the check was written from the worker's account, there wasn't a legal way to attach it to Copeland. And before the financial investigation would begin to heat up, the worker would "disappear" from the Copeland farm. Not that this would be too surprising. After all, transients and migrant workers were notorious for picking up and leaving without any notice. Local investigators questioned Copeland numerous times about his workers and their bounced checks (totaling over $30k), but Copeland steadfastly denied having any involvement. He went as far as to say that he, too, was the victim of bounced checks that were written by former farmhands. 

For three years this routine continued until August of 1989 when a Crime Stoppers hotline received a mysterious phone call. According to Investigation Discovery, an anonymous caller left a message claiming that the Copelands had been murdering farmworkers and that he had personally seen human bones and a human skull on their property. This was enough to get the authority's attention.

A chilling discovery

Familiar with the Copelands from fraud investigations and bounced checks, investigators wasted no time in tracking down the caller, Jack McCormick. A drunken drifter, McCormick had been a recent farmhand of the Copeland's and had been wanted by police in Missouri for writing bad checks for livestock. After being detained and questioned in Oregon, McCormick told in detail how he fled the Copeland farm after Ray Copeland had pointed a .22 Marlin rifle at his head. McCormick also revealed step by step how the Copelands were running their financial scheme, and where human remains could be found on their property (via Investigation Discovery). 

With enough evidence to arrest the Copelands for fraud, police moved in on the elderly couple. After detaining them, police conducted a detailed search of the Copeland farm and came up with absolutely nothing but a handful of animal bones (via New York Daily News). Not wanting to give up, police then began searching a farm in Ludlow, Missouri, 12 miles away. This was a farm where Ray Copeland was known to take on odd jobs. 

Here, the remains of three transients known to work for the Copelands were found buried in shallow graves in the barn. Jimmie Dale Harvey, Paul Cowart, and John Freeman had all been shot in the head at close range by a .22 caliber Marlin rifle. Later, the remains of another Copeland worker, Wayne Warner, were discovered elsewhere in the barn. The final body, that of Dennis Murphy, was found down a well on another property.

The creepiest quilt ever made

Faye Copeland was the first of the couple to be tried for five counts of murder. During her trial, a list of transients that the Copelands had hired as farmhands, with "X's" drawn next to the names was used as evidence against her. The names were those whose bodies had been discovered by police. Even more chilling was the quilt that prosecutors presented as evidence. It was crafted by Faye Copeland and was made from the clothing of each of the murder victims (via Investigation Discovery). 

The elderly woman's defense was that she was a long-term victim of physical abuse by Ray Copeland, and was too frightened to question her husband's motives. The jury didn't buy that excuse, and Faye Copeland was found guilty after less than three hours in deliberation in November of 1990 (via New York Daily News). A separate jury took about the same amount of time in determining her punishment. She was given the death penalty.

Ray Copeland was tried a year later and found guilty on all charges. He was also sentenced to death. Ray and Faye Copeland, aged 76 and 69 respectively, became the oldest couple in the United States to be sentenced to death row.

Ray Copeland never faced the executioner. He died in October of 1993 of natural causes in the Potosi, Missouri prison he was sent to die in. Faye met a different end entirely.

Sentence commuted

Faye Copeland continued to maintain her innocence long after her husband passed away. Her claims of battered wife syndrome, which had fallen on deaf ears in the courtroom, was starting to get a little bit of traction with a public that was beginning to be sympathetic. In 1995, a petition demanding her release from prison circulated and gathered over 3,000 signatures before it was sent to the office of Missouri Governor Mel Hancock. The petition claimed that, due to Copeland's age, she was not a threat to society (via Lawrence Journal-World). In 1999, another such petition gathered even more signatures and claimed that her age, as well as her perfect record as an inmate, warranted her release. 

In 2002, Copeland suffered a stroke that rendered her incapable of speech. Soon after, she was paroled and sent to live out the rest of her days in a nursing home in Chillicothe, Missouri (via New York Daily News). She lived among fellow elderly residents of her hometown until she passed away at the Morningside Center nursing home on December 30, 2003.