Ray and Faye Copeland were a “serial killer” couple who operated in Missouri during the 1980’s. There is something frightening and strange about all serial killer couples, but there was something even more frightening about these two. They began their killing career after they became elderly. Ray was 71 or 72 when he committed his first known murder. Faye was about 65.
Ray Copeland was born in Oklahoma. He managed to obtain a fourth grade education before dropping out of school. He turned to a life of thievery and fraud when he was in his twenties. Faye Copeland nee Wilson was from Arkansas. She had a relatively normal upbringing for the time and place. The couple met in 1940. They were married within six months.
Within the first two years of getting married, Ray and Faye Copeland had two sons-Everett and Billy Ray. They moved to California in 1944. Three more children-Betty Lou, Alvia and William Wayne-were born while the couple lived there. During this period, Ray is thought to have committed several horse thefts. He left California under suspicion of such in 1949 and moved his family to Arkansas.
Within one month of moving to Arkansas, Ray Copeland was arrested for stealing cattle. He spent one year in jail for the crime. When he got out of jail, he moved his family to Rocky Comfort, Missouri. In 1951, he was arrested for cattle theft again. In 1953, Ray and Faye moved their family to Illinois. This pattern of jail time and crime continued until around 1966, when Ray decided to take a new approach.
In 1967, Ray and Faye Copeland bought a 40-acre farm in Mooresville, Missouri. By the early 70’s, Ray had begun using drifters to conduct his swindles. He would have them go to auctions and purchase cattle using his bad checks. Because he was not signing the checks, he could not be nailed for fraud. Drifters are notoriously difficult to track down, so authorities were unable to charge them with a crime or extract the information they needed to charge Copeland. This made it difficult to pin anything on Ray, but the authorities were eager to do just that.
The authorities eventually caught one of the drifters that Ray Copeland had used in his scams. They received enough information to charge Ray and he went to jail for nearly two years. When he got out, he was determined to perfect his scam to avoid more jail time. Apparently, cleaning up his act was not an option Ray Copeland considered. Instead, he began having his drifters open their own checking accounts with which to purchase cattle. The checks were bad, of course. He also began killing them to avoid detection.
Authorities became aware that something more than fraud was going on at Ray and Faye Copeland’s farm on August 20, 1989. That day, a 57-year-old man named Jack McCormick contacted the authorities and informed them that Ray Copeland had tried to kill him. He went on to say that he had become aware of Copeland’s shady dealings and had even seen human bones on the farm. This, he said, is what prompted Ray to attempt to murder him.
Detectives in Missouri were aware of Ray Copeland’s previous crimes. So, they leapt into action. Within two months, they had enough evidence to obtain a search warrant. They arrived at the farm with it on October 9, 1989. They searched the farm for more than a week before they came up with anything. They found the bodies of three men in a local barn that was used by Ray on October 17. The bodies were later identified as those of John Freeman, 27-years-old, killed in December of 1988; Jimmie Dale Harvey, 27-years-old, killed in October of 1988 and Paul Jason Cowart, killed in May of 1989. All three victims had suffered the same fate. They had been shot in the back of the head.
Roughly one week after the first discovery, a body was found beneath another barn. This one was that of Wayne Warner, age unknown, killed in November of 1986. Later still, another victim was found in a well, Dennis Murphy, 27-years-old, killed in October of 1986. Both of these victims had been shot in the head as well.
Other evidence found at Ray and Faye Copeland’s farm included the murder weapon (a .22 caliber bolt-action rifle), a quilt that Faye had constructed out of the victims’ clothing and a farmhand register that contained each of the victims’ names with an x through them. Seven other names also had x’s through them. These men’s fates are unknown. However, it is highly likely that Ray Copeland murdered these men as well.
The first of the Copeland’s to go to trial was Faye. Her trial began on November 1, 1990. She was 69-years-old at the time. She was being charged with five counts of first-degree murder. The primary pieces of evidence against her were the quilt and the farmhand register. Faye claimed to have no knowledge of the murders and that she did not participate in them, in any way. She was abused by her husband, as were her children, and the defense put forth the idea that she suffered from battered woman syndrome. The defense did not stick. Faye was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
There was no doubt that Ray Copeland had been behind the murders. After the guilty conviction of his wife, it was obvious that Ray would share her fate. Ray went to trial on March 7, 1991. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentence to death by lethal injection. His wife’s sentence was later lessened to life in prison, which she served. Ray died of natural causes two years later. Faye died in December of 2003, of natural causes.
It is interesting to note that the Copeland’s son, Al, had this to say about the crimes his mother was convicted of, “. . . no way in the world that Mom could have done what they say she had done.” Of his father, he said, “He was guilty. I have no qualms about that.” Al was almost certainly right about his father and very likely right about his mother. Faye Copeland may have been guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, but it is highly unlikely that she personally committed any. It is also likely that Ray committed several more murders than he was charged with.
Lohr, David, The True Story of Ray and Faye Copeland, retrieved 6/27/10, trutv.com/library/crime/serial_killers/partners/copelands/7.html
The Copelands, retrieved 6/27/10, serialkillerdatabase.net/thecopelands.htm