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Behind the Controversy: The Murder of Beverly Guenther

Behind the Controversy: The Murder of Beverly Guenther

On January 3rd, 2023, headlines around the United States of America read “Missouri to carry out the first execution of an openly transgendered person in history of the nation”. As the day turned to evening, protestors gathered outside of the penitentiary in Bonne Terre, Missouri. Some held signs protesting the death penalty and begging the government to stop killing people. Additionally, LGBTQ activists held signs demanding equal rights for the inmate. This execution was controversial for many reasons, but we must not forget what is behind the controversy. This is the story of the murder of Beverly Guenther.

Beverly Jo Wedepohl was born December 28th, 1957. Beverly got married and became a mother to three sons. When her youngest son was just a year and a half old, he drowned in a swimming pool. This devastating loss contributed to the breakdown of Beverly’s marriage. Following her divorce, Beverly worked hard to be an independent person. By 2002, Beverly, now a grandmother, started dating a man named Scott McLaughlin. Scott lived in Wright City, about sixteen miles from Beverly’s home in Moscow Mills, Missouri.

Scott McLaughlin was born January 13th, 1973. He and his two siblings were born to an alcoholic father and a mother who worked as a prostitute. His early childhood was plagued with abuse and neglect, with the kids ending up in the foster care system. Eventually, the kids were adopted by the McLaughlin family. Mr. McLaughlin was a St. Louis police officer who allegedly beat his kids with paddles, his nightstick, and even tazed the children at times. According to Scott, the food was often locked up so the children could not eat.

Scott did poorly in school and demonstrated strange behavior. At age nine, school officials initiated testing on Scott to determine the cause of his issues. It was determined that Scott had a lower-than-average IQ, in the 80s, Hyperactivity Attention Deficit Disorder, and learning disabilities. He was also found to have depression. His elementary school teachers described his psychological problems as severe. At age nineteen, Scott was arrested for the rape of a fourteen-year-old girl. He was found guilty and sent to prison. Upon his release, Scott was a registered sex offender.

He met Beverly Guenther in 2002 and the two began a whirlwind romance. The two were quickly living together in Beverly’s home in Moscow Mills, Missouri. Also in 2002, Scott’s adoptive father passed away. It is unclear what psychological impact this may have had on him. The relationship between Scott and Beverly quickly deteriorated. The couple began to fight regularly, often breaking up for short periods of time and then reuniting. In the summer of 2003, however, Beverly ended the relationship for good.

Scott was not going to just accept the breakup, however. He would call Beverly at her job in Earth City, Missouri regularly. He would often stop by to talk to her as well. She told him to leave her alone, but he didn’t listen. In a letter written by Beverly in the fall of 2003, she wrote, “He came up to me and tried to put his arm around me. I told him to not touch me and leave me alone. I asked him what he wanted when I was walking to my truck. He said he forgot to ask me something. I asked him what is was about the freezer he took out of my home. I was trying to get in my truck at the time. So I got in and he kept talking. I told him I had to leave, he tried to kiss me. I pulled away and told him to quit. Then he tried to do it again. I told him to stop and pushed him. He asked me why I was treating him that way. I said I was done and I didn’t want to see him no more no means no and I had to go. He proceeded to grab my breast and say I played with your titties. I yelled and told him to quit. And then he walked away and left. Scott doesn’t take no for an answer. He doesn’t know when to quit” (Beverly Guenther’s handwritten noted dated 11/12/03.

On October 27th, 2003, a neighbor of Beverly’s called her at work. She said that she saw Scott, who she had met before, coming in and out of her home with items. Beverly informed her neighbor that Scott was not permitted to be in her home and the police were called. Scott fled in his Ford Escort station wagon, leading police on a chase. Police set up a roadblock. At the roadblock, McLaughlin surrendered. Inside the vehicle, police found $900 worth of stolen property from Beverly Guenther’s home. Scott was charged with burglary, but he made bail.

In fact, Beverly had prepared statements for her victim impact statement and was ready to testify against Scott in court in late November. On Thursday November 20th, 2003, police received another call from Beverly’s neighbor. This time, she asked that police check on Beverly because she failed to return from work. Beverly had been being harassed and stalked by her ex-boyfriend for months, so her friends and neighbors were very concerned. Police found her vehicle still in the parking lot of her employer, but she was not there.

At the scene, police noted a large amount of blood. This immediately sent chills down their spines as they realized this was likely a homicide investigation. Police were immediately suspicious that her ex-boyfriend and current stalker was responsible for her disappearance. He had often ambushed her as she left work. They began to search for Scott McLaughlin when they received a tip on Friday November 21st that Scott would be at a local hospital seeking mental healthcare. He was taken into custody at the hospital.

On Saturday, November 22nd, Scott led police to the body of Beverly Guenther. She was forty-five years old at the time of her death. Scott, then twenty-nine years old, gave a full confession. He admitted to hiding in the bushes at Beverly’s place of employment. He said he was angry because Beverly “played head games” (Lhotka, 2006). He said that when he jumped out at Beverly she was startled and dropped her car keys. He then admitted to pulling a knife on her and forcing her to the ground where it is believed he raped her at knifepoint. He then stabbed her repeatedly, including in the neck. He put her body in the back of his station wagon and left the scene.

McLaughlin drove to south St. Louis near Bellerive Park. Here, he attempted to dump Beverly’s body in the Mississippi River, but he was unable to drag the body all the way down the embankment and it became stuck in some brush. Police later found blood trails, Scott’s flashlight, and the murder weapon. The medical examiner determined Beverly died of massive blood loss from multiple stab wounds. The medical examiner confirmed the rape but was not able to determine if it was pre or postmortem. The matter of death was ruled homicide and Scott McLaughlin was charged.

Scott said that he had a flat tire after dumping Beverly’s body. He said he slept in his vehicle that night before going to a family member’s home to sleep some more. Then he cleaned his vehicle out with bleach. Upon his arrest, Scott admitted to the murder but never gave a confession to the sexual assault. Blood was found in Scott’s vehicle that was linked by DNA to Beverly. Seminal fluids inside of Beverly were also linked to Scott by DNA. Scott admitted to throwing Guenther’s clothing in a garbage bin.

At trial, the confessions provided by Scott to authorities were shared along with letters that Beverly had written to document the stalking and abuse by Scott. Her victim impact statement for the October burglary case was also read and the jury was informed that Scott was set to go to court over those charges the day after Beverly was killed. He was found guilty of first-degree murder. The state planned to seek the death penalty.

In the sentencing portion of the trial, the state presented evidence that Scott had a criminal history, was a registered sex offender, had been harassing and stalking Beverly, and killed Beverly while committing forcible rape. To mitigate those aggravating factors, the defense presented psychologists and witnesses who said Scott had borderline personality disorder, severe depression, a history of ADHD, brain damage, and suffered an abusive childhood. In fact, they claim his adoptive parents smeared feces in his face on multiple occasions. In the end, the jury could not decide on McLaughlin’s punishment.

The jury had determined that the murder was “outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible, and inhuman”. The jury also decided that the factors favoring a life sentence did not outweigh the factors favoring death. However, they were hopelessly deadlocked on the verdict. Under Missouri law, one of only two states along with Indiana, a judge can impose a death sentence if a jury becomes deadlocked on the verdict of death vs. life in prison. The judge in this case did just that, sentencing Scott McLaughlin to die by lethal injection.

The decision to impose the death penalty was certainly controversial, but legal under the Missouri law. McLaughlin’s defense attorneys filed numerous appeals. In 2016, McLaughlin successfully appealed, and the death sentenced was vacated related to ineffective assistance of counsel. However, in 2021, this was overturned again on appeal and the death sentence was reinstated. Also in 2021, Scott began living as a female named Amber McLaughlin. Amber never legally changed her name or gender, so court documents continue to list her as Scott McLaughlin.

In the fall of 2022, the State of Missouri announced that Amber McLaughlin had exhausted all of her appeals and was scheduled for execution on January 3rd, 2023. The only chance she had of preventing the death sentence from being imposed was clemency from Governor Mike Parsons. Anti-death penalty activists as well as LGBTQ+ activists immediately took up Amber’s cause, pleading with Parsons to grant clemency and stop the execution.

In an article in the Huffington Post from December of 2022, Amber is described as the first openly transgendered woman to face execution in the United States of America. Her public defender, Larry Komp, said “It’s wrong when anyone’s executed regardless, but I hope that this is a first that doesn’t occur. Amber has shown great courage in embracing who she is as a transgender woman in spite of the potential for people reacting with hate, so I admire her courage” (Ballentine & Hannah, 2022).

A spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Corrections said that “It is extremely unusual for a woman to commit a capital offense, such as a brutal murder, and even more unusual for women to, as was the case with McLaughlin, rape and murder a woman” (Ballentine & Hannah, 2022). In the petition for clemency, McLaughlin was described as having intellectual challenges, fetal-alcohol exposure, suffering abuse and neglect, suffering brain damage, and a history of suicide attempts. The petition said that McLaughlin was mentally ill and therefore should be spared. One supporter said “We just implore the Governor to find mercy in his heart. Amber is a gentle human. Everyone who knows her knows that Amber is not of future harm” (Gluck, 2022). Another supporter suggested that it was not fair that the jury did not hear evidence of McLaughlin’s mental health issues including gender dysphoria. Other supports felt the execution threatened the rights of transgendered people.

Governor Parsons responded that “The family and loved ones of her victim, Beverly Guenther, deserve peace” (Andone & Vera, 2023). Furthermore, Parsons cited the fact that Beverly was stalked and harassed by McLaughlin throughout the last year of her life. The Governor declined to grant clemency. On January 3rd, 2023, at 6:39 pm, McLaughlin was given a fatal dose of phenobarbital. In her final statement, Amber said “I am a loving and caring person. I am sorry for what I did” (Kull, 2023). McLaughlin was pronounced dead at 6:51 pm.

Beverly’s sister-in-law, following the execution said, “I’m a nurse and my friends want to know how I can be for the death penalty and watch this. I am a caregiver. I believe in saving people. But he violently, and mindfully, took someone’s life. This has been a long time coming.” (Kull, 2023). After the execution, Beverly’s family members placed flowers on her grave to celebrate the end of the tragic story.

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Weich, S. (2003). Neighbor is credited with foiling burglary.

Holland, E. (2003). Man is charged in woman’s slaying. St. Louis Post Dispatch. 23 Nov 2003

Obituary of Beverly Jo Guenther (2003). St. Louis Post Dispatch 26 Nov 2003

Lhotka, W. (2006). Jury views notes from victim in murder case. St. Louis Post Dispatch. 29 Sep 2006

Lhotka, W. (2006). With jury divided, judge opts for death sentence. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 4 Nov 2006

Lhotka, W. (2006). Murder trial jury hears defendant’s recorded statements. St. Louis Post Dispatch. 27 Sep 2006

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