In August of 1989, a man called the Crime Stoppers hotline and explained that he believed a farmer in Mooresville, Missouri was killing people and burying them on their farm. The man, Jack McCormick, was a transient who was wanted for writing bad checks. Police initially did not put much stock in the man’s claims but decided to investigate the farmer after learning he had his own criminal background. What police discovered around the farm of Ray and Faye Copeland shocked the entire nation.
Ray Copeland was born in 1914 in Oklahoma. His family moved around frequently throughout childhood. The family was very poor, especially during the Great Depression. Perhaps that is why, as a young man, Ray began to commit petty crimes in order to help his family make ends meet. Some of these crimes included stealing livestock and writing bad checks. In 1939, Ray was sentenced to one year in jail for his crimes.
Upon his release in 1940, Ray met Faye Della Wilson. Faye was born in 1921 in Arkansas. Within months of meeting, Ray and Faye married. Faye explained in an episode of Forensic Files that “We were just everyday people. I was taught from childhood on that you marry and stay with him. Husband was the boss” (Forensic Files). Faye gave birth to the couple’s five children and also worked a few jobs outside the home from time to time to help pay the bills.
(Above: Ray & Faye, Below: a young Faye Copeland)
Ray, who dropped out of school at age nine, had limited skills and supported his family through a series of schemes that included stealing livestock and writing fraudulent checks. Ray was arrested and served jail time several times while his children were growing up. Due to his reputation as a fraud, the family moved around frequently. Eventually, however, Ray and Faye were able to purchase a farm in Mooresville, Missouri.
By the 1980s, Ray was in his seventies and his children had grown up and left the farm. Ray was hard of hearing, elderly, and illiterate from his lack of education. He needed help on his farm. Plus, due to his history of writing bad checks, most cattle auctions refused to sell cattle to the farmer. Ray decided he needed to hire some farmhands to help on the farm. He and Faye chose to hire transients from Springfield, Missouri who needed room and board. The couple paid a modest salary in addition to room and board.
By the mid-eighties, cattle houses in rural Missouri were plagued with a fraud problem. There were several different men who had purchased cattle with checks that were returned related to insufficient funds. When police went to look for the men, they were nowhere to be found. After all, most of these men were transients who had been working for Ray and Faye Copeland as farmhands. Ray explained that at least one of the men had also written him bad checks. Police had no reason to suspect anything was amiss.
When Jack McCormick made a call to Crime Stoppers, investigators learned there was more to the Copelands than they originally thought. Jack told authorities that Ray hired him and brought him to the bank to open a checking account, depositing a small amount of money to start the account. He said that then went with Ray to the auction house and Ray told him when to bid on the cattle and how much to bid. When the sale was final, Ray instructed him to write a check and he would deposit funds to cover it. However, Jack said that night Ray asked him to help trap a raccoon in the barn. When Jack turned around in the barn, Ray had a rifle pointed at his head. He was able to convince Ray not to shoot him and promised to leave Missouri and keep his mouth shut. That was a promise Jack did not keep.
Upon further investigation, it was discovered that Jack had hired several men to work on his farm and there was a handwritten list kept in the home. Since Ray could not read or write, Faye had written out this list of men and marked an x next to several of the names. Police realized that the list corresponded with the list of men wanted for passing bad checks at cattle houses. Police searched the Copeland farm but did not find any human remains. They did find clothing that was not Ray’s, some of which Faye made into a quilt. Was this a murder quilt made of their victim’s clothing?
Police kept searching and began a search on the neighboring farm, which Ray frequently worked on for extra money. There, police found the bodies of four young men buried near a barn and another man’s body in a well. The bodies were badly decomposed and dental records were difficult to obtain from the missing men as they did not have regular dental care. All four bodies were killed by the same weapon, a .22 caliber Marlin rifle that was found in the Copeland home.
The known victims of Ray and Faye Copeland are Dennis K. Murphy, Wayne Warner, Jimmy Harvey, John Freeman, and Paul Cowart. Dennis Murphy was born in 1962 in Normal, Illinois. Not much information is known about him, but a message left on his Find a Grave page suggests he had a daughter. He was killed in October of 1986. Wayne Warner is from Bloomington, Illinois, and was killed in November of 1986. Jimmy Dale Harvey was born in 1961 and was from Springfield, Missouri. He was twenty-seven when he was murdered in October of 1988. John Wayne Freeman was born on January 6th, 1962, and was from Boonville, Indiana. He was murdered in December of 1988. Paul Cowart was born on September 30th, 1968, in Arkansas. He was twenty-one years old when he was murdered in May of 1989. On the list of names Faye had written, there are three other men listed. Those men are still considered missing, and their remains have never been found.
Was it really possible that this elderly farmer and his wife were serial killers? Authorities found the .22 caliber Marlin bolt-action rifle inside the Copeland home. Ballistics testing proved it was the weapon used to murder the five men whose bodies had been found. The quilt made of the men’s clothing along with the list being written by Faye Copeland convinced authorities that the couple was acting together when the crimes were committed. Ray and Faye Copeland were both arrested and charged with five counts each of first-degree murder.
Faye Copeland insists she knew nothing about the murder and that she was a battered wife. She said that she was raised to obey her husband and she did as she was told. She claimed Ray was physically abusive to her and her children for their entire marriage, a claim her children corroborated. She was offered a deal in exchange for her testimony against her husband, but she insisted she knew nothing about the murders and refused to take the deal.
Ray plead insanity at first but quickly dropped that idea. He then attempted to make a plea deal with prosecutors, but they were not willing to negotiate with Ray Copeland. Ray and Faye went to trial separately but were both convicted of five counts of first-degree murder and were both sentenced to death. They were the oldest couple in United States History to be sentenced to die.
The prosecution determined that Ray and Faye would hire these homeless transients and help them set up checking accounts. Once a bad check for cattle was written, Ray would murder the man and sell the cattle off before the cattle houses realized the check was bad. He was able to do this at least five times, but police believe he likely killed at least eight times. Because they were transients, most of the men’s families did not even realize they were missing.
Faye Copeland’s culpability has been called in to question several times. According to a court document regarding her appeal of her conviction, Faye often conversed with the farmhands, handled bank transactions, and later told banks she did not know who the men were when the checks would bounce. There was certainly sufficient evidence that she was aware of Ray’s fraudulent scheme and most likely aware of the murders. While the jury felt she was likely a battered woman, they still felt she was culpable and should be held accountable for the murders.
Ray Copeland died in prison of natural causes in 1993 at age seventy-eight. In 1999, Faye’s death sentence was commuted to five consecutive life terms with no possibility for parole. On August 10th, 2002, Faye suffered a stroke that left her entire left side paralyzed, and she lost her ability to speak. She was given medical parole and was sent to a nursing home in Chillicothe, Missouri. Faye died at the nursing home on December 23rd, 2003, at the age of eighty-two.
No one expects an elderly farmer and his wife to be serial killers. Many people still question Faye’s knowledge of the depravity of her husband, but others believe she was a willing participant in his crimes. While neither of them was actually executed, they left a legacy for their children and grandchildren: the oldest couple in the United States to be sentenced to death.