While most grandparents take up knitting or fly fishing in their golden years, elderly couple Ray and Faye Copeland had other ideas — the couple became serial killers in their seventies, and were the oldest couple in the United States ever sentenced to death.
Their evil deeds began to unravel at 7:30 P.M. on August 20, 1989, when Crime Stoppers received an anonymous tip from a caller who accused Ray Copeland of murdering farm hands and claimed he had a skull and human bones buried on his property.
The murderous pair were eventually convicted of killing five drifters who came to work on their farm, and, shockingly, police found a “trophy” they made — a quilt fashioned out of their dead victims’ clothing.
Ray Copeland was born in Oklahoma in 1914, and dropped out of school during the Depression. Frustrated with poverty, Copeland began scamming people out of property and money and, in 1939, was sentenced to a year in jail. Shortly after his release in 1940, he met Faye Wilson.
The couple married, had several children, and moved to the Ozarks in Arkansas. Soon Copeland began supporting his growing family by stealing from livestock ranchers by writing bad checks at auction.
Eventually, he was banned from buying livestock, and so began hiring drifters to work on his farm, setting them up with checking accounts, and then buying livestock with their bad checks.
His neighbors in Missouri, where the family had relocated, were suspicious of him and, believing that he was an abusive husband and father, kept their distance. In October 1989, Missouri police received a tip that a human skull and bones could be found on Copeland’s property.
When police arrived and proceeded to question him about yet another scam, they found five decomposing bodies buried in shallow graves around the farm.
The autopsy report determined that the victims Paul Jason Cowart, John Freeman, Jimmie Dale Harvey, Wayne Warner, and Dennis Murphy, had all been shot in the back of the head at close range.
Authorities also found a register filled with the names of the transient farmhands who had worked for the Copelands — and 12 of the names, including the five victims found, had a crude “X” in Faye’s handwriting next to them. Based on this, police suspected the Copelands in the murders of seven additional drifters.
Authorities found a .22-caliber rifle inside the home, which later tests proved to be the same weapon as the one used in the murders. Police also found the handmade quilt Faye Copeland had stitched out of the dead men’s clothing.
Faye claimed to know nothing about the murders. She said she had Battered Woman’s Syndrome and was another one of Ray’s victims — and stuck to her story even after being offered a deal to reduce her murder charges to conspiracy to commit murder.
But the jury did not buy Faye’s story, and she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection. Ray was also found guilty and sentenced to death.
Despite making history as the oldest couple to be given death sentences, neither Ray nor Faye was actually executed. Ray died in 1993 on Death Row, and Faye’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
In 2002, Faye was granted compassionate release from prison because of her declining health, and she died in a nursing home in December of 2003. She was 83 years old.
Watch the all-new series premiere of Kiss of Death on Thursday, August 24 at 9/8c on Investigation Discovery!