The Oldest Couple on Death Row: Ray and Faye Copeland

While most people could never imagine their sweet grandparents becoming serial killers, that wasn’t the case for the Copeland family. In 1989, an anonymous tip uncovered the crimes committed by elderly couple Ray and Faye Copeland on their rural farm in Mooresville, Missouri. They quickly became the oldest couple sentenced to death.

Ray Copeland, Faye Copeland / Faye Copeland / Ray Copeland, Faye Copeland / Ray Copeland.
Source: Wikipedia

Ray and Faye’s lust for killing came in their retirement years. The couple, both in their 70s, went from being loving grandparents to serial killers who used their victims’ clothing to make winter quilts. Why they went down such a morbid path is perplexing, but you’ll have to keep reading to find out what happened.

The One That Got Away

In 1989, 57-year-old Jack McCormick was working on Faye and Ray Copeland’s farm. McCormick was suspicious about the Copelands and caught on to their illegal activities and scams. When Ray sensed McCormick was acting strange, he attempted to kill him. However, McCormick got away and lived to tell the tale.

A portrait of Ray and Faye Copeland.
Ray Copeland, Faye Copeland. Source: Wikipedia

Shortly after, Missouri police received an anonymous tip, later revealed to be from McCormick, that a human skull and bones were on the Copeland farm. The police initially didn’t believe the elderly couple could be serial killers, but they found something pretty disturbing upon searching the farm.

A Gruesome Discovery

When detectives showed up at the Copeland home, Ray said, “You’ll find nothing on my place.” While the police questioned Ray in his home, a team searched the farm and found five decomposing bodies in shallow graves. They also discovered a quilt made from the bloody clothing worn by the victims.

A dated picture of Ray and Faye with friends.
Source: Pinterest

The autopsy report determined that each man had been shot in the back of the head at close range. A register with the names of the farmhands who worked for the Copelands helped police identify the bodies. However, there was one major question: why would they need to kill anyone?

He Had an Early Crime Streak

Born in Oklahoma in 1914, Ray Copeland and his family became a casualty of the Great Depression in the late 1920s and ‘30s. His family struggled to survive and moved around often. Dropping out of school in the fourth grade to help his parents with their small farm, he had no education.

A portrait of Ray as a young man.
Ray Copeland. Source: Pinterest

By the time he was 20, Ray had committed his first petty crime, stealing hogs from his father’s farm and selling them behind his back. He continued to steal and scam his way into his first serious crime in 1939. Ray was arrested for forging government checks and served a year in jail.

He Met His Match

In 1940, Ray met 19-year-old Faye Wilson. The two dated for six months before tying the knot and having children, one after another. Ray and Faye had five children, four boys and one girl. With several additional mouths to feed, Ray quickly returned to stealing livestock to make ends meet.

A photo of Ray and Faye as a young couple.
Ray Copeland, Faye Copeland. Source: YouTube

This seemed to be Ray’s chosen profession, but he wasn’t very good at it. He got arrested several times and landed in jail repeatedly. It was hard for Faye to keep up with the responsibilities at home, and Ray’s scam wasn’t exactly slick. He made it pretty easy for the police.

A Flaw in His Plan

Ray would buy cattle at auction, write fraudulent checks, sell the cattle, and try to skip town before anyone realized the checks were bad. However, he sometimes didn’t leave town in time, so he promised to pay the auctioneer but never followed through.

An image of a cattle auction.
Photo by Jacob SUTTON/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

After scamming so many people, Ray got banned from buying and selling livestock. Ray had to figure out a new scam that would allow him to operate despite the ban. He needed to make a profit to provide for Faye and their children without being caught.

They Bought a Farm

After several arrests, a damaged reputation, and poor finances, the Copelands purchased a small, 40-acre farm in Mooresville, Missouri, in 1966. The family, especially Ray, were not well-liked in the small town. Neighbors suspected that he was verbally and physically abusive towards his family.

A picture of Ray and Faye at their farm.
Ray Copeland, Faye Copeland. Source: Pinterest

Local residents quickly learned that Ray would mistreat restaurant workers and intentionally run over dogs. He had a penchant for hiring luckless employees for his farm who could be taken advantage of. Ray earned the reputation of “menacing oddball” by the locals.

She Had to Get a Job

Due to Ray’s arrests and their financial situation, Faye had to get a job. Purchasing the farm wasn’t cheap, so she took a position at a local glove-making company. It didn’t pay much, but they needed all the spare money they could find.

A photo of Faye talking during an interview.
Faye Copeland. Source: Pinterest

Despite her husband’s poor reputation in town, Faye denied any allegations that Ray abused her or their children. She was loyal to her husband for whatever reason, but she never got involved in his fraud scam until years later. She kept her hands clean for a while.

Another Failed Scheme

In desperate need of money to keep the farm running, Ray had to think of a new plan to continue his scam. He knew another forgery arrest would land him in jail for much longer, so he concocted a scheme that would keep his name “clean.”

A picture of Ray and Faye at home.
Ray Copeland, Faye Copeland. Source: Pinterest

Ray would show up at auctions catering to hitchhikers and drifters, have the seller write out a check from Ray’s book, sign the check, and then sell the cattle before the check could bounce. He claimed his innocence to authorities, who later investigated him because the signatures were forged.

Exposing the Scheme

The scheme wasn’t original, but Ray got away with it dozens of times before someone exposed him. One of his scam victims, Gerald Perkins, was interrogated by the police about a forged check. It didn’t take long for him to give Ray’s name.

An image of Ray during his arrest.
Ray Copeland. Source: Murderpedia

Once again, Ray ended up back in jail after Perkins ratted him out. Upon his release, he still wanted to continue his scheme. However, he knew the only way to get away with it again would be to get rid of the evidence.

Changing His Plan

Ray had to tweak his plan since one of his scam victims exposed him. Instead of having his scam victims write checks from his account, they were told to get a post-office box and open an account in their name. The victims would then write checks from their accounts to buy cattle.

A photo of a calculator with check leaves on a white background.
Source: Getty Images

He explained to his farmhands that the auctioneers disliked him for various reasons or wouldn’t give him a fair price, so they had to buy the cattle in his place. However, Ray had one more part of the plan that he didn’t disclose.

She Became an Accomplice

Although she hadn’t been involved with his earlier plans, Faye eventually helped Ray when he added an extra part to his scheme. Since he had already been exposed by his victims once, he didn’t want there to be any evidence that could ruin his scam.

 A portrait of Faye Copeland.
Faye Copeland. Source: Pinterest

After the farmhands would open their accounts and write checks, Ray had to get rid of them. His drifter employees were the only thing that could link the fraudulent checks to him, so he decided to kill them once he got what he wanted.

He Chose Vulnerable People

Ray typically hired down-on-their-luck drifters who were looking for a place to sleep, work, and not have rules. They were vulnerable people, and Ray knew he could take advantage of them because they wouldn’t ask too many questions, and no one would come looking for them.

A dated portrait of Ray and Faye Copeland.
Source: Pinterest

In around October 1986, Ray and Faye began hire workers and getting them to open accounts at the post office. Once they had the checks they needed, the Copelands would eliminate them by shooting them in the back of the head.

Their Victims Were Young

Their first-known victim was Paul Jason Cowart. He was just 21 years old, and the Copelands killed him on October 17, 1986. They gained his trust, had him purchase cattle using his checks, and then they eliminated him, execution-style. Ray and Faye proceeded to bury him on their property.

Pictures of some of the victims.
Source: Pinterest

Their second victim was Josh Freeman, a 27-year-old killed on November 19, 1986. After Josh, the couple waited almost a year before claiming their third victim. It seemed that they needed time to hire a new person and have them set up their accounts.

There Might Have Been More

In 1988 and 1989, Faye and Ray killed three more people: Jimmie Dale Harvey, Wayne Warner, and Dennis Murphy. They were all in their 20s and were dumped on the Copeland’s property. Murphy was dumped in a well while the others were buried.

Portraits from Fay and Raye’s victims.
Source: Pinterest

While they only confirmed five victims, the Copelands were suspected of seven additional murders. There might have been more bodies, but the police never found more. In addition to burying the bodies, the Copelands did something even more disturbing after killing the young men.

Getting Cozy

Once their victims were dead, Faye would take their bloody clothes and bury the young men naked. She used their clothes to make a winter quilt that she and her husband snuggled under in the winters. It was like little trophies of their crimes.

A view of a quilt hanging outside a home.
Photo by Joseph Klipple/Getty Images

It made no sense why the two suddenly became killers. Yes, Ray was a criminal for most of his life, but he stuck to scamming people. It seemed like Faye and Ray found a lust for blood overnight. They weren’t just killing to keep the people quiet; it was a ritual.

They Made Promises

When Ray approached McCormick at the Victory Mission in Missouri, he promised him a $20,000-a-year job. McCormick described himself as a drunk, and the thought of steady income enticed him to accept Ray’s offer. He then followed Ray’s instructions to open an account.

A portrait of Ray Copeland.
Ray Copeland. Source: Pinterest

McCormick told the police that he and Ray attended cattle auctions together, and he would write checks that were far beyond what he had in his account. It went on for a short time until McCormick fled the farm after Ray put a gun to his head.

They Got Caught

Faye and Ray weren’t sophisticated killers. They didn’t go to great lengths to cover up their crimes because they truly believed they would never get caught. Faye even made a list of the people who worked at their farm and put an “X” next to each person they killed.

An image of the cattle on a farm.
Photo by J. Irwin/ClassicStock/Getty Images

However, when McCormick tipped off the police about human remains on the Copeland farm, it unraveled their plan. A week-long search of the Copeland property uncovered three bodies, and the following week, two more bodies were found.

They Were Arrested

The police believed that the couple killed at least 12 people because Faye’s book had 12 names. However, the couple was only charged for five of the killings. Prosecutors quickly offered Faye a deal: if she revealed the location of the other bodies, her charges would be less severe.

An image of handcuffs on a white background.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

However, Faye did not want to go against her husband and claimed she was unaware of his actions. Since she refused to take the deal, she and Ray were charged with five counts of first-degree murder. She would later change her defense.

He Tried the Insanity Plea

Initially, Ray tried to plead insanity to get out of his trial. He never thought he would get caught, but when he did, Ray did everything to get out of the charges. He eventually gave up and tried to work out a plea agreement with the authorities.

An interior shot of a courthouse.
Photo by Varley/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Unfortunately, the authorities were not willing to cooperate with Ray. They continued with the first-degree charges, and Ray had to go to trial. He had to wait until his wife’s trial was done and see what her verdict would be.

She Went First

Investigators had many questions about Faye’s level of involvement, but she didn’t want to take a deal. Her trial began on November 1, 1990, and her attorneys changed her defense when they realized she could receive the death penalty.

A view of a prison cell.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

As there were already rumors of Ray’s abuse, Faye’s lawyers claimed she was a victim and suffered from Battered Woman Syndrome. She claimed she didn’t know anything about the murders and stuck with that story. There was little doubt she was a battered wife.

A Short Deliberation

At Faye’s trial, the Battered Woman Syndrome defense wasn’t enough for the jury to excuse her part in the disturbing murders. After two hours of deliberation, the jury returned with a guilty verdict. They found Faye guilty of four counts of murder and one count of manslaughter.

An image of a court gavel.
Photo by Sora Shimazaki/Pexels

She was later sentenced to death by lethal injection. She sobbed uncontrollably as her sentence was read. Meanwhile, when Ray found out that his wife was sentenced to death, he said, “Well, those things happen to some, you know.” He clearly didn’t care.

It Was His Turn

Ray went to trial in March 1991. He reportedly never asked about Faye after finding out about her sentence. He basically had no defense because there was too much evidence against him. The then 76-year-old was also sentenced to death by lethal injection for the five murders.

An image of Faye Copeland sitting in court.
Faye Copeland. Source: YouTube

He showed no emotion during his trial and had no remorse. Ray and Faye became the oldest couple to be sentenced to death. If they were looking to make history, they definitely achieved that while taking the lives of innocent men.

He Wasn’t in Prison Long

Two years after Ray’s conviction, he died while awaiting execution. He died of natural causes on October 19. 1993, and his body was cremated. We can only imagine that his five children wanted nothing to do with him after all he put them through.

A photo of a barbed wire surrounding a prison.
Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Sygma/Getty Images

It was later found out that Ray was a spoiled child. Despite coming from a poor family, if he wanted something, his parents acquired it by any means. Ray was demanding, and he continued that trait into his adult life instead of earning an honest living.

Her Sentence Was Changed

In 1999, Judge Ortrie Smith overturned Faye’s death sentence. Although she was no longer on death row, the judge changed her sentence to five consecutive life terms without parole. It wasn’t much better, but she didn’t have to be executed.

An exterior shot of a prison.
Photo by Micheline Pelletier/Sygma/Getty Images

Faye was already approaching her late 70s when the sentence changed, but her health wasn’t great. Although she had been married to Ray for 50 years, she never heard from him after they were arrested. She wasn’t too sad when she heard that he had died.

She Had One Request

On August 10, 2002, Faye suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak. A few weeks later, the governor authorized a medical parole for Faye. Her only wish was that she wouldn’t die in prison, so she was transferred to a nursing home.

An image from the doctor’s office at a prison.
Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Sygma/Getty Images

She spent the rest of her days with full-time care in her hometown of Chillicothe, Missouri. At 82, Faye died of natural causes in the nursing home. She left behind her five children and 17 grandchildren. She left the world without telling anyone about the other seven men on her list.

While not having any money ruined Ray and Faye Copeland’s lives, having money isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. This couple won the lottery, and it tore them apart.