The San Francisco Witch Cult Killers

We’ll start off the month of lovers with one of the craziest killer couples: Suzan and James/Michael “Bear” Carson, the psycho “Witch Killer Cult” who terrorized San Francisco in the early 1980s.

Susan Barnes had been a seemingly normal suburban housewife in 1960s Scottsdale, Arizona. Her husband made good money, enabling her to be a stereotypical spoiled housewife. But she wanted more than that.

She began taking hallucinogens like LSD, mescaline, and peyote while she was hanging out with her sons’ high-school classmates. She also regularly seduced and slept with them – according to the rumor mill, she slept with 150 young men and boys.

When she turned 35, she began to have delusions and hallucinations – or as she called them, “visions” – even when she wasn’t on drugs. This was actually nothing new; since she was a child, she believed she was psychic.

Needless to say the infidelity, drug use, and budding psychosis shattered her marriage. She reinvented herself, and started spelling her name with a “z” instead of an “s.” She had visions telling her she needed to find a soulmate, a partner, a loyal disciple. That’s when she James Carson.

Originally from Oklahoma, Carson was also another non-conformist, middle-class dropout. Always bookish, he took a special interest in history, religions, and philosophy. He earned a degree from University of Iowa, where he met his wife. After graduation, they had a daughter and moved to Arizona. While his wife supported him, he was a stay-at-home dad and pot dealer. Things seem to work out that way for quite a while – by his daughter’s account, he was a loving and attentive father.

But as time went on, he began to get more antisocial and prone to angry outbursts. Due to his growing unstable behavior and his inability (or unwillingness) to get a job, his wife divorced him in 1977. Shortly thereafter, he met Suzan.

When they met, it was instant attraction. The first thing she said to him when they met was that his name was Michael. He said, “No, my name is James.” To which she responded, “No, you are Michael, an angel of God.” From then on, James went by the name Michael.

It was a match made in hell; James was looking for God, and Suzan was looking for a disciple. After they married, they tripped around Europe a while, and Susan developed her own religion from her drug- and psychosis-induced visions: a twisted, radical interpretation of Islam. Upon returning to the US, they began going by the surname “Bear” and described themselves as “vegetarian Moslem warriors.”

However, their religion was not all tofu and white light. For one thing, they believed insulting a woman was tantamount to assault, and deserving of death. For another, they believed there were witches surrounding them, using their mental powers to control others. And they believed it was their duty to kill all witches.

This kind of shared madness is called folie á deux, or, more clinically, shared psychotic disorder. It is a rare delusional disorder shared by two or, sometimes, more people with unusually close emotional ties. The delusions are usually induced in the passive partner – in this case, Michael – by the active one – Suzan.

Up until now their cult had consisted of only two members. So they began looking for recruits in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. In 1980, Haight-Ashbury was still a major epicenter of the counter-culture and drug culture. There they met Keryn Barnes at a party. Though most people were repulsed by the Bears’ odd and even hostile behavior, Keryn, an open-minded spiritual seeker, found them fascinating.

She invited them to come live with her, where they continued nearly non-stop tripping, drinking, and getting high. Before long, Suzan began to see Keryn as a witch. Maybe she felt threatened by the pretty younger woman, or maybe she really did believe Keryn had evil psychic powers. Either way, she and Michael murdered her as she lay sleeping on the kitchen floor, beating her to death with an iron skillet and stabbing her over a dozen times.

When the police found Keryn’s bloody body, they also found a scene straight out of Helter Skelter: the walls were covered in strange religious symbols and one word: “Suzan.” Through their investigation, they discovered that Michael and Suzan had been living with Keryn, and were likely suspects in her murder. However, the Bears were long gone.

They fled north and stayed an abandoned cabin in the Oregon woods Suzan called “Allah’s mountain,” until they were kicked out by a park ranger. Later, another good Samaritan let them stay in his treehouse. But their weird, combative behavior soon grated on the owner, and he kicked them out. Suzan, however, was not going to take this lying down. She instructed Michael to take revenge on the owner. So they robbed his house, taking, among other things, a handgun, and then set it on fire.

So they headed back to California, getting jobs as caretakers of a marijuana plantation in Humboldt County. However, when a friend of the owner, Clark Stevens, came up to work on the operation, he and the Bears butted heads quickly. They argued, and when things got heated, Clark said something that offended Suzan. For this offense, she ordered Michael to kill Clark. Ever her faithful disciple, Michael shot him dead with the stolen gun. They poured kerosene over his body, set it on fire, then covered it with chicken litter.

Now the Bears were on the run again. A man named Jon Hellyar picked them up hitchhiking near Bakersfield. Suzan told Michael as soon as she saw Jon, she knew he was a witch and they would have to kill him. Sure enough, they began arguing as soon as the Bears got in his truck. Apparently his leg touched Suzan’s, and this was a death sentence. They struggled, and Jon was able to pull over and get out of his truck. The Bears followed him. They stabbed and shot him right on the side of the highway, in full view of passing drivers, who called the police. Suzan and Michael drove off in Jon’s truck, which was quickly spotted by police. After a high-speed chase, the couple was arrested.

While they were in custody, they arranged a rambling, six-hour press conference where they laid out their twisted beliefs and reasoning for the murders. They showed no remorse, and in fact, thought they should be heroes for killing witches.

Regardless, they were tried and found guilty and sentenced to 75 years to life. They came up for parole in 2015; Michael declined parole, and Suzan was denied because she was still unrepentant for the murders. Their earliest official release date won’t be until 2059.

But that is not the end of the strange story of the Witch Killer Cult. Authorities think they may be responsible for nearly a dozen other murders in Europe and the United States, but don’t have enough evidence to bring charges.

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All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Pt. 4

Season six was really a fun change of pace – very meta-on-meta. As a fan of low-budget true-crime shows, I got a kick out of AHS’ treatment of them: the victim interviews, the cheesy re-enactments, and a cameo by my favorite historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin!

But were there any real killers in season six? Do you even have to ask?

The Angels of Death

Obviously, the nurses Miranda and Bridget Jane (played by Jenna Doolittle and Areana Cirina in “real” life, by Maya Rose Berko and Christian Rakes in the “re-enactment”) are dead ringers (pardon the pun) for Gwendolyn Graham and Cathy Wood. Graham and Wood were lovers who made a game of killing the elderly patients in the Alpine Manor nursing home where they worked in 1987. The object of the game was to choose victims by their initials to spell out the word “MURDER.” But that proved too difficult, so they gave up and just started just killing at random, eventually taking the lives of five victims.

They nearly got away with it, too. Since their victims were elderly and in poor health, their deaths were ruled as from natural causes.

However, Graham and Woods’ relationship did not last. They broke up, and Wood married a man whom she confessed the murders to. After he and Wood divorced, he went to the police. While Graham was given five life sentences, Wood got a lighter sentence for her cooperation, and is expected to be released in 2021.

The Bean Clan

The Polk clan gives a huge nod and wink to the Peacocks from one of the darkest and most horrifying X Files episodes, “Home.” However, their gruesome dietary practices also reflect another murderous clan who may or may not have been real: the cannibalistic Bean clan of Scotland.

Alexander “Sawney” Bean and his wife, Agnes Douglas, lived in a sea cave on Scotland’s southwest coast. Over time they had 14 children, and, through incest, 32 grandchildren. The family would rob and kill unsuspecting travelers, then bring the bodies back to their cave for dismemberment and roasting – or salting and pickling, to save for later.

It’s rumored that over a span of 25 years, the clan murdered over 1,000 people, spawning terror and rumors in the neighboring towns. Some blamed the innkeepers, some blamed evil goblins living in the wilderness or kelpies who lived in the lochs and rivers.

Legends differ on how they were caught. Some say one of their intended victims was rescued by another traveler. They brought the authorities to the Beans’ cave, led there by hunting dogs following the the odor of human decomposition. Inside, they found body parts hung up to dry as well as stolen valuables scattered throughout the cave.

Another version states a wanderer came upon them roasting a human body over an open fire and went for the authorities.

In any case, the Bean clan met a horrific end. The women and children were strangled before the stake, their last agonizing moments spent watching the men be slowly dismembered and left to bleed to death, before they (the women and children) were set on fire.

Yet it is not certain the legend is real. For one, the name “Sawney” was the popular English nickname for a stereotypical Scot, much like “Paddy” for the Irish. For another, the date of their existence isn’t known; some say the Bean clan killed in in the early 1400s, but others say it was at the turn of the 17th Century. Like with most legends, there may be a bit of truth underneath a lot of hyperbole.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to look at season seven until it comes out on Hulu, so stay tuned and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Next month is February, the month for lovers, so we’ll be looking at Couples Who Kill…

All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Part 3

Season five has so many real killers in it, it gets its own post!

H.H. Holmes

The insane architect of the Cortez, J.P. March (played by Evan Peters) is largely based on a real serial killer: H.H. Holmes (real name, Herman Webster Mudgett).

Holmes built his “murder castle” just outside of Chicago in 1893, just in time for the Columbian exhibition. Like the Cortez, his hotel was a deranged masterpiece designed to confuse, kill, and dispose of its inhabitants. Like March, Holmes would fire contractors who saw too much or asked to many questions – though he would just fire them without pay, not execute them. Holmes’ murder castle had doors that opened onto brick walls, staircases then went to nowhere, sealed rooms with poison gas piped in (and a peep hole where he could watch his victims’ death throes), and a chute for delivering the bodies to the basement, where he could strip their flesh and sell their skeletons to anatomy schools.

The Devil’s Night Guest List

In episode 4, March hosts his annual Devil’s Night dinner, where real serial killers he’s mentored are invited back from the dead. The guest list includes:

  • Jeffrey Dahmer, played by Seth Gabel
  • The Zodiac killer, played by an unknown actor
  • Richard Ramirez, who actually stayed at the Cecil Hotel (see below), played by Anthony Ruivivar
  • John Wayne Gacy, played by John Carroll Lynch. Lynch has played serial killers before, including the main suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, in the movie Zodiac and Twisty the Clown in season four. But as great an actor as Lynch is, I don’t think he really got Gacy was an outgoing, ambitious glad-hander – someone who recruited prominent men into the Jaycees and hobknobbed with politicians. Lynch portrayed him as a somewhat dull, almost childish character, more like Twisty than the real Gacy.
  • Aileen Wuornos, played by Lily Rabe. Rabe’s Wournos was incredible – maybe even better than Charlize Theron!
  • Gordon Northcott, the Wineville chicken coop murderer, played by Luke Baybak. As an aside, apparently Hazel’s son was one of his victims, as she reveals earlier in the episode. This was one detail that I found, well, off-key. What was the purpose of that scene? Why didn’t Hazel attempt some sort of revenge on Northcott at that evening’s dinner? This just doesn’t make sense!

The Cecil Hotel

Perhaps the most interesting “real killer” in season five is the hotel itself, which seems to be an amalgam of H.H. Holmes’ murder castle and a real hotel in LA called the Hotel Cecil.

The Cecil, also done in the art deco style, was built in 1925. It had 700 rooms and was very tony at the time. But the stock market crash of ’29 caused financial problems for the owners. Soon the neighborhood turned seedy, and the Cecil became a hostel for the shady and sick – much like the Cortez.

Over the years there have been not one, but two, serial killers who have called the Cecil their home. Richard Ramirez lived on the top floor while he was killing in the mid-1980s, and Jack Unterweger murdered three women while living there in 1991.

In addition, there have been 16 unnatural deaths at the hotel, including almost a dozen people who committed suicide and several others who attempted to. In 1962, one woman leapt to her death and landed on a pedestrian, killing him too. One man was fatally pinned to the building by a truck, and in 1994, a 19-year-old woman gave birth in the bathroom and threw the newborn out the window to his death.

Recently, in 2013, the Hotel Cecil tried rebranding itself with a renovation and new name, Stay on Main. But that was not enough to overcome the apparent curse of the Hotel Cecil. On Feb. 19, the naked, decomposing body of Elisa Lam was found in the hotel’s water tank after guests had complained of a foul odor and bad taste in the water. She had been missing for three weeks by then. The last images taken of Lam were hotel surveillance footage that showed her acting very strangely, as though she were afraid someone were following her, though no one else could be seen.

Though the cause of her disappearance and death was ruled accidental, questions still remain. For one, how could Lam have gotten onto the roof, when a locked door and fire escape are the only ways to access the hotel’s roof? The door, which only employees can reach, is also equipped with an alarm. Why didn’t it sound? The water tank itself is also extremely difficult to access, and authorities had a difficult time getting her body out. What really happened to Elisa Lam may never be answered.

 

Tune in next week for all the real killers in season six!

All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Pt. 2

I hope you liked last week’s rundown. Let’s take a stab at the next two seasons, shall we?

AHS Coven – Season 3

Season three might not have the most real killers, but it has the most recognizable.

The Axeman

The Axeman of New Orleans, played by Danny Houston, was a real serial killer who terrorized New Orleans in 1918 and 1919. He would remove his victims’ door panels with a chisel, enter their homes, then kill one or more of the residents with their own axe or straight razor. Nothing else would be taken from the home, besides their lives.

Most of his victims were Italian or Italian-American, causing some to believe the murders were ethnically motivated. His primary victims were women; he only killed men when they tried to protect women. This leads some modern criminologists to believe he was a sexual sadist.

On May 13, 1919, with a dateline from “Hell,” the Axeman (or someone claiming to be him) wrote a letter to “the esteemed morals of New Orleans.” Claiming to be a demon, he wrote that he would “pass over” New Orleans the following Tuesday at 12:15 a.m. and would spare anyone whose home was playing a jazz band in full swing. That night, every dancehall in the Crescent City was packed, and hundreds of professional and amateur musicians played. No one was killed that night.

The Axeman had killed six and injured a dozen, but was never caught.

The Savage Mistress

The other serial killer featured in season three was far more cruel and sadistic – and also never faced justice: Mad Madame LaLaurie, played by Kathy Bates. Madame Marie Delfine LaLaurie was born in 1787 into the New Orleans wealthy elite. She was known as kind and courteous to her social equals. She even freed two of her slaves.

Her third marriage was to the less wealthy Dr. Louis LaLaurie after she bore his child out of wedlock. Soon after their marriage, stories about her cruelty to her slaves began to emerge, and multiple complaints were filed against her for it. In an eerie reflection of Elizabeth Bathory, for whom she has been repeatedly compared, she flew into a rage when a 12-year-old servant girl named Leah (or Lia) pulled a tangle while brushing her hair. Fleeing from the furious, whip-wielding mistress, Leah jumped from the roof to her death. Witnesses later saw LaLaurie burying the girl’s mangled corpse, so she was fined $300 and forced to sell her nine slaves. But like rich people everywhere, she was able to buy her way out of punishment. Her family members simply purchased the slaves and sold them back to LaLaurie.

In 1834, the depth of her sadism was finally exposed for all to see. On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the LaLaurie mansion, set by a slave who had been chained to the stove and left to starve. She later confessed that she had set the fire as a suicide attempt to avoid being taken to the attic, because no one who was taken there ever came back.

As LaLaurie scrambled to save her valuables, townsfolk rushed in to help her. In the attic, they found “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated … suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.” They said they been imprisoned there for months. Details of the abuse have grown more fantastic over the years, including tales of slaves limbs being broken and reset an odd angles and other ghastly medical experiments. Though their conditions were torture by any standard, iron masks, collars with inward facing spikes, and beatings were actually common punishments used on slaves at the time.

Even in slave-holding New Orleans, however, this was more that they could tolerate. A mob of local citizens descended on the LaLaurie mansion and “demolished and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands.”

LaLaurie escaped with her slave driver to Paris, where she lived out the rest of her days in comfort and freedom. Her body was later exhumed and returned to New Orleans.

AHS Freakshow – Season 4

Season four, while being deliciously grotesque, doesn’t feature a lot of real killers. The most obviously inspired character is Twisty (played by John Caroll Lynch, no stranger to playing serial killers), a creature who is based on Pogo, the clown John Wayne Gacy would dress up as. Gacy would often entertain children dressed as Pogo, and, sometimes, he would dress as Pogo to assault and kill his victims.

There is one more serial killer that provided some inspiration for season four: Jeffrey Dahmer. In episode 5, “Pink Cupcakes,” Dandy begins choosing his victims by trawling the gay bar, just like Dahmer. Later, there is a scene at the bar where you can see a flyer in the background. It has a sketch of Dandy’s clown mask and says, “WANTED MAN.” This is also a callback to Dahmer. Many in Milwaukee’s gay community knew too many men and boys were going missing to be a coincidence. Thanks to the bigotry of the Milwaukee PD, the gay community had to try to solve the problem themselves, and to do so, they did put out flyers with some of the missing men’s photos on them. It’s a small detail, but it’s the kind of thing I love in this series.

Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments!

Join us next week when we’ll look at the real killers featured in seasons five and six.

All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Pt. 1

There are so many things I love about this series! I love how it moves around in time (I’m a sucker for anything vintage), the diversity of the cast, and the dark, intricate plotlines sprinkled with just a touch of camp. It’s absolutely delicious, like all the best nightmares are.

Another thing I love about American Horror Story is how Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and the other writers take characters and stories from real life. So in this series, I’m going to look at all the real psychos, sadists, and serial killers featured on the show.

AHS Murder House – Season 1

First, Tate Langdon (Evan Peters): he’s a troubled, moody loner, a teen who dreams of taking out his revenge on the classmates who shunned him. In episode 5 (“Halloween pt. 2”) we find out he actually did shoot up his school – then was himself shot – in the 1990s.

When most people think of a school shooting in the ‘90s, they think of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others, then turned their guns on themselves. Like the character Tate, they wore black trenchcoats and listened to Goth music.

But that wasn’t the first school shooting in America. There have been many shootings at public schools over the years, going back to the 1700s. Most were acts of revenge, committed by one person against another at a school. Others were the result of a fight breaking out amongst armed students. The modern type of school shooting, where a student (or students) comes to the school and targets fellow students and teachers for the express purpose of taking as many lives as possible, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The first mass murder (four or more fatalities) at a public school (not a college), where the shooter arrived with the express purpose of killing many others (as opposed to a fight breaking out or an act of revenge on a specific individual): that dubious honor belongs to Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

A year before the Columbine massacre, on March 24, 1998, Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson, aged 11 and 13, pulled a fire alarm then ran to a wooded area, firing on teachers and students as they exited. They killed five people and wounded 10 others. When police apprehended the boys, they found they had stocked a stolen van with food, clothing, and camping equipment as well as 13 fully loaded firearms and 200 rounds of ammo. At the time, it shocked the nation…yet only a year later, the Columbine massacre eclipsed it, setting off a very dark and deadly trend that unfortunately continues to this day.

Another real killer featured in Season 1 was Richard Speck – the murder of the nursing school students is nearly identical to his 1966 mass murder. The main difference is that in real life, Speck raped, beat, and stabbed eight women.

The final real killer in Season 1 has to do with maybe the most famous real-life murder victim, the Black Dahlia. In episode 9, “Spooky Little Girl,” she’s raped, then accidentally murdered, by a dentist while under sedation. When I first saw this scene, the story seemed familiar, but I couldn’t put a name to who the real murderous dentist was. So I Googled it. Turns out, it wasn’t just one dentist who would rape his patients while under sedation – many, many doctors of various specialties have been found guilty of this. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did an excellent investigation into the problem and found it’s rampant in the medical community – they uncovered over 2,400 cases of doctors across the nation publicly sanctioned by medical authorities after being accused of sexually abusing patients. But many perps are never removed from medical practice. They just move away and start abusing patients again. Fortunately, unlike AHS’ Black Dahlia, their victims survived.

AHS Asylum – Season 2

The setting for Season 2 is Briarcliff Manor, an insane asylum where people were kept in horrible conditions, subjected to abuse and neglect … and treatments like electroshock therapy and forced lobotomies. It’s like something straight out of the pages of a horror novel. Actually, it’s from the pages of history books.

Insane asylums began in the late 17th century. Often the goal of these institutions was merely to keep the patients docile, so they were left in cell-like rooms, chained, put in straight-jackets, and later, drugged. Psychiatry was in its infancy, so mental illness was not well understood. Women, in particular, were labeled “mad” for nearly any infraction of the strict social code. Offenses like masturbating, defiance, or even not smiling enough could get a woman committed.

The most infamous of these was Bedlam (Bethlem Royal Hospital), the oldest institution for treatment of mental illness. It was built atop a sewer that frequently overflowed into the building. Patients were spun in suspended chairs, beaten, starved, dunked in ice baths, and other atrocities. Many didn’t survive. Edward Wakefield, a Quaker, exposed its abuses in 1814.

The character Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) may well have been inspired by the intrepid Nellie Bly, (the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane) who, in 1887, had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City. She then exposed the filth, beatings, neglect, and torture there. She published a series of newspaper articles, “Behind Asylum Doors,” which were later collected into a book, Ten Days in a Madhouse. The exposure helped legislators increase the institution’s budget and the abuses stopped.

While Briarcliff was undoubtedly an amalgam of many of these awful places, the one that seems to track the closest is Willowbrook State Hospital. First exposed by newspaper reporter Jane Kurtin, the horrifying conditions of the hospital were aired by Geraldo Rivera in 1972 in a special called “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace.” The “investigative report” done by Lana Winters is a thinly-fictionalized, nearly shot-by-shot remake of Rivera’s piece.

Probably the most obvious – and evil – real killer in Season 2 is Dr. Arthur Arden/Hans Grüper (James Cromwell). He is explicitly an avatar of the Nazi Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele. Both did horrible, unethical, and cruel experiments – without anesthetics – on women, children, and twins in Auschwitz.  Both were deceptively kind, as shown in episode 4, “I am Anne Frank, pt. 1,” where the younger Grüper (John Cromwell) is shown giving treats to the children in the camp.

However, unlike Mengele, who lived out the rest of his days in Brazil, Arden’s fate was more fitting. As Executive Producer Ryan Murphy put it, “… the image of a Nazi doctor going into an oven is sort of a brilliant metaphor of him literally paying. Obviously, he’s a terrible character but I thought his end was very justified and somewhat poetic.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the character’s surname, “Arden,” means “they burn” in Spanish.

Bloody Face is a Frankenstein’s-monster mix of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Norman Bates, and Buffalo Bill. And who are all those fictional monsters based on? The Butcher of Plainfield, Ed Gein. Dr. Oliver Thredson/Bloody Face, like Gein, is obsessed with his mother and her skin. Like Gein, he made furniture and objects out of human remains – specifically, like Gein, a bowl made from a skull and a lampshade and mask of human skin.

There is one real-life killer ascribed to AHS that I don’t think holds up. Some are saying Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré) represents Lizzy Borden. She did murder her father and step-mother with an axe; but that’s where the similarities end. Borden was a stout, no-nonsense woman, used to getting her own way – nothing like the waifish, mewling Grace. She wasn’t French either.

Of course all this is a matter of opinion. I’m interested in hearing other theories! Let me know what you think in the comments. And tune in next week for seasons 3 and 4!

 

Ronald Gene Simmons, the Christmas Killer

The holidays can really test anyone’s nerves. The expectation of overspending on gifts, risking your life traveling to visit people you moved hours away from for a reason, and forced cheerfulness in the company of people who you’d pay good money to avoid. It’s easy to slip into fantasies about doing away with the lot of them. And it’s probably because of these stresses that incidents of domestic violence increase during the holiday season.

The worst of these was committed by Ronald Gene Simmons. Over the course of a week, he slaughtered 14 of his family members and two former co-workers in the little town of Russellville, Arkansas, committing the largest family murder in US history.

Simmons was a “family annihilator,” a murderer who, either in one fatal swoop or over the course of hours or days, kills off most or all of his or her family.

The typical family annihilator that makes the headlines is a man who, outwardly, has all the trappings of a perfect family, such as a devoted wife, a high-paying or -status job, and clean, well-behaved children. There’s usually no history of abuse, and the killer has no prior criminal record. He’s usually set off by some traumatic event that he believes will ruin him, usually the loss of his job or discovery of a secret (usually involving white-collar crime or bankruptcy). John List is the perfect example of this type of killer, which is called the “civil reputable” family annihilator.

Simmons was the more common type of family annihilator: the “livid coercive,” a dominating domestic abuser who is threatened by losing control over his family. For Simmons, slaughtering his family was more about his need to possess them than to spare them from humiliation or poverty. In fact, he made sure his family lived in crushing poverty and isolation. But his psychopathic nature was far more deviant than most domestic abusers.

He Was a Bully and a Tyrant from the Beginning

Simmons showed narcissistic, controlling tendencies early on – hitting his younger siblings, manipulating them and his parents, erupting in fits of rage, and never backing down or admitting he was wrong. His younger brother described him as a bully and tyrant.

When he was in the second grade, his family moved to the small town of Hector, Arkansas, into an old farmhouse without running water, 20 miles away from the nearest paved road. They lived there for several years, and, to Gene, it was paradise. For the rest of his life, he longed to return to Arkansas and live “the simple life.”

At age 17, he entered the Navy, where he met Rebecca (Becky) Ulibarri at a USO dance hall. They fell in love and corresponded frequently while he was away. They were married in 1960 and had their first child, Gene Jr. (“Little Gene”) the following year.

Becky was just the kind of woman Gene wanted: meek, accommodating, and dependent. She couldn’t even drive. Gene ran the household with an iron fist, even when he was away. He had set schedules for meals, laundry, and cleaning. He controlled the finances, paying the bills himself and only allowing Becky a small “allowance,” which usually wasn’t enough to cover decent meals for his ever-growing family – over the next 17 years, the couple had six more children.

Yet meek, cowed Becky, in her diaries and letters, called him “my Gene,” and when she expressed frustration with his tyrannical ways, told herself that he probably knew best.

Unbeknownst to her, they weren’t actually that poor – Gene was just stingy. After finishing his stint with the Navy, Gene worked briefly at a bank, which paid quite well. However, his know-it-all attitude and controlling personality chafed his co-workers and supervisors, effectively shutting him out of any promotions.

So he went back into the military, this time, the Air Force. He spent 1967-68 in Saigon during the Vietnam War working in the Office of Special Investigations. By all accounts he excelled at his job, being a model of efficiency and proper protocol – his same monomaniacal obsession for order and control that he used on his family was an asset in the OSI.

While at the OSI civilian quarters in Saigon, he lived a life of comfort. He had maid service, a cook, and laundry delivered to his door. He enjoyed an officer’s commissary privileges, and when he had R&R, he spent it in Australia.

Meanwhile, his new bride and their (at the time) three small children were kept in a tiny travel trailer on his in-law’s property. He continued to control all their finances from abroad, allowing Becky only $40 a month to support the children on.

After he returned, he moved them to San Francisco, then Cloudcroft, New Mexico. It was there where he began pursuing his dream of having an off-grid farm, and he worked the children long hours to try and make it happen. He had them building rock walls, putting up fences, and various other hard labor from the time they got home from school until late at night. In the summer, he worked them from sunup to sundown.

He also kept them isolated. He would not allow a telephone in the house, and rarely allowed the children to visit friends or have company over. He had the only key to the mailbox, and would read all the incoming and outgoing mail.

While the family lived in isolation and poverty, he bought himself a Honda motorcycle, then later, a Subaru truck. He covered for his financial mismanagement by taking out loans, both from relatives and from the bank.

From Tyrant to Monster

So far, so bad…until the birth of his youngest child, Rebecca Lynn, in 1977. Becky (Gene’s wife) had by now borne seven children, and all of them had been underweight. Her obstetrician diagnosed an underlying health issue, and recommended in strong terms that Becky get a tubal ligation, stating that another pregnancy would put her life in danger. But this being 1977, her husband also had to consent to the procedure. He did not. Becky pleaded with him, literally begging for her life, until, finally, Gene begrudgingly relented.

After that, he was never the same towards her. He never “forgave” her for being putting her own life (and her children’s well-being) over his desires, and essentially stopped having sex with her. In his mind, she was of no use to him anymore.

Meanwhile, he began to turn his attentions toward young Sheila Marie. From the time she was born in October of 1963, it was clear his oldest daughter was his favorite. It was in about 1978 or ‘79 that Gene began actively grooming Sheila. While his other children had to beg for money for school supplies and lunches, Gene lavished Sheila with gifts of clothes and jewelry. For his other children, he had only criticism, demands, and insults. But Sheila was his “little princess,” his “ladybug.”

When Sheila was only 15, her father began molesting her.

By March of 1981, Sheila was pregnant with her father’s child. After dropping her off at her prom, Gene gathered the family and told them Sheila was pregnant. While he didn’t state who the father was, Becky knew. Gene laid down the law, as usual, commanding the family to simply accept the child and raise it as one of their own. Becky dropped into a deep depression, but did or said nothing against her husband.

Yet, somehow, the word got out. Eventually word got all the way to the Otero County office of Social Services. When questioned, Sheila admitted that Gene was the father of the child growing in her belly. The family was ordered to undergo family counseling. At his counseling, Gene was unashamed. He claimed he had done it for Sheila’s own good, in order to “protect” and “teach” her. He saw nothing wrong with what he’d done, and basically dismissed the counselor’s questions.

However, Gene knew that the district attorney, Steven Sanders, took a hard line on child abuse. Soon after Sheila gave birth to Sylvia Gail, sensing that he may be facing legal trouble, he planned a hasty retreat back to Arkansas.

The Simmons Flee to Arkansas

First they settled in Ward, Arkansas. There he impregnated Sheila again, but this time, despite his proclaimed “pro-life” beliefs, he obtained a secret abortion for her.

Once Sheila turned 18, she began taking classes at a business school in Little Rock. At first Gene encouraged her, but once she met Dennis McNulty and began dating him, Gene wanted to shut it down. To his way of thinking, Sheila belonged to him and him alone.

So he moved his family farther away, to a 14-acre spread in Dover, which Gene dubbed “Mockingbird Hill.” There, they lived in a jury-rigged structure comprising an old mobile home and its various additions. As usual, there was no phone, and the only indoor plumbing went to the shower. Water for cleaning and cooking was caught in jugs and buckets lined up along the roof’s dripline. The thrown-together outhouse would overflow in heavy rains, running into the pond.

As in New Mexico, Gene had grand dreams of turning his overgrown, rocky acreage into a self-sufficient farm. As in New Mexico, he worked his children hard to make his fantasies real.

But he didn’t have the resources he’d had in New Mexico. Because he’d up and left his job without notice, he couldn’t get another cushy civil service job, and he was deeply in debt. Instead, he ended up taking low-paying shift work, which he couldn’t hold down. He started hitting on a co-worker, Kathy Kendrick, at the law firm where he worked as a clerk. When he wouldn’t back off, she went to their supervisor, and Gene was fired shortly thereafter.

Meanwhile, he began hoarding the property with salvaged materials for his various “projects” – cinderblocks, pallets, sheets of tin, car parts.

The two older boys – Little Gene and Billy – moved out and started families of their own. Despite her father’s pleas, Sheila also moved out and married Dennis. She had told Dennis about Sylvia Gail’s true father, and Dennis had accepted her, promising to legally adopt the girl.

Gene was losing control. He began physically abusing Becky. He bought himself another gun.

On Dec. 18, 1987, Gene quit his part-time job at the Sinclair Mini Mart.

The Christmas Killings

On Dec. 22, after the younger kids left for school, Gene went into the room of his oldest son, Little Gene, who had brought his 3-year-old daughter, Barbara, back for a holiday visit. Gene bludgeoned his son with a metal pipe, and when that didn’t kill him, he shot him several times. In another bedroom, Becky was cradling little Barbara, pleading for their lives. Gene shot Becky, then garotted Barbara with a fish stringer. He loaded their bodies into a wheelbarrow and dumped them in a large pit the children had dug several months earlier, then doused them in kerosene.

He then went back to the house and waited, passing the hours watching TV and drinking.

When the younger children – Loretta, Eddy, Marianne, and little Rebecca –  came home from school, he greeted them in the yard, smiling and promising them each a surprise. One by one, while the others waited in the car listening to Christmas carols, he took them inside and garrotted them, holding their heads underwater in a rain barrel to make sure they were dead. He took them out to the same pit as the others and covered them with dirt and barbed wire, then placed scrap tin over the mass grave in an attempt to keep out scavengers.

The remaining older children, Billy and Sheila, and their families were expected to arrive the day after Christmas. So again, Ronald Gene Simmons waited.

Four days later, Billy; his wife, Renata; and their infant son, Trae, were the first to arrive. Gene shot Billy and Renata, laying their bodies by the dining room table, covered with their own coats and some bedding. He strangled Trae like he had the others, then wrapped him in plastic and placed his tiny body into the trunk of a car behind the house.

Next to arrive were Sheila and Dennis, along with Sylvia Gail, now 7, and Sheila and Dennis’ biological child, 21-month-old Michael. He shot Sheila and Dennis and strangled the children. Sylvia’s and Dennis’ bodies were laid in the dining room and covered with jackets like the other others. Michael’s body was wrapped in plastic and placed in the trunk of yet another car on the property. Sheila, however, was given special treatment in death, just like she had in life: her body was laid out on the dining room table and covered with their best tablecloth.

Later that day, Gene drove in to Russellville, where he stopped at a store and, bizarrely, picked up some pre-ordered Christmas gifts. That night, he went to a bar and had a few drinks. Then he went home and waited out the weekend, watching TV and drinking beer while the corpses of his family rotted in the next room.

On the morning of Dec. 28, Gene drove back into Russellville, walked into the law office where he had previously worked, and shot and killed Kathy Kendrick.

Next Gene went to another previous employer, The Taylor Oil Company, where he shot and killed J.D. Chaffin and wounded the owner, Rusty Taylor. He then drove to the Sinclair Mini Mart, shooting and wounding two more people. Afterwards, Simmons went to the office of the Woodline Motor Freight Company, where he shot and wounded yet another woman.

Simmons then simply sat in the office and chatted with one of the secretaries while waiting for the police. When they arrived, Simmons handed over his gun and surrendered without any resistance.

Simmons was charged with a total of 16 counts of murder. During the trial for the murder of his family, when prosecuting attorney John Bynum presented a note that Gene had written to Sheila professing his love, Simmons lashed out at Bynum, punching him the face, and then unsuccessfully struggled for a deputy’s handgun. Officers rushed him out of the courtroom in chains.

He was found guilty and sentenced to death by lethal injection plus 147 years. He refused all appeals (even fighting in court for the right to do so), and on May 31, 1990, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton signed Simmons’ execution warrant. On June 25, 1990, he died by lethal injection. This was the quickest sentence-to-execution time in US history since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

None of his relatives would claim the body, so he was buried in a pauper’s field in Varner, Arkansas.

Are Female Serial Killers More Dangerous?

As recently as 1998, no less of an expert on serial killers than Roy Hazelwood stated, “There are no female serial killers.”

He was a smart man, but he couldn’t have been more wrong.

Perhaps it’s taken so long to recognize that women can be serial killers because of an unconscious bias on the part of the media and law enforcement. The popular stereotype of a serial killer is someone who kills strangers, usually women, and tortures and mutilates them to gratify some sadistic appetite for control or sex. Their work is usually wet and bloody, the stuff of Hollywood slasher flicks.

But none of those characteristics are necessary to fit the FBI’s definition of serial murder: “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”

While the methods of female serial killers are very different than those of males, they are no less gruesome – or deadly.

Who are female serial killers?

Female serial killers typically prey on people they know, such as family members or patients in their care. Their weapon of choice is poison, followed by smothering. They kill primarily for two reasons: financial gain (most commonly) or for the sadistic thrill of taking a life. Theirs is the stuff of the Gothic novel and the Greek tragedy: domestic, quiet, and intimate.

Because the work of female serial killers is so subtle, the deaths are often categorized as accidents, illness, or other natural causes. Therefore, female serial killers are able to evade capture twice as long as males, remaining free to kill and kill again. So despite being rarer – only 15 percent of serial murders are committed by women – their body counts tend to be higher and their “careers” longer.

Why do males and females kill differently?

Penn State psychology professor Marissa Harrison, the lead author on a 2014 study on female serial killers (full article is behind a paywall) interprets this difference as reflecting ancestral tendencies: “Female serial killers gather and male serial killers hunt.”

I submit that it’s not so much about hunting vs. gathering, but again, about power. Most serial killers prey on those who have less power than they do. Unlike most males, females experience their power over those they care for, such as family members, children, the elderly and sick.

There are exceptions, of course. Aileen Wournos killed “like a man,” targeting strangers to shoot and rob. And “Angel of Death” Charles Cullen, perhaps the most prolific serial killer in US history, was a nurse who murdered helpless elderly patients at the hospitals where he worked.

Despite that, take it to heart: never underestimate a dangerous woman.