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.

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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.

Why are Most Serial Killers Born in November?

The month is nearly over, but it’s worth taking a last look at the penultimate month of the year, and the one that officially starts the holiday season in America. Its name originally meant it was the ninth month, but it was pushed back to number 11 in the Julian and Gregorian calendars.

It also seems to be a cursed month; there is a much greater chance that babies born in November will grow up to be serial killers.

While the researchers only looked at 100 serial killers (not enough to be a representative sample), 19 of them were born in November, compared to an average of nine per month the rest of the year. Their study showed that people born in November were more likely to believe they’d gotten a “raw deal” and were more pessimistic.

Scientists, of course, were quick to disavow astrology as the cause, instead ascribing it to seasonal factors such as a lack of vitamin D during pregnancy. Read more about the study in The Sun (UK).

Charles Manson, who died last Sunday, the 19th, was a November baby. Some other serial killers born in November include:

  • David Parker Ray (Nov. 6, 1939)
  • Carl Eugene Watts (Nov. 7, 1953)
  • Belle Gunness (Nov. 11, 1859)
  • Kristen Gilbert (Nov. 13, 1967)
  • Moses Sithole (Nov. 17, 1964)
  • Dennis Nilsen (Nov. 23, 1945)
  • Ted Bundy (Nov. 24, 1946)
  • Charles Starkweather (Nov. 24, 1938)
  • Rosemary West (Nov. 29, 1953)

Mindhunter’s Mixed Bag

Despite its many flaws, it’s a gripping crime drama you can’t look away from.

Netflix’ Mindhunter, based on the book Mindhunter: Inside the F.B.I.’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, has some flaws. Quite a few of them, in fact. For one, stab-your-eyes-out title cards that seem designed to induce seizures.

For another, the fact that Holden Ford’s (played by Jonathan Groff) fellow law-enforcement officer doesn’t understand why “these sad hippies” are still distrustful of the FBI in 1977 also rang pretty false. The FBI had been waging a war on the civil rights of anti-war and Black Power activists for years. Less than 10 years had passed since the assassinations of MLK, Bobby Kennedy, and Fred Hampton. It was only six years since COINTELPRO had been exposed. The Pine Ridge shootout happened only two years earlier. Many people were, and still are, rightfully distrustful of the FBI. For the writers not to have known this smacks of either ignorance or historical revisionism.

But most of all, for a series based on the science of learning about what goes on in people’s heads, it’s got the worst character development. I can never tell where their boss, Unit Chief Shepard (played by Cotter Smith) is coming from. One second, he’s chewing them out. The next, he’s congratulating them. It makes no sense. He makes no sense.

And Holden’s girlfriend, Debbie Mitford (played by Hannah Gross): she starts out smart and challenging, her knowledge about sociology and flirting surprising and useful assets to him. But by the end of the first season, she’s somehow become distant and bitchy, with no explanation as to why. While I like that their sex scenes included him going down on her, I’m not sure why there needed to be any sex scenes in the first place.

Finally, the character of Holden Ford: ugh. Just, ugh. He has no discernible personality whatsoever, “a collection of quirks in search of a character” as the AV Club’s Sean Collins writes. No matter where he goes, he always wears a suit, even when it marks him as a narc in his psychology class. He delivers his lines with the same feeling as someone under a thick coating of Xanax. He claims he worked undercover, which would clearly be impossible. He can’t even blend in in a college classroom. The only place he could have “infiltrated” would be a white-collar criminal enterprise composed of entirely clueless conspirators. Which might actually make me respect the character more.

But, for all that…I couldn’t look away. The tantalizing scenes with the ADT tech in Park City, Kansas (yes, I know who it is, but don’t want to spoil it), the faded neutral color palette of the 1970s, the pitch-pefect soundtrack … it hooked me and reeled me in.

Watching Cameron Britton nail Edmund Kemper was absolutely thrilling. The scene in episode 3 where he slowly, calmly grabs Holden’s throat while explaining how difficult it is to commit necrophilia with a decapitated corpse … I was biting my nails. Of course, that was nothing compared with his last scene of the season, which I also won’t spoil. But it does make you think, “Could I really sit across the table from a serial killer?”

And, if your truest answer is anything but yes, then Mindhunter is the next best thing.

Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer

We Need to Talk About Jeffrey

On the eve of Halloween, let’s start with what may be one of the darkest, most talked about, written about, and filmed about serial killers of the 20th Century: Jeffrey Dahmer. In fact, this weekend the movie My Friend Dahmer premiers, based on the excellent graphic novel by Derf Backderf.

I’m not going to rehash all the details of his crimes – everyone has access to Wikipedia – but rather, try to decipher what is so morbidly fascinating about this man. While I can’t speak for anyone but myself, I have a few thoughts about why that is.

He fascinates me because he doesn’t fit the pattern.

First, he wasn’t the victim of abuse or trauma as a child. We know his home life was less than idyllic – by most accounts, his mother suffered from mental health issues, and probably problems stemming from the medications she was prescribed. His parents’ marriage was contentious and ended in a bitter divorce. After that, his mother sent his father away and then took his little brother and moved away herself, leaving troubled teenaged Dahmer alone with his macabre urges. It was during this time that he killed (and violated the corpse of) his first victim, Steven Mark Hicks.

There are plenty of people – myself included – whose parents went through awful, traumatizing divorces, who didn’t turn into serial killers.

No, Dahmer’s sickness (if we can call it that) seems to have been inside him all along; from the time he was four years old, he was fascinated by animal bones, by what was inside of other beings. At first, his father saw it as merely curiosity, and indulged it. However, once he saw that maybe the curious hobby had maybe gone too far, he told him he needed to quit.

And that’s the other thing that doesn’t fit the pattern. Dahmer’s father saw red flags (of course, not imagining what young Jeffrey was capable of), and he did everything he could to try and help his son.

When Dahmer was little, and was having trouble making friends, his father did all he could to make him socialize with kids his age. When his father found out he was alone in the house, he moved back in (too late, sadly, for Hicks). After Dahmer dropped out of college and couldn’t keep a steady job, his father had him join the Army, thinking it would not only give him discipline, but put him on a respectable career track (instead, he found a perfect environment to commit rape and get away with it). When he was kicked out of the Army for his drinking, his father made him go see a counselor (which he skipped out on).

Lionel Dahmer genuinely loved his son, was concerned about him, and was willing to do whatever he could to help him. It’s just that none of it worked.

Jeffrey Dahmer doesn’t fit the typical serial-killer pattern for another reason: he seems to have known his urges were wrong, and he tried, at times, to control them. He drank heavily starting very young in an attempt to self-medicate and numb his urges. After killing his first victim, he managed to refrain from murdering anyone else for nine years (he did, however, drug and rape over a dozen victims during this time). While living with his grandmother, he used a mannequin as a substitute for an unconscious – or dead – sexual partner.

Of course, he never told any of this to the various counselors he saw. So the one thing that might have helped him (therapy and psychiatric drugs, I assume) he refused to consider.

The final difference might seem trivial, but it isn’t: his name. Or, more specifically, the fact that he doesn’t have a real nickname, as most infamous serial killers do. In this respect, he’s in a small club: John Wayne Gacy, H.H. Holmes, and most female serial killers.

Sure, some dubbed him “The Milwaukee Cannibal” after he was arrested, but it doesn’t stick.

Usually serial killers get their nicknames from the press or law enforcement as their crimes are discovered, but before they’re caught and identified. But no one knew Dahmer was a killer until he was caught. And this fact – that he could have murdered so many young men without it even being noticed by law enforcement or the media – is what angers so many about Dahmer’s reign of terror.

Serial killing is always about a power dynamic – the killer occupies a place of more power or status than their victims. This is why prostitutes are the number one demographic preyed upon by killers: they are the “untouchables” of American society, living on the lowest rungs, utterly without power or status. Jeffrey Dahmer held a much higher place in society – white and middle class – than his victims, who were predominately men and boys of color. Some were more or less vagrants, rejected by their families for being gay, so living on the edges of society. The gay community knew that men were going missing, but law enforcement never took their concerns seriously. The fact that their bodies never turned up made it even harder to attract attention to the problem.

Twice Dahmer was nearly caught. The first time, he had the decaying remains of his first victim in his car when he was pulled over by a cop in Bath, Ohio. Despite the smell, Dahmer was able to convince the cop it was just trash, and the cop didn’t search the car. Dahmer drove off, free to go on and murder 16 more men.

The second time he was nearly caught, when by all rights he should have been caught, was when 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone escaped. Naked and bloody, he ran out into the street, screaming for help, and two women who saw him called the police. When the cops showed up, Dahmer met them outside and claimed that Sinthasomphone was not only of legal age, but that he was Dahmer’s partner. Dahmer claimed Sinthasomphone was drunk, and that he did this kind of thing all the time.

Despite the boy’s (and the women’s) protests, ignoring the blood running down the boy’s legs, the cops believed Dahmer. They followed Dahmer up to his apartment, where the corpse of one of his victims was decomposing in the bedroom. They didn’t look around to investigate the source of the odor. They didn’t check Dahmer’s or Sinthasomphone’s ID – if they had, they would have found Dahmer was a registered sex offender. Instead, they left the 14-year-old boy with Dahmer. As they drove away, they even laughed about the “domestic dispute.”

As soon as the police left, Dahmer immediately killed Sinthasomphone.

Once Dahmer was finally caught, it “shone a spotlight on the racism and homophobia of the Milwaukee Police Department,” according to the Wisconsin Gazette.  Milwaukee’s LGBT and other minority communities were outraged. The case demonstrated the “glaring disparities between the level of service police provided to straight white citizens versus their non-white and LGBT counterparts,” according to the Wisconsin Gazette.  “Missing person reports filed by the families of young men of color, many of them gay, had been ignored.”

In response to these concerns, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist appointed a  commission to hold hearings on police-community relations. After about a year, it produced a report “condemning Milwaukee police for dismissing citizens’ complaints, mistreating minorities, and discriminating by selective enforcement of the law.”

In addition, the commission developed recommendations to address the problems that it uncovered. According to the Wisconsin Gazette, many of those recommendations have since been implemented.

While the Dahmer case may have, in the end, improved community relations, it still stands as an anomaly, a freak storm of evil that could neither be predicted or avoided. Little wonder that in Milwaukee, they have done their best to erase Jeffrey Dahmer’s existence. The city demolished the apartment building where Dahmer killed and kept most of his victims. When his “estate” (a few personal items including the tools he used in his crimes) went up for auction, a community group raised the money to purchase the items and have them secretly disposed of.

I understand that. No one would want the site of their loved one’s violent murder turned into a tourist attraction.

Yet we can’t erase Jeffrey Dahmer, and we shouldn’t. Jeffrey Dahmer reminds us that polite, well-groomed white men from respectable backgrounds can do very evil things. Maybe if the police had believed that truth, he wouldn’t have done so much of that evil.