State v. Copeland

Decision Date20 August 1996
Docket NumberNo. 73774,73774
Citation928 S.W.2d 828
PartiesSTATE of Missouri, Respondent, v. Faye COPELAND, Appellant.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

Janet Thompson, Asst. Public Defender, Columbia, for appellant.

Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Attorney General, Cheryl A. Caponegro, Christine M. Blegen, Assistant Attorneys General, Jefferson City, for respondent.

HOLSTEIN, Chief Justice.

Defendant Faye Copeland was convicted for her complicity in the first degree murders of Paul Cowart, John Freeman, Jimmie Harvey, Dennis Murphy and Wayne Warner. She was sentenced to death for the murders of Cowart, Freeman, Harvey, and Warner. She was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole for the murder of Murphy. Defendant filed a postconviction motion pursuant to Rule 29.15. Relief was denied after an evidentiary hearing. This Court has jurisdiction of the appeal. Mo. Const. art. V, § 3. The judgments are affirmed.


The evidence adduced at defendant's trial, viewed in a light most favorable to the verdict, establishes that defendant and her husband, Ray Copeland, were involved in a complex fraudulent check and cattle buying scheme. The plan culminated in the murder of at least five homeless transients who were lured into the plan under the guise of being offered work. The homicides occurred between 1986 and 1989.

Ray would enlist a transient at a homeless shelter and bring him to the couple's rural Mooresville, Missouri, farm home. The plan involved the transient being transported to nearby towns where the homeless person would open a post office box and checking account using the Copelands' money. The transient would then be taken to various livestock auctions where he would buy cattle at Ray's direction. The cattle would be purchased using the transient's newly obtained checks. The checking account did not have funds sufficient to cover the cattle purchases. The cattle would be sold immediately after the purchase. The homeless person would be killed before the checks would bounce and before authorities could investigate. The Copelands went to great lengths to avoid any association with the transient victim. The plot ultimately unraveled following a tip to police by a potential victim, Jack McCormick. McCormick lived to tell the story of his experience with the Copelands.

McCormick's first contact with the Copelands occurred in July 1989, when Ray Copeland went to the Victory Mission in Springfield, Missouri, offering work. McCormick, a recovering alcoholic, agreed to work for Ray. Ray claimed to be hard of hearing and needed assistance in bidding on cattle at auctions.

Under the directions of the Copelands, McCormick obtained a post office box in the nearby town of Brookfield, Missouri, then opened a checking account at the bank in the same community, using the Copelands' money. Starter checks were obtained. Defendant requested that McCormick sign a blank starter check. Over the next few weeks, McCormick accompanied Ray to various cattle auctions where cattle would be purchased using the starter checks.

On August 6, 1989, while walking behind the barn, McCormick observed what he believed to be a human skull and a leg or an arm bone protruding from the ground. As he returned to the house, he was met by the defendant, who seemed upset and told McCormick that she and Ray did not want anyone going back there.

On the August 8, 1989, the printed checks arrived at the Brookfield bank. After obtaining the checks, Ray took McCormick to an auction sale in Green City, Missouri. After the sale, Ray expressed dissatisfaction with McCormick's cattle buying skills in the presence of defendant. At that point, McCormick decided to terminate his relationship. He asked Ray to take him to Brookfield to close the checking account.

The next morning, defendant made excuses for leaving early, claiming she was going to her part-time work at the Holiday Inn. Ray lured McCormick into the barn under the pretense of helping locate a raccoon. Ray was armed with a .22 caliber rifle. McCormick noticed that a tractor had been backed up near the barn, a two-wheel trailer attached, and on the trailer was a shovel and a piece of plastic. While poking a stick in a hole in the barn floor, McCormick turned and saw Ray with the rifle pointed directly at McCormick.

McCormick persuaded Ray to take him to Brookfield. Ray agreed, but insisted on going first to the courthouse in Chillicothe. Ray and McCormick found defendant waiting at the courthouse. She seemed surprised to see McCormick. Still later that day, defendant followed Ray and McCormick to Brookfield, where the checking account was closed, even though a check for $1,157.46 to the Green City auction barn was still outstanding. McCormick refused to return to the farm for his belongings. That ended McCormick's business relationship with the Copelands.

Later on the same day that McCormick and the Copelands parted company, McCormick went to a bar where he met Rose Clevenger. He told her about the Copelands and his belief he would be harmed if he returned to their farm for his belongings. She agreed to take him to Mooresville to get his belongings from the Copelands. Upon arriving at the farm house, defendant and Ray came out and cursed at McCormick. McCormick introduced Clevenger as his sister, but apparently defendant was not convinced. She insisted that Clevenger supply her real name. Defendant wrote down Clevenger's name and the vehicle license number.

Two weeks and much liquor after leaving the Copeland farm for the final time, McCormick found himself in Nebraska, where he called a local "crime stoppers" hotline and reported that he had seen three or four bodies on the Copeland farm. He was arrested in Oregon for the bad check he wrote at the Green City livestock sale barn and for auto theft.

The Copelands tried essentially the same scheme used on McCormick with Lothar Borner and James Page. In August 1989, Ray enticed Borner from the Souls Harbor Mission in Joplin to come work for him buying cattle. Borner had difficulty obtaining a post office box and a checking account. Concerned that something was afoot, Borner decided to return to Joplin.

The next month, in September of 1989, James Page agreed to buy cattle for Ray. Upon their arrival at the farm, defendant had supper waiting. Later, Ray and Page tried, unsuccessfully, to get a post office box for Page in Sedalia. Page ultimately obtained one in Gallatin. There he opened a checking account with Ray's money, ordered printed checks and signed a blank starter check over to Ray. Defendant took Page to a sale barn. On the way to the sale barn, they stopped at a restaurant where defendant told Page, "In case anybody asks who I am, just tell them I am your wife."

After Page's printed checks arrived, he signed two blank checks over to the Copelands. Defendant and Ray told him they tore up the starter check. Defendant went with Ray and Page when Page deposited $2,000 of the Copelands' money into the checking account. During all of these events, defendant kept a running tally of this and other of Page's bank transactions, including the dates and amounts of deposits and withdrawals. Throughout this time, Page purchased cattle at sales where defendant was present. Defendant took Page to the bank on occasion. As with McCormick and other victims, cattle were bought and sold before checks could clear. A few days later, Ray was arrested. Page survived.

Acting on McCormick's tip, the police obtained a search warrant for the Copeland farm. The guest bedroom closet was filled with clothing. The clothes in the closet were of different sizes, and some of the clothes in the closet were later identified as belonging to the murder victims. Luggage, later identified as belonging to one of the victims, was also found in the guest room closet.

The police found pieces of notebook paper on which defendant had written McCormick's and Page's personal banking information. Police found defendant's notation of Clevenger's name and license number. Perhaps the most incriminating piece of evidence found during the search was a small piece of paper inside a Polaroid camera case which had a list of names. Three of those named were victims. Next to each name was the notation "back" or "X". Next to the names of each of the three dead men was an "X". The list was in defendant's handwriting. The search of the premises disclosed two pasture rental agreements in defendant's handwriting under which Ray Copeland rented pasture to two of the victims, Wayne Warner and Dennis Murphy. At minimum, the documentary evidence shows that defendant participated in the financial transactions involving the victims and permits inferences that she was in agreement with Ray to carry out the scheme and had knowledge of the victims' fate.

An inventory of defendant's purse disclosed McCormick's signed blank check and Page's signed blank starter check. Jail personnel discovered numerous notes sent by defendant to Ray suggesting knowledge that something incriminating might turn up from various searches of their property.

Acting on tips from local residents, the police discovered several shallow graves in a barn on a farm near Ludlow, Missouri, where Ray had done odd jobs and where defendant had been seen. On yet another farm, police discovered the body of Wayne Warner buried in a shallow grave beneath thousands of large round bales of hay. At the same farm, police found the body of Dennis Murphy chained to a forty-pound concrete block at the bottom of a well.

Autopsies revealed that all the victims died from gunshot wounds to the head. One of the bullets recovered was positively identified as being fired from a .22 caliber rifle found in the Copelands' home.

Both Freeman and Cowart were found to have opened accounts at local banks and purchased and sold cattle at various sale barns. Each account ultimately had checks written to local...

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