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To Die For
By the time Riverside County Police caught up with Dana Sue Gray, she had garroted and bludgeoned to death a number of elderly women, then gone on binges with their credit cards.
By the time Riverside County Police caught up with Dana Sue Gray, she had garroted and bludgeoned to death a number of elderly women, then gone on binges with their credit cards. “I had,” she said later, “this overwhelming need to shop.” But others saw only an overwhelming need to kill
CANYON LAKE IS built around a meandering golf course and a man-made lake carved from the desert of Riverside County. For retirees like June Roberts, it was just the place to contemplate life in the golfing leisure class from behind 12-foot walls with 24-hour security, * Early one afternoon in 1994, a Cadillac belonging to one of Roberts’s former neighbors nosed through the development’s gates and stopped in front other olive and white house on Big Tee Drive. Leaving her 5-year-old passenger in the front seat, the driver walked up to the front door. What immediately transpired when she opened her door isn’t known, but Roberts, 66, was ultimately strapped to a chair, strangled with cord ripped from her telephone and hammered savagely on the face with a wine bottle. (Her autopsy included the phrases “moderately deep ligature furrow” and “6-x-3-inch purple contusion.”)
Less than an hour later; the Cadillac was parked in front of Bally’s Wine Country Cafe in Temecula, where Roberts’s killer puffed cigarettes and frowned at the small boy running around the tables. She charged the crab cake and scampi to Roberts’s credit card. It was too much to eat, so the waiter packed the rest to go.
The next stop was an eyebrow wax and a perm for herself and a fashionable cut for the boy. Signing the $164.76 charge “June Roberts,” she told the stylist she was on a “shopping spree.” She spent $511 on a black suede jacket and several pairs of cowboy boots, $161 on a pair of diamond drop earrings—all charged to Roberts. Heading home, she swung by a drugstore and picked up dog treats and two bottles of Smirnoff. On the way to the checkout counter, she paused in the toy aisle and tossed a $5.99 toy police helicopter into her basket.
Ten days later, Dorinda Hawkins, 57, was strangled while working at an antiques store in Lake Elsinore and left for dead. But she survived and gave officers a description of a blonde, wavy-haired female attacker. Within the week, 87-year-old Dora Beebe in nearby Sun City, another golf mecca for retirees, was strangled and beaten to death with a household iron. The outcry over the murder was enough for Riverside County sheriff Cois Byrd to show up in person at the crime scene, hoping to quell the fear among his older constituents.
Finding the suspect didn’t take long. Earlier in the day of the Beebe killing, a police task force, acting on a tip, had been following a woman on what looked like routine errands to the bank, drugstore and supermarket. The cops were watching her unload shopping bags from the trunk of her Cadillac when they learned of Beebe’s death—and suddenly realized they had been following her killer on another of her post-murder spending sprees.
When Dana Sue Gray was arrested later that day, police found Beebe’s credit cards in her lingerie drawer; a closetful of new clothes, tags still attached; boxes of Nike Air athletic shoes; a purple boogie board; a $1,000 Trek mountain bike; and unopened bottles of Opium perfume. The items were spread out as if in a post-Christmas quandary of where to store all the presents. “It looked like Bullock’s,” one officer said. Gray was handcuffed and put into a police cruiser, still wearing the diamond earrings purchased with Roberts’s credit card. She talked about her new boogie board all the way to the station.
THERE HAVE BEEN only 36 documented female serial killers in this century, according to Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer by Michael and C.L. Kelleher. Gray, now 40, is one of the least typical. The motives of women serial killers are usually more complex than men’s. Women take extraordinary care planning their crimes and avoid detection longer than men, who are often sexual predators. Female serial killers typically target spouses, children or people under their care and, even then, kill at a distance with poison or guns.
Gray distinguished herself by her taste in victims, her motive and the gruesomely intimate method of using her hands and a phone cord to strangle, then a handy tool to bludgeon. She chose as her victims two strangers and one with only remote family ties: Roberts, whose husband was Gray’s father’s best friend. The clubbing of Beebe, a stranger to Gray, dented the iron and left so much splatter that a bloody outline of her body remained on the hallway wall after her body was removed. Detectives said the crime scene ranked among the most brutal they had ever seen. Gray was the only suspect in the murder of Norma Davis, another Canyon Lake retiree and the ex-mother-in-law of Gray’s stepmother, Geri Armbrust, now married to Gray’s father. Prosecutors gathered enough evidence to charge Gray with Davis’s murder but declined to do so because the cases against her in the Roberts and Beebe murders were strong and already pending. Davis, recovering from triple-bypass surgery, was surprised in her La-Z-Boy recliner and left, still wearing her comfy slippers, with a large utility knife buried to the hilt in her neck and another sticking out of her chest.
Gray’s fastidious grooming and fashion sense were barely ruffled by the killings. She dressed well, had regular manicures and pedicures and was meticulously clean. She was so neat that Riverside County deputy district attorney Richard Bentley still marvels at how she emerged from disturbingly messy crime scenes with nary a drop of blood on her or, apparently, a hair out of place. Clerks, waitresses and salespeople who waited on Gray after she killed say she might have seemed somewhat nervous but was always well groomed. Indeed, the day after strangling and bludgeoning Roberts, Gray loaded up on suntan lotion, got a massage at Murrieta Hot Springs Resort and spent the afternoon power shopping, all courtesy of her victim.
For four years, Gray maintained she was innocent by reason of insanity. Then, on the eve of her trial in September this year, she abruptly agreed to plead guilty to all charges, averting almost certain execution in exchange for a life sentence without chance of parole. Gray’s arrest hadn’t rated coverage in L.A.’s “if it bleeds, it leads” news market, and her sentencing attracted even less attention. If upscale Westside retirees had been slaughtered in their homes by a blonde serial killer in a Cadillac who proceeded to rip up the malls on the victims’ credit cards, it might have scored international press. But homely Riverside County, 75 miles from downtown Los Angeles, is best known for running neck and neck with San Bernardino County for featuring the most methamphetamine labs per capita in the world. So when Gray, clanking in ankle chains and handcuffs as she dabbed her mascaraed eyes with a tissue, pleaded guilty to murdering Roberts and Beebe and the attempted murder of Hawkins, it was to a largely empty courtroom. The only spectators were Roberts’s daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren and two reporters, one of whom arrived late and nearly missed it.
Gray’s confession effectively slammed shut the investigations of two unsolved murders of elderly females in San Diego and Newport Beach, for which authorities believe she bore responsibility. (During one shopping binge, Gray chatted with her pedicurist about the murders and wondered if they were connected to two similar slayings in San Diego.) The crime of murder has no statute of limitations, so authorities in both cities could conceivably charge Gray, but given her life-with-out-parole sentence, the likelihood they ever will is slim.
Gray was housed—for her own safety—in the Riverside jail’s high-security unit (her cell was next to serial killer William Surf, convicted of murdering 12 prostitutes and cutting the right breast off 2). She adapted quickly to jail, dubbing it her “county condo,” and hectored her jailers to provide a semblance of her high-maintenance civilian lifestyle: She insisted on a vegetarian diet, demanded a visit from her chiropractor, bemoaned the absence of a mirror and dashed off an impressive volume of letters for the disposition of her belongings. She drew chilling clown faces—a la John Wayne Gacy—with paints cobbled together from M&M’s candy coating, cherry drink mix, blue eye shadow, lipstick and baby powder. Refusing the cheap Nikes brought by her family on a visit, she demanded the high-end models to which she was accustomed.
But just as Gray seemed to be fulfilling in jail the “bitch on wheels” sobriquet bestowed upon her by a former coworker, she could write with perfect seriousness to a fellow inmate: “I am a 36-year-old little girl with a broken heart lost in a system that’s hell bent to destroy her. I’m vulnerable.”
A SIDE FROM THE ROUTINE tragedies and dysfunction that afflict lower-middle-class households, Gray’s upbringing held little to suggest she would become a murderer. Unlike many serial killers, she apparently never tortured animals. She got along well enough with her father, Russell Armbrust, a hairstylist who was married four times. Gray seems to have clashed almost reflexively with her mother Beverly, an ex-model whose extravagant spending helped bankrupt her marriage to Gray’s father when Gray was 2 years old. To the defense psychologists hired to build a plausible case for her insanity plea, Gray painted a picture of Beverly as harsh, screaming and physically abusive.
But according to Gray’s stepbrothers from Beverly’s previous marriage and Richard Singer, Beverly’s boyfriend who lived with the family when Dana was a young teen, the tension between the two was mutual. “Her mother would pretty much try to control her, but Dana would go off on you,” Singer told the psychologists. “You could not tell her what to do…. Dana is very hyperactive and opinionated.
“Dana has a problem,” Singer added. “She does not want to be told no. She has her own thing, and nobody could tell her any different.”
Beverly Armbrust was vain, and she delayed seeing a doctor for a breast lump. She died of cancer when Gray was 14, the rift between them apparently still in place. Yet years later, while detailing her mother’s supposed outrages to psychologists, Gray took time to write to her then boyfriend, Don Lane, from jail: “Tomorrow, Good Friday, 4-1-94, is also April Fools’ and also my real mom’s 76th B-day. It’s been 22 years since her death, and I still celebrate her B-day for her. I celebrate it for her `cause she died when I was 14 and we never got to get past the `growing years’ to become friends like my dad and I are. She was wild—but made my younger years a total adventure: camping, clamming @ Pismo, best Halloween parties and the best Xmases a poor family could have. She could make a fun time out of just about anything.” The letter was telling: Gray was savvy enough to vilify her mother to the psychologists yet omit her practice of making a holiday of her birthday.
After her mother’s death, Gray went to live with her father, his new wife Geri and Geri’s ex-mother-in-law, Norma Davis—for whose murder Gray would narrowly escape being charged. There was trouble almost immediately. Norma found marijuana in the room Gray shared with Geri’s daughter, and her father kicked them both out of the house. On her own at 16, Gray moved in with a boyfriend. Blonde and striking, she took up with a thrill-sport crowd and eventually with a musician named Bill Gray, whom she married in a lavish ceremony in 1987 at Lake Elsinore, followed by a three-week honeymoon to Hawaii. The newlyweds settled in a house in Canyon Lake, the same walled, gated community where Gray’s father lived. (She would use her own keycard to enter the development to kill June Roberts.)
Gray, like her mother, had developed a ravenous appetite for money and accoutrements, a trait that would come to define and destroy her marriage. Her sister-in-law, Jini Ward, described Gray’s passion for money as “nuts … not even normally greedy. Crazy. Everything was sacrificed to the god of narcissism.” Hearing that a senile great-aunt had bequeathed her estate to Gray’s stepbrothers, Gray hounded her until she signed a document stating that her estate would be split three ways, then walked through her home pointing at what she wanted. Craig Ward, one of Gray’s stepbrothers, recalled her telling their aunt: “When you die, I want this Chinese cup.”
Gray had graduated from nursing school and worked at a variety of well-paying hospital jobs—she spent heavily and indulged in drinking. Before long, there were multiple loans from Gray’s father, a second mortgage on her house in Canyon Lake and soaring credit-card debt. When Gray unexpectedly received a $7,500 inheritance, she blew it on a trip to Europe, leaving behind her husband, from whom she was growing estranged. After her return, she began an affair with Lane, a musician in her husband’s band. When Lane agreed to support her, she moved out of the Canyon Lake house and spent some $11,000 in five months. Bankruptcy, foreclosure and divorce from Bill Gray followed.
Three months before the murders, Gray was fired from the Inland Valley Regional Medical Center when she was unable to account for more than 21 doses of painkillers she claimed were lost, wasted or broken. Then, two weeks before the first murder, she got into a “pissing match” with her other stepbrother, Rick Ward, over returning some antique furniture he had asked her to store years before. She lashed out with a series of abusive phone calls. “Are you so pissed off you could stroke out and die?” Ward said she screamed. “I hope so.” Unnerved, Ward called the police and a detective soothed things over, but Gray didn’t return the furniture.
IT’S HARD TO TELL EXACTLY what Gray was thinking when she parked her Cadillac in front of June Roberts’s house in Canyon Lake. She told one psychologist she planned to visit her father; who still lived in the development, and saw June raking leaves as she drove by. She told a second she drove directly to June’s house to borrow a book on vitamins, then felt “really annoyed” because June gave her “the wrong one.” She told a third that she was infuriated with June’s supposed remark that Gray didn’t “do enough” in her failed marriage. Asked what made her believe that Roberts—and her other victims—were looking down on her, she added, “The arching of the eyebrow. That is what happened. All three.”
In any case, her description of the killing embodies a minimalist’s eerie efficiency. (She left boyfriend Lane’s 5-year-old son in the car because, she said later, she thought she would be “real quick.”) Gray followed June inside through the kitchen and into the living room that overlooks the golf course.
“I was right behind her. I choked her with the phone cord. … She was holding on, trying to get the cord off. I pulled her down. She was on her back. I hit her in the head with a bottle. I lost it. I was so consumed…. I don’t know the time span in there—must have been very quick. She must’ve stopped moving, and I left. As I walked out, she had a little wallet thing. I grabbed it.
“We went out, proceeded to shop up a storm.”
When given the opportunity by psychologists to express remorse, Gray appeared unsure of the concept and remained submerged in her own feelings. “I was real fragile,” she said.
Ten days later, Gray went to the Main Street Trading Post, an antiques store in Lake Elsinore, to buy frames for pictures of her mother. There she deemed Dorinda Hawkins’s greeting to her as she entered the store a “putdown,” that Hawkins was trying to make her “feel insignificant. She gave me a look, saying, `Can I help you?’” with crossed arms, that, to Gray, indicated condescension. “I felt sick in my stomach. I wanted to vomit. I wanted her to die.”
Gray made the bizarre assertion that Hawkins fainted instead of being choked unconscious. Hawkins’s version underscores the prolonged violence of the attack, beginning with Gray asking if Hawkins was working alone and ending with the sound of Gray’s voice coaxing her into unconsciousness: “Relax. Just relax.” A mother of eight, Hawkins put up a fight, pleaded for her life, poked Gray with a broom. Gray shoved Hawkins to the ground and stepped on her head as a brace to better choke her. “Her eyes were flat,” Hawkins told Riverside’s Press-Enterprise. “I could tell she had killed before.” After the attack, police circulated an artist’s sketch of an attractive woman with wavy, shoulder-length blonde hair. Gray promptly cut and permed her hair and dyed it red.
Gray’s murder of Beebe less than a week later in Sun City followed a visit to her father in Canyon Lake. A 20-year resident of the sparsely populated region, Gray gave the improbable excuse that she had gotten lost and stopped for directions at the house of a stranger, Beebe. Gray claims Beebe sighed irritably and said, “I don’t have time for this,” but also claims Beebe invited her inside and offered to help. Turning her back on Gray to fetch a Thomas Guide was a trigger.
“So she turned her back on me, continuing to bitch. I choked her with the phone cord…. I hit her in the head with an iron. That was it. As I remember, it was not much of a fight.” Gray recalled that she was still lost after the murder but the paper trail shows that, within minutes, she managed to find Beebe’s bank and withdraw $2,000 in cash. Her splurge on this outing was a smoothie and assorted supplements at a health food store, a briefcase and gourmet groceries. She became so blithe about forging Beebe’s checks that she signed one draft “Dana Beebe.”
“I had this overwhelming need to shop.”
The wave of killings, meanwhile, terrified Russell and Geri Armbrust, Gray’s father and stepmother, who had lost their friend, June Roberts, and Geri’s ex-mother-in-law, Norma Davis. All of them lived in Canyon Lake, where Gray’s house was in foreclosure. “Everyone was terrified,” Geri said. “Russell and I were terrified. He kept a loaded pistol at his side 24 hours a day.” The pieces started to fit together for Geri after she turned down one of Gray’s more frantic requests for money. When she saw the police sketch of the killer based on Hawkins’s description and learned that Gray had suddenly dyed her hair red after years of being blonde, she phoned police as a confidential informant, setting off the surveillance. Geri told an investigator she thought she was next.
The question of how someone can live for 36 years without inflicting extreme violence on another human being and then explode invites a look at the current—and disturbing—theory that killers are born not made. “People are looking for horrible childhoods as excuses to explain their behavior, but the more I look at it, the more I think it’s in the brain,” says Cheryl Hanna, a Vermont Law School professor who specializes in criminal behavior. This would put Gray in the same category as so-called hardwired serial killers like Gacy and Ted Bundy.
As a rule, such killers are classic sociopaths, defined as those whose lack of empathy is total, a trait that would allow Gray to alternate between vicious murders and celebratory shopping sprees. “A sociopath will walk away from a step-grandmother with knives sticking out of her throat and not feel anything,” says Dr. Patricia Kirby, a Baltimore psychologist, criminologist and ex-FBI profiler who has focused her research on male and female serial killers. That might be why, in the extensive interviews with the defense psychologists, Gray’s answers seem as if she were guessing at what sounded like normal human emotions. But that was already evident to some of her acquaintances. According to her sister-in-law Jini, Gray is “missing a conscience. I do not think it is there. When you talk to her, she has no concept of other human beings.”
The psychologists hired by the defense to assess Gray’s sanity agreed that she couldn’t comprehend the nature of her acts during the commission of the crimes, but they could not agree on a diagnosis. None of this addresses why a 36-year-old woman suddenly decides to brutally slaughter old ladies, then pamper herself using their credit cards.
“It would be so easy to bang these old people on the head and get their pocketbooks,” Kirby points out. “If Dana just wanted money and credit cards for a shopping jaunt, she didn’t need to inflict the type of damage she did to these elderly, frail victims. When you have someone semiconscious and you continue to stab them or take household irons and bang the hell out of them, you’re getting off on the act of killing. There is pleasure in this killing. The shopping then provides her with something to do to celebrate the killing.”
Kirby was intrigued that Gray had been fired from nursing three months before she murdered her first victim. “I’ve done the research on nurses who kill. Serial killers choose health care professions to have access to vulnerable victims. My feeling is that she was, in fact, killing within her occupation.” Caregivers who work with the elderly or in hospitals tend to kill quietly for a very long time and accumulate many more victims than the slashers and gangbangers who make the evening news. “The motivation of a serial killer is to continue killing,” Kirby says. “They need to kill.” When Gray lost her job, Kirby speculates, she lost her supply of victims and had to improvise.
People shouldn’t be shocked that women, too, are serial killers, Kirby adds. “I think a lot of it is a reluctance to admit that society’s nurturers can be killers. Just because you don’t hear about them doesn’t mean they’re not there. I think they’re just better and quieter, and they get away with it.”
Kathleen Mojas, a Beverly Hills clinical psychologist specializing in women’s violence, believes there’s been a historic under-acknowledgment of female violence. “We’re just beginning to admit that women can do this, just like it used to be impossible to believe that a father could molest a daughter. Now we’re beginning to admit that women can be violent and can molest and kill.”
Relatives and friends of Dana Sue Gray, in any event, are not eager to ponder what finally caused her to kill so indiscriminately and furiously. Her former boyfriend, Don Lane, would only say, “I’d rather not discuss it. I’d rather forget that it happened at all.” A longtime friend of Gray’s seemed to sum it up best.
“Maybe,” she said, “she had it in her all along.”