A cliche from many crime stories is that if someone is murdered, the spouse is always the first suspect. Sadly, this cliche is based on facts. For example, one third of all women murdered in the United States are killed by their male partners. Women also kill their husbands, but that only accounts for about 2.5 percent of murders. Even though the percentage is much smaller, wives are usually considered the first suspect in certain circumstances.
This immediate belief that the spouse is the killer can have devastating results. Sometimes, grieving spouses are wrongly convicted.
10 Russell Faria
At 9:40 PM on December 27, 2011, a call came into 911 dispatchers in Troy, Missouri. The caller was 41-year-old Russell Faria, and he sounded hysterical. He was calling because his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Faria, had committed suicide.
When police and EMTs arrived at the home, they found 42-year-old Betsy dead and cold to the touch, but there was no way her death was a suicide. Notably, there was a serrated steak knife stuck in her neck. After examining the body, they discovered that Betsy had been stabbed 55 times. However, her heart had stopped beating early in the attack, so there was less blood than one might expect for a body that had been stabbed 55 times. In a closet, the police found Russell’s slippers, smeared with blood. A note supposedly written by Betsy was found on a laptop. It said that she was afraid of her husband, further implicating Russell as the killer.
When the police interviewed Russell, he said that he thought it was suicide because his wife was dying of breast and liver cancer and had talked about suicide previously. He said he was out with friends when she died. He left at about 5:30 PM, drove 30 minutes away to Lake Saint Louis and saw a movie with his friends. He left the theater at about 9:00 PM and stopped at an Arby’s restaurant. He then drove the 40 kilometers (25 mi) home and found his wife dead. He was recorded on camera at the Arby’s, and he had a receipt for the food he bought. When the police arrived at the scene, Russell was still wearing the same clothes that he was seen wearing on the Arby’s surveillance footage.
Russell’s alibi, which was also backed up by his friends, meant that he didn’t have time to kill Betsy. When Russell made the call to 911 at around 9:40 PM, Betsy’s body was cold to the touch, meaning that she had been dead for hours. The police also knew that Betsy was last seen alive around 7:00 PM, after she was dropped off at her house by a friend, Pamela Hupp. Hupp’s cell phone pinged off a tower close to the Farias’ home at 7:04 PM, when Hupp called her husband. Hupp also testified that she left the area immediately after dropping off Betsy.
Despite a solid alibi and a lack of physical evidence (except for the slippers) Russell was charged with Betsy’s murder on the day of his wife’s funeral. At his trial, his defense contended that the slippers and the note were used to frame him, and there was no way he could have had time to murder her. Nevertheless, in November 2013, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
After spending two years in prison, Russell was granted a new trial in June 2015 because there was new evidence available that could have greatly influenced the original trial’s verdict. This included the fact that Hupp, the last person to see Betsy alive, knew that she had been made the beneficiary of a $150,000 life insurance policy by Betsy four days before she was murdered. Also, Hubb testified that she left the area immediately after dropping off Betsy, but her cell phone pinged off cell phone towers around the Faria home about a half hour after she had supposedly left. Finally, Hupp and Betsy were also supposedly lovers.
At his retrial, Russell was acquitted by a judge, who called the investigation into the murder “disturbing.” Hupp has maintained that she had nothing to do with the murder. She also received the $150,000 payout from the insurance company.
9 Weldon Wayne Carr
On April 7, 1993, a fire broke out on the first floor of the home of Weldon Wayne and Patricia Carr in Sandy Springs, Georgia. Weldon, 57, was able to make it out of the house by jumping out of a second-story window, breaking vertebrae in the fall. Meanwhile, Patricia, 52, collapsed in the bedroom from smoke inhalation. Firefighters got her out, but she died in the hospital three days later.
On November 30, 1993, Weldon, who was a successful Atlanta businessman, was charged with murder, arson, and assault. Prosecutor Nancy Grace, who would go on to host shows on Court TV and HLN, said that Carr had learned that his wife was going to leave him, so he intentionally started the fire. When Patricia tried to get out of the house, Weldon struck her. The crime lab couldn’t prove that an accelerant had been used, but Grace had an investigator bring in a dog that detected traces of an accelerant, which the judge allowed to be introduced as evidence. As a result, Weldon was convicted of murder on May 10, 1994, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Weldon’s attorneys appealed, and in March 1997, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the verdict and rebuked Grace. They said that the evidence of the dog’s findings should not have been admissible. As for Grace, they said that she “demonstrated her disregard of the notions of due process and fairness” and that she engaged in “inappropriate and, in some cases, illegal conduct in the course of the trial.” Two examples they found of Grace breaking the law to try Weldon were illegally letting an expert witness view the crime scene and allowing a CNN crew that was doing a feature on her to enter the house as well.
After the conviction was overturned, the district attorney spent four years looking for an arson expert to retry the case. Weldon’s lawyers argued that this amount of time violated Weldon’s right to a speedy trial, and the charges against him were dismissed in June 2004.
8 John Salmon
On the night of Saturday, September 19, 1975, John Salmon and his common-law wife, Maxine Ditchfield, both 30, were doing some heavy drinking with a few friends in Woodstock, Ontario. At one point, the couple got into a spat, but it wasn’t anything too dramatic. Later on that night, Ditchfield fell out of her chair, presumably from drinking too much. They left their friends’ home with Ditchfield’s children and got home at 4:30 AM. When Salmon woke up later that day, he found Ditchfield’s face covered in bruises. By Monday, Ditchfield’s condition had gotten worse, and she was taken to the hospital, where she died on Tuesday.
Salmon was arrested for murdering her because, according to the police and the pathologist, he’d beaten Ditchfield to death in a drunken rage. At Salmon’s trial in 1971, Ditchfield’s nine-year-old son testified that from the room he was sleeping in, he heard his mother screaming and saw Salmon push her down in the kitchen of their friend’s house. Salmon claimed he was innocent. He said that Ditchfield had hit her head a few times in a series of falls after she collapsed out of her chair earlier in the night. Nevertheless, he was found guilty of manslaughter, and he was given a 10-year sentence. He served three years and was released on parole in 1974. Salmon said that life after parole wasn’t easy, as people tend to treat you differently if they think you’ve beaten your wife to death, but he always maintained his innocence.
In the mid-2000s, Salmon contacted a nonprofit legal organization called the Association in the Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, and for over a decade, they worked on his case. They had three pathologists look at the autopsy, and they said that it was clear that Ditchfield’s injuries were caused by falling and weren’t consistent with a physical beating. They believe that one of the falls caused a blood clot, which led to a stroke that killed her. The Association was also able to discredit Ditchfield’s son’s testimony because it would have been impossible for him to see a fight from where he was sleeping.
The Crown Attorney agreed that Salmon was innocent, and on June 22, 2015, at the age of 75, Ditchfield was exonerated, almost 45 years after he was convicted.
7 Robert E. Coleman
On March 14, 1929, after working all day as an art supplies salesman, 22-year-old Robert E. Coleman returned to his home in Atlanta, Georgia, which he shared with his 19-year-old wife (who wasn’t identified) and his one-year-old son. As he got closer to his home, he heard the baby crying. When he went inside, he found his wife lying in a pool of blood. Coleman ran for help, and the police arrived a short time later. After discovering the body of his wife, Coleman was in a state of shock. When the police interviewed him, he seemed unconcerned, and they thought he was being evasive, which raised their suspicions.
The police determined that Mrs. Coleman had been murdered about 10 hours before Coleman found her, which would have been about the time that he left for work. She had been beaten with a poker, which had been left at the scene. The police thought that if someone other than Coleman had killed Mrs. Coleman, they would have taken the weapon with them. The final piece of evidence, which was used against Cole at his trial, were the overalls that he wore to do work around the house. They were freshly and hastily washed but had some unusual stains.
Coleman adamantly denied murdering his wife, but he was charged with her murder, and a jury found him guilty. He was sentenced to life and sent to work on a chain gang. While on the chain gang, Coleman supposedly never complained and never avoided work. He never smiled, either, but he said that he always thought that someday, somehow, he would be vindicated. That day wouldn’t come for four long years.
The strange circumstances that would free Coleman started in 1932, when an elderly taxi driver was shot to death as he shaved, and another family, the Hendersons, were victims of a home invasion. The burglar, a black man, shot the couple and beat their baby with his shotgun. Only the father and son survived the home invasion. The two crimes panicked the locals, and vigilante groups were formed.
One group, formed from members of a church, captured a suspect named Rader Davis. Davis confessed to the murder of the taxi driver and to committing the home invasion, in addition to other murders and burglaries. He was sentenced to death. As he sat on death row, he told the police that he had served on a chain gang with a man named James Sparks, and Sparks claimed that he had killed Mrs. Coleman. Apparently, Sparks laughed when he talked about how the husband was serving the sentence for the murder.
Sparks was easy to find because he was serving time on a chain gang. In police custody, Sparks calmly confessed to the murder. He said that he saw Coleman leave for the day, so he let himself into the Colemans’ house. Mrs. Coleman told Sparks to leave. Instead, he picked up the poker and beat her to death while the baby cried. After the confession, evidence was collected, and 24 hours after the confession was confirmed, Coleman was released with a full pardon, and he was reunited with his now five-year-old son, whom he hadn’t seen since he was arrested. Sparks pleaded guilty to the murder of Mrs. Coleman.
6 Fredda ‘Susie’ Mowbray
As summer was coming to an end in 1987, Bill Mowbray’s life was coming apart. His Cadillac dealership in Brownsville, Texas, was out of money, his most valuable employee left the business, and Bill was being investigated by the IRS. He also had a history of depression, and he had attempted suicide twice. In one attempt in 1986, he shot himself in the chest.
According to Bill’s wife, Fredda Sue Mowbray, who went by “Susie,” they were lying in bed at around 2:00 AM on September 16, 1987, when she heard a noise. She awoke and saw her husband’s elbow in the air. She reached out to touch him, and she heard an explosion. Bill was dead; he had been shot in the head. Susie felt around in the dark, grabbed the gun, and set it down in a pool of blood.
Susie was arrested two months later and charged with shooting her husband as he slept. The motive was to collect a $1.8 million insurance payout. The physical evidence was that Bill was in his normal sleep position, and the hand he supposedly shot himself with, his right, was clean of blood and brain matter, and it was under the sheets. Susie was found guilty and sentenced to life in June 1988.
While Susie languished in prison, it came to light that Cameron County, where Susie was tried, had a big problem with their judicial system: It was incredibly corrupt. In Susie’s case, they had suppressed a second report that said it would have been quite possible for Bill to shoot himself and keep his hands clean from traces of blood or brain matter.
When this came to light, a judge overturned Susie’s conviction in November 1995, after she’d spent eight years in prison. When she was retried in January 1998, she was found not guilty of all charges.
5 She Xianglin
In January 1994, Zhang Zaiyu went missing from the Yanmenkou Township, Hubei Province, which is in Central China. Three months later, when the body of a young woman was found in a nearby pond, Zhang’s family positively identified the body. She was married and had one daughter.
After the body was discovered, Zhang’s husband, She Xianglin, 28, was arrested, and he confessed to killing her. He was convicted and sentenced to immediate death. However, since the only evidence was She’s confession, he was retried and given a 15-year sentence.
While in prison, She denied killing his wife. He said that he only confessed because he had been tortured for 10 days. When he asked his brother and mother to help, they were detained, so he told them to stop. Meanwhile, his daughter couldn’t continue her education because she was impoverished. Also, while She was serving his time, his mother died, which She says was from the stress of appealing.
Then, in 2005, 11 years into She’s sentence, Zhang turned up alive. After leaving Yanmenkou, she went to Shandong Province in Eastern China, where she remarried and gave birth to a son. Zhang returned to the village because she was homesick and wanted to see her daughter. Her DNA was tested, and She was released and exonerated.
She said he wasn’t bitter toward the government or mad at Zhang; he was just happy to be released. The story caused a media circus in China and stirred up a lot of negative attention to problems in China’s strict and overzealous criminal justice system.
4 Douglas DiLosa
At around 5:30 AM on September 27, 1986, police in Kenner, Louisiana, responded to a call about a home invasion. When they went inside the condo, they found Douglas DiLosa on the floor in the living room. His wrists and ankles were bound with rope. Upstairs, the master bedroom was locked, so the police had to break the door down. Inside, they found Douglas’s wife, Glinda DiLosa, in bed with the sheets pulled up to her neck. Like her husband, she had been bound at the ankles and the wrists; the difference was that she had been strangled with a rope that was still wrapped around her neck. Douglas was taken to the hospital, where he was told that his wife had been killed.
Later that day, Douglas checked himself out of the hospital and went to the police station to give a statement. He said that he was awoken by a sound downstairs at around 3:30 AM, and he went to investigate. When he did, he was attacked by two African-American men, who beat him into unconsciousness. When he awoke, he found himself bound, so he called out to his wife for help. When she didn’t respond, he called for his seven-year-old son, who came downstairs and called the police.
At the house, the police found that a living room window had duct tape on it and that a pane had been removed with a glass cutter. The front and back doors were locked. All the rooms in the house were ransacked, except for the young DiLosa’s bedroom.
Over two months later, Douglas was arrested for the murder. At his trial in July 1987, the prosecution said that Douglas killed his wife because he was unemployed and he would get an insurance payout. The prosecution, which built its case on circumstantial evidence, claimed that there was no physical evidence to prove that anyone else was in the house that night. Douglas was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Five years into his sentence, Douglas filed a request for public records on his wife’s murder. He received a 150-page report, which showed that the police actually did find physical evidence that backed up his story. For example they found pry marks on one of the windows, and there were other attempted break-ins in the neighborhood. Secondly, they found fingerprints throughout the house that didn’t belong to any of the family members. Finally, unidentified hairs were found in the house, including one on the rope that was wrapped around Glinda’s neck. This evidence completely undermined the prosecution’s case that Douglas was the only one in the house who could have committed the murders.
Douglas continued to fight for his freedom, but his conviction wasn’t thrown out until 2001, 14 years after his trial. Douglas was finally exonerated in 2003.
3 John Grega
In September 1994, John Grega, 32, of Long Island was vacationing in West Dover, Vermont, with his wife, Christine Grega, 31, and their two-year-old son. On September 12, John knocked on a neighboring condo’s door and said that his wife was dead in the bathtub. When the police interviewed John, he told them that after spending the day at Santa Land, he had taken their son to a nearby playground and returned around dusk, when he discovered his wife’s body. An autopsy showed that Christine had been raped and choked to death.
Without any physical evidence, John was arrested for the murder of his wife in December 1994. At his trial, the district attorney told the jury that the reason the Gregas were on vacation was to help with their marriage. They had been having trouble because of John’s cocaine and alcohol addictions. They also said that John stood to gain $250,000 from an insurance payout. Finally, there was a problem with John’s timeline. The police said that he returned to the rented condo around dusk, which would have been around 7:00 PM, but didn’t seek help until around 8:30 PM. He was found guilty, and he was sentenced to life without parole.
In 2012, DNA that was collected from the crime scene was tested, and it was determined that it belonged to an unknown man and not John. His conviction was overturned, and he was released from prison on August 23, 2012, after spending 18 years in prison. Grega sued the police and prosecutors in August 2014. Sadly, John was killed when his car struck a tree in January 2015. In April 2016, the state of Vermont settled with John’s estate, agreeing to pay $1.55 million.
2 Nellie Pope
In 1895, Detroit dentist Horace Pope was found murdered. He had been hacked to death with a hatchet. At first, the police believed that Dr. Pope was killed in a botched robbery attempt. As their investigation went on, they concluded that Horace was murdered by an office assistant, William Brusseau, and Horace’s wife, Nellie Pope. Brusseau confessed to the murder and said that he killed Horace for insurance money. He also said that he did it because Nellie had hypnotized him. Brusseau pleaded guilty and was given 25 years in prison. Nellie claimed that she was innocent, but a jury found her guilty, and she was given a life sentence. After spending several years in prison, Brusseau confessed on his deathbed that he was the only one involved in Horace’s murder and that Nellie didn’t have any prior knowledge of it.
After the deathbed confession, the case received a lot of attention from prominent Detroit citizens, who campaigned for Nellie’s release. In 1916, after spending 22 years in prison, Nellie was given a conditional pardon and was released from prison, but she was forced to live in a small bedroom at the Salvation Army Rescue House.
On the outside, Pope made it her mission to clear her name. She was finally granted a full pardon on October 24, 1928, at the age of 71. After spending 34 years fighting to clear her name, Nellie died less than a year after receiving her pardon in May 1929.
1 David Lee Gavitt
On the night of March 9, 1985, a fire broke out in the home that David Lee and Angela Gavitt shared with their two daughters, three-year-old Katrina and 11-month-old Tracy, in Ionia, Michigan. David awoke to the dog scratching at his bedroom door. When he opened the door, he discovered the living room completely engulfed in flames. He told his wife to get the kids, and he went to an empty bedroom, where he smashed the window for them to escape. When Angela didn’t come with the kids, he went back into the house to look for them. Eventually, the fire became intense, and he was forced to leave.
When the fire department arrived, they found David sitting on the curb. He was bleeding from a cut he received when he smashed the window, and there were burns all over his body. The rest of his family didn’t make it out of the house alive.
When investigators looked at the fire pattern in the house, they found irregular, circular burn patterns on the floor. This was usually a telltale sign that gasoline or some other type of accelerant was used, meaning that the fire was probably deliberately started. In June 1985, Gavitt was charged with felony murder and arson. At his trial, David adamantly denied starting the fire, and the prosecutors were unable to find a motive. Yet, he was found guilty in February 1986 and given three life sentences.
David always said he was innocent, and he sent letters to anyone who might be able to help him. He didn’t get much interest from anyone until 2010, when the University of Michigan Law School’s Innocence Clinic looked into his case. Fire science had advances over the decades that David sat in prison, and experts had documented a phenomenon called flashover. A flashover happens when a fire in a room gets so hot that any object can ignite. This can account for irregular circular burn marks in house fires. The Innocence Clinic had a fire expert look at the fire report from the Gavitt home, and he concluded that a flashover most likely caused the circular burns. Also, a lab tech had interpreted test results incorrectly, and there was no gasoline used in the fire.
In September 2011, the Innocence Clinic entered a motion for relief on David’s behalf, and in June 2012, after spending 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Gavitt was released from prison.
Robert Grimminck is a Canadian freelance writer. You can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or on Pinterest, or visit his website.