The Serial Homicide Case of the Day, from "Hunting Humans, the Encyclopedia of 20th Century Serial Killers" , by Michael Newton
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Graham, Gwendolyn Gail and Wood, Catherine May
The deaths at Alpine Manor started as a game. At first, the killers planned to choose their victims alphabetically, with their initials spelling "MURDER" as a private joke on the police. As luck would have it, though, the aging women first selected still had too much fight left in them, and the plotters had to shift their strategy.
No matter. In the end, they still found easy prey to satisfy their taste for death.
Born in 1963, Gwen Graham was a California native who grew up in Tyler, Texas. She was "quiet and respectful" to her teachers, but she "always had a sad look on her face." In later years, she claimed the sadness was occasioned by her father 's sexual attentions, but the charge--which he denies--was never proved in court. Moving to Michigan in 1986, Graham found work as a nurse's aide at the Alpine Manor Nursing Home in Walker, a Grand Rapids suburb.
Graham's immediate superior at Alpine Manor was 24-year-old Cathy Wood. Wed as a teenager, Wood had ballooned up to 450 pounds when her seven-year marriage broke up, leaving her alone and friendless in Grand Rapids. Hired at Alpine Manor in July 1985, she was soon promoted to supervisor of nurse's aides, but her social life remained a vacuum until she met Gwen Graham on the job. Their friendship swiftly crossed the line into a lesbian affair, Wood dieting the pounds away and relishing the social whirl of gay bars, parties, and casual sex. Her chief devotion was to Graham, though, and by late 1986 the two women had pledged undying love for one another, come what may.
Gwen broached the subject of premeditated murder that October, but her lover "thought we were just playing." During sex, Gwen got a kick from tying Cathy down and choking her or covering her face with a pillow until she trembled on the verge of blacking out. If Cathy had complaints about the game, she kept them to her-self. By slow degrees, she learned that pain and pleasure may be flip-sides of the same exciting coin.
The homicides at Alpine Manor spanned a three-month period, from January to the early part of April 1987. Gwen's first plan, the "MURDER" game, fell through when her selected targets put up such a fight that she was forced to let them live. Despite her bungled efforts, there were no complaints on file. Both Wood and Graham earned exemplary reports from their superiors and were "well liked by patients" on the ward.
In the future, Gwen decided, she would only pick on women who were too far gone for self-defense. Her lover was the lookout, standing by where she could watch the murder and the nurse's station all at once, diverting any member of the staff who strayed too close while Graham snuffed her chosen victim with a washcloth pressed across the nose and mouth. Sometimes the sheer excitement of the killing was too much, and they retired immediately to an empty room for sex while memories were fresh. In several cases, Gwen kept souvenirs --an anklet or a handkerchief, a broach, a set of dentures.
Murder is a risky business, but the lethal lovers seemed to thrive on danger, boasting of their body count to colleagues who dismissed the comments as "sick jokes." At least three nurse's aides saw the shelf of souvenirs in the house Wood shared with Graham, but none took the gloating tales of murder seriously ... yet.
By April 1987, the honeymoon was over for Wood and Graham. Cathy balked at personally killing anyone to "prove her love," and she was shortly rescued by her transfer to a different shift. By that time, Gwen was spending time with Heather Barager, another lesbian, who ultimately joined her for a trip back home to Texas, leaving Cathy in the lurch. Come August, Cathy spilled the story to her former husband, but Ken Wood stalled another fourteen months before he called police. Gwen Graham, meanwhile, had gone to work at Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler, keeping in touch with Cathy on the telephone.
Grand Rapids police were skeptical of Ken Wood's story at first. Some forty patients had died at Alpine Manor in the first quarter of 1987, all listed as natural deaths, but on reflection eight cases seemed to stand out. Three of those were finally eliminated by detectives, leaving a victim list that included 60-year-old Marguerite Chambers, 89-year-old Edith Cole, 95-year-old Myrtle Luce, 79-year-old Mae Mason, and 74-year-old Belle Burkhard. In no case was there any scientific evidence murder of, but Ken Wood's statement and the second thoughts of staffers at the home were strong enough to make a case.
Both women were arrested in December 1988, Wood held without bond in Grand Rapids on charges of killing victims Cook and Chambers. In Texas, where rumors of the Michigan investigation had already cost Gwen her job, a $1 million bond was sufficient to keep her in jail. A brief extradition fight grew tedious, and Graham soon waived the legalities, returning to face charges on her own volition.
The Alpine Manor staff was "overwhelmed" by the arrests, though some remembered Gwen as "unpredictable," remarking casually on Graham's quick temper. Former nurse's aides like Deborah Kidder, Nancy Harris, Lisa Lynch, Dawn Male and Russell Thatcher reevaluated those "sick jokes" and souvenirs they had managed to ignore while lives were on the line. At trial, four would testify against Gwen Graham for the prosecution, with Cathy Wood emerging as the state's star witness overnight.
A September 1989 guilty plea to charges of second-degree murder spared Wood from life imprisonment, earning her a sentence of twenty to forty years. In return for that relative leniency, she took the stand against Gwen three months later, thereby sealing her ex-lover's fate.
Aside from the five victims murdered, said Cathy, Gwen had tried to suffocate at least five others who survived. Wood's ultimate confession to her husband had been prompted less by guilt than fear that Graham would continue killing in her new position at the Texas hospital, this time with infants as her chosen prey.
"When she was killing people at Alpine and I didn't do any-thing," Wood told the court, "that was bad enough. But when she would call me and say how she wanted to smash a baby, I had to stop her somehow. I knew she was working in a hospital there. She said she wanted to take one of the babies and smash it up against a window. I had to do something. I didn't care about myself any more."
Graham's lawyer tried to portray Wood as a jealous, vindictive liar, setting his client up as "a sacrificial lamb," but jurors disagreed. They deliberated for seven hours before convicting Gwen on five counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. On November 2, 1989, Graham was sentenced to six terms of life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
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