Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shirley Winters: Evil or Insane?

by Diane Fanning

Roughly twenty percent of serial killers are women. Of serial arsonists, less then twelve percent are female. Shirley Winters was both.
Over twenty-seven years, she killed four children, attempted to murder a fifth and was responsible for setting eighteen fires. And yet, until recently when I talked to St. Lawrence County Fire Investigator Joe Lacks (below right with K9 Alex), I had never heard of her.

The trail of crime began on September 12, 1979, when Shirley killed her 3-year-old daughter Colleen with blunt force trauma to her head. She also injured her 18-month-old son Johnny and left him for dead. Then she set fire to her parents' cottage in Theresa, New York. John died of smoke inhalation. Shirley was never charged.

On November 21, 1980, she smothered her 5-month-old son Ronald. His death was labeled a case of sudden-death syndrome.

Shirley was arrested for arson in connection with two seperate fires at her mobile home in Otisco, New York, in 1981. She pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of criminal mischief and was sentenced to three years probation and mandated counseling.

The next year, she set a fire that destroyed her mobile home. Again, there was a plea agreement that allowed her to remain free.

On November 12, 1986, a fire broke out in the apartment complex in Marcellus where Shirley lived. She was not considered a suspect at the time, but investigators were not aware of her history.

On that same date in 1989, she set a fire in the basement storage room of the house where she lived. She grabbed her two youngest children, but told 5-year-old Joy to stay in the house. When Shirley ran for help, she said she could not find her older daughter. Fortunately, Joy did not listen to her mother. She was found whimpering on the front porch of the blazing home. Shirley was found "Not guilty" of arson.

Shirley started another blaze on January 6, 1990, in her new home. Custody of her children was awarded to her ex-husband. On March 18, she set another fire in a house she shared with two adults. On September 21, she torched the garage of her aunt's home. On October 5, she set the same place on fire again, this time destroying both the garage and the house. She topped that off the following January by assaulting the officer who arrived to arrest her after she made harassing calls to a neighbor.

In October, 1991, Shirley was sentenced to state prison for one to three years. She remained behind bars until November 1992 when she was released on parole. Except for harassment and larceny charges, her record remained clear until January 17, 1997 when she set a trailer on fire. Then in April, she ignited another blaze in the home of her mother, who had died in an automobile accident two months earlier. This time, Shirley was incarcerated for eight years.

She was the same person after serving time. On November 28, 2006, just three days before little Ryan Rivers would turn 2 years old, Shirley drowned him in the bathtub in the home. He was found flat on his back, fully clothed, in the bathtub. She set fire to a neighbor's trailer on December 31 before her arrest for the homicide of Ryan.

On June 16, 2008, she received a 20-year sentence for Ryan's death. The next day, she received an eight-and-a-half to 25 year sentence for killing her son, Ronald, in 1980. She will be eligible for parole in 2025 when she is 67 years old.

But that's not the whole story of Shirley Winters. Many believe her problems go back to 1966 when she was only 7 years old. She was at her grandmother's house that night when a natural gas leak caused the family home to fill with carbon monoxide fumes. Her 10-year-old brother Peter and her sisters, 4-year-old Liteta and 11-year-old Joyce, died.

After that, her cousins said she would bite, throw things and claw at people with her fingernails. Her classmates called her Squirelly Shirley. She told a psychiatrist that her sexual molestation began after the fire. And the violence escalated.

She was first admitted into a mental health facility in 1978. In all, she has been in psychiatric wards twenty-eight times over thirty years. She's attempted suicide on multiple occasions. She's been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, disassociative disorder, bipolar disorder, psychogenic amnesia, pyromania and, even once, with anti-social personality disorder.

And yet, she was diagnosed and released, sometimes in as little as two days. Shirley was clearly a danger to herself and to others and still she was released to wreak havoc in the lives of others again and again.

Maybe there weren't enough indicators to spare the lives of her own children, Colleen, Johnny (left) and Ronald, but, surely, the signs were obvious before the death of Ryan Rivers. I cannot understand why she was not forcibly committed until, if ever, mental health professionals could affect a change in her illness, outlook and behavior.

With someone as dangerous as Shirley Winters, does it really matter whether she's evil or crazy? The important question is this: How can society be protected from the serial malignant acts of Shirley Winters and others just like her?


MrsG said...

....and Misty gets 25 years for selling drugs and being suspect in an unproven homicide. You know what we need, uniform justice, kinda like the tax system. What a flipping mess the justice system is. Personally I think violent offenders should get more, society needs protection. Is she an example of how we're still coming to grips with the idea of the psychopathic female? Remember the idea years ago that all serial killers were men, well serial killing women kill their kids and their spouses (or their boarders, or patients) and they're labelled differently but it's the same thing. No, not mad, just psychopathic and evil, if she was male we wouldn't even ask the question.

Diane Fanning said...

In our society, we are far more surprised by women who commit crimes like these, than we are by male perpetrators. It seems more unnatural for woman, particularly when it involves children. But, you are right, all forms of bias need to be eliminated from our justice system, whether it is gender-, race-,or faith-based.

pattydiva said...

I think the judges are given to much "personal" decision authority. When some of these judges have been sitting on the bench for decades and are older than dirt, they begin to make less than desirable decisions. I agree with Mrs. G. It should be more uniform and less often left up to the judges descretion.

Dianiewill said...

Call me crazy, but I think you can be both. Obviously this woman was crying out for help and attention from a very early age (Yeah, with fire and murder...thats the crazy part, and the evil part too.) and she was also making thought-out, conscious choices that were evil.

What I really think is evil- is how our system failed her family and community and her. We should have thrown the book at her ASAP when we could, locked her up and given her meds and treatment and whatever else she might have needed to get some sanity. If we could have addressed some of her issues early on we might have seen just how dangerous she could become. She was diagnosed so many times with so many unstable, dangerous, disorders! If we could have kept her in treatment facility after her first crimes (to herself and others evidently), in a lock up, we might have been able to prevent future harm to many many others. Buut noooo, the system did not believe how serious she was or how sick she was. At the very least someone should have seen how (since her multiple dangerous diagnoses and hospital stays) she should have been watched and followed for signs of further criminality and violence. She should never have been allowed on her own under her own care without a keeper.

Later, when she was a mom and the victims were her own children, she was given doubt and a second chance, and no one could believe she was guilty, partly because of the way we as society views women and mothers. Partly because no information on her previous history followed her anywhere...this should have been preventable somehow!

As a foster parent I see much of the same stuff going on elsewhere than could easily escalate the way her case did. I watch children in the system who have been taken away from families who abuse and neglect and sometimes torture and do irreparable harm to them --go back to these mothers and/or biological families who have done the bare minimum of attend a few parenting classes or get one time treatment for addictions or anger management or whatever. All because the system wants to see the children back with their bio families- even in some really horrible cases!

My heart breaks for the trauma her kids endured daily, and for the loss of life- painfully- that she inflicted with intent on her children and others. Yes, I do think she is evil- but how did she get there? I'll tell ya: with help from everyone in the legal and healthcare systems who did nothing or did not do all that they could to keep her under lock and key. Those people and systems let her free to undergo a life she was not mentally capable or prepared for.

This propelled her into situations that flipped her crazy switch from the attention seeking, suicidal, self mutilating, fire setting, desperately seeking help position, to the DANGEROUS TO SOCIETY AND COMPLETELY EVIL position.
Preventable in so many ways...

Diane Fanning said...

It seems as if the solutions are so logical but somehow they still never happen. And the system that should help protect us are exposing us to dangerous people.

Dr. Gina Simmons said...

Very important story Diane. It also suggests many of these serial killers could be caught with better communication systems between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

Diane Fanning said...

Thanks Gina and you're right. There is a need for more cooperation and transparency between jurisdiction as well as the judicious application of common sense.

Anonymous said...

Did the trauma of losing her siblings set off her behavior, or did she actually have some sort of brain damage from the carbon monoxide exposure? Did she have other issues as well, or did she simply choose evil?

Not that any explanation would ever excuse what she did, but I'd like to think a person doesn't become that evil without provocation.

Diane Fanning said...

If someone had asked those questions earlier in her life, anonymous, perhapes the answers would have been clear. At this point, I think, we can only speculate and your theory is as good as any.

Kim Cantrell said...

Evil or insane? Does it really matter? Bottom line is that she is a danger to society. If an animal presented such a threat, it would be euthanized. Why shouldn't a human? After all, we ARE categorized as animals.