Impeccably dressed, meticulously neat, Dana Sue Gray spared no expense on herself. Dropping thousands of dollars on a shopping binge or a luxurious day spa was nothing out of the ordinary for Dana--nor for many wealthy women. But Dana wasn't wealthy--she was an unemployed nurse. She was also a serial murderess, who preyed upon elderly women, violently killed them, then used their credit cards to embark on wild, post-murder spending sprees.
Women serial killers are rare--there are only 36 documented cases--and those, like Dana Sue Gray, who murder so brutally that veteran police officers are shaken by the bloodiness of the crime scene, are even rarer. In To Die For, an exposé as shocking and fascinating as its subject matter, author Kathy Braidhill explores the stunning story of Dana Sue Gray, one of the most dangerous, deadly, and disturbed women in history.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
Kathy Braidhill is an award-winning investigative journalist and the author of three true crime books: Chop Shop, Evil Secrets, and To Die For. She was a primary contributor to the bestselling book on O.J. Simpson’s defense team, American Tragedy, which she also co-produced as a CBS television mini-series.
Read an Excerpt
To Die For
By Kathy Braidhill
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Kathy Braidhill
All rights reserved.
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 16, 1994, 9 A.M.
The phone was ringing. No one knew Norma was dead. But there she sat, upright in her comfy gold armchair for two days, an oversized, wood-handled utility knife buried to the hilt in her neck, the matching fillet knife in her chest. Other than one broken, pearly pink fingernail on her right hand, gracefully draped over the arm rest, she bore no other marks. Norma Davis, in a fleeting glance, looked no more sinister than an 86-year-old heart patient napping in front of the television, head sagging to one side, with a brown, fringed afghan covering the flowered-print blue slipper she wore on her foot. The coagulated pool of blood had seeped up around the wounds, darkening the animal designs on her black sweater.
It was obvious that Norma had been murdered in her chair, her roost, the place she curled up to watch TV, read her beloved books, knit, open mail and perhaps entertain visitors, including her last. The nubby gold armchair holding Norma's body belonged to a matching set of two, both of which sat in the second-floor den of her condo. The chairs faced a wood console-style TV set that she'd decorated with family photos and ceramic animal figures. A bag of golf clubs was propped against the TV. Both chairs backed up to the wrought-iron railing overlooking the first floor. Surrounding the chair, and on the dark, Mediterranean-style, carved-wood side table, were all the necessities for someone who, once they settled into their favorite chair, didn't want to be bothered getting up again: the TV remote-control, a small flashlight, two needlework bags, a romance novel and reading glasses, a pink pitcher and glass, a blue plastic pillbox, a fabric-and-lace photo album and a small fencing-style letter opener. On the other side of her chair was a wastebasket. The discarded mail was dotted with blood.
The phone had gone silent. There was a tentative tapping at the front door. Unlocked, it swung open.
It was 9:15 a.m. Alice Williams knew Norma was usually up by 6. She'd tried calling twice yesterday and once this morning. When there was no answer, she thought she'd come by and check on her. They were both 86 and had been like sisters ever since Norma moved to Canyon Lake five years ago. It was time for a trip to the beauty salon and they usually went together. It was Norma's habit to leave the front door open when she was expecting someone. Since she was hard of hearing, Alice yelled as loud as she could.
Alice's voice wasn't as strong as it used to be. But something was wrong. Norma usually had the television turned up to an ear-splitting pitch. It was silent. Maybe she had gone out. Norma had been so excited last week because she had passed her driver's test. She hated being confined to the house.
Alice slowly made her way through the spotless living room and into the gleaming kitchen. Everything looked orderly. No, Norma hadn't gone out. Her brown patchwork purse was in its usual place by the refrigerator. Alice looked at the plastic seven-day pillbox on the counter, but nothing registered. She peeked into the downstairs den, where the mirrored bar showcased gleaming glasses and an array of golf trophies. As she made her way into Norma's bedroom, Alice's mind raced to the last time she had seen Norma. It was Monday, Valentine's Day. That was just two days ago. They had gone to the bank to cash Norma's Medicare check. She got $148 in cash. Then Alice drove her to the hardware store, where Norma had two keys made. They made their round of errands early in the day, as usual. She dropped Norma off by about 11 a.m. Had Norma been expecting a visitor? She couldn't remember.
Norma's bed was unmade, a closet door stood open and a pile of purses rested on the floor. On the chair was an open, empty vanity case, its mirrored lid agape. In one of the guest rooms, a drawer in the otherwise empty chest stood open.
Norma was not downstairs. Alice was getting worried. Going up stairs was hard at her age. She pursed her lips, grabbed the handrail and steadily put one foot in front of the other. At the landing, she paused and leaned against a white-upholstered chair. She did not see the smear of blood on the seat. She continued up the stairs. A few feet from the top, Alice looked left into the second-floor den and her gaze rested on her best friend's body in the chair. She tried to scream, but could only gasp as her knees started to buckle.
* * *
No matter where you live in Canyon Lake, it's a nice, easy walk to either the golf course or the dock. But most residents of the private community just drive their golf carts. The massive development, ringed by 12-foot wall, and with 24-hour security posted at its three gates, was constructed around a meandering golf course and a man-made lake resembling a runny inkblot with dozens of fjords carved from the desert to give every homeowner a cul-de-sac and their choice of fronting either the lake or a chunk of the golf course. An equine wing of the development rambled along some low hills on its westernmost edge. A scattering of larger homes, tucked into the foothills off the main drive, would fetch upwards of a million dollars. Unlike most planned developments, where the only picturesque scenery exists in the minds of the builders who christen the streets, Canyon Lake supplied more than a vicarious whiff of boating, golf and horseback riding. The recreation-friendly scheme furnished planners with an abundant argot from which to choose street names and enhance the cheerful, theme-park feel of the development. Even the more moderately priced homes accessible from the main street boasted driveways brimming with boats, fully equipped RVs, tasteful off-road vehicles, sport utility vehicles and luxury cars.
Although residents were a mix of retirees, empty-nesters on the brink of retirement, and some young families, the most mature residents were the most visible. On streets pleasantly named Big Tee, Skipper's Way, Early Round Drive and Silver Saddle Court, white-haired women in helmeted coifs piloted late-model Cadillacs and Buicks, outnumbered only by deeply tanned, knobby-kneed men in shorts and caps scooting around in golf carts. This secure community, in the desert heat of California's Riverside County, gave upscale retirees the comfort of enjoying their sunset years in leisure.
Outside the gates of the resort community, life fell short of exquisite. But on a modest income, a good life in Riverside County could be had cheaply. Seventy-five miles from the greater Los Angeles basin, the area featured bargain real estate and a remote desert landscape that was linked to the city by Southern California's veinous freeway system. For the price of a hellish commute, families with entry-level incomes could afford comfortable homes. A latter-day gold rush in constructional had created boom towns out of sparsely populated patches, strung together by highways that sliced through miles of desert brush, spectacular spires of yucca blossoms, and sage. Huge developments sprung up from the hardscrabble desert floor, peppering the landscape with lookalike homes that queued up along preternaturally smooth blacktopped streets and displayed "Model House" banners. Strip malls, chain discount stores and fast-food joints galloped right behind the residential developers to service new homeowners. Homely towns anchored by dusty trailer parks, which never caught the eye of developers, slouched in the shadow of the gleaming new developments, their deeply rutted dirt roads—without street lights, curbs or even signs—leading to run-down grocery stores and well-used bars.
The unending parade of construction made the Inland Empire, which encompasses Riverside and neighboring San Bernardino Counties, among the fastest-growing regions in the country. But the influx of ex-suburbanites seeking mortgage relief upset the eco-system of native desert-dwellers—bikers, the poor, naturalists, retirees and criminals. To the FBI and the DEA, the Inland Empire houses the most active and dangerous of the nation's manufacturers and distributors of methamphetamine, a powerful, illegal stimulant that rivals cocaine in popularity. The desert's seclusion offered lawbreakers a unique opportunity to establish an underground industry of meth labs, whose distinctive chemical odor make them easy to sniff out in heavily populated areas. Along with the meth labs came a supporting cast of unsavory types that Canyon Lake builders had in mind when they put a wall around the private, monitored and guarded enclave.
The minute he saw the gates to the private community, Deputy District Attorney Richard Bentley figured the killer knew how to get inside this place. Bentley paused his county cruiser at the guard shack long enough to flash his badge and get waved through. At 47, the ex-schoolteacher had a thick wave of strawberry blonde hair and a gap-toothed smile that gave him a boyish look. Bentley drove slowly through the development looking for the address on Continental Way.
Canyon Lake. He'd heard of it, but had never been inside. He knew it was an upscale neighborhood of mostly elderly residents. Not uber-rich, just a nice part of the world next to some not-so-nice areas. It made sense that they'd want gates around it. He assumed the other two entrances also had gates and 24-hour guards.
Turning the corner, he saw the familiar yellow tape and a clump of black-and-whites. A team of criminalists in a Department of Justice van pulled up as he parked. Bentley recognized Ricci Cooksey, a senior criminalist, as he hopped out and removed his field kit from the van, his ever-present flashlight crooked under his arm, but he didn't recognize the woman with Cooksey. The Riverside County ID techs had also just arrived in a county truck. The coroner's van was already there. Not the meat truck, which would come later, but the tech van. Inside the yellow tape was a tiny white-haired woman, her head bowed, being comforted by friends. That must be either a relative or the person who found the body, Bentley thought. He didn't see any gawking neighbors standing in clusters, the way they did at most scenes, just some gardeners working across the street, occasionally glancing at the police activity. Bentley caught up with Cooksey, who introduced his trainee.
"What have we got?" Cooksey said by way of greeting.
"Elderly woman stabbed upstairs," said Bentley.
Cooksey nodded. The big brown condo was one of 19 two-story look-a-likes dotting a horseshoe-shaped driveway off Continental Way. The backyards on this end of the drive sloped downward to a stretch of private lakefront called "Indian Beach." Even on a weekday morning, a few people were out in their boats.
Bentley started to see faces as he got closer to the condo. From his stint at the Perris branch of the DA's office, he recognized Detective Joe Greco of the Perris Police Department, talking with the two officers who had arrived first at the scene. Greco looked worried. Heck, Bentley thought, for a homicide detective, he looked young. With his slight frame and dark, wavy hair, Greco could easily pass for a college student, almost for a high school student. He tried to look older by wearing a moustache, but he could barely coax a few hairs to grow there. Bentley had been told that Greco had a wife and at least two kids, with another one on the way.
Bentley knew Greco was waiting for him to arrive. The detective couldn't have handled many, if any, homicides. But requesting another detective was futile—there were no veteran homicide detectives with Perris P.D. At 25,000 people, Perris was barely large enough to have its own police force. It had only been a few months since Perris P.D. took over the contract for police services at Canyon Lake, handling its major crimes and leaving routine patrol duties to its private security force. The district attorney's office had its lawyers make suggestions and answer questions for the investigating officer at any homicide. Bentley, who had worked at the Perris sub-station, knew Greco as a solid detective and tried to put him at ease with some gallows humor.
"Hey, I had plans this afternoon," Bentley said, walking up to Greco. "You guys are messing up my day."
Greco greeted Bentley with a handshake and a nervous smile, then told him what he'd seen inside. Within a few minutes, the ID techs, the criminalists, the deputy coroners, the officers, and the sergeant formed a loose huddle around the postage stamp–sized front yard for the briefing. Officer Lance Noggle, the first officer at the scene, ran down the facts in official jargon. Greco added a few details and Bentley asked some questions.
"O.K., let's go in and take a look," Greco said. Like a herd, the group followed Greco and Cooksey toward the condo. Hanging plants in a tasseled, macrame holder decorated the small front porch. From outside the front door, one could see the dining room and kitchen straight ahead. The stairs were to the left.
It was Cooksey. The processional stopped. From the porch, he reached around with a latex-gloved hand and flicked off the interior light switch, darkening the entryway. Taking his flashlight out from under his arm, he bent down by the front door and shined the beam at the parquet floor in the entryway, a nice oak plank, and focused the beam at an angle. When Greco bent down, he saw what Cooksey was looking at in the beam of the flashlight.
"It's a Nike," Cooksey said, recognizing the distinct trademarked swoosh on the sole. It was as if someone had sprinkled dust in a perfectly stenciled sole of an athletic shoe. The shoe print was aimed at the kitchen.
Cooksey knew that anyone who walked into that house would have had to step in that entryway. It had just been a hunch. He'd been to enough crime scenes to know that there was always a rush to get to the body. Not today.
Everyone backed out of the entryway. Cooksey walked back to the DOJ van and dug out a stack of chemically treated paper sheets and something that looked like a foot-square sponge to take shoe impressions. One by one, the officers, the sergeant supervisor and Greco—everyone who'd been inside the condo—stepped on the chemical sponge and stepped on the paper, making a shoe impression to show what he already knew would result. No swoosh.
As Cooksey was busy with the shoe impressions, the county crime lab techs set up a tripod directly over the print and aimed the camera lens downward toward the print. They adjusted the settings to take true-to-life prints that forensic shoe print experts could use to compare prints at the crime scene with those made by a suspect's shoes. Cooksey returned to his van to get what looked like a thin sheet of firm Jell-O suspended in plastic. When the crime techs were done taking photos, Cooksey peeled off one layer of the plastic wrap and unfurled the gelatin directly onto the print with rhythmic strokes using a fingerprint roller. Then he gently pulled the gelatin sheet from the floor and saw an eerie shadow of dust clinging to it—deposited, perhaps, by a killer.
* * *
"There are some people here to see you."
The officer nodded toward an older couple casually dressed in jeans and sneakers standing outside the yellow tape.
"The victim's family," he said.
"Thanks," Greco said, making his way toward the couple. "Go get Bentley."
After the walk-through, everyone had been standing around outside the condo waiting for the crime-scene techs and Department of Justice criminalists to mark, photograph and collect the evidence, or anything Greco and Bentley thought might be evidence. The condo resembled a macabre tag sale. Numbered, golden-rod-colored evidence cards were propped up next to the blood-smeared chair on the landing, the ripped-out phone cord, the half-empty knife holder in the kitchen, Norma's pillboxes, her purse and the bloodstained afghan crumpled at her feet. On the walk-through, Greco and Bentley had reviewed with the criminalists and lab techs what to photograph and what to collect. Greco took photos with his own camera and wrote meticulously detailed notes. He took the time to write neatly—there was no rush and he wanted to be able to read his notes in the morning. When one of the patrol officers offered Greco the use of his own video camera, Greco borrowed it to film the crime scene.
Excerpted from To Die For by Kathy Braidhill. Copyright © 2000 Kathy Braidhill. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As the mother of Dana's stepson, I must commend Braidhills accuracy in her portrayal of the characters and events in this book. She portrays the personality and subsequent cynicsism of Dana's boyfriend (my ex) as only someone very familiar with this man could possibly have done. Her attention to detail is outstanding and precise. Braidhill will forevermore be at the TOP of my all time favorite author's list.
I finished this book today and I have to say that I was very impressed with the book. I could hardly put it down it was such a good read! The author does a great job of giving insight into the minds of the main characters and keeping a nice pace in the book. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone, but especially anyone who is a true crime fan. Wonderful book!
This is a good, well-researched book. Suspenseful. Dana Sue Gray is a terrifying figure. There are so few women serial killers, I appreciated insight into her personality. I bought this book and 'A Warrant to Kill' on the same day. Both really good books. This book gave me insight into Gray's twisted mind. 'Warrant' gives an astounding look at the frightening power of a bad cop. Terrifying. I'd recommend either one.