Was 'Grandma Jerry' murdered? - Albuquerque Journal

Was ‘Grandma Jerry’ murdered?

Geraldine Ray, 89, was found dead in her basement bedroom in this house in Harding County. She had cotton balls stuffed up her nostrils and packing tape over her mouth. Her family says it was a suicide. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
Geraldine Ray, 89, was found dead in her basement bedroom in this house in Harding County. She had cotton balls stuffed up her nostrils and packing tape over her mouth. Her family says it was a suicide. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

ROY – Geraldine Ray, an 89-year-old pillar of this high plains town, lay dead in her bed in a basement bedroom of her daughter’s ranch house while police officers, the coroner and crime scene technicians swarmed the place.

Roy is home to a few hundred people and everyone knows the Rays, who have run cattle in these parts since 1907. Crime scene tape, outsiders and rumors of a “suspicious death” had the town simultaneously grieving and wondering what had happened inside the house that Donna Ray shared with her mother.

All most people knew was that Donna had tried to wake Geraldine that morning, Jan. 9, that the sheriff had come and that one of the town’s oldest residents, “Grandma Jerry,” was dead.

Agents from the New Mexico State Police knew something the townspeople didn’t: The elderly woman was found fully dressed, face down on her pillow, her mouth taped shut and cotton balls stuffed up her nostrils.

In an interview that evening, recorded by State Police agent Kraig Bobnock and part of the investigative file, Bobnock asked Dusty Ray, Donna’s brother and the elder of Jerry Ray’s two sons, if he knew of anyone who might want to kill his mother.

“No way in hell,” he said. “She’s probably one of the most liked people in this whole damned county.”

But if she wasn’t murdered, did she kill herself? Could anyone have the will to stuff cotton balls up her own nostrils, tape her mouth shut and then force herself to lie down with her face in a pillow and wait out death by suffocation?

“I don’t see how she could have done it unless she took a bunch of damn sleeping pills,” Dusty told the cop, although toxicology tests would reveal she had no drugs or alcohol in her system.

“But hell,” he said, “I’ve drowned before and you’re gonna fight regardless. And anything stuffed up your nose or tape over your mouth, I just … .”

Roy is a small town – only about 200 people – and crime is rare. A well-known rancher accused of murdering her mother is even more rare. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
Roy is a small town – only about 200 people – and crime is rare. A well-known rancher accused of murdering her mother is even more rare. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

He paused and then said, “She was a hard-willed woman. She could have done it, but it’s just awful hard for me to believe. … If I would have thought she was going to commit suicide, she’d a got a gun. Because she’s a hell of a shot.”

When her obituary was published in the local newspapers, the family used the text Jerry had written years earlier, and a photo of her holding a rifle and beaming over the bed of a pickup carrying her hunting dogs and a dead mountain lion.

“She is a tough old ranch woman,” Donna said in her first interview with police just hours after she reported her mother wouldn’t wake up.

“She was some woman,” said Dusty’s wife, Sandy, who was also interviewed by police because she was the first to arrive at the house and found Geraldine stiff and cold.

“She was the glue that held this family together,” grandson Rocky told police.

The Ray family runs cattle on 20,000 acres on the grassy plains of Harding County in northeastern New Mexico.

According to police interviews, on the day before their mother was found dead, Joe Roy Ray was out in the Moreno Valley where he lived and ranched. Dusty was hunting mountain lions on his ranch between Roy and the Canadian River canyon. And Donna took a shopping list and her ex-husband, Bill Stinebaugh, and went to Las Vegas to buy feed.

Interviews with store clerks and receipts show the two did a number of errands and had lunch in town. Donna Ray told police she had a brief conversation with her mother that evening – her mother wanted her to record a news report on an antelope roundup she thought would be on the 10 p.m. TV news – and didn’t hear from her after about 7 p.m.

She said she went downstairs to check on her mother around 8 or 8:30 the next morning, looked at her and drove to town to find help.

Donna Ray was interviewed at the local fire station while crime scene investigators combed over her house. Agent Bobnock pressed her on why she didn’t try to shake her mother or touch her to see if she was OK.

“She was too still,” Ray said.

“Too still? What do you mean by that?”

“She was too still.”

Later that evening, agent Nicholas Levine pressed harder. Why didn’t she call 911?

“It never entered my mind.”

Would her mother commit suicide?

If she had, Ray said, she would have used a gun.

This is the bedroom where 89-year-old Geraldine Ray was found by her daughter, Donna, dead on Jan. 9. (Courtesy of the New Mexico State Police)
This is the bedroom where 89-year-old Geraldine Ray was found by her daughter, Donna, dead on Jan. 9. (Courtesy of the New Mexico State Police)

Why?

“Because she’s a gun woman. She loved guns. Shot all her life. She’s an expert marksman.”

If she was murdered, who might have done it?

“Nobody. She would have shot them first. Nobody would mess with her.”

Levine asked her if she knew who “did it.”

“No,” Ray said, then paused. “Did what, though? We don’t know what happened to her. I wish I knew what happened.”

Her brother, Dusty, had already given agent Bobnock his opinion of the investigation.

“I’ll guarantee you can rule Bill out of it. And my wife for damn sure. And, you know, you can have suspicions about Donna, but I don’t think there’s no way in hell. She’s not a strong enough woman to have done it; put it that way.”

You don’t think Donna would have done it? Bobnock asked.

“Oh, hell no. No way in hell.”

Two days later, Donna Ray returned to her house and found notes in her mother’s handwriting (notes the crime scene investigators had not found). One said she didn’t want to be a burden to anyone and another, dated Jan. 8 at 10:30 p.m., directed her son Joe Ray to have her body cremated and have a private funeral.

While the Ray family took those notes as proof Geraldine had pulled off a bizarre suicide, the medical investigator came to a different conclusion.

Next Sunday: What led police to return to Roy with handcuffs and an arrest warrant for murder.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.


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