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Murder or suicide?

ROY – Geraldine Ray, the 89-year-old matriarch of a well-known Harding County ranching family, was found unresponsive in bed on Jan. 9.

Jerry, as she was known, was the daughter of homesteaders who was born and raised on the family ranch, and news of her death spread fast in Roy, a village of a little more than 200 people.

She was a hunter, a singer and fiddler with The Gloom Chasers band back in the ’40s, and a fixture at community events.

Sadness quickly turned to unease when police called her passing a “suspicious death” and strung crime scene tape around the old brick ranch house where she lived with her only daughter, Donna.

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Police interviewed members of the Ray family, and took fingerprints and DNA samples from both Donna Ray and her ex-husband. They came back to Roy three months later with an arrest warrant.

Donna Ray met them at her front door with a chipper greeting, and when she was told she was being arrested for killing her mother, she said in not much more than a whisper, “That’s awful. I didn’t do that.”

As she was being handcuffed, she said, “This is not possible. I didn’t hurt her.” Then she shuffled around the kitchen to find some shoes for the long ride to the State Police office in Las Vegas and then on to jail.

In the police car on the way to Las Vegas, she said, “I didn’t hurt my mother. I could never, ever have done that.”

Donna Ray rides across the Canadian River in this 1990 photo. Ray has been charged with her mother's murder, although the family says 89-year-old Geraldine Ray committed suicide. (Neil Jacobs/Albuquerque Journal)

Donna Ray rides across the Canadian River in this 1990 photo. Ray has been charged with her mother’s murder, although the family says 89-year-old Geraldine Ray committed suicide. (Neil Jacobs/Albuquerque Journal)

When I heard that Ray, 69, was being booked on an open charge of murder, it seemed almost unbelievable to me.

I had spent time with Donna and “Mama Jerry” 24 years ago while researching a story on female ranchers in New Mexico. It only took hearing her name again to bring back warm memories of a summer evening spent riding up the Canadian River with Coors on ice, looking for a herd of Barbary sheep.

On that trip, I stayed in the same ranch house basement where Mama Jerry died, and the next morning I watched Donna, her daughter and other relatives separate and brand cattle.

“Donna was her daddy’s best cowgirl,” Jerry told me.

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Donna cut a glamorous figure – long blonde hair pulled back under a hat, eyes shaded by Ray-Ban aviators and her jeans tucked into knee-high boots. She flew a Piper Cub between her land holdings, and listened to Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. Her answering machine played “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

These 24 years later, walking around town as I tried to get a feel for how a close-knit community deals with the news that a town matriarch is dead and her daughter is charged with her murder, I found not a soul willing to talk to me about Donna and Jerry Ray.

“That’s a private deal for the family.” “I’d rather not.” And, “No, I really couldn’t say.”

When the autopsy started at the Office of the Medical Investigator in Albuquerque, the pathologist noted a cotton ball had been stuffed up each of Geraldine Ray’s nostrils and that her mouth was taped shut with brown packing tape.

When the tape was removed, it revealed a gruesome surprise – clear plastic stuffed inside Ray’s mouth. And the pathologist found hemorrhages on Ray’s shoulders consistent with pressure being applied. There were no drugs or alcohol in her system.

According to New Mexico State Police agent Kraig Bobnock, the medical investigator told him Ray definitely didn’t commit suicide. In a written report, the pathologist concluded Ray died of lack of oxygen and she was “strangled by assailant(s).”

According to State Police reports, suspicions built from there:

Donna hadn’t tried to shake her mother awake when she found her not moving. She hadn’t called 911, opting instead to call her brother, and then drove into town looking for help. When, two days later, she found handwritten notes in her mother’s closet saying Jerry didn’t want to be a burden and leaving instructions for her cremation, Donna didn’t notify police.

When questioned about the notes, she had trouble remembering where she said she found the notes.

As Bobnock received the autopsy results and attempted to meet again with Donna for another interview, she didn’t answer his calls and then refused a meeting, saying she didn’t see the point.

“It appeared Donna was attempting to avoid an in-person conversation,” Bobnock wrote in an arrest warrant affidavit.

When Ray was arraigned March 16 in Magistrate Court in downtown Roy, Santa Fe defense attorney Dan Cron was at her side. The parties are due back in that court in August for a preliminary hearing – sort of a mini-trial – to set out evidence and then ask the judge to rule on whether there’s probable cause to move forward with a murder case.

Donna, meanwhile, is out on bail and back home in Roy.

District Attorney Timothy Rose of Tucumcari said he didn’t want to talk about specifics of the evidence against Donna Ray, but he said, “It’s a strange case. That seems a strange way to commit suicide.”

Cron’s burden will be to make the case that Jerry, tired of living, waited for her daughter to go to bed upstairs, and then wrote her goodbye notes and stuffed cotton up her nose, put a shower cap in her mouth, cut packing tape and taped her mouth shut, then lay down and willed herself to avoid the instinct to stop herself from suffocating.

Cron told me that’s the scenario – difficult as it might be to accept – that Donna and the rest of her family believe happened. He told me Donna didn’t kill her mother or assist her in suicide.

Jerry was suffering from macular degeneration that had nearly blinded her, and she was less and less able to participate in the outdoor activities she loved, he said. “The family,” he said, “is unified in the belief that this was a suicide.”

In police interviews after her death, Jerry’s children said they would have expected her to use a gun if she chose to kill herself. The Rays had a house full of children during the Christmas holidays, and the gun that was normally kept in the basement had been removed for safety, Cron said. But police said there were other guns in the house.

What about physical evidence tying Donna to the smothering? None was mentioned in the arrest warrant affidavit and Cron says, “They don’t have any.”

Motive? Jerry didn’t have a life insurance policy and she had divided up her land holdings decades earlier. Jerry wasn’t a burden to take care of, Cron said, and could feed and bathe herself.

“She basically was Donna’s best friend,” he said.

Although self-suffocation isn’t a common method of suicide, Cron says it’s not unheard of. “There is no set way that people go about it,” he told me. “Everything used in the suicide, all the items, were downstairs within Jerry’s grasp and control.”

As to the bruising on her shoulders, Cron can’t explain them, but argues that someone trying to suffocate her would have put pressure instead on her head and arms.

Crime-scene technicians took numerous photos of the dead woman’s body, and Cron advised me to look closely at the photos of her arms and hands. In rigor mortis, her arms are raised above her head and her fingers are curved, as if in a grip.

Cron believes Jerry Ray closed off her airways and then lay facedown in bed and gripped the edge of her mattress with the same dogged determination she’d used her whole life to hunt and run cattle. His argument, in a nutshell, is that the old cowgirl cowboyed up.

“This is a self-sufficient, 89-year-old ranch woman,” the lawyer says, “who used what was available to her.”

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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