ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In early January, Geraldine Ray was found dead in her bedroom in the basement of her daughter’s house in Roy, a tiny ranching town on New Mexico’s northeast plains. The 89-year-old was lying facedown on her bed with cotton balls up her nose and plastic stuffed in her mouth, which was covered with packing tape.
The Office of the Medical Investigator called the death a homicide, and despite the extended family’s belief that “Mama Jerry” had killed herself, her daughter, Donna, was arrested in her murder.
Donna Ray was scheduled to appear before a judge Monday for a preliminary hearing to determine whether there was enough evidence to go forward.
Instead, on Friday the charge was dismissed.
In a joint statement, District Attorney Timothy Rose of Tucumcari and defense attorney Dan Cron said the state crime lab found none of Donna Ray’s DNA or fingerprints on anything taken into evidence by the police. Additionally, a handwriting analysis concluded that suicide notes found in the home days after the police searched it were written by Geraldine.
One note said Jerry didn’t want to be a burden to anyone. Another, dated the evening before she was found, directed one of her sons to have her body cremated and have a private funeral.
Cron told me this week that the handwriting analysis, done for him by a retired New Mexico State Police handwriting expert, prompted the OMI to change its cause of death from homicide to “undetermined.”
All of that added up to the dismissal.
“Based on all of that,” Rose told me, “we felt that we didn’t have enough evidence to proceed with the case. I don’t think it’s fair to continue with the case.”
Donna Ray can now go on with her life out from under the cloud of a murder charge. But that doesn’t change the other sad facts for the entire Ray family – that their beloved matriarch felt she was burden, that she kept that from them, that she took her own life and that she’s gone.
Jerry Ray was a pistol by all accounts. She sang and played fiddle in a band in the 1940s and spent her entire life running cattle in some of the state’s most beautiful backcountry. She liked to hunt, and she was a heck of a shot.
On the day Jerry was found dead, Donna Ray described her to police. “She is a tough old ranchwoman,” she said.
But she was 89 and going blind. Macular degeneration had robbed her of sight in one eye, and the other was failing. She no longer drove, and she was no longer allowed out for walks in the winter for fear she would fall. Like it does for many old people, her world had shrunk.
In light of the charge being dropped, a member of the Ray clan emailed me this week with this suggestion: “We as a family would like to request that you explore the prevalence of suicides in the elderly population, as well as ways to maintain an enriched environment for our elderly loved ones who were once extremely independent.”
The elderly commit suicide at greater rates than the population as a whole. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated the rate of suicide for all Americans as 12.3 deaths per 100,000. The rate among those 65 to 84 was 15.1. The rate among those 85 years and older was 16.9, the second-highest of all age groups. (The highest rate, 18.6, was among people 45 to 64 years old.)
According to the Institute on Aging in San Francisco, older women are more likely than older men to report that they are depressed and the prevalence of depression increases with age; those in their 80s report more depression than those in their 60s.
Like Jerry, they also tend to lose some of their physical abilities, which can cause them to need more help from family members and isolate them more from engaging activities.
Gerontologist Patrick Arbore, director of the aging institute’s Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention, said in an interview about the elderly and suicide recently, “Feeling like you are a burden and feeling like you don’t belong is a lethal combination.”
Cron, Donna Ray’s lawyer, said he believes Jerry wrote her notes and gathered the things she needed to close off her airways and then lay facedown in bed and gripped the edge of her mattress until she took her last breath.
“She’d had enough,” he said.