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American Black Widows: 5 True Stories of Women Who Married and Murdered for Money

Kim Bryan has experience as a waitress in a diner. She's sharing her tips (that will hopefully result in big tips!).

The secondary definition for a black widow in the Urban Dictionary is “a disingenuous woman who exploits her position in a relationship to the detriment of her partner.”

Black widow women are as much predators as rapists and killers. They are chameleons of society with their beauty and charismatic personalities. Unlike other predators, however, these women make a promise to their victim; a vow to love them “until death we do part.”

It’s a promise they intend to keep.

1. Betty Lou Beets

Betty Lou Beets was quite a character. She enjoyed drinking and dancing to the point of excess, and there was nothing better for Betty Lou than to be doing these things in the company of a man. Unlike most people however, who tame their carousing with each additional candle on the birthday cake, Betty Lou continued to hold strong.

Sadly, Betty probably learned this behavior during childhood, if the stories about being raped and abused by her father are true.

Betty first married at age 15 to Robert Franklin Bransen in 1952. It was a rocky marriage from the beginning, filled with violence, but it survived for seventeen years and produced six children before it crumbled in divorce.

Betty hated life as a single Mom. She was drinking heavily and living on welfare. When Billy York Lane proposed, Betty readily accepted and they were wed in July 1970. Again, it was a marriage rocked with physical abuse. During one of these brawls, Lane broke Betty’s nose. In retaliation, she shot him. Betty was arrested for attempted murder, but after Lane admitted he had threatened to kill Betty in a fit of rage, the charges were dismissed. Soon thereafter, the couple divorced.

Betty Lou Beets

Betty Lou Beets

Apparently Betty wasn’t too afraid of Lane though, because she remarried him in 1972. The marriage lasted only one month before ending in divorce…again.

In 1973, Betty began dating Ronnie Threlkold. Taking things a little slower this time, Betty didn’t marry Threlkold until 1978. HIstory repeated itself and the relationship was filled with knocked-down drag-out fights; during one Betty tried to run-over Threlkold with her car.

By 1979, this fourth marriage was over. Betty, 42 at the time, took a job in a topless bar to make ends meet but ended up be arrested for public lewdness and spent thirty days in the clink.

Not much is known about Betty’s fifth marriage to Doyle Wayne Barker other than Betty’s claims that he was abusive and constantly catted around with other women. No one knows when Betty filed for divorce from Barker, they only knew that he “disappeared,” supposedly with another woman, in October 1981. By 1982, however, Betty, had married for the sixth time to Jimmy Don Beets.

Betty said a lot of horrible things about her ex-husbands, some of them true and some of them tall tales, but there wasn’t many derogatory things she could say about the retired fireman she had just married. Beets was a good man that many said treated Betty like a princess and often suffered through her verbally and physically abusive tirades.

On August 6, 1983, Betty contacted Cedar Creek Lake, Texas, police to report her husband missing. She claimed he had went fishing and never returned. His boat was found drifting, sans its Captain, at Redwood Beach Marina on August 12, 1983. Investigators were suspicious after a search of the area and the lake by divers failed to turn up any signs of Beets, but they had no evidence to refute Betty’s story either.

Two years would pass before an anonymous tip sent detectives bearing a search warrant to the home of Betty Lou Beets. During the search, the bodies of Doyle Barker and Jimmy Beets were found buried in the “wishing well” in the front of Betty’s home.

During interviews, police learned that Betty had told her son Robert “Bobbie” Franklin Branson II that she intended to kill his stepfather to collect his life insurance and retirement benefits. Additional questioning of Betty’s daughter, Shirley Branson Steger revealed the reason behind Barker’s death was that Betty did not wish to lose the trailer home they owned in Gun Barrel City, Texas, in a divorce action.

In October 1985, Betty Lou Beets went on trial for the murder of Jimmy Beets. It didn’t take the jury long to find her guilty and she was subsequently sentenced to death.

In 1990, Betty thought she’d received a reprieve when an appeals Court overturned her death sentence. However, upon a rehearing of the matter, the Court upheld her conviction and the death sentence was reinstated.

On February 24, 2000, Betty Beets declined the opportunity for any last words before being executed by lethal injection. She was pronounced dead at 6:18 p.m. Central Time at the Huntsville, Texas prison. She was survived by five children, nine grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

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2. Sharon Lynn Douglas Fuller Nelson Harrelson of Colorado

Sharon grew up in a strict Seventh Day Adventist home and she hated every single minute of it. The first serious vow Sharon probably ever made - and kept, in life was to escape her religious zealot parents.

In the 1960s, one of the quickest and easiest ways for a young woman to escape a childhood home was to marry; and that’s exactly what Sharon did. She married Mike Fuller, a young minister with the Seventh Day Adventist church. Without realizing what she had done, Sharon, in a sense, jumped from the frying pan into the fire, and found life as a minister’s wife just as restrictive as her childhood.

Sharon Fuller Nelson

Sharon Fuller Nelson

Before long Sharon was involved in intense affairs, once with a member of her husband’s congregation in North Carolina which resulted in a move of the Fuller family, now with two children in tow, halfway across the country to Colorado. The move, however, would do little to curb Sharon’s desires of the flesh.

Sharon eventually divorced Mike, but she straight into the arms of Dr. Perry Nelson, an optometrist in Rocky Ford, Colorado. Before long, this second marriage would produce two more children, but the mother of now four still couldn’t control her “urges” and the affairs began again; one right after another. One of them was with a man named Gary Starr Adams.

Gary looked like he’d come straight out of the less civilized communities of the great Rocky Mountains; to say he was a rough looking character would be an understatement. Yet he was one of the few men Sharon ever really loved and who loved her unconditionally.

Gary, however, couldn’t provide Sharon with the lifestyle she wanted. He didn’t have clout or money, so Gary had to settle for being just a lover, secreted away until she crooked her little finger.

Perry was fed up with Sharon’s cheating, but she wasn’t going to go away quietly. When the rumblings of divorce were born, Sharon convinced her lover to kill her husband. By doing so, she’d keep the kids and the money and they could be together.

Although the rumor mill said otherwise, police determined Dr. Nelson had died an accidental, albeit mysterious, death. Just as planned, Sharon got to keep the kids and the money. Gary, however, got nothing except to be with Sharon whenever she called.

In short time, Sharon met and married fireman Glen Harrelson. In addition to the financial security he offered Sharon, he also carried a hefty life insurance policy and when this marriage began to sour just as the others had, Sharon called for her mountain-man to once again “rescue” her.

This time though, things didn’t go according to plan and what was supposed to look like an accidental death was rightfully declared a homicide.

When push came to shove, Sharon knew she was in trouble. Sitting in a Denver Pizza Hut, Sharon sold Gary out to save herself but the homicide detectives weren’t idiots. After a few months of investigating, Sharon and Gary were both arrested and charged with murder.

Since she was born in 1945 and won’t be eligible for parole until 2029, it’s a pretty safe bet Sharon Fuller Nelson is never getting out of prison. As of this writing, she is incarcerated at the La Vista Correctional Facility in Pueblo, Colorado.

Gary Adams is presently housed at Colorado’s Limon Correctional Facility. Being as he won’t be eligible for parole until he’s 87, it’s doubtful he’ll ever see freedom again either.

3. Judias “Judy” Buenoano

In 1943, Judy Welty was born to farm laboring parents in Quanah, Texas. When her mother died just four short years later, Judy and her younger brother were sent to live with their grandparents. But when their father remarried a couple of years later, he reclaimed the children and moved them to Roswell, New Mexico.

Judy hated life with her father, stepmother, brother, and two stepbrothers. She claimed she was forced to work long hours and was often physically abused. By the age of 14, she’d had enough and viciously attacked the members of her family. The two months she spent in the jail would be Judy’s first steps toward Florida’s death row.

In 1960, Judy was going by the alias Anna Schultz. In 1961, she gave birth to an illegitimate son she named Michael Schultz.

Judy Buenoano

Judy Buenoano

By 1962, Judy had met and married Air Force officer by the name of James Goodyear. In 1966, she delivered their first child together: James Goodyear, Jr. The following year, daughter Kimberly Goodyear joined the family. James had also officially adopted Michael.

Following a tour of duty in Vietnam, James returned to the couple’s Pensacola, Florida, home. Three months later, he was hospitalized with symptoms that mystified Naval hospital doctors. James died on September 15, 1971, and Judy immediately cashed in on his three life insurance policies. Before the year was up, the Goodyear home was destroyed by fire and Judy collected another $90,000 in insurance proceeds.

It didn’t take long for Judy to hook-up again. By early 1972, she was with Bobby Joe Morris. When he moved to Trinidad, Colorado, in 1977, Judy uprooted her family and followed. Before she left Florida, however, the home she was soon to leave behind burned down and Judy collected the insurance.

In January 1978, Bobby Joe became very ill and doctors were unable to diagnosis the problem. After a short hospital stay, he was released but two days later he collapsed again. As he lay on his death bed, Bobby Joe confessed to his family that he and Judy had killed a man in Florida. Unfortunately, police were never able to gather any proof of this claim. Nor, despite his family’s adamant statements, could detectives prove that Judy was behind Bobby Joe’s mysterious ailments.

Following Bobby Joe’s death, Judy officially changed her name to Judias Buenoano, as well as that of her children, which roughly translates in Spanish to “good year.” With her brood in tow, Judy headed back to Pensacola.

Michael Buenoano had always been a difficult child. By today’s standards, he would most likely be diagnosed with ADHD because of his hyperactivity and learning difficulties. Following his high school graduation, he had joined the United States Army. In 1979, however, while stationed in Georgia, he began having difficulties using his arms and legs. He was diagnosed with arsenic poisoning and released into the car of his mother.

Although Michael could only walk with the aid of heavy metal leg braces, his mother believed it would be a good idea to take him on a canoeing trip. On May 13, 1980, Judy and Michael, along with James Jr., set off in the East River. Shortly into their trip, the canoe capsized. Judy and James Jr. were able to swim to the bank, but Michael drowned.

Judy promptly cashed in on Michael’s military life insurance. But when rumors began circulating that there were two more insurance policies Judy had tried to collect and handwriting experts were willing to say Michael’s signature had forged on the applications, Judy opted to forego the payouts.

Judy opened a beauty salon in Gulf Breeze, Florida, and began dating Pensacola businessman John Gentry II. She told her new beau many, many lies about her past; one of them being she was nurse. By 1982, she had convinced John they had been together long enough that they should take out life insurance policies, naming one another as beneficiaries. She then begin giving John capsules she claimed were vitamin supplements, but they only made John feel nauseous and dizzy. Judy doubled the dose, claiming he was lacking in needs more than she had anticipated.

On June 25, 1983, Judy announced to John she was pregnant and insisted that John go get champagne to celebrate. When John started his car, it exploded. Despite the intense fire and flying shrapnel, John was still alive and rushed to the hospital where he underwent immediate surgery. Four days later, John was recovered enough he could talk with police and his answers to their questions would lead them to do a thorough investigation into his girlfriend’s background.

Detectives soon discovered that Judy was not a nurse, she was not pregnant, and had been telling friends that John had a terminal illness. A search of her home resulted in the seizure of the “vitamins,” as well as wire and tape like those used in what now police knew was a bomb that caused the car explosion.

Judy was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of John. But she quickly bailed out. But on January 11, 1984, investigators had gathered enough evidence to arrest her with murder for Michael’s death. In February 1984, the bodies of Bobby Joe and James Goodyear, Sr. were exhumed and the presence of arsenic was found in their bodies.

Surprisingly, Judy was acquitted of attempted murder. On the charge of murdering Michael, Judy was sentenced to 25 years to life. For the murder of her first husband, she was sentenced to death. Colorado declined to prosecute her for the murder of Bobby Joe since she was to be executed in Florida (and it was also being saved as a “plan B” should appeals allow her to be released, although this remained “officially” unsaid by prosecutors).

The woman who was estimated to have collected approximately $240,000 from the deaths of her husband, boyfriend, and son, became the first woman to be executed in Florida since 1848 when she was pronounced dead following electrocution at 7:13 a.m. on March 30, 1998 – just 5 days before her 55th birthday.

Judy’s final words were, “I would like to clear the record for my grandson, I would like for him to know his grandmother was not a murder.”

4. Stacey R. Wallace Castor

When the woman who would become Stacey Castor met Michael Wallace at the age of 17, she fell head over heels in love. After little more than year of Courtship, the couple wed. In 1988, their first child, a daughter they named Ashley Castor, was born, followed by a sister, Bree Castor, in 1991.

The couple struggled financially despite being a two household income; Stacey worked at an ambulance dispatch company while Michael worked as a mechanic. Coupled with the difficulties that of raising two young daughters, the relationship began to sour. Instead of calling it quits, they each began having their own extramarital affairs.

Stacey Wallace Castor

Stacey Wallace Castor

In late 1999, Michael became very ill. Friends and family tried to convince him to seek medical attention but he kept putting it off, believing whatever was ailing him would soon pass. When Michael died in the early part of 2000, the autopsy findings stated that David had died from a heart attack.

His oldest daughter Ashley had been home alone with her father the day he died and in the years that followed, the young girl continued to blame herself for her father’s death because, despite noticing his dire illness that day, she didn’t do anything. To Ashley, it didn’t matter that she was only 11-years-old at the time.

In 2003, Stacey remarried. Just as the marriage to Michael was troubled, so too was the one between Stacey and David Wayne Cator, Sr. The couple constantly bickered, many of the arguments centered around Stacey’s daughter Ashley, who, now a teenager, had began acting out as a result of her secreted feelings of guilt.

Just as before when the wedding bliss disappeared, Stacey turned to extramarital affairs.

On the afternoon of August 22, 2005, Stacey called 911 and told them, following an argument the day before, David had locked himself in their bedroom and had since stopped responding to her phone calls to his cell and had failed to show up for work. She asked that they do a welfare check at the home.

The responding officer was unable to get a response from David, so he broke down the bedroom door. There he found David lying dead. Crime scene technicians collected from the bedroom a bottle of Antifreeze and a half-full glass of bright green liquid.

An autopsy revealed that David had died of antifreeze poisoning. Initially, detectives concluded that, although it was an odd, extremely slow and painful method of suicide, it was indeed suicide.

However, when lab results showed that only Stacey’s fingerprints were the glass, detectives began to suspect it may have been a homicide. And the grieving widow was their prime suspect.

A turkey baster, which was collected during the crime scene processing, had at first seemed to be nothing of value. Now investigators theorized that Stacey had actually force-fed David antifreeze after residue was found in the baster.

it was only circumstantial evidence, however, and prosecutors encouraged police to continue the investigation rather than jumping to an arrest. Detectives could only watch as Stacey buried her second husband in the plot originally intended for her, adjoining her first husband.

In the meantime, a Court order was obtained to exhume the body of Michael Wallace. A secondary autopsy showed that he too had died from antifreeze poisoning rather than the heart attack initially stated.

Upon arriving home, Stacey presented her daughter with a alcoholic beverage. Ashley later said that although the drink was “nasty tasting,” she had drank it because her mother had said it would help calm her. Seventeen hours later, Bree discovered her sister comatose in bed. Despite her mother’s lack of concern, she eventually convinced Stacey to call for help.

Bree testified that, while awaiting the arrival of an ambulance, she had left the room momentarily. When she returned, she discovered a suicide note next to her sister’s bed that she was certain wasn’t there before. The suicide note said that Ashley was sorry for murdering her father and stepfather. Stacey snatched the note from Bree and later turned it over to paramedics.

Thanks to the fast actions of paramedics and physicians, Ashley survived the ordeal. When she came to, she told police, in response to their questions, that the last thing she remembered was drinking the beverage provided by her mother and that she did not “write” the computer-generated suicide note.

It only took the most basic of computer forensic work to prove the note was written at a time when Ashley was somewhere else – her “alibi” being the officers who had questioned her at school. Police now had the evidence to move forward with an arrest. On September 17, 2007, detectives snapped the cuffs on Stacey, charging her with the murder of David and the attempted murder of her daughter Ashley.

On February 5, 2009, Stacey Castor was found guilty on both counts. She was sentenced to 25 years to life for the murder of David, an additional 25 years for the attempted murder of Ashley, plus 1.33 years for the forging David’s will that cheated his son from his first marriage of his inheritance. She will be eligible for parole in June 2055, when she is 87 years old.

By September 2007, Stacey, well aware that her first husband’s body had been exhumed, was starting to feel the tightening of the noose and she was in an all out panic. She began devising a plan that would hopefully cast their suspicions in another direction.

Daughter Ashley had graduated high school and was anxious about her first day of college. Finally seeing an opportunity to talk with Ashley outside her mother’s presence, investigators appeared at the school and questioned her about her father’s and stepfather’s deaths. After they left, a very upset Ashley called her mother who instructed her to come home so they could relax and unwind from all of the emotional and mental stress.

5. Mary Lee Orsini

Born in Arkansas in 1947, Mary Myrtle Hatcher was the daughter of lower middle class parents but she dreamed, and would even invent tales of, being a wealthy socialite.

Before she married her first husband, Douglas Sudbury, a young enlisted man stated at the Little Rock Air Force Base, in December 1963, the sixteen-year-old had renamed herself Mary Lee and was going, most often, by simply Lee.

The marriage was short but not sweet, and the couple was divorced by early 1966. But by July 1966, they had remarried; only to divorce in 1967, the same year Lee gave birth to their daughter. Lee supported herself and her daughter by working as a sales representative at the Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock.

In 1971, Lee married husband number two: David Raymond May. That marriage was only to last six months, however.

Lee finally found the (wealthy) man of her dreams in 1976. Ron Orsini was a partner in a successful central heating and air business. He and Lee wed in September 1976 and Lee and her daughter promptly moved into his upper middle class Indian Hills Subdivision home in North Little Rock.

Mary Lee Orsini

Mary Lee Orsini

The marriage, almost from the beginning, was riddled with strife. Ron had always been conservative with his money, while Lee was a woman who couldn’t hold on to a dime to save her life. Lee managed to curtail her spending enough to keep Ron relatively satisfied, but it was getting harder by the day.

On March 13, 1981, Lee contacted the police department and told them she had discovered her husband murdered in their bed. Police were suspicious of the grieving widow right out of the starting gate, but could never garner enough evidence to get an indictment.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying on their part however, and Lee knew it. She quickly retained local attorney William “Bill” McArthur to keep police at bay. The relationship would turn into much more than that of attorney/client and Lee spent many hours in McArthur’s office; once even hosting a champagne party for his birthday.

When McArthur’s wife, Alice McArthur, suffered minor injuries from a car bomb that failed to fully detonate on May 21, 1982, the rumor mill quickly pointed the finger at the widowed “client” of Alice’s husband but police made an “official” statement that it was most likely result of the recent growth in organized crime in the area. It was an explanation that, on the surface, at least sufficed since McArthur was the owner of an “urban cowboy disco” nightclub. Behind the scenes, however, they suspected it may have been the work of Lee Orsini trying to eliminate the woman she saw as standing in her way of marrying McArthur.

Lee, by this time, had worked her way into the heart (and probably bed) of Little Rock’s Sheriff Tommy Robinson who staunchly defended the little gal who had suffered so much hardship only to become fodder for gossip mongers. No one could understand how this lawman fell into the grasp of a woman who told insane tales of shadowy figures breaking into her home, back road chases by mystery men, and well-designed conspiracies to frame her by local law enforcement – none of which could ever be substantiated.

Then Lee would take a step that even Sheriff Tommy, no matter how hard he tried, couldn’t save her from. On Friday, July 2, 1982, Lee made an appointment with her attorney. After he realized Lee had no real legal business to discuss, he departed his office and went home; there he discovered his wife dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Her killer had obviously used the ruse of a flower delivery to make his way into the home and commit the murder.

After a couple of local thugs, Eugene “Yankee” Hall and Larry Darnell McClendon, confessed to faking a floral delivery in a murder-for-hire scheme, detectives came to believe it was a hired hit orchestrated by McArthur andMary Lee Orsini. However, despite two attempts to indict the attorney on murder charges, each grand jury returned a “No True Bill.”

Orsini, on the other hand, was indicted for conspiracy to commit the murder of Alice McArthur and was found guilty after a trial in October 1982, and sentenced to life in prison. In 1983, she was found guilty of Ron Orsini’s murder and again sentenced to life prison, but that conviction was later overturned on appeal.

On August 11, 2003, Mary Lee Orsini died of a heart attack at a Newport, Arkansas, hospital near the McPherson prison where she was serving her sentence. Bill McArthur died of natural causes at the age of 71 on October 4, 2009.

The stories about American (worldwide, truth be told) black widows are never ending. For example, to name only a (very) few, Audrey Marie Hilley, Pat Allanson, Jill Coit, and Sharon Kinne.

And then to think the untold number of women who have successfully killed their spouse and/or lovers and gotten away with it. It’s absolutely frightening how often this probably happens.

Here’s a piece of advice, however: don’t think too hard about it or you’ll never look at a grieving woman the same again.

Trust me, I’m already there.

Yankee Hall continues to serve his life sentence at the Cummins prison in Grady, Arkansas.

© 2016 Kim Bryan

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