Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Fathers Who Kill

Slaughter

Map: Russellville, Arkansas
Map: Russellville, Arkansas

No one guessed that when Ronald Gene Simmons, 47, gunned down several people on the morning of December 28, 1987 in Russellville, Arkansas, he was actually winding down. What appeared to be a contained incident of workplace violence was far worse. Indeed, it set a record.

His story is told in Zero at the Bone, by Bryce Marshall and Paul Williams, as well as in Charles Patrick Ewing's Fatal Families, and in newspaper articles and several Internet sites devoted to crime.

With a .22-caliber pistol, he shot Kathy Kendrick, a receptionist at a law office, a half dozen times in the head, and then moved on down the street to the Taylor Oil Company. He shot two men there and then went into a convenience store, where he once was employed. He had quit a week before, and here he pulled out his gun and shot two more men. He ended his 45-minute spree in the Woodline Motor Freight Company, where he wounded a woman and took another hostage, telling her he was done with his mission. He assured her that since she had never done anything wrong by him, he was not going to hurt her. He urged her to call police.

Ronald Gene Simmons
Ronald Gene Simmons

Police arrived within moments and requested that Simmons give up peacefully. He complied and handed over his gun. From his inexplicable rampage two people died and four were wounded.

As the police booked him and questioned him, he said little, but whenever they mentioned his family, he showed a visible reaction.

Trying to piece together what had occurred, the officers soon learned that Simmons had become infatuated with the pretty receptionist, Kathy Kendrick, 25, and she had resisted him and even complained to his boss. It seemed a case of disgruntled frustration gone too far. Simmons was a Vietnam veteran and had complained about the low wages at his job. It was just past Christmas, a time of stress for many people, especially the unemployed. Perhaps things had just reached a breaking point for him.

Investigators learned where Simmons lived and that he apparently had no phone, so they went out to notify his family, some 15 miles outside town in a remote area. What they found at the end of a rutted, red-clay drive were two mobile homes put together and barricaded like a fortress with cinder blocks and barbed wire. Despite "No Trespassing" signs, they knocked at the door, but no one answered. The place seemed weirdly silent. The two officers began to wonder if Simmons' killing spree had begun here, so they found a window they could enter and went inside.

Fatal Families
Fatal Families

The place was decorated for Christmas, but the scene they found was anything but merry. Simmons' son, daughter and their respective spouses had been shot and lay dead. A female child, about age 6, appeared to have been smothered to death. Police videotaped the scene.

But where was Simmons' wife? And his other children? The officers returned to town to get more resources. Clearly, they would have to search the 13-acre property, which Simmons called Mockingbird Hill.  

The next day, investigators looked around and came across disturbed earth covered with barbed wire and a piece of sheet metal. After digging, they unearthed a body. Then another. They kept digging until they found the remains of seven people just barely covered by dirt. Here was Becky, Simmons wife; here were two of Simmons' sons and three daughters; here was his three-year-old granddaughter.

Another team had looked around and found two more corpses locked into the trunks of junked cars: Simmons' grandsons, still just infants, wrapped in bags as if they were just garbage. All of the adults had been shot, while the children were asphyxiated in some manner. The coroner determined that they had all been killed a few days earlier, just before Christmas. That meant that Simmons had been out here with the bodies, planning his rampage in town. He had gained the notoriety in that moment of having committed the largest family massacre in American history. Everyone who had lived under Simmons' roof, as well as grown children who had moved away but returned for the holidays were now dead.

Simmons told his attorneys everything, laying the blame directly on his daughter, Sheila, although no one yet understood why. He was charged with 16 counts of first-degree murder and four counts of attempted murder. He was taken for a psychiatric examination, while investigators set out to learn more about his background.

It was not long before they realized that Simmons, a man obsessed with order and keeping schedules, had kept his family captive in that run-down joint, and had been abusing his wife and daughters. He kept tight control over them, allowing the children to go to school, but nothing more. No mail came to the house, no calls, no friends. They had chores to do, but never went on any fun family outings. They lived amid a heap of junked cars and Simmons' unfinished projects.

The reason for that apparently lay in Simmons' flight from the law in New Mexico, where he was wanted on charges of incest (a subject he had thoroughly researched before engaging in it). He had impregnated his 15-year-old daughter, Sheila, and she became the object of his adoration, but before he was arrested, he fled with his family and set up a new home in Arkansas. He apparently believed he could keep his family prisoners in the woods. But his wife, Becky, had rocked the boat by making plans to leave. She could no longer deal with this narcissistic man. There was evidence that she suspected that he was mentally deranged. Given his controlling and paranoid nature, that may well have been what caused him to act out in violence.

Or perhaps it was all due to Sheila's marriage. Marshall and Williams present the tale as if Simmons had been planning just such an event ever since his daughter had "ruined" the family by leaving him. One of the "granddaughters" he had killed was his own daughter, born of that incestuous union. These authors also suggest that Simmons killed everyone in order to be executed himself so that he and his beloved daughter, whom he had violated, could be together in death.

Despite having hallucinations while incarcerated, Simmons was declared competent to stand trial and was quickly convicted of the two murders in town. He resisted any possibility of an insanity defense, although his attorneys believed they had very good grounds for it. He did not wish to be locked up. He wanted to be executed, and hoped for that to occur before going to trial for killing his family. However, he was not shown that mercy. Instead, he was held in prison until he could be tried for the horrendous familicide, and he was sentenced once again to death. He told the jury they had done the right thing and refused to appeal his sentence, so on June 25, 1990, he was given a lethal injection and buried in a pauper's grave.

While some who have studied the case say that Simmons was clearly insane and did not appreciate what he was doing when he committed so many murders, another man with a similar temperament was most definitely aware of what he was doing.

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