Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Woodwards: Tragedy in High Society

Shooting of the Century

At a swank party for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Billy and Ann Woodward were noticeably agitated, guests would recall later, talking incessantly about the recent spate of burglaries in their upscale Oyster Bay, Long Island neighborhood.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor

Someone had been brazenly breaking into homes on the northeastern edge of Long Island in the middle of the night while residents slept. The gutsy burglar hadn't hurt anyone, but Ann and Billy told friends they weren't taking any chances.

There were signs their home was targeted, they claimed. Unidentified footprints were found on the grounds of the mansion and more than once, Ann's lapdog had awakened her in the night with his barking. Food had gone missing and ammunition had been stolen, the pair told friends.

Other North Shore residents had also seen signs of the burglar and the talk at the October 29, 1955 party didn't help allay any fears the Woodwards had as they returned to their 43-acre estate. The couple was sleeping in separate bedrooms in one wing of the house with their two children in another pair of rooms. The servants were living in the other wing of the estate.

No one at the party remembers Ann or Billy squabbling that night, although many guests do recall the event had been particularly boozy.

By the time the couple returned home, it was 1 a.m. and 11-year-old Woody and seven-year-old Jimmy were fast asleep in their beds. Ann and Billy bade each other good night and retired to their own rooms. Behind locked doors, Billy slept with a revolver nearby while Ann was armed with a double-barreled shotgun.

It was two hours later that Ann awoke to find her dog, Sloppy, barking at her open door. Ann told authorities she saw a "shadowy figure" near the door to Billy's room, backlit against the pale moonlight streaming in from a hallway window. She reached for the 12-gauge shotgun and pulled the trigger.

Birdshot from the gun exploded from the muzzle of one barrel, a majority striking the wall next to the door. She pulled the trigger again and the second barrel fired, a scattering of pellets hitting the figure in the doorway.

Police carry body from the home
Police carry body from the
home

"Almost immediately," Ann testified later, "I realized it was my husband. I ran to help him and fell on the floor beside him." Ann pulled herself away long enough to call for help. She summoned an ambulance, police and, in a move that some would use to damn her, an attorney.

Billy died on the floor of his mansion; one of the shotgun pellets had lodged in his brain. When police arrived at the scene, they found a distraught Ann on the floor near her husband.

"I did it," she told them. "I thought it was the man who has been around here."

Ann then collapsed into a lump on the floor and was incoherent until a doctor arrived and sedated her. Her attorney, Sol Rosenblatt, was well-connected in Nassau County and immediately began influencing the investigation, which later would be used by Ann's opponents as evidence the whole thing had been a set-up.

Because of the wealth of the victim and the circumstances of his shooting, the normal flatfoots who would have investigated a homicide were pushed aside in favor of the Nassau County prosecutor and Oyster Bay Chief of Police. This would also give fuel for speculation.

Rosenblatt managed to convince the prosecutor to allow Ann to be taken to a hospital in Manhattan, and as a result homicide detectives would not be able to question her until almost 48 hours after the slaying.

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