Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lonely Hearts Killers

The Arrest

After they were arrested on February 28, 1949, Beck and Fernandez were brought to the Kent County D.A.'s office where they were questioned by the police and the District Attorney. Perhaps because they were already resigned to their fate, neither asked for an attorney nor did they attempt to avoid questioning. "I'm no average killer," Fernandez said to investigators. Together they told a salacious story of sex, deception and murder to the police. They signed a 73-page confession in the presence of Kent County D.A. Roger O. McMahon who assured them they would never be turned over to the New York police. Fernandez and Beck were aware there was no death penalty in Michigan and were content to remain in Kent County rather than be extradited back to New York to face charges for the Fay killing.

"The electric chair scares me!" Martha said. With the promise that if they told the truth, Fernandez could be out of prison in six years with time off for good behavior, they cooperated fully with investigators.

Martha Beck
Martha Beck

The next day, the Lonely Hearts murder case was in the nation's headlines. It was page one in every big city newspaper. The N.Y. Times wrote, "3 'Lonely Hearts' Murders Trap Pair; Body Dug Up Here." Wherever Beck and Fernandez went while in custody, the photographers followed, hoping to catch a photo of America's most dysfunctional couple. And just as soon, the process of dehumanizing Martha Beck began.

The papers called her "fat," "simpering," "Big Martha," "a 200 lb. figure of wrath," "the giggling divorcee," "unattractive," "a weird woman," and other humiliating terms. Each newspaper story published during that period included her weight, which was falsely reported in nearly every instance. (Her actual weight at the time of her arrest was 233 pounds.) Unfortunately, the New York press has a long and shameful history of such reporting, particularly in murder cases where the accused is a female. From the time of Ruth Snyder in 1927, a woman convicted of murdering her husband, right up until the modern era, the city's tabloids often lose every sense of objectivity when it comes to reporting on criminal trials in which the defendant is a woman. Snyder, especially, was vilified by the press in a way that is seldom seen for any criminal defendant, male or female. Her case became the journalism benchmark on how a woman can be totally demonized by newspaper reporting.

Raymond Fernandez in jail
Raymond Fernandez in jail

Headlines such as "Reveal Lonely Hearts Blood Money Dealings," "Hearts Killer Explodes at Attorney," and "Fernandez Tells Strange Love Story" built an image in the public's eye that the two defendants were already guilty and a trial was just a necessary formality. In a startling display of the media's bias in this case, even just a cursory read of the press coverage before and during the murder trial reveals an expectation, even a demand, that Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez receive the death penalty. The pressure for them to die was building.

During the week of March 8, 1949, after several phone calls from New York Governor Thomas Dewey to the state of Michigan, a deal was cut with Kent County prosecutors. They would waive criminal charges for the Downing murders and permit New York to extradite the defendants to face charges in the Janet Fay murder.

The reason was simple: Michigan had no electric chair.

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