History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part VI: Juana Barraza

In parts IV and V we covered two of history’s least grandmotherly grannies Nannie Doss and Leonarda Cianciulli. As ruthless as these women were they would have been no match for today’s killer, whose crimes earned her the nickname La Mataviejitas, The Old Lady Killer.

Juana Barraza was born in Hidalgo, Mexico in 1957. Like almost all of the women in this series she began her life a victim of those around her. Her parents were Trinidad Barraza, a policeman, and Justa Samperio, a prostitute. Justa left her partner shortly after giving birth to Juana, and the two shared a cold and unloving relationship as she grew.

When she was just 12 years old, Juana’s mother sold her to a man, Jose Lugo, allegedly  for the paltry sum of three beers. For four years she lived with his abuse and was impregnated by him on two occasions, however both ended in miscarriages. After Justa died of cirrhosis, Juana fled to Mexico City.

It was here that Juana, now free of her mother and her abuser, began to take hold of her own life. She held a number of jobs throughout the 80’s and set about making a lifelong dream of hers into a reality. Juana was obsessed with the sport of lucha libre, Mexican masked wrestling, and idolized the fighters, called luchadors.

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Juana Barraza as La Dama de Silencio. source

She became a regular at local matches, often sitting in the front row of the arenas. She eventually made her way into the wrestling world, organizing events and even getting in the ring herself. Juana cut an imposing figure and could bench up to 200 lbs at the height of her wrestling career. She toured central Mexico as a luchador who went by La Dama de Silencio, The Lady of Silence. The name was reflective of Juana’s shy, reserved nature outside of the ring.

By the 90’s Juana had fallen on hard times. She had four children from a number of failed relationships, and supporting them all as a single mother was costly. In 1995, after the birth of her fourth child, she took to stealing from shops and burglarizing homes to help make ends meet.

She and a friend, Araceli Tapia Martinez, combined efforts in a scheme to rob the elderly. The pair would gain entry into people’s homes dressed in all white, claiming to be nurses or social workers. Once inside they would make their way through the house and relieve the occupant of their valuables.

This would become Juana’s modus operandi, except that she rarely stopped at just robbing her victims during these unprompted house calls. In the early 2000’s there was a sharp uptick in murders involving elderly women in Mexico City. When the press picked up the story rumors spread of a new serial killer dubbed El Mataviejitas. Note the use of the masculine “el,” as no one believed these brutal crimes could possibly be the work of a woman.

Juana’s first victim was María de la Luz González, who apparently made some derogatory remarks toward the woman intruding in her apartment. Juana didn’t take kindly to whatever was said and answered by beating González before strangling her to death with her bare hands.

Bodies began to pile up and in 2003 police confirmed the long standing rumor that a serial killer was likely responsible. Despite eyewitness accounts of a woman leaving the scene of these crimes, police held stubbornly to the original assertion that a man was behind the killings. Many of the city’s transgender and transvestite population were rounded up and questioned but none of their prints matched the ones lifted from the crime scenes.

By 2006, the El Mataviejitas murders had subsided leading investigators to suspect the serial killer had committed suicide. Fingerprints of all recent arrivals to the city’s morgues were taken and checked against the crime scene prints but once again no matches were found.

The ultimate break in the case occurred January 25, 2006, when a tenant spotted Juana leaving the scene of the murder of landlady Ana Maria de los Reyes Alfaro. Officers patrolling the area responded to the call and arrested Juana.

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Bust and composite sketches of El Mataviejitas. source

Once in custody, investigators posed Juana next to composite sketches and a bust made of her based on eyewitness testimony. Authorities were eager to give the appearance they had been on her trail for some time when almost every step of the case seemed to indicate the opposite. Juana had even showed her face inside of a police station and in a TV interview about wrestling just weeks prior to her arrest.

A search of her home revealed a trophy room full of newspaper clippings of her murders and a number of objects taken from her victim’s homes. In addition to the mementos police found altars to Jesús Malverde and Santa Muerte, folk saints revered by individuals in the Mexican crime world.

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Juana appearing for trial. source

Juana was tried in spring 2008, the prosecution sought charges in connection with 40 murders. She confessed only to Alfaro, her most recent victim. By the end of her trial on 31 March, she was found guilty of 16 counts of murder and aggravated burglary and sentenced to 759 years in prison. Maximum sentence under Mexican law is 60 years, so Juana will be up for parole in 2058 should she live to see 100.

Sources:

Criminal Minds Wiki – “Juana Barraza” 

Murderpedia – “Juana Barraza”, “The Lady Killer”

J.H. Moncrieff – “The Startling True Story of Mexico’s “Old Lady Killer””

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History’s Most Terrifying Female Serial Killers, Part II: Belle Gunness

Most of us can recall knowing or encountering at least one truly toxic person at some point in our lives. Someone who draws people close then proceeds to eat away at them until there’s nothing left. Almost as if it’s just part of their nature to harm those around them, and anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves within this toxic sphere are inevitably and irrevocably effected.

This week’s entry: Belle Gunness

Born Brynhild Paulsdatter Strseth on November 22, 1859 in Selbu, Norway to a poor family, Belle Gunness grew into a formidable woman at six feet tall, weighing over 200 pounds. By age 21 she had worked for years as a servant on a wealthy farm in order to afford passage to America in 1881. Upon her arrival in the states she took the name Belle and settled in Chicago.

Before long she married fellow Norwegian immigrant Mads Sorenson in 1884. The two opened up a confectionary store that never quite took off, and burned down under mysterious circumstances within its first year of operation. With the considerable insurance money they collected on their failed business, the couple bought a home where they lived for the next fifteen years.

Belle and Mads had four children, yet only two, Myrtle and Lucy, would survive infancy. The other two reportedly died of infant colitis which was common at the time. There is however some controversy over this detail, as the effects of poisoning would have been strikingly similar to colitis, and the life insurance money collected from these children would become a pattern in Belle’s modus operandi.

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Belle with children. Source

On July 30, 1900 Mads Sorenson died of what appeared to be heart failure. The family doctor, who had been treating him for an enlarged heart, attributed his death to complications related to his condition. However, a second doctor believed the cause of death to be strychnine poisoning. Although no autopsy was ever performed, this came at an extremely convenient time, as Mads was in the process of changing life insurance policies and had the decency to kick off on the only day the two policies overlapped. This resulted in a double payday for Belle, who was reportedly so distraught over her husband’s demise she evaded any suspicion.

Belle used the $85,000 payout, the modern equivalent of $240,000, to buy a 42-acre farm in LaPorte, Indiana. There she met a local butcher, the recently widowed Peter Gunness, and they were married shortly after in April, 1902. Only a few weeks had passed when Peter’s youngest daughter died while in Belle’s care.

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Gunness farm LaPorte, Indiana. Source

Peter himself didn’t last much longer and joined his daughter less than a year later. The cause of his death was clearer than Belle’s first husband’s had been. Peter died from a severe blow to the head, which Belle blamed on an errant sausage grinder that fell on him as he was retrieving something off a high shelf. This explanation was questioned as some people thought it strange an experienced butcher would make such an error. The coroner ordered an inquest, but there was insufficient evidence to disprove Belle’s version of events.

Peter’s life insurance netted Belle a cool $3,000. His eldest daughter was fortunate enough to be adopted by her uncle, making her one of the precious few to survive living with Belle. His son Phillip wasn’t so lucky and remained in her tenuous care.

Widowed for the second time, Belle hired a man named Ray Lamphere to help with the farm. Before long she began her search for a new husband. She placed advertisements in a number of local papers that read:

“Comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply.”

A flood of suitors made the requested personal visit, all with cash to offer. One by one, these hopefuls made their way to the farm, and were never heard from again. Save for one visitor, George Anderson, who left after waking the night of his stay to find Belle watching him sleep, none of the men left the farm alive. Among them was Andrew Helgelien, who corresponded with Belle for a time before accepting her request which included the foreboding line, “Come prepared to stay forever.” Needless to say, he did.

During this time, Belle’s hired hand Ray fell madly in love with his employer. She didn’t return his affections, and when she had had enough of his proclamations of love, she fired him. Ray apparently didn’t quite get the message and continued to pursue the object of his misplaced desires. Belle ended up taking the matter to her lawyer, claiming Ray had threatened to burn the farm down around her.

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Ray Lamphere. Source

It wasn’t long before her alleged fears came true. In April, 1908 the Gunness farm burned to the ground. Four bodies were recovered from the ashes. Three children identified as Myrtle, Lucy and Phillip, and one woman assumed to be Belle. This body was missing a head however, and was about a hundred pounds lighter than Belle had been in life. The charred remains were never positively identified.

Given Belle’s claims to her lawyer, Ray was promptly arrested as the prime suspect. It wasn’t until her former suitor Andrew’s brother Asle Helgelien came to town inquiring as to his whereabouts, that Belle’s story was called into question. Andrew had failed to return his brother’s letters, which brought Asle to Indiana in search of him. He didn’t trust Belle, and feared the worst. He demanded a thorough search of the farm which turned up a number of bodies stuffed neatly into sacks, buried in and around the pig pen. With everything recovered after the first bodies were unearthed, it is estimated between 30-40 men, women and children met their ends on the Gunness farm.

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Human remains found on the Gunness Farm. Source

Ray eventually admitted to aiding Belle in the disposal of bodies that were piling up on the farm during his tenure. According to his testimony they would bury them around the property or chop them up and feed them to the pigs. He also claimed Belle had been the cause of the fire, and that the headless body of the woman that was found was in fact a housekeeper hired just prior to the incident.

A manhunt was called for Belle Gunness, but she was never found. For years after her disappearance, there were numerous alleged sightings but none of them ever turned up the real Belle. It is unknown how long she lived or if she continued to kill. She remains one of the great unsolved mysteries and one of the deadliest women in American history.

Sources:

https://www.biography.com/people/belle-gunness-235416

https://www.headstuff.org/history/belle-gunness-deadly-lonely-heart/

Belle Gunness Serial Killer Documentary

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/evqp74/americas-first-craigslist-killer-was-a-six-foot-tall-norwegian-widow

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/morbid-monday-a-nightmare-at-murder-farm