Prosecutors point to slayings in insurance fraud trial

U.S. attorneys say woman killed 3 men for benefits

July 31, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

GREENBELT - Federal prosecutors say Josephine Gray was a master manipulator who, over the course of three decades, killed two husbands and a young boyfriend and frightened off potential witnesses with talk of voodoo.

But as the 55-year-old grandmother and retired Montgomery County school janitor went on trial yesterday in U.S. District Court here, prosecutors ascribed to Gray one of the oldest and least mysterious motives: greed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Wilkinson told jurors that Gray built a pattern of arranging killings and then cashing insurance benefits, displaying a "relentless, cunning manipulation of relationships and love for the purpose of getting money."

"Some of the testimony you will hear in this trial, ladies and gentlemen, will make your hair stand on end," said Wilkinson, who also told jurors that they would have to reconcile Gray's many public faces - "the mother, the grandmother, the murderer, the manipulator, the voodoo practitioner."

The jury will not have to decide whether to convict Gray of murder. She is charged instead in federal court with defrauding three insurance companies by collecting death benefits after the killings of her first husband, Norman "Butch" Stribbling, in 1974; her second husband, W. Robert Gray, in 1990; and a boyfriend, Clarence Goode, in 1996.

Jurors will have to determine whether Gray "intentionally caused the death" of all three victims and therefore, under the so-called slayer's rule, should not have collected $165,000 in insurance benefits. Defense attorneys said that will be a tough burden for prosecutors, who have no murder weapon and no forensic evidence linking Gray to any of the killings.

Daniel W. Stiller, an assistant federal public defender, called Gray a three-time surviving victim who has been wrongly targeted by police with tunnel vision who relied on "gossip, rumor and innuendo which ... now is being used as fact."

"For more than a quarter-century, she has been under scrutiny, when all that time she has been a victim who deserves our sympathy and our compassion, not this prosecution," Stiller said in his opening statement.

Montgomery County prosecutors charged Gray with murder after the 1974 and the 1990 killings, but dropped the charges in each case after witnesses recanted. Bolstered by the federal case, state prosecutors in January again filed murder charges against Gray. That case is pending. The federal case, before U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow, is expected to last a few weeks.

In court yesterday, Gray appeared neatly dressed in a conservative tan suit and sat motionless through the opening statements, her hands folded on the defense table. Court papers and family members, however, have described a far different woman - one who favored daring outfits and flashy cars and who ruled her husbands and others close to her with violence and intimidation.

In the weeks before they were killed, each of the three men linked to Gray had warned their friends and family that they feared Gray would try to hurt them. After Robert Gray's death, an informant told investigators that Josephine Gray had been trying for months to find a voodoo practitioner willing to kill her then-husband, according to charging documents in Montgomery County.

According to court records, Josephine Gray wanted her second husband killed because he was "stirring up trouble" about what had happened to her first husband.

Prosecutors contended yesterday that Gray's main aim was money. Wilkinson said that after the death of Stribbling in 1974, Josephine Gray used the nearly $16,000 in insurance proceeds as a down payment for a home in Gaithersburg.

After Robert Gray's death, Josephine Gray benefited from an insurance policy that paid the balance owed on that home, Wilkinson said.

And in Goode's death, Gray was the beneficiary of a $100,000 payment on a policy that she had urged Goode to take out and that would have lapsed about a week after his nearly naked body was found shot and stuffed in the back of a car in West Baltimore.

Stiller countered that Gray was only collecting payments that were rightly hers and said the money allowed her to better care for her six children, 11 grandchildren and other young relatives she helped care for.

He also said that Goode was a troubled young man who "died as he lived" and never was romantically involved with Gray, who was a distant relative.

But prosecutors say the trial evidence will show a firm pattern of insurance fraud that continued as recently as last year. FBI agents working with insurance agents at Minnesota Mutual set up a sting last year by writing to tell Gray that money from Robert Gray's insurance accounts remained unclaimed.

His widow was quick to step up, Wilkinson said: "Josephine Gray bit on that, too."

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