Ronald Gene Simmons, the Christmas Killer
The holidays can really test anyone’s nerves. The expectation of overspending on gifts, risking your life traveling to visit people you moved hours away from for a reason, and forced cheerfulness in the company of people who you’d pay good money to avoid. It’s easy to slip into fantasies about doing away with the lot of them. And it’s probably because of these stresses that incidents of domestic violence increase during the holiday season.
The worst of these was committed by Ronald Gene Simmons in 1987. Over the course of a week, he slaughtered 14 of his family members and two former co-workers in the little town of Russellville, Arkansas, committing the largest family murder in US history.
Simmons was a “family annihilator,” a murderer who, either in one fatal swoop or over the course of hours or days, kills off most or all of his or her family.
The typical family annihilator that makes the headlines is a man who, outwardly, has all the trappings of a perfect family, such as a devoted wife, a high-paying or -status job, and clean, well-behaved children. There’s usually no history of abuse, and the killer has no prior criminal record. He’s usually set off by some traumatic event that he believes will ruin him, usually the loss of his job or discovery of a secret (usually involving white-collar crime or bankruptcy). John List is the perfect example of this type of killer, which is called the “civil reputable” family annihilator.
Simmons was the more common type of family annihilator: the “livid coercive,” a dominating domestic abuser who is threatened by losing control over his family. For Simmons, slaughtering his family was more about his need to possess them than to spare them from humiliation or poverty. In fact, he made sure his family lived in crushing poverty and isolation. But his psychopathic nature was far more deviant than most domestic abusers.
He Was a Bully and a Tyrant from the Beginning
Simmons showed narcissistic, controlling tendencies early on — hitting his younger siblings, manipulating them and his parents, erupting in fits of rage, and never backing down or admitting he was wrong. His younger brother described him as a bully and tyrant.
When he was in the second grade, his family moved to the small town of Hector, Arkansas, into an old farmhouse without running water, 20 miles away from the nearest paved road. They lived there for several years, and, to Gene, it was paradise. For the rest of his life, he longed to return to Arkansas and live “the simple life.”
At age 17, he entered the Navy, where he met Rebecca (Becky) Ulibarri at a USO dance hall. They fell in love and corresponded frequently while he was away. They were married in 1960 and had their first child, Gene Jr. (“Little Gene”) the following year.
Becky was just the kind of woman Gene wanted: meek, accommodating, and dependent. She couldn’t even drive. Gene ran the household with an iron fist, even when he was away. He had set schedules for meals, laundry, and cleaning. He controlled the finances, paying the bills himself and only allowing Becky a small “allowance,” which usually wasn’t enough to cover decent meals for his ever-growing family — over the next 17 years, the couple had six more children.
Yet meek, cowed Becky, in her diaries and letters, called him “my Gene,” and when she expressed frustration with his tyrannical ways, told herself that he probably knew best.
Unbeknownst to her, they weren’t actually that poor — Gene was just stingy. After finishing his stint with the Navy, Gene worked briefly at a bank, which paid quite well. However, his know-it-all attitude and controlling personality chafed his co-workers and supervisors, effectively shutting him out of any promotions.
So he went back into the military, this time, the Air Force. He spent 1967–68 in Saigon during the Vietnam War working in the Office of Special Investigations. By all accounts he excelled at his job, being a model of efficiency and proper protocol — his same monomaniacal obsession for order and control that he used on his family was an asset in the OSI.
While at the OSI civilian quarters in Saigon, he lived a life of comfort. He had maid service, a cook, and laundry delivered to his door. He enjoyed an officer’s commissary privileges, and when he had R&R, he spent it in Australia.
Meanwhile, his new bride and their (at the time) three small children were kept in a tiny travel trailer on his in-law’s property. He continued to control all their finances from abroad, allowing Becky only $40 a month to support the children on.
After he returned, he moved them to San Francisco, then Cloudcroft, New Mexico. It was there where he began pursuing his dream of having an off-grid farm, and he worked the children long hours to try and make it happen. He had them building rock walls, putting up fences, and various other hard labor from the time they got home from school until late at night. In the summer, he worked them from sunup to sundown.
He also kept them isolated. He would not allow a telephone in the house, and rarely allowed the children to visit friends or have company over. He had the only key to the mailbox, and would read all the incoming and outgoing mail.
While the family lived in isolation and poverty, he bought himself a Honda motorcycle, then later, a Subaru truck. He covered for his financial mismanagement by taking out loans, both from relatives and from the bank.
From Tyrant to Monster
So far, so bad…until the birth of his youngest child, Rebecca Lynn, in 1977. Becky (Gene’s wife) had by now borne seven children, and all of them had been underweight. Her obstetrician diagnosed an underlying health issue, and recommended in strong terms that Becky get a tubal ligation, stating that another pregnancy would put her life in danger. But this being 1977, her husband also had to consent to the procedure. He did not. Becky pleaded with him, literally begging for her life, until, finally, Gene begrudgingly relented.
After that, he was never the same towards her. He never “forgave” her for being putting her own life (and her children’s well-being) over his desires, and essentially stopped having sex with her. In his mind, she was of no use to him anymore.
Meanwhile, he began to turn his attentions toward young Sheila Marie. From the time she was born in October of 1963, it was clear his oldest daughter was his favorite. It was in about 1978 or ’79 that Gene began actively grooming Sheila. While his other children had to beg for money for school supplies and lunches, Gene lavished Sheila with gifts of clothes and jewelry. For his other children, he had only criticism, demands, and insults. But Sheila was his “little princess,” his “ladybug.”
When Sheila was only 15, her father began molesting her.
By March of 1981, Sheila was pregnant with her father’s child. After dropping her off at her prom, Gene gathered the family and told them Sheila was pregnant. While he didn’t state who the father was, Becky knew. Gene laid down the law, as usual, commanding the family to simply accept the child and raise it as one of their own. Becky dropped into a deep depression, but did or said nothing against her husband.
Yet, somehow, the word got out. Eventually word got all the way to the Otero County Office of Social Services. When questioned, Sheila admitted that Gene was the father of the child growing in her belly. The family was ordered to undergo family counseling. At his counseling, Gene was unashamed. He claimed he had done it for Sheila’s own good, in order to “protect” and “teach” her. He saw nothing wrong with what he’d done, and basically dismissed the counselor’s questions.
However, Gene knew that the district attorney, Steven Sanders, took a hard line on child abuse. Soon after Sheila gave birth to his child (who they named Sylvia Gail), sensing that he may be facing legal trouble, he planned a hasty retreat back to Arkansas.
The Simmons Flee to Arkansas
First they settled in Ward, Arkansas. There he impregnated Sheila again, but this time, despite his proclaimed “pro-life” beliefs, he obtained a secret abortion for her.
Once Sheila turned 18, she began taking classes at a business school in Little Rock. At first Gene encouraged her, but once she met Dennis McNulty and began dating him, Gene wanted to shut it down. To his way of thinking, Sheila belonged to him and him alone.
So he moved his family farther away, to a 14-acre spread in Dover, which Gene dubbed “Mockingbird Hill.” There, they lived in a jury-rigged structure comprising an old mobile home and its various additions. As usual, there was no phone, and the only indoor plumbing went to the shower. Water for cleaning and cooking was caught in jugs and buckets lined up along the roof’s dripline. The thrown-together outhouse would overflow in heavy rains, running into the pond.
As in New Mexico, Gene had grand dreams of turning his overgrown, rocky acreage into a self-sufficient farm. As in New Mexico, he worked his children hard to make his fantasies real.
But he didn’t have the resources he’d had in New Mexico. Because he’d up and left his job without notice, he couldn’t get another cushy civil service job, and he was deeply in debt. So he ended up taking low-paying shift work, which he couldn’t hold down. He started hitting on a co-worker, Kathy Kendrick, at the law firm where he worked as a clerk. When he wouldn’t back off, she went to their supervisor, and Gene was fired shortly thereafter.
Meanwhile, he began hoarding the property with salvaged materials for his various “projects” — cinderblocks, pallets, sheets of tin, car parts.
The two older boys — Little Gene and Billy — moved out and started families of their own. Despite her father’s pleas, Sheila also moved out and married Dennis. She had told Dennis about Sylvia Gail’s true father, and Dennis had accepted her, promising to legally adopt the girl.
Gene was losing control. He began physically abusing Becky. He bought himself another gun.
On Dec. 18, 1987, Gene quit his part-time job at the Sinclair Mini Mart.
The Christmas Killings
On Dec. 22, after the younger kids left for school, Gene went into the room of his oldest son, Little Gene, who had brought his 3-year-old daughter, Barbara, back for a holiday visit. Gene bludgeoned his son with a metal pipe, and when that didn’t kill him, he shot him several times. In another bedroom, Becky was cradling little Barbara, pleading for their lives. Gene shot Becky, then garotted Barbara with a fish stringer. He loaded their bodies into a wheelbarrow and dumped them in a large pit the children had dug several months earlier, then doused them in kerosene.
He then went back to the house and waited, passing the hours watching TV and drinking.
When the younger children — Loretta, Eddy, Marianne, and little Rebecca — came home from school, he greeted them in the yard, smiling and promising them each a surprise. One by one, while the others waited in the car listening to Christmas carols, he took them inside and garrotted them, holding their heads underwater in a rain barrel to make sure they were dead. He took them out to the same pit as the others and covered them with dirt and barbed wire, then placed scrap tin over the mass grave in an attempt to keep out scavengers.
The remaining older children, Billy and Sheila, and their families were expected to arrive the day after Christmas. So again, Ronald Gene Simmons waited.
Four days later, Billy; his wife, Renata; and their infant son, Trae, were the first to arrive. Gene shot Billy and Renata, laying their bodies by the dining room table, covered with their own coats and some bedding. He strangled Trae like he had the others, then wrapped him in plastic and placed his tiny body into the trunk of a car behind the house.
Next to arrive were Sheila and Dennis, along with Sylvia Gail, now 7, and Sheila and Dennis’ biological child, 21-month-old Michael. He shot Sheila and Dennis and strangled the children. Sylvia’s and Dennis’ bodies were laid in the dining room and covered with jackets like the other others. Michael’s body was wrapped in plastic and placed in the trunk of yet another car on the property. Sheila, however, was given special treatment in death, just like she had in life: her body was laid out on the dining room table and covered with their best tablecloth.
Later that day, Gene drove in to Russellville, where he stopped at a store and, bizarrely, picked up some pre-ordered Christmas gifts. That night, he went to a bar and had a few drinks. Then he went home and waited out the weekend, watching TV and drinking beer while the corpses of his family rotted in the next room.
On the morning of Dec. 28, Gene drove back into Russellville, walked into the law office where he had previously worked, and shot and killed Kathy Kendrick.
Next Gene went to another previous employer, The Taylor Oil Company, where he shot and killed J.D. Chaffin and wounded the owner, Rusty Taylor. He then drove to the Sinclair Mini Mart, shooting and wounding two more people. Afterwards, Simmons went to the office of the Woodline Motor Freight Company, where he shot and wounded yet another woman.
Simmons then simply sat in the office and chatted with one of the secretaries while waiting for the police. When they arrived, Simmons handed over his gun and surrendered without any resistance.
Simmons was charged with a total of 16 counts of murder. During the trial for the murder of his family, when prosecuting attorney John Bynum presented a note that Gene had written to Sheila professing his love, Simmons lashed out at Bynum, punching him the face, and then unsuccessfully struggled for a deputy’s handgun. Officers rushed him out of the courtroom in chains.
He was found guilty and sentenced to death by lethal injection plus 147 years. He refused all appeals (even fighting in court for the right to do so), and on May 31, 1990, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton signed Simmons’ execution warrant. On June 25, 1990, he died by lethal injection. This was the quickest sentence-to-execution time in US history since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
None of his relatives would claim the body, so he was buried in a pauper’s field in Varner, Arkansas.