A Story of Rage and the Fastest Execution In History
Incest, murder, and revenge in Arkansas
Before Ronald Gene Simmons’ rampage ended he would murder all seven of his children, seven other family members, a former co-worker, and a stranger — and wound five other people.
And before he bought a .22 caliber gun at Walmart, Gene (he went by his middle name) spent days sitting in a dark room, thinking about everyone who’d ever wronged him.
A military man
Gene Simmons was born in Chicago but his family — mom and stepfather, plus three other kids — moved to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1946 when he was only six. Gene’s dad died before he turned three, and he was known to have detested his stepfather. Yet, he chose to follow his new dad (an engineer for the Army Corps) into the military.
Few other facts are known about Gene Simmons’ early years, except that he was a troubled boy who butted heads with all his siblings, and who was finally sent to a strict Catholic school by his exasperated parents.
After dropping out of high school he joined the US Navy. It was 1957 and military life agreed with him. After three years of dating, Gene married Becky Ulibarri at the age of 21.
In 1963, he left the Navy and joined the US Air Force, where he earned several awards for valor, including the Bronze Star. He won awards for marksmanship and served in Vietnam. He most excelled in administrative work, fitting in well with the bureaucracy and reveling in rules.
Becky, who came from a large family, stayed loyal to Gene. She moved with him across the US, from Washington state to New Mexico, and they even spent time living in England. Over the course of the next two decades, they had seven children together. After Gene retired in 1979 with 20 honorable years of service, they moved to the rural hamlet of Cloudcroft, NM.
It wasn’t until 1973, after 13 years of marriage, that Gene began to beat Becky.
Homelife, kids, and grandkids
Becky and Gene had a large family, beginning with Ronald Jr, then Sheila, followed by William, Loretta, Eddie, Marianne, and Rebecca. The grandchildren, at the time of the murder spree, numbered four: Trey, Michael, Sylvia Gail, and Barbara.
Gene was a disciplinarian at home, often spending time by himself. He read everything he could get his hands on and lectured the family with his superior knowledge. Often sarcastic, he controlled every aspect of family life — from finances to opening everyone’s mail.
Charges of incest
Shortly after retiring from the military in 1979, the State of New Mexico, Department of Human Services began looking into allegations that Ronald Gene Simmons had raped his 17-year old daughter, Sheila, and impregnated her.
The sexual abuse was thought to have begun when Sheila was 15. Visitors to their home reported that Gene was giving Sheila more than “fatherly kisses” goodbye each day.
On the day of Sheila’s senior prom in 1981, Gene told his wife and two older children, proudly, that Sheila was pregnant with his child. The news horrified Becky and caused Gene Jr. to take action.
Human services got involved after her brother told a social worker. Sheila also reported the pregnancy to a school counselor who got in touch with authorities.
Sheila said that her father had “destroyed her, and destroyed her trust in him.” But, she refused to press charges. After being threatened with contempt of court, she did eventually testify. During this time, she also gave birth to a daughter, Sylvia Gail.
The state decided to take action and sent police to issue an arrest warrant, but when they drove out with the papers in hand, they found an empty house.
Gene had packed up the family and escaped east to Ward, Arkansas. The family eventually settled in the town of Dover (in Pope County, central AR) in 1983.
Gene intimidated Becky into raising Sylvia, his child by Sheila. Becky agreed but told family members she felt “humiliated.” He continued to sexually abuse Sheila.
Becky’s family pleaded with her to leave Gene. Her siblings noted that Becky was cut off from her family. Friends who visited the home in Dover noted that Gene was often drunk and spent most of his time at home in a “dark, spooky, and foul-smelling room” drinking beer.
Neighbors reported him acting strangely and some said they were afraid of him.
The compound in Arkansas
Dover was a town of fewer than 1,000 residents, 97% white, with a hardware store and several churches. It’s located near Russellville, a city of 14,000 (in 1987) that sits near the Arkansas River. Gene Simmons would find menial work in Russellville but his first task was building living quarters for the large brood of six that now included little Sylvia.
He and Becky bought 13 acres outside of town and Gene named it Mockingbird Hill. The acreage was isolated. As usual, he censored all the mail and without a telephone the family had little contact with the outside world.
They strung together two decrepit trailers to create one large home. Although Gene was living on a pension from the Air Force and was able to find full-time work in Russellville, the family lived the way rural people had 100 years before. He was in serious debt and couldn’t afford to improve living conditions. The central AC was hooked up but didn’t function, the telephone lines didn’t work, and there was no indoor plumbing.
The children rarely left Mockingbird Hill, except for school. On the perimeter, they had constructed a makeshift fence out of scrap metal and old materials, sometimes ten feet high. Trash and junked cars covered the property.
Four of the children — Loretta, 17, Eddie, 14, Marianne, 11, and Rebecca, 8 — were forced to dig a hole on at Mockingbird Hill, which turned into a water-filled cesspool. Their dad told them the reason for the hole was to eventually place another outhouse.
Gene monitored all of Becky’s conversations when they would go to town to use a phone. She was often seen with bruises on her face and arms.
On Dec 18, 1987, Gene quit his last job, at the Mini-Mart. Meanwhile, Becky was saving money to try and escape. The three oldest children — Gene, Jr., Sheila, and William — were married and living in other cities.
Gene became more depressed, especially after his favorite child Sheila married and left the home, taking granddaughter/daughter Sylvia with her.
Becky wrote to William and his new wife. These are excerpts from that letter (taken from the podcast “Serial Killings”):
“I know you are right. I don’t want to live the rest of my life with dad [Gene]….but what if I couldn’t find a job? I’ve never had a job since I’ve been married. It would all be so much easier if it were just me, but I have three kids.
We can talk about it when you come [referring to Christmas visit of 1987].
Sometimes I feel God is telling me to be more patient….I would like for Loretta to move with you when she turns 18. I’m enjoying Barbara [granddaughter]…she is sweet, lovable, and polite. She always has us laughing.”
….I want to see all of my children happy. I am a prisoner here and the kids, too. I know when I get out I might need help. Dad [Simmons] has had me as a prisoner. Every time I think of freedom I want out as soon as possible. I want out, but it’s the beginning.
I have felt sorry for [Gene]. I was so afraid what [he] would go back and do.
Give Trey hugs and kisses. I love you all so much. Hope Loretta can mail this Friday or Saturday on her way home.
The 6-day spree: the family in Arkansas
Gene had a checkered work history in Russellville. He first worked as a clerk in Accounts Receivable at a motor freight company but quit when complaints of sexual harassment began to pile up. He was hired at Taylor Oil but didn’t last long. He finally got work at a Mini-Mart, where he was able to hold onto employment for a year and a half.
Three days before Christmas, 1987, Gene hatched a plan to kill every last family member. At Walmart, he bought a 22-caliber handgun.
He returned home, found Becky and Gene Jr. and bludgeoned, then shot, each of them. He strangled his three-year-old granddaughter, Barbara.
Then, he dragged all three bodies outside and tossed them into the cesspool.
He sat down to drink a beer and await the return of his remaining children.
As they came home, he gleefully told them, “I have gifts for you.” He wanted to hand them out one by one so he took each child, separately, into a room behind a closed door.
He beat Loretta, strangled her, and then drowned her in a rain barrel. Eddie, Marianne, and Becky all met the same fate. He threw all their bodies into the cesspool. There were now seven family members in the pit the kids had dug.
Gene continued to drink beer, waiting for the rest of his kids to arrive for the annual Christmas visit.
The 6-day spree: the rest of his family
The first to arrive was William (“Billy”) and his wife Renata along with their young son, Trey. Gene shot Billy, then Renata, and drowned Trey.
He also shot Sheila and her husband, Dennis. Apparently, he favored drowning for the younger children — and that is what he did to Sylvia and Michael, his two remaining grandchildren.
These bodies, however, Gene left indoors. He lined the four of them up in the house and covered each with a coat, except one. He covered Sheila with the best tablecloth he could find.
He removed the bodies of his two grandsons, wrapped each in plastic sheeting, and left them in abandoned cars.
He then went to Sears to pick up gifts, and eventualy to a bar where he drank steadily that evening.
Over the next two days, Gene Simmons stayed at home. He did not remove the dead bodies inside the house but sat with them in his living room. He spent his time thinking while he drank, ruminating, and remembering people who had insulted him.
The six-day spree: co-workers and strangers
The next day was Monday, December 28th. In Russellville, most people were back at work after celebrating on Christmas day.
Gene drove to a local law firm to wrap up a matter involving Kathy Kendrick, the receptionist. He had feelings for Kathy and had made sexual advances, but she had always rebuffed him. He shot Kathy multiple times in the head, killing her, then left the building for his next visit.
A witness who survived reported, “I thought he was going to kill everybody in the room. We didn’t know why he was here.”
Simmons now drove to the Taylor Oil Company. He found his former boss, Russell Taylor, and shot him in the chest. He also shot a man named JD Chaffin. Taylor, miraculously, survived but Chaffin did not.
On her second day of work, a new employee opened the warehouse door after hearing a loud noise. Gene Simmons place a gun to her forehead and pulled the trigger. She could feel the heat of the bullet. “I just screamed, ‘No!’ and [dove] down.”
She also stated, “He just had a look in his eye like a mad dog.” When he looked at Jim [Chaffin, who was lying on the floor] he showed no emotion.”
Next, Gene found Joyce Butts, a former co-worker, at the Woodline Motor Freight Company. Joyce had once been Simmons’ supervisor and she’d told him to stop hassling Kathy Kendrick. He shot Joyce point-blank in the head and chest. She survived, waking up 10 days later in the hospital.
Finally, he took a break. He found a small office and pointed his gun at the girl working there, who said, “Gene, please don’t shoot me!” He told her she would come to no harm. He offered her a cigarette, told her to call the authorities, and said:
“I’ve done what I wanted to do, and now it’s all over. I’ve gotten everybody who hurt me.”
Ronald Gene Simmons was arrested after peacefully handing over his gun to the police. He was sent to the Arkansas State Mental Hospital in Little Rock and found to be both sane and competent to stand trial.
In May 1988 the Russellville victims received a kind of justice: Gene Simmons was found guilty of two counts of murder, one count of kidnapping, and five counts of attempted capital murder. He was sentenced to die by lethal injection plus 146 years. In a separate trial in February 1989, the jury found him guilty of killing 14 family members. He received another death sentence.
The governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, oversaw his execution in June 1990 after Simmons waived all options to appeal his sentence. It was the fastest execution in modern US history.
He was buried in a potter’s field at Lincoln Cemetary after his body went unclaimed. No one in his existing family wanted it.
“Serial Killing: A Podcast” (True Crime) 2019–2020