Gwendolyn Graham and Catherine Wood worked together at a nursing home, as well as being killing partners and lovers. Female serial killer partnerships are virtually unheard of, but when they do happen, it tends to be two or more women working in consortium as “Angel of Mercy” killers. Which is what happened in Michigan in 1987 and 1988 when Gwen and Cathy began their killing.
After their capture, Gwendolyn admitted she got a sexual thrill out of the murders, another rarity with angel of mercy killers (most never admit there was a sexual component to their murders, relying instead on trying to garner sympathy by pretending the murders were in the patient’s’ best interest). Gwendolyn Graham’s childhood was unremarkable. She was raised in Texas until her mid-teens when she moved to Michigan. She was considered a quiet and respectful child by teachers and other adults she interacted with. In her teens, she would accuse her father of molesting her. No evidence was ever found to support the claims and her father staunchly denied them. I mention this, because investigators determined Gwendolyn Graham was the mastermind behind the murders.
Graham went to work as a nurse’s aide at the Alpine Manor Nursing Home in 1985. She was 22 years old. At that time, Cathy Wood was Graham’s supervisor and was going through a rough patch with her husband. Most people who knew the Woods said the divorce was amicable and Wood remained friends with her ex-husband. However, they also said that the decision to divorce was influenced by Cathy’s new friendship with Gwendolyn.
However, Graham and Wood wouldn’t start a sexual relationship until 1986. I mention this because I have read some true crime writers who have said if Graham and Wood hadn’t gotten together, no one would have died and I disagree. If Graham and Wood hadn’t started dating, Wood probably never would have killed anyone during her lifetime, but Graham is a different story and I believe Graham is that elusive, nearly mythic creature the female psychopath. Also, Cathy Woods’ ex-husband would be how the two were caught.
Graham had a sexual fetish. She was turned on by erotic asphyxiation and she found a willing partner in Cathy Wood. It was not uncommon for Graham to tie Wood up and either choke her or smother her until Wood nearly passed out. Which is how the discussion of the murders began. During pillow talk one night, Graham admitted to Wood she wanted to kill someone to see how it felt. The discussions about it continued and evolved until the two women came up with a plan for a “murder game.”
The first plan was for them to take turns smothering their elderly female patients. They discussed going alphabetically and decided that would be suspicious, so they decided to kill them so that their victim’s last name initials would spell out the word “murder”. As Graham’s supervisor it wouldn’t be unusual for her to watch over Graham caring for a patient and Wood was designated the look-out while Graham did the actual murders.
Much to Gwendolyn Graham’s surprise elderly women are fighters. The first couple she attempted to smother fought her off. At least one lodged a complaint and it was brushed off as the patient being partially asleep and misunderstanding/misremembering what Graham was doing in her room during the night.
In January 1987, Gwendolyn managed to find a patient that didn’t fight back. Marguerite Chambers had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s twelve years earlier and had been at Alpine Manor for five years when Gwendolyn Graham decided to kill her. Graham had actually attempted to kill Chambers in December 1986, but Chambers had been able to fight her off. Unfortunately, in her condition, Chambers wasn’t able to articulate what had happened to her in December . On this night in January, Chambers who had visited with her son for several hours was exhausted when she went to bed. She was sleeping like the dead when Gwendolyn Graham arrived in her room and smothered her with a towel (Graham admitted what she used to smother Chambers during her confession).
Graham would kill four more patients in the upcoming months. And sadly, four deaths in a nursing home, even in consecutive months, isn’t much of an uptick in death stats and it went unnoticed, especially considering her victims ranged in age from 65 to 92 and all of them had Alzheimer’s. Oddly, Wood seemed remorseful for the death of Marguerite Chambers and avoided being in the house alone for months after the murder, afraid she’d find Marguerite haunting her. And this would play a role in the downfall of Graham and Wood.
After the five murders, Graham and Wood broke up when Graham became interested in another nurse’s aide that started working at Alpine Manor in late 1987. The two started dating, Graham moved out of the house she shared with Wood and then Graham decided to move with her new girlfriend back to Texas. After Graham left Wood, Cathy went to dinner and have a few beers with her ex-husband one night. After a beer or two too many, Wood confessed the killings to her ex-husband. Initially, he thought it was just the booze talking and didn’t put much stock in the story.
However, in 1988, he began to wonder about it and it began to bother him, especially after he learned that Graham had gone to work in a neonatal unit as a nurse’s aide in Texas. In October 1988, Wood’s ex-husband took the story his ex-wife had told him to police and they began an investigation into the matter. Eventually, they exhumed two of the patients Cathy Wood said Graham had killed. Initially, Wood painted Graham as the sole killer with Wood too afraid to stop her. Investigators decided to charge both of them with murder. Interestingly, after they were both convicted Wood supposedly told fellow inmates that she did the killings and framed Graham to get revenge for her taking up with a new woman. Later, she told fellow inmates that the entire story was made up to get Graham locked in prison for the rest of her life.
No one has ever come out and made a strong case for either Graham or Wood to be classified as psychopaths. But FBI agents John Douglas and Robert Ressler did make a strong case for why they believed all serial killers are psychopaths. For the record, I don’t agree that all serial killers are psychopaths, I think plenty of them are sociopaths or have other issues. I would say all serial killers have a severe mental illness of one sort or another and psychopathy is very common among them.
Now, using the idea that all serial killers are psychopaths, there are some behaviors that strongly suggests they are psychopaths. These are much stronger in Graham’s favor than Wood’s. Remember I started by saying Graham accused her father of sexual abuse, but there was never any evidence and he denied it until he died? This wasn’t a one time thing, it was a repetitive accusation as she got older and could go either way towards diagnosing psychopathy. Sexually abused children commonly develop some form of personality disorder (DID, ASPD psychopathy/sociopathy, Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Schizoid Personality disorder, etc, etc). It is also sadly very common for people with psychopathy to make false accusations of childhood sexual abuse or even rape as they get older. It is a manipulation/control technique psychopaths use against their victims. Furthermore, the fact that Graham and Wood had not even dated for a full year before Graham admitted to having fantasies of murder, could be an indicator that Graham’s homicidal urges were getting harder to ignore (see post on psychopathy on the sudden need to “know” something). It is also of interest to note that Cathy Wood had some similar responses to Gwendolyn Graham as other female partners of serial killers – a desire to please their partner beyond reason, submissive to the personality and ego of their partner, and lashing out after the relationship ended. And like most female partners of male serial killers, they do not strongly exhibit psychopathic personality traits. There are always exceptions to this Rose West, Myra Hindley, Debra Coleman, all enjoyed helping their male partners torture, sexually abuse, and kill their victims. By contrast, Faye Copeland and Karla Homolka (and this one is controversial, I know) would not have become murderers if they had not gotten romantically involved with incredibly domineering psychopathic men.