Voodoo Queen

Josephine Gray

Investigators using advanced tools like DNA are sometimes no match for some of mankind’s oldest fears and superstitions when it comes to solving crimes. Even at this time in history, when witchcraft trials have been out of vogue for more than 300 years, witnesses afraid of curses and spells are reluctant to tell police what they might know about a crime or criminal.
 
Take, for example, the case of Josephine Gray, a/k/a Josephine Stribbling, a/k/a Josephine Mills, who was suspected of killing three men, but whom state authorities were never able to convict of murder. It took the federal government charging her with wire and mail fraud to finally bring Gray to justice.
 
Maryland authorities could not get the murder charges to stick because witnesses were afraid to talk for fear of supernatural retribution from Gray.
 
For years Gray’s relatives believed that she had gotten away with murdering two husbands and a young lover. The families of the men she killed were afraid to talk about what they thought and Gray’s family just didn’t want to.
 
“There is a very unusual type of witness intimidation that had occurred in this case, which was the idea that she had the ability to practice black magic or witchcraft or voodoo,” Prosecutor Donald Gansler told the Washington Post in 2002. “As irrational as that may seem to many people, it seemed rational to the family members and the witnesses in this case.”
 
Not long after her first husband, Norman Stribbling, was gunned down while parked on a deserted road in Gaithersburg, Md., in 1974, rumors began flying about her involvement. The couple married in 1967 and had five children together. Shortly before he was killed, Stribbling discovered that his wife was having an affair with William Gray, who went by his middle name, Robert.
 
Robert Gray and Josephine met while they were cleaning offices and he eventually left his family to be with her. His family said later that after meeting Josephine Robert underwent a profound personality change.
 
“His whole demeanor just changed,” his former wife said. “He was distant; he stopped going around to his friends, his family, everybody. I knew something had to be wrong. This woman had so much hold over this man.”
 
Robert’s ex said she heard rumors that Josephine was engaged in witchcraft or voodoo. While she rejected those claims, she said did believe that Josephine was drugging Robert.
 
“She must have been feeding him something to make him do what she said,” she said. “He wasn’t himself.”
 
Robert’s ex-wife said her suspicions were confirmed when Robert stopped eating food Josephine prepared and his former self resurfaced.
 
Around the time that Josephine and Robert were having their affair, Norman Stribbling told family members that his life was in danger. Just how he justified those fears was not disclosed, but clearly Stribbling was on to something.
 
On March 3, 1974, he was found shot dead in his parked car on River Road in Montgomery County. He died from a single gunshot wound to the head and appeared to be the victim of a robbery.
 
Two weeks after Stribbling was killed, Josephine and Robert were arrested for the crime. The case crumbled when family members — the only potential witnesses in what was a circumstantial case — refused to cooperate.
 
Soon after she was released, Gray made a claim on the $16,000 life insurance policy Stribbling maintained with his wife as beneficiary. In August 1975 Gray used most of the proceeds to buy a house with her fiance — Robert Gray. Three months later they were married.
 
Robert Gray took out an insurance policy on his life that provided for payment of his mortgage on the Gaithersburg house in the event of his death, with any excess going to his wife. He also had another accidental death policy.
 
Robert Gray’s life with Josephine was “a miserable life,” his mother said. The marriage lasted until August 1990 when Robert left the house, telling family members that Gray was having an affair with her teenage cousin Clarence Goode and that they wanted to kill him.
 
A shy but troubled teen, Goode had come to live with the Grays in the mid-1980s after Josephine promised his family that she would raise the boy right. At some point Josephine and Clarence began an affair and Robert’s star faded in the house.
 
In the summer of 1990 Josephine reportedly chased her husband through their house with a gun. He was only able to escape, relatives said, by jumping off a second story balcony and running more than a mile to his parents’ home.
 
Robert was so afraid of Clarence and Josephine that he removed her as his beneficiary under the insurance policies and asked for help from friends and relatives for help in avoiding a possible attack by his wife and her lover.
 
The assault he feared did come and Robert filed charges against Josephine and Clarence, alleging that Josephine had assaulted him at his workplace. She was swinging a baseball bat at him and lunging at him with a kitchen knife, he said. Goode, he alleged, threatened him with a 9mm pistol.
 
The case came up for a hearing on October 5, 1990, but was continued by the court until November. That same day Robert was driving home when he noticed his wife’s car behind him. She was flashing her lights and signalling him to pull over, but he opted not to. Josephine drove along side him and as he looked over, he said he saw Clarence sit up from a reclining position and point a gun at him. They sped off. Robert reported this police and a new warrant was sworn out against the pair.
 
A week before the November 16 trial, Robert Gray was discovered dead in his apartment, shot in the chest and neck with a .45 handgun. He had been surprised by his assailant(s) because he had not even had time to remove his overcoat.
 
“Fear permeated this entire case,” former prosecutor Thomas Tamm told the Washington Post several years later.
 
In 1991 the state’s case collapsed after Gray and a suspected accomplice were granted bail.
 
“There just was a marked difference in witness cooperation after she got out of jail,” Tamm told the Post when Gray was finally convicted. “They were afraid she had gotten away with murder in the past, and how did they know she wasn’t going to get away with murder again?”
 
Court documents from the federal case alleged that Gray intimidated potential witnesses and asked others to provide alibis.
 
Her daughter with Robert Gray was one person asked to provide an alibi. At first she did so, saying that her mother was working when Robert was shot. She later recanted and said the alibi was false. However, when time came to testify before a grand jury, the girl said she could not remember anything about the day her father died.
 
During the investigation into Robert’s murder Josephine was asked about voodoo and witchcraft. She denied being involved in either.
 
“I do not practice no voodoo and I do not practice witchcraft,” Josephine said in an interview with her attorneys. “Just because I go and buy a lucky charm to play the lottery or something, or buy herbs and drink herb tea or take olive oil and anoint myself, that’s in the Bible.”
 
Relatives of Norman Stribbling, Robert Gray and Clarence Goode, however, saw things differently. One of Stribbling’s family said he was under a “magic spell” that caused him uncontrollably to scratch his face to shreds. Goode’s sister reported finding a “voodoo doll” with real hair in his possessions.
 
Evidence from her federal trial included an incantation caught on tape and “voodoo ritual materials” uncovered during a search of Josephine’s home.
 
By 1996 Clarence’s relationship with Josephine soured and he moved out of her home after she threatened him with a knife. He also made the fatal error of allowing a $100k insurance policy with Josephine as the beneficiary lapse. The insurance company was still sending his mail to Josephine’s house and when she learned he was no longer paying the premiums but that the policy would remain in effect for 60 days, she decided to kill him.
 
On June 21, 1996, Baltimore police found Clarence’s body in the trunk of his car. He had been killed with a 9mm handgun. Before he vanished Clarence told his sister that he was going to visit Josephine. A search of her house revealed 9mm bullets and a large stain on the garage floor that authorities thought was blood.
 
Despite the evidence that was at least compelling outside of court, authorities could not move against Josephine for any murder, including Clarence’s. There was no way to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law that she killed him because her only real motive (besides the $100,000 insurance) was that Clarence was her accomplice in another murder authorities could not prove.
 
The case boiled down to a woman who was the beneficiary of her former live-in boyfriend’s insurance policy happened to have the same kind of ammunition as that which killed him.
 
It appeared that Josephine Gray was about to get away with her third murder.
 
But in the summer of 2000, Wilma Jean Wilson met Josephine and they became friends. During one visit to Josephine’s home, Wilma was helping clean a cluttered room when Josephine uncovered a scrapbook filled with newspaper articles about her previous arrests.
 
According to court records, Josephine said she “was going to tell Wilson something she had never told anyone before and she did not want Wilson to say anything about it. In an emotionless, matter-of-fact manner, Gray then told Wilson that ‘she had killed both her husbands and another gentlemen.’”
 
She said Stribbling had to die because she was tired of being abused by him.
 
“She told me they had gone out for a ride and that she had shot him,” Wilma testified. “She left the body over on River Road, and it was set up to look like it was a robbery.”
 
Josephine then said that she killed Robert Gray with the help of Clarence Goode and that Goode “had tried to blackmail her, so she had to get rid of him too.”
 
Josephine’s motivation in confessing her crimes was not a guilty conscience, according to Wilma — she wanted Wilma’s help in securing an insurance policy on her new boyfriend.
 
Unaware of Josephine’s reputation as a voodoo or witchcraft practitioner, or unafraid of it, Wilma approached authorities who began the wire fraud investigation against her. It is illegal to attempt to collect on an insurance policy of someone you have murdered, and this so-called “slayer rule” becomes a federal crime if you use a communications device to collect.
 
Federal authorities only had to establish to the satisfaction of the jury — a very low standard — hat Josephine had intentionally caused the deaths of the insureds because the crime was using a telephone. They were able to do this once the witnesses lost their fear of her.
 
A former boyfriend — the one that Josephine wanted to insure — testified that she told him she used a key she had to Robert Gray’s townhouse to let herself in and waited for him. Josephine said she dressed like a man, wore a coat and gloves, and surprised Robert Gray when he walked in with a six-pack of beer.
 
He did not report to authorities what Gray had said because he loved her.
 
Josephine Gray was convicted of the insurance fraud charges and sentenced to 40 years in prison. As she was 60 years old when convicted, it is extremely likely that she will die behind bars.