Friday, August 9, 2013

Felony Friday: The "Lonely Hearts" murder case

A lonely heart led Delphine Downing to her death.
 
The recently widowed woman had posted a personal ad in the hopes of finding companionship for herself, and a father figure for her 20-month-old daughter, Rainelle. Downing likely sifted through several responses before finding one from Charles Martin, a well-mannered and successful businessman from New York City who happened to loved children—exactly the type of man Downing was looking for. In January 1949, she welcomed Martin and his sister, Martha Beck, into her home in Byron Center, a suburb of Grand Rapids.
 
Delphine and Rainelle Downing
 
Downing may have thought she met the man of her dreams, but in reality, she was about to live a nightmare. As it turned out, Charles and Martha weren’t brother and sister.  Charles Martin wasn’t even the man’s real name. The people Downing had guilelessly admitted into her home were Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, a pair of swindlers with a complicated relationship and at least one murder in their past. Downing and her daughter would become their next victims.
 

Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck
 
Beck and Fernandez were a decidedly odd couple who might have seemed incapable of the crimes they would eventually commit—and those they already had. The pair met through the personals themselves, in 1947, when Beck was a 27-year-old nurse in Pensacola, Florida, and Fernandez a 32-year-old schemer from New York City. Beck, despite a successful career, found herself starving for companionship. Overweight and insecure, she was a single mother of two children, a daughter and a son. As a practical joke, one of Beck’s coworkers sent her an advertisement for a lonely hearts club. Though Beck was crushed by the prank, she also desperately sought affection, and eventually submitted an ad that she hoped would rescue her from a lifetime of loneliness.
 
Fernandez wasn’t quite so romantic. To him, lonely hearts ads were all about money. He had a history of wooing the women he met through them, then pilfering their cash and jewelry before making a quick getaway.  Initially, he regarded Beck as merely another mark, and cast her aside when he decided his potential take wasn’t worth the effort required to court her. Fernandez changed his mind a few weeks later when Beck, recently fired from her job at a Pensacola maternity home, appeared on his doorstep in New York City. Realizing that Beck was so in love that she would cater to his every need, Fernandez agreed to take her in, and Beck happily settled into domestic life with her new lover.
 
Beck found Fernandez so captivating  that she not only kept his house, she became his partner in crime. Posing as either his sister or sister-in-law, Beck traveled across the nation with Fernandez to meet his lonely hearts victims and help steal their money. Beck also took on the self-imposed role of chaperone, jealously watching over Fernandez and his targets to deter the consummation of their relationships.
 
By the time Downing met Fernandez and Beck in 1949, the grifters had been at their game for over a year. Now, they were seeking long-term cons—women they could swindle over extended periods of time. With Downing, they likely felt they had met their mark. For about a month after Fernandez and Beck moved into her home, Downing’s relationship with the man she knew as Charles Martin seemed promising. Downing invited Martin and Beck to Nebraska, her home state, where they met Downing’s parents. The young widow even planned to sell her property in Byron Center and move to California with her paramour and his sister. All in all, Martin seemed to be a gentleman and a provider, the type of person with whom Downing could eventually settle down.
 
The turning point came when Downing entered her bathroom on Saturday, February 26, and discovered that Fernandez had been keeping a secret from her. The swindler had suffered a serious head injury years earlier, and since then had worn a toupee to keep his damaged pate a secret. Now, as Downing beheld his bald, scarred head under the bathroom light, she became distressed, and accused “Charles” and his sister of deceiving her.
 
Fearing that Downing would contact the police and end their charade, Beck and Fernandez decided that murder was their only way out. To quiet the increasingly agitated woman, Beck urged Downing to take sleeping pills. Downing did so. After she drifted into unconsciousness, Fernandez grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around a pistol once owned by Downing’s husband. Then, while Rainelle watched, Fernandez shot the sleeping widow in the head, using a single bullet to end her life. Fernandez and Beck buried Downing in her own basement, encasing the grave with cement to deter discovery.
 
With Downing out of the way, Beck and Fernandez had free rein to cash her checks and loot her home. However, they still had a problem. Rainelle, missing her mother, would not stop crying. Fernandez grew tired of the commotion and told Beck to kill the child, which she did, two days after the elder Downing’s death, by drowning the girl in a tub of water. Fernandez and Beck buried Rainelle next to Delphine, covering the grave with cement as they had done for her mother.
 
Beck and Fernandez could have taken this opportunity to make a quick escape from the scene of their crimes. Instead, they left the house to watch a movie. That decision would lead to their undoing. When Beck and Fernandez returned a few hours later, they walked in on police officers who had been called to the Downing home by neighbors worried about Delphine’s sudden disappearance. The officers took Beck and Fernandez into custody, and shortly afterward discovered the bodies of Delphine and Rainelle Downing. Realizing the gravity of their situation, Beck and Fernandez made full confessions to the Kent County district attorney in exchange for what Fernandez later claimed was a promise that authorities would not extradite the pair to New York and would instead prosecute them for the deaths of Delphine and Rainelle Downing in Michigan.
 
Why did Beck and Fernandez fear extradition? Because the Downing killings had not been their first murders. During their confessions, Beck and Fernandez admitted killing 66-year-old Janet Fay, a “lonely heart” from Albany, New York whom Beck and Fernandez had bludgeoned, strangled, and buried in a Queens cellar the year before. Because New York imposed the death penalty and Michigan didn’t, Beck and Fernandez preferred to face the Downing murder charges rather than expose themselves to potential death sentences for the Fay murder.
 
After a series of legal maneuvers and an agreement between the governors of both states, Michigan authorities released their prisoners into the custody of New York’s justice system. In August 1949 a jury found Beck and Fernandez guilty of Janet Fay’s murder, and the trial judge sentenced them to death. Their executions in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison outside of New York City took place on March 8, 1951.
 
Students of the case believe that Fay and the Downings weren’t the pair’s only victims, as some of Fernandez’s previous marks had died under suspicious circumstances, and that as many as 17 other victims may exist. Regardless of whether they killed three people or twenty, no one can dispute the fact that Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck were cold-blooded killers who blazed a trail of emotional destruction across the nation—a trail that ultimately ended only when they stopped the beating of a lonely widow’s heart in West Michigan.

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