Murder Most Vile Volume 7

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Murder At Big Sur

Big Sur, situated between Carmel and San Simeon along California State Route 1, is one of the world’s most beautiful stretches of coastline. Here the Santa Lucia Mountains rise dramatically from the Pacific Ocean, offering stunning views. It is a popular destination for local and foreign tourists alike, although visitors are encouraged to stand well back from the edge at the many viewing turn-offs. The shale is slippery underfoot and a false step could send you plunging down the cliff face to the cold waters of the Pacific, hundreds of feet below.

On a typically beautiful California day in April 1987, Virginia McGinnis, her husband Billy Joe, and her son from a previous marriage, James Coates, decided to make a day trip to Big Sur. Also along for the ride was 21-year-old Deana Wild, a young woman who the family had befriended after her separation from her husband.

Deana was feeling ill that day, complaining of dizziness and blurred vision. When Virginia pulled the car into a viewing spot, she declined to get out, saying that she’d rather take a nap. Nonetheless, Virginia persisted, saying that the bracing sea air would do her good. Besides, Virginia said, she wanted to take some snapshots to send to Deana’s mother, back in Louisville, Kentucky. Reluctantly, Deana agreed.

Over the next few minutes the group drank in the beauty of the scene before them, while Virginia snapped happily away with her camera. She seemed particularly interested in pictures of Deana and James together, James with his arm draped around Deana’s shoulders. Deana was too tired to argue. She allowed James to draw her into an embrace, while Virginia captured the moment on camera. Then Virginia suggested a shot of Deana with the ocean as a backdrop. Wanting to get this over with and get back to the car, Deana agreed. She trudged listlessly forward and turned to face the camera. Too late she realized that Billy Joe McGinnis had walked up behind her. As Deana’s befuddled brain tried to figure out what he was up to, he thrust out an arm, sending her careening backwards towards the cliff’s edge.

Deana’s survival instincts kicked in immediately. She flailed her arms in a vain attempt to regain her balance. Underfoot the shale was shifting. She felt her feet lose purchase and came down hard on her side. Now she was sliding, fingers digging in, gaining a grip, halting her slide just before her body reached the tipping point.

Pain flared in her hand where her palm had been lacerated, her fingernail torn out. Deana ignored it. She knew only one thing. She had to hold on. “Help me!” she whimpered, as Virginia suddenly filled her vision, looming over her like a vengeful giant. “Help!”

“Help you?” Virginia sneered. “I’ll help you alright.” She raised her foot and brought it crashing down on Deana’s fingers. Deana yelped in pain but clung on. She held on through the second and third blows too, but eventually her lacerated fingers let go. Then the weight of her body carried her down, bouncing off rocks and through brambles before she was thrown over the precipice to plunge helplessly towards the jagged rocks below.

When the police arrived, summoned by an apparently distraught Virginia, they heard identical stories from the three eyewitnesses. Tearfully, Virginia explained that she, Billy Joe, and James had been powerless to save Deana. She had stepped too close to the edge while posing for a photograph and had lost her footing, Virginia said. It had happened so fast that none of them had had time to react. It was a dreadful, dreadful tragedy.

Virginia must have told a convincing story because the Monterey County Sherriff’s department did not bother with much of an investigation. The death was ruled an accident, leaving Virginia McGinnis free to cash in the $35,000 life insurance policy she’d taken out on Deana just days before her death.

Back in Louisville, Kentucky, Bobbie Roberts was devastated by the tragic death of her daughter, Deana Wild. She spent hours looking at the photographs that she’d received in the mail from Deana’s friend, Virginia McGinnis. Those photographs, taken just moments before Deana’s death, were at least of some solace to her, keeping her in some way connected to her daughter. But something about the pictures bothered her and over time Bobbie realized what it was. Deana had been a happy, vivacious girl. In the photographs she looked tired, her smile forced. Bobbie was also concerned about Virginia’s assertion that Deana had been engaged to marry her son, James Coates. Since Deana was still married to Jay Wild, an enlisted man serving abroad with the US Navy, that didn’t make sense. Deana had often spoken to her mother about her hopes of reconciling with Jay.

Bobbie Roberts entertained these thoughts and then swiftly dismissed them as motherly misgiving. Her daughter had died in a tragic accident. What else could there be to it? Deana had spoken fondly of Virginia McGinnis and her family. Virginia had been like a surrogate mother to her. Besides, Bobbie had more pressing concerns. The cost of Deana’s funeral had left her in financial dire straits. There was a small burial policy of some $2,500, but the insurance company was dragging its heels about paying up. Desperate to resolve the matter, Bobbie turned to Steve Keeney, a Louisville attorney who attended her church.

Keeney was deeply moved by Mrs. Roberts’ obvious grief and financial plight. In July 1987, he agreed to do whatever he could to bring matters to a speedy resolution. The attorney started by contacting the Monterey Sherriff’s Department to obtain the facts surrounding Deana’s death. He had no idea of the hornet’s nest he was about to stir up.

On the face of it, the case appeared simple enough – a tragic accident had claimed the life of a young woman in front of three witnesses who were able to describe to the police exactly what had happened. But Keeney was immediately struck by the slipshod nature of the investigation. No photos had been taken of the death scene, for example. When Keeney questioned the police on this, they said that they hadn’t bothered because Virginia McGinnis had promised to hand over the pictures she’d taken. She hadn’t done so, of course, instead sending the photographs to Deana’s mother.

Then there were the autopsy photos, which clearly showed Deana’s bruised hands and broken fingernails. It suggested that she had clung on for her life before making her final death plunge. And that did not jibe with the story told by the McGinnis clan. Finally, there were traces of the powerful anti-depressant, amitriptyline, found in Deana’s bloodstream. The drug is known to cause drowsiness and disorientation, but it had never been prescribed for Deana. It had however been written up for Billy Joe McGinnis. He’d filled his latest prescription just weeks before the Big Sur tragedy.

The case was beginning to stink to high heaven, but when Keeney presented his findings to the Monterey County authorities, they refused to file criminal charges, citing insufficient evidence. Frustrated, and with the statute of limitations swiftly running out on a potential wrongful death suit, Keeney decided to take his investigation further. He learned that Deana had married Jay Wild in Kentucky in 1985, and had moved with her husband to San Diego when he’d enlisted in the navy. However, the long separations while Jay was away at sea had taken their toll on the marriage. By late 1986, the couple was living apart, although Deana still hoped to make the marriage work. It was around this time that Deana met the McGinnis family and after much nagging agreed to take a room in their home. Deana had once told her sister that the family was “kind of weird,” but that they were good to her and were the only friends she had in San Diego.

Keeney’s next step was to look into the background of the McGinnis clan, and in particular that of Virginia McGinnis, who appeared to be the de facto family leader. He traced Virginia’s roots back to her birthplace of Ithaca, New York, where she was born in 1932. Virginia met her first husband there, apparently after he helped fight a fire that destroyed her father’s barn. All ended well after the family received a handsome insurance payout and Richard Coates began courting Virginia. She would bear him two sons, but the marriage eventually broke down over Virginia’s habit of setting blazes to claim insurance money.

Unfazed by the divorce, Virginia moved back in with her father. A short while later, the family homestead burned to the ground, providing another payday. Virginia eventually moved to California, where her bad luck with house fires continued. She became so brazen in her frauds that on one occasion she refused a payment of $85,000 to repair a partially burned house. A week later, a second fire leveled the damaged property, ensuring that Virginia collected the full $147,000 payout.

But arson-for-profit was not the worst of the scams Virginia was working. In 1972, her three-year-old daughter Cynthia Coates had accidentally hanged herself with a roll of baling twine in Louisville, Kentucky. Suspicions were raised about the death because the authorities couldn’t figure out how the child had managed to tie the twine to an eight-foot rafter in the barn. In the end though, the insurance company settled the grieving mother’s claim and the matter went no further.

Two years after that suspicious death came another. When Virginia’s second husband, Bud Rearden, was diagnosed with cancer, Virginia insisted on treating him at home, claiming that she was a trained nurse. This, of course, was a lie, but it did not stop her overdosing Bud with painkillers. He survived the first attempt on his life but not the second. Virginia emerged somewhat richer for his passing. Not long after, she married Billy Joe McGinnis. Now, with the investigation into Deana Wild’s death hanging over their heads, the McGinnis’ marriage began to disintegrate. Virginia eventually divorced Billy Joe and moved in with her sons. She also reverted to the name Virginia Rearden, and it was under that name that she would gain lasting infamy.

Steve Keeney eventually filed his wrongful death suit with days to spare. Subpoenas were twice filed on Rearden but, as she failed to appear in court, the judge ruled against her and ordered her to pay Deana’s family $250,000 plus interest for the wrongful death. But Keeney wasn’t prepared to let the matter rest there. With Monterey County still refusing to press criminal charges, he approached the authorities in San Diego. As the policy on Deana’s life had been purchased in that city, the DA decided to indict Virginia and her former husband Billy Joe McGinnis for murder.

Billy Joe, as it turned out, would never make it to the courtroom. He died of AIDS before the trial, leaving Virginia to face the music alone. Virginia’s son, James Coates, also escaped justice, at least in this case. He was in prison on unrelated charges at the time his mother went to trial. He did appear as a witness for the defense and trotted out his rehearsed story of how Deana had slipped and fallen.

But the jury wasn’t buying it. They found Virginia Rearden guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances –in this case, murder for profit. That made her eligible for the death penalty but in the end the judge opted for leniency. On March 30, 1992, he sentenced Virginia to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Virginia Rearden would serve 19 years of that sentence. She died in prison of natural causes on June 25, 2011. She was 74 years old.

Murder Most Vile Volume Seven features another 17 shocking true crime stories.