Read the story here in The New Yorker.
Regina Alexander does not remember anyone telling her how her mother died; she has always known when and where it happened, and who did it. For years, though, a lot of the details remained mysterious to her. They weren’t the sort of details that everyone would want to have, but she wanted them, at least some of the time. “I don’t even know what the truth is,” she told me, during one of our first conversations. “That’s part of why it’s so hard to let go.”
Regina’s mother was born Elizabeth Steffens, in 1945, in Texas. Elizabeth’s father worked as a carpenter, electrician, and plumber, and her mother stayed home, raising the couple’s five children. The family moved to Levelland, a small town outside Lubbock, when Elizabeth was two. As she got older, she became known as the fun one in the family. People told her that she looked like Elizabeth Taylor. (Later, Regina would watch Elizabeth Taylor movies and pretend that it was her mother onscreen.) A relative once saw her without makeup and joked, “You look just like the rest of us,” to which Elizabeth quipped, “When I die, be sure I have on eyeshadow.” Her family says that they never saw her without makeup again. She got married, for the first time, when she was seventeen, to a man from New York. They had a daughter, Tonette, and divorced soon afterward. She married again, but that one didn’t last either. Then a co-worker introduced Elizabeth to her son, Van Perryman, who drove a taxi. Elizabeth and Van married and had a son, Bobby, in 1969, and then Regina, in July, 1971. One night that September, Elizabeth disappeared.
Her remains were found three months later, eight miles west of Amarillo. The police called the family, and Elizabeth’s brother Billy drove her dental records up the highway to confirm her identity. News of the discovery aired on the radio before he’d made it to the family home; later, there was a report on TV, with footage of law enforcement at the crime scene. Two of Elizabeth’s siblings recall seeing a police officer pick up her skull with a stick and set it on a squad car.
The family did not yet know that, during the previous several months, a number of women had been killed under similar circumstances in Texas and states farther west. Someone was robbing convenience stores and cafés late at night, when there was often just one waitress or clerk working a shift, and then, sometimes, raping and killing the only apparent witness. Local and federal law enforcement convened a task force in Dallas, in February, 1972, to investigate a possible connection among the crimes; comparing ballistics tests, the F.B.I. discovered that the same firearm had been used in four separate murders. The following June, a man named Carl Taylor, who also went by Raymond, wounded a cop after a botched robbery attempt at a grocery store in Santa Barbara. Police caught up with him—plus his wife, Ginger McCrary, and their kids—in Texas, three weeks later. Ginger’s parents, Sherman and Carolyn, and her brother Danny were also arrested. During questioning, police connected the members of the McCrary-Taylor family to at least ten murders.
The national press quickly picked up on the story, fascinated by a family who appeared to be robbing and murdering together. “For most of their lives, the men aimlessly wandered the American southwest, scratching for jobs as ranch hands, carnies, and fry cooks,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Sherman McCrary drank a quart of liquor a day. Raymond Taylor was mean and dangerous. Danny McCrary was raised to believe crime was a business. Carolyn McCrary is almost illiterate. Ginger McCrary is sickly and compliant.” The articles largely failed to mention the perpetrators’ children, all of them under twelve. Some papers referred to the killings as the Full Moon Murders because they supposedly occurred by the light of the moon; police in Colorado called them the Donut Shop Murders. In November, 1972, a Colorado grand jury indicted Sherman McCrary and Carl Taylor for the murder of Leeora Looney, who worked at a doughnut shop in Lakewood, near Denver. Ginger coöperated with law enforcement, and she and Carolyn were each sentenced to just a few years in prison. Sherman was convicted by a jury, and Taylor pled guilty; both received life sentences. Danny was tried, alone, for another of the family’s murders, in Texas, and also received a life sentence.
By then, Van Perryman and his kids were bouncing around small towns in north Texas, not staying in any one place too long. Soon, both Sherman and Taylor would separately confess to killing Elizabeth, but Van did not find out right away. He didn’t like to talk about what had happened; Regina probably gleaned what she knew from talk among her mom’s sisters. When the TV series “Police Story” aired a two-part episode based on the McCrarys, in 1976, Van didn’t notice, as far as anyone is aware. But, in 1981, he picked up a copy of “Death Roads: The Story of the Donut Shop Murders,” a slipshod account of the killings that had been published two years before. He learned from the book that a rambling family had probably killed his wife. Her case had never been officially solved, though Van didn’t realize this at first. Six years later, after he had discovered as much, he wrote to the special-crimes unit of the Amarillo Police Department, urging them to take up her case again. “I do not mean to be a bore or a bother,” he wrote. “I only ask that you just take into consideration that if this were your wife how you would feel.” The police began investigating Sherman for the crime, but he died by suicide in prison in 1988, and Elizabeth’s case was closed with no final disposition. No law-enforcement agency ever notified the family.
Regina, at that point, had left high school early to marry her sweetheart. They had three kids before the relationship crumbled. She worked odd jobs until her late thirties, and then she joined the Army. On a tour of duty in Iraq, in 2011, she injured her back, and returned home to north Texas. She had time to sit with her thoughts and to wonder about her mother again. She began visiting Elizabeth’s grave regularly. “I just sit there and talk to her like a weirdo,” she told me. “It’s the only thing I have connecting me with my mom.” Regina didn’t want her mother’s life to be defined by her death, but she couldn’t help fixating on Elizabeth’s last moments. It was as though each detail were a cell in her mother’s body; assembling them all together might make her reappear. Regina had often been told how much she was like her mom; knowing more about Elizabeth felt necessary to get a better understanding of herself. She figured that one of the McCrarys could answer her questions, if only she could get ahold of any of them. It bothered her that the McCrary women were not in prison, and, for a long time, she mistakenly believed that Danny was free, too. It wasn’t easy to find information about the crimes online: after the early years of press fascination, the murders faded from notoriety. “Death Roads” went out of print. Many of the original news stories have not been digitized. Much of what can be found online is not accurate.
Regina’s renewed fixation coincided with a swell of interest in true-crime stories. One day, she turned to Google, and searched the Web for the names of her mother and her mother’s murderers. One of the top results was the site for something called the “Serial Killers Podcast.” The show was already defunct, but it had a blog, and there was a post that listed the victims of the McCrarys, along with their ages and dates of disappearance. There was also a comments section. The post had gone up a couple years before, and no one had ever commented. Even so, Regina decided to fill out a comment form, and ask a question: “Does anyone know what happened to these two women and the son who got off scott free?”
The site was set up so that if anyone replied, Regina would get an e-mail. Five months later, someone left a response. The commenter, who later identified himself as the brother of Leeora Looney, informed Regina that the McCrary son she’d asked about, Danny, was in prison. (In fact, Danny McCrary died in 2007.) Soon afterward, another commenter, named Alice, explained that she was working on a book about the case and seeking more information. A few weeks later, one of Regina’s cousins visited the site, and volunteered that, as of 2009, Danny and Taylor were still in prison, in California, but that Carolyn and Ginger had both died, in prison, of cancer. (None of this was correct.) Another commenter wrote that Leeora Looney was her aunt, adding, “She was taken from us before I was born but my mom told me all the time when I was growing up how much she would have loved me and how much I was like her.”
More replies began to arrive. Many people, like Regina, were going online looking for answers, and were being directed by search engines to this obscure corner of the Web. To date, Regina’s message has generated a hundred and fifty-seven replies, many from people with direct connections to the McCrarys or their victims. A woman wrote to say that one of the victims was her half sister, whom she had never gotten the chance to know. A friend of the half sister replied, describing a necklace the victim was wearing around her neck the day she died—a gift the friend had given her. Friends and family members of victims exchanged memories and e-mail addresses, trying to fill in their pictures of departed relatives and loved ones. In August, 2014, a woman with the username Jenny wrote, “I know that some of these people may not like me because of who I am. I am the daughter of Sherman McCrary the serial killer, I was with them through the whole ordeal, and I like some of them want answers.”
This was Tammy, the youngest child of Sherman and Carolyn McCrary. She was ten when her parents and other relatives were arrested, and she was reunited with Carolyn and Ginger after they were released from prison. Tammy believed that her mom and sister had known what was going on but had feared for their own lives. What mattered to her, she wrote, was how the existing family members would rise above it to raise the next generation right: “Live life happy and with pride.” Regina replied that she wished the adult McCrary women had nightmares every night. But she knew that Tammy had just been a kid, she added, and that her parents’ actions did not define her as a person. Tammy didn’t respond.
The following month, a producer with the Investigation Discovery show “Evil Kin” wrote to ask whether any of the board’s commenters would like to participate in an episode devoted to the McCrary-Taylors. It aired in August, 2015, and included an interview with Tammy. The episode seemed to draw more interest to the crimes: people who had watched it showed up on the message board to join the back-and-forth. Regina’s son Nathan, then twenty-six, logged in to note that he was now the same age as his grandmother when she was killed. He wondered what would happen if he died at this age. “It’s still haunting people today people who weren’t even alive when it happened,” he wrote. His aunt Tonette, Regina’s sister, replied to her nephew: “But you will survive kiddo!” She and Nathan rarely talked about Elizabeth’s murder in person.
In March, 2017, a woman logged on to say that she had only just learned, from the blog post, who had killed her aunt and uncle. She was trying to write a book “about the ripple effect of traumatic events in families,” she went on. The murder had wrecked her father’s life, and then hers, and it was hurting her children’s lives, too, she added. “Regardless of what could have been in a world where the McCrarys just stayed home that year and grew weed or started a band or something, we live in the reality where their actions echo in the lives of so many of us, every, single, day. I want to know why. I need to understand. If I’m being completely honest, I need someone to blame.”
That same month, a man named Jerry Nations found the site. He saw the post from Regina’s cousin saying that Ginger had died, and he logged in to correct the record. Ginger was still alive, he wrote. He knew, he explained, because she was his mother. He appended his e-mail address, and added that anyone who wanted to know more could send him a note.
I sent Jerry an e-mail shortly afterward. I had happened upon the message board and become fascinated less by the crimes than by their reverberations across generations, and by the ways that those affected had tried to understand the truth and come to terms with it. The defunct podcast forum had enabled new connections among the victims’ loved ones, but it was replete with misinformation and rumors. In many instances, “true crime” had become the truth.
I spoke with a number of people who posted on the message board. Jerry and I began chatting every few weeks. In April, 2018, almost a year after we began corresponding, we met in person, in Carthage, Texas, at a golf course where Jerry worked as a landscaper. He wore a straw cowboy hat and sported a graying goatee. Among his many tattoos were various symbols of Texas: a yellow rose, a Lone Star, pictographs of the state. He got a Big Gulp-size Styrofoam cup with rum and Coke from the bartender, then popped open a worn briefcase and pulled out a jumble of papers.
Jerry was about five years old when all the adults in the McCrary-Taylor family were detained by law enforcement. He began cycling through foster families; according to his adoption records, he was afraid of dogs, the dark, and the police. Jerry and his brother Glenn were adopted in 1976, by the Nations family, who lived near Carthage. Jerry managed to graduate from high school, and began hopping between oil and gas jobs. At twenty, he was arrested for the first time, for “making alcohol available to a minor.” At twenty-two, he got his first felony conviction, for assaulting a cop.
He requested his adoption records from the state of Texas in 1995, and received them a year later. He was twenty-nine. That’s when he learned that his biological family were murderers. As he read the file, he told me, single images, out of focus, flooded his mind. He remembered finding a severed human hand, dirty and gnarled, while playing in the back yard with Glenn. (It was the devil’s hand, he told a social worker in 1972, soon after he entered foster care.) He recalled a moment, sitting in the front seat of an unfamiliar car, counting the stitches in the seat’s upholstery while a woman in the back seat screamed. On his first time through the file, he stopped, threw up, and then smoked a joint.
Soon afterward, he called Ginger, his biological mother, for the first time. She was headed to Dallas, and he and Glenn arranged to meet her and Tammy there. Jerry spotted them in the airport right away. “I told Glenn, ‘That’s your momma right there, boy,’ ” he said. “I just knew her. They walked right by us. She didn’t know us shit from Shinola.” The reunited family headed to a motel, where they hung out and swam and reminisced about road-tripping around the country. That night, after having a bit to drink, Jerry recalled aloud the time they all spent in a motel room in Cheyenne, Wyoming, with an orange curtain and an orange bedspread, when he was a child. Cheyenne is about a two hours’ drive from Lakewood, Colorado; the family killed Leeora Looney not far from the room that he remembered. Ginger cried and refused to speak, Jerry told me. They didn’t talk after that.
Over the next several years, he tried to escape his own mind. He got hooked on bull-riding, then methamphetamine. To avoid unremitting nightmares, he slept less and less. In April, 2010, he was arrested for manufacturing meth, and spent the next five years incarcerated. When he was paroled, he settled in a shotgun trailer in East Texas and tried to move on with his life. But, every once in a while, he would get to thinking about his childhood. He Googled his family name, found the Web site for the “Serial Killers” podcast, and logged in to correct a comment claiming that his mother had died. He got e-mails from a few people besides me—including Regina, who wrote to him in July, 2017. “My name is Regina,” she began. “I am interested in you because ur family killed my mother, Elizabeth Perryman.”
I had written to Regina a few weeks before she sent Jerry that e-mail. By the time he and I met, I knew that the two were interested in speaking with each other, though neither had taken the next step. Sitting in the clubhouse at the golf course with Jerry, I offered to connect them. Jerry dialed Regina’s number.
Their conversation was slow and awkward at first, but they gradually found that they had much in common. Both had been married several times. One of Regina’s brothers went to prison for meth, as Jerry had. “That stuff will steal your soul,” Jerry said. Regina told Jerry that he was a victim, too. “All the children and all the children of their victims, we’re all in the same boat,” she said. “We all grew up with this over our heads.”
Somewhat hesitantly, Regina asked Jerry whether he’d met her mother before she died. He told her that he could not remember any of the victims’ faces; only little flashes from that time remain. Regina wanted to talk to Ginger, but Jerry seemed reluctant to give her Ginger’s number.
Regina and Jerry marvelled at the longevity of the suffering: their parents, them, their kids, probably even their grandkids. “It’s just crazy how many people your parents have affected down the generations,” Regina said. “Yeah,” Jerry replied, “it’s like a domino effect.” He told Regina that he now counted only his son and brother as kin. Regina said that she clings to family as much as she can. She has her sister and father, who understand what she’s been through, plus her entire extended family. The Steffenses hold a reunion every other year.
Still, Jerry was mostly struck by how alike he and Regina were. “She’s like the female version of me,” he said, after hanging up. “Damn skippy.” For a while after the phone call, he slept better. He stopped obsessing about his parents quite so much. He added Regina as a Facebook friend, and they “liked” each others’ posts on occasion. Jerry went through a bad breakup, and Regina sent him love advice.
Regina still felt restless and haunted. Her father, Van, who’d been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis a few years before, wasn’t doing well. In July, 2018, with a mind to arrange his affairs, he gave Regina the purse that her mother had with her on the night that she died. It was a red clutch with copper clips at the top. Inside were a pink billfold, stamps, fifty-year-old toothpaste, eye makeup. There was also a banana-pudding recipe, handwritten by Elizabeth’s mother. Regina studied the items like an archeologist, trying to understand what they might tell her about whom she came from.
I tried to dig up more records and information for Regina. I wrote to Carl Taylor, in a Colorado prison; he sent a polite letter refusing to comment. I called and wrote to Ginger McCrary, but she did not respond. I interviewed former law-enforcement officials and relatives of other victims, and I requested publicly available information in the case of Elizabeth Perryman. These requests were met, initially, with what struck me as bureaucratic stonewalling. But then, in June, 2019, the records arrived in the mail. I sent word to Regina. The Steffens reunion was happening the next month, during the July 4th holiday. She suggested that I come.
I met Regina, surrounded by her family, at a motel in Lubbock, a five-hour drive from her home in Oklahoma. Deeply tanned, with platinum-blond hair and dense eyeliner, she helped her grandkids into their bathing suits with the ease of a parent who’s raised two generations, and escorted them all to the pool. Then she and her son Nathan, her sister Tonette, and Tonette’s daughter Kelsea sat on the motel suite’s fraying sofa to read, on my laptop, the official record of what happened to Elizabeth. The police file contained crime-scene reports, interviews with suspects, newspaper clippings, court transcripts, even poetry that Taylor wrote in prison. I noted that law-enforcement records weren’t the gospel truth. Still, after so much misinformation, Regina was eager for something authoritative. She began clicking through PDFs.
The documents provided a detailed account of what happened the night her mother disappeared. Around 9:20 p.m., Elizabeth called the taxi company where Van worked as a driver. She asked the dispatcher to relay a message to her husband to pick her up at a Toddle House coffee shop, where she had been waitressing to save money to attend Texas Tech, up the street. When Van arrived, half an hour later, the place was locked. He searched for his wife all night. The next morning, restaurant staff discovered that $86.25 was missing from the cash register and that Elizabeth’s purse was still in the restaurant. The grill had been scrubbed, but the coffee urn hadn’t been cleaned and the floor was only partially mopped. Van filed a missing-persons report.
A separate file contained a copy of Taylor’s videotaped confession. Regina and Tonette decided that they wanted to watch it. Taylor, who frequently lied to law enforcement, made the sordid claim that Elizabeth went along with her own kidnapping, even welcomed it. “You lying motherfucker,” Regina said.
The next day, the Steffens family gathered at a pavilion by a lake. Elizabeth’s siblings Billy, Irene, Dorothy, and Sharon decorated the walls with patriotic streamers and flags. Sharon, now retired and in her sixties, is red-haired and gregarious. In 2003, she went to work as a receptionist at the Lubbock County District Attorney’s office. When a victim or a victim’s family came in, Sharon told me, she would sit with them while they waited to see a prosecutor. “No matter what you do to a criminal, the victim is never the same,” she said. I offered that, in other circumstances, criminals can be victims, too, but Sharon was having none of it. She showed me old photographs of Elizabeth, whom they called Betty Jo. She told me that Regina reminded her a lot of Betty Jo. Her sister Dorothy chimed in, from across the room, to say that mother and daughter shared the same mannerisms, the same hands, the same lips. “It’s been fifty years,” Dorothy said. “So it’s hard for me to remember her unless I look at Regina.” They began to reminisce about their sister, the pranks she liked to play, the things she liked to cook, a wig she sometimes wore. They also talked about the people who killed her, repeating some of the myths promulgated by “Death Roads” and the docudramas on TV.
After a potluck dinner, the youngest Steffens generation staged a talent show. Elizabeth’s great-granddaughter Vanessa—the child of Regina’s daughter Liz, whom Regina named after her mother—wrapped it up with a song. Vanessa’s bleached-blond hair dripped lake water onto the ground as she mumble-sang a ballad by Halsey, closing with the lines “Someone will love you / someone will love you.” When she finished, the family burst into applause.
After the pandemic hit Oklahoma, Regina worked as a nurse on a covid floor at a local V.A. hospital. She contracted covid but recovered, then decided that she needed to quit her job to take care of her ill father. We fell out of touch for the most part, and I also didn’t hear from Jerry for a while. I became worried and texted his childhood best friend, who informed me that he hadn’t been able to get a hold of Jerry since September, 2020. “I just hope he’s alive,” the friend wrote. Later, a local sheriff’s deputy explained that he had spoken to Jerry, who was doing fine, he said. Jerry said that he had decided to move away and cut ties with his previous life.
In June, Regina called to tell me that someone was working on a podcast about the McCrary murders—a Hollywood producer, she said, who was hoping that she’d participate. In exchange, she told me, the producer would try to connect her to Taylor, through a detective in the Denver case, whom he’d interviewed. The producer, Alan Wieder, later told me that the podcast was for Wondery, the network behind “Dirty John” and “Dr. Death,” which was sold to Amazon for a reported three hundred million dollars. Wieder has worked on the development side of reality TV for decades. His credits include “The Apprentice” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé.” He told me that he wanted the podcast to address classic true-crime subjects, such as what drives serial killers—the “why” question, as he put it—and that he hoped it would be entertaining. (The podcast, which becomes widely available this month, is called “Families Who Kill: The Donut Shop Murders.”)
In July, the Steffens family got together again, this time at a resort and R.V. park just off the interstate north of San Antonio. I stopped by to chat with Regina. She was still weighing whether or not to participate in the podcast. Over barbecue, she asked Sharon for her opinion. Sharon harrumphed and turned back to her plate. Later, Regina told me that she had turned the podcast down. For a long time, she said, she had dreamed about her mother, an idealized woman she would never know. Some of the details she’d been able to learn within the past few years were upsetting, but they filled in the picture. “She’s more real to me,” she said. “She wasn’t just who I made up.” Regina felt, for the moment, like she knew enough.