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What If a Serial Killer Murdered Your Grandma?

Billy Chemirir has taught us that not all older people die naturally.

Key points

  • Accused serial killer Billy Chemirmir was arrested in Dallas in 2018.
  • Between 2015 and 2018, Billy Chemirmir was accused of killing at least 18 women and suspected of murdering several more.
  • Billy Chemirmir targeted women in homes and assisted living facilities to allegedly rob and kill. Two survivors helped police apprehend him.
copyright free, Billy Chemirmir mugshot
Source: copyright free, Billy Chemirmir mugshot

Alleged serial killer Billy Chemirir's trial is starting. The heroines in this story are two women who have lived longer than most of us ever will. Ninety-one-year-old Mary Annis Bartell survived a brutal robbery and attempted murder in March 2018 and helped police nab suspected serial killer Billy Chemirmir. And an unnamed 93-year-old survivor of a similar attack told a similar story and provided additional key details.

We’ll never know how many lives they saved. It’s a safe bet to say “a lot,” given that he is accused of killing 18 and is suspected of murdering 24. His murders go back to at least 2015 (although he has been in Dallas since 2010). There was no evidence he had any plans to stop.

The Killer’s M.O.

According to prosecutors, 48-year-old Billy Chemirmir had a consistent way of operating. He always targeted elderly women. Posing as either a maintenance man or healthcare worker, he would talk his way either into their homes or into their apartment in an independent living facility.

He would then kill the women and steal their valuables. The two surviving victims said he acted like he was just going to rob them, reassuring them and telling them to lie on the bed and not fight him. When they followed his instructions, he would suffocate them with a pillow.

Obviously, he must have thought the two survivors were dead when he left their apartment.

Missed Clues

Yes, these were elderly women. It is certainly not as surprising when an 80-year-old woman dies than when an 8-year-old child does. But elderly people get murdered just like people of any age and there were certainly clues that could have raised suspicions.

Take the 2016 death of 83-year-old Leach Corcoran. When she died suddenly, her daughter was shocked. They had gone shopping and out to dinner the night before and her mother had seemed as lively, sharp and healthy as ever.

There were odd details at the crime scene. Found on the living room floor of her upscale apartment at The Tradition-Prestonwood, an independent community in Dallas, Ms. Corcoran’s meticulously coiffed hair was a mess. There were make-up smudges on her pillow, yet, according to her daughter, Ms. Corcoran religiously performed her bedtime hygiene routine. Her wedding ring was missing.

In spite of the irregularities, no one suspected foul play.

Still puzzled, her grieving family gradually came to accept what they were told; she had probably died of a stroke. At least, they thought, she hadn’t suffered.

They had no idea how many local families were living through the same experience, grappling with the sudden loss of an older-but-healthy-and-active family member and troubled over missing jewelry.

Another Clue: Chemirmir Had Been Arrested Before at the Same Place He Killed

I know how easy it is to play Monday morning quarterback once we know how the game ends. I'm I’m not criticizing police for issuing a criminal trespass warning the first time security spotted Chemirmir at Edgemere living facility and called police.

I applaud them for arresting and charging Chemirmir when returned three months later. He was booked – and convicted – for criminal trespassing and giving officers the wrong name. (When searching him, they discovered two IDs, one under his real name and one under an alias).

It’s somewhat disturbing that he only served a month in jail. But that’s not on the police. But when, according to a November 2016 police report, someone matching his description was escorted off of the property of another independent living facility in late 2016 after having been seen there several times and lying about what he was doing there (he said he was checking for pipe leaks), surely there should have been some kind of inquiry.

Wouldn’t you think someone would at least have talked to some of the residents? If they had, it’s likely they would have quickly realized that many of the residents were alarmed by – and suspicious of- the increasing deaths of their friends.

Just days before Glenna Day, 87, was found dead there in October 2016, she told friends something seemed off. “They asked how things were going. She said, ‘Well, I’m thinking I should move because my friends are dying,’” said her daughter.

"We Thought Their Time Had Come"

“Every death is a homicide until proven otherwise.” I think every police officer and death investigator would agree with that statement. Hell, I read it in a death investigation training manual.

But that’s not what happens in the real world. It can’t be; it's not practical. There aren’t enough resources to treat every death as a potential murder. There has to be a decision tree that helps officers decide what deaths are suspicious and which ones are not.

But that should be based on the evidence and not the age of the victim. Just as I’ve seen death investigators jump the gun and label a murder a suicide just because the victim had a history of depression, there undoubtedly is a tendency to assume the sudden death of an older person is natural. Case closed.

Kudos to then-Plano Police Chief Greg Rushin for acknowledging this at a news conference following Chemirmir’s arrest. Acknowledging a common tendency to assume the death of an older person is natural, he said, “There is not a deep investigation ... It would be very easy to disguise a crime.”

Sometimes Good Comes From Evil

This story hit close to home for me for two reasons. One; two of the most important people in my life growing up were my grandmother and great grandmother. They were the family matriarchs; endless sources of wisdom, comfort, and life experiences. To this day, I attribute a good part of my mental health to these two amazing women. The thought of losing them unnecessarily fills me with horror and rage.

Second; my dad lived in a nursing home before he died. I was lucky; my brother lived close by and regularly checked on him. So did his brother. So we had "boots on the ground" in terms of noticing anything suspicious or amiss in terms of the care he received and the way he died. Others are not so lucky. I hasten to add that we had admiration and respect for the caretaking my dad received in is later years and I hope that's the experience of many.

But, older persons are vulnerable. Abuse happens. Neglect happens. Rarely, so does murder. And families, uneasy and suspicious about what they're hearing and seeing, often unquestionably accept the narrative they're given. That needs to change. There are resources to help families navigate these murky situations; here's an example.

The Bottom Line

When I was writing my book, Serial Killers: 101 True Crime Fans Ask, I often encountered the myth that serial killers always kill young women and the motive is always sex. It's a lot more complicated. If true, Billy Chemirmir isn't the first serial killer to target older women, nor is he the first to make a living by it.