SYRACUSE, N.Y. – A 49-year-old woman who was long the focus of police investigating the suspicious deaths of three of her children was charged with murder Wednesday, accused of smothering one of her sons in 1980.
A grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday charged his mother, Shirley Winters, with second-degree murder in the boy's death. District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said the charge was based on conclusions reached by Medical Examiner Dr. Mary Jumbelic, examined the children's' exhumed bodies and reviewed records of their cases.
Winters was brought to court from a northern New York psychiatric center, where she has been for a week since taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Her hands and feet were manacled.
Her attorney, Kenneth Moynihan, entered a not guilty plea and the arraignment was over in less than three minutes. Judge Anthony Aloi scheduled a preliminary hearing for April 5. She was jailed without bail.
Two of Winters' other children, Colleen and John Winters, ages 3 years and 20 months, died in a 1979 fire at their Hyde Lake home in Jefferson County.
There have been at least two other investigations into the deaths of Winters' children. Jefferson County authorities looked at the case in 1982 and 1990 but never filed charges.
The cause of the 1979 fire was deemed to be electrical, according to investigators at the time. Winters, then 21, was the only other person in the home and escaped uninjured. She told investigators she fell asleep on a sofa while watching television, and was awakened by smoke. She said she was unable to rescue her children because of heavy smoke.
Though the death of Ronald Winters was originally blamed on SIDS, Fitzpatrick said a full medical examiner's autopsy was not conducted at the time.
In addition to reviewing records and examining the bodies, Jumbelic was able to interview many eyewitnesses who had contact with the baby when he was alive, including the boy's father, Fitzpatrick said.
Although Winters' took her son to the hospital several times for breathing difficulties, it turned out "he was always a healthy boy in the hospital. The only time he had trouble breathing was when he was in the exclusive care of Shirley Winters," Fitzpatrick said.
Winters has at least three more children from the 1980s who are living.
Investigators' interest in the death of the Winters' children was rekindled in November following the death of 23-month-old Ryan Rivers, who was found dead Nov. 28, fully clothed and on his back, in the bathtub of his stepfather and mother's home in Pierrepont, St. Lawrence County. Winters was living with the family at the time.
Authorities in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties are continuing their investigations, Fitzpatrick said. Jumbelic has nearly completed her examination of the bodies of the other two Winters children and will turn her findings over to Jefferson County prosecutors, Fitzpatrick said.
Police believe Rivers' death is suspicious.
In 1966, carbon monoxide fumes from a damaged outdoor exhaust pipe killed Winters' 10-year-old brother and two sisters, ages 4 and 11. Winters, then 8, was staying with her grandmother at the time. Her mother died in a car crash in 1997, two months before Winters was sent to prison.
Winters was convicted of arson in 1997 for setting fire to her late mother's home in the town of Onondaga. She was sentenced to eight years in prison and released in 2005.
She pleaded guilty in 1981 to criminal mischief in connection with two mobile home fires and was sentenced to probation and psychiatric care.
In October 1990, Winters pleaded guilty to assaulting a sheriff's deputy who tried to arrest her for making harassing calls to a neighbor after a suspicious fire damaged Winters' aunt's home. She pleaded guilty to attempted assault in a deal that covered another arson fire and was sent to state prison for one to three years.
Since 1979, Winters has been linked to 17 fires at homes where she lived or the homes of family members.