Much like the Krista Absalon case I covered, this one took place near my small hometown in northern New York. Shirley Winters, pictured above, was convicted, so far, of two murders. But her history is a tangled tale of darkness.
about the woman
Shirley Winters was born on February 27th, 1958, raised near Onondaga, New York. When she was seven years old, her three siblings died due to what investigators later determined was asphixiation by gase fumes. It was believed that the fumes originated from an exhaust pipe connected to the furnace, damaged by the family dog. The only survivors were Winters’ mother and Winters herself, because she wasn’t at the home at the time. In 1977, she was eighteen when she married her husband. Together, they had six children, three of whom died at very young ages.
On September 12th, 1979, Winters lost her two oldest children, a three-year-old daughter and a twenty-month-old son., after a fire in the family cabin in Theresa, New York. At the time, the fire was ruled to be the result of an accident. Sadly, the previous day, Winters’ friend lost her three children in a house fire iin nearby Hermon, New York. On November 21st of the following year, her five-month-old son died of what was initially believed to be the result of SIDS.
A decade later, on November 12th, 1989, the home in which Winters was staying caught fire, and Winters barely escaped with her four-year old daughter and her two-year old son. During the fire, she presumably lost track of her oldest living child, a five-year-old daughter, but the daughter was able to escape the fire on her own. In November of 2006, another friend lost her two-year-old son.“Timeline: The Life of Shirley Winters.” The Post-Standard, 5 Oct. 2008, Syracuse.com, https://www.syracuse.com/news/2008/10/timeline_the_life_of_shirley_w.html.
There’s no question that Shirley Winters has been surrounded by death and trauma. The question is… how much of that did she herself cause?
a history of criminal behavior
It is impossible to discuss Shirley Winters without looking at all of her history, criminal and suspicious. Not only is she a murderer but she’s also a convicted arsonist.
- September 11, 1979. A house fire in Hermon, New York kills the three children of Winter’s friend.
- September 12, 1979. A fire kills her two oldest children in their cabin in Theresa, New York. Ruled accidental.
- November 21, 1980. Winters’ five-month-old son dies in Otsico, New York. Ruled SIDS.
- January 3, 1981. Two fires occur in Winters’ trailer in Otsico, New York. Both ruled arson.
- February 10, 1981. Two more fires happen in Winters’ trailer in Otsico, New York. Winters charged with arson.
- November 9, 1981. Another fire occurs in her trailer in Otsico, New York. Winters again charged with arson.
- November 12, 1986. A fire breaks out in Winters’ apartment building in Marcellus, New York. Undetermined cause.
- 1989. As Winters waits to go on trial for yet another case of arson earlier in the year in Syracuse, New York, two fires occur at houses while she lived in them, a third in her aunt’s garage.
- 1989. The first trial ends in deadlock and the second acquits her.
- November 12, 1989. A fire breaks out in the home Winters lives in with her children in Syracuse, New York. She rescues two of her children, and the third escapes on her own. Ruled arson.
- January 6, 1990. After another arson-ruled fire at her house in Syracuse, New York, the Family Court orders her children removed from her whom, given to her now ex-husband. Winters voluntarily commits herself to a psychiatric center.
- April 10, 1990. Winters is indicted on reckless endangerment and arson charges from the November 12, 1989 fire.
- March 18, 1990. Winters’ apartment in Syracuse, New York catches fire. She and her downstairs neighbors’ escape.
- September 21, 1990. Another fire is set in the garage of Winters’ aunt in Syracuse, New York.
- October 5, 1990. Yet another fire is set in Winters’ aunt’s garagein Syracuse, New York, this time destroying both the garage and the house.
- October 6, 1990. Winters is arrested for making harrassing phone calls to a neighbor. Resisting arrest, she damages a cop car and attacks a deputy.
- November 14, 1990. Winters is charged with arson, connected to a fire at a bowling alley in Camillus.
- April 27, 1997. WInters commits arson, her target her mother’s home in Onondaga, New York. She pleads guilty, admitting that she knew her cousin was inside. She served eight years in prison.
- 2004. Winters is released from prison but soon violates her parole by being caught in possession of a lighter.
- 2005. Winters is again released from prison.
- March 16, 2007. Winters is hospitalized after a suicide attempt.
- March 28, 2007. Winters is indicted on a murder charge in connection with the 1980 death of her five-month-old son.
- September 19. 2007. Winters is indicted for the drowning death of two-year-old Ryan Rivers in Pierrepont, New York.
- April 21, 2008. Winters pleads guilty to first-degree manslaughter for Ryan Rivers’ death.
- April 24, 2008. Winters pleads guilty to first-degree manslaughter for the death of her son in 1980. However, she maintains his death was accidental, that she was “only” trying to injure him.
- June 16, 2008. Winters is sentenced to twenty years in prison for the murder of Ryan Rivers.
- June 17, 2008. Winters is sentenced to 8 1/3 to 25 years for the murder of her son.“Timeline: The Life of Shirley Winters.” The Post-Standard, 5 Oct. 2008, Syracuse.com, https://www.syracuse.com/news/2008/10/timeline_the_life_of_shirley_w.html.
Two autopsies were conducted on Ryan Rivers. Both concluded that his death was a result of asphixiation due to drowning. However, one also found traces of rubbing alcohol in his blood. Prosecutors argued that she used it to render him unconscious before drowning him in the bathtub.“Winters Trial Delayed While Autopsies Are Reviewed.” CNY Central, 18 Jan. 2008, CNY Central, https://cnycentral.com/news/local/winters-trial-delayed-while-autopsies-are-reviewed.
Interest in her children’s deaths was renewed with the death of Ryan Rivers. All three were exhumed. During the investigation into the 1980 death of her son, it was noted he was taken by Winters to the hospital many times for breathing issues. However, they found that it was noted that he always appeared to be healthy while in the care of medical professionals, only having issues when in the care of his mother.“New York Mom Charged in 1980 Death of Child.” Fox News, 29 Mar. 2007, Fox News, https://www.foxnews.com/story/new-york-mom-charged-in-1980-death-of-child.
Since 1979, Shirley Winters has been connected to seventeen fires, all of which took place at homes she lived in, homes of family members, or homes of friends.
Shirley Winters is serving her sentences for the deaths of Ryan Winters and her son concurrently at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. Her plea bargains allowed her to avoid potential second-degree murder convictions and the possibility of multiple life sentences. The terms of her plea bargains also protected her from any prosecution for the murders of her other two children.
She could be released as soon as 2025.
|↑1||“Timeline: The Life of Shirley Winters.” The Post-Standard, 5 Oct. 2008, Syracuse.com, https://www.syracuse.com/news/2008/10/timeline_the_life_of_shirley_w.html.|
|↑2||“Timeline: The Life of Shirley Winters.” The Post-Standard, 5 Oct. 2008, Syracuse.com, https://www.syracuse.com/news/2008/10/timeline_the_life_of_shirley_w.html.|
|↑3||“Winters Trial Delayed While Autopsies Are Reviewed.” CNY Central, 18 Jan. 2008, CNY Central, https://cnycentral.com/news/local/winters-trial-delayed-while-autopsies-are-reviewed.|
|↑4||“New York Mom Charged in 1980 Death of Child.” Fox News, 29 Mar. 2007, Fox News, https://www.foxnews.com/story/new-york-mom-charged-in-1980-death-of-child.|