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How The Children Of Elderly Murder Victims United To Help An Entire Community
Suspected serial killer Billy Chemirmir is accused of murdering at least 22 elderly women between 2016 and 2018. Now, those left behind are working to make sure more protection can be provided for one of the fastest-growing demographics in America.
Fridays in northern Texas were the same for 92-year-old Doris Gleason, and Oct. 28, 2016, wasn’t much different. Her daughter, Shannon Dion, now 62, made the seven-minute drive from her home to The Tradition-Prestonwood senior living community, recalling it was a “sunny, pretty day; a typical day for October in Dallas.” Dion brought her mother to a scheduled hair appointment before shopping for her groceries. Then the pair went to the bank, where Doris made a list of the specific denominations she required, per their weekly routine.
Doris wore a gold guardian angel charm around her neck, a woman devoted to her faith, her Dion said.
Mother and daughter returned to Doris’s seniors' residence, apartment number 367. That was the home Doris shared with her husband of 61 years, Jerry – a man who spent his career in the oil industry – beginning in 2013 until he passed away less than a year earlier.
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Dion left to meet up with her long-time friends – her former sorority sisters – and Doris commanded, “now go have fun,” never realizing they’d be the last words her mother would ever tell her, Dion told Oxygen.com.
It wasn’t unusual that Dion didn’t hear from her mother on Saturday. Doris was independent for her age. She regularly refused the path of least resistance and had even fulfilled her dreams of embarking on an Alaskan cruise just two months before. Years later, she’d be remembered as a true “Dallasite” and a “steel magnolia.”
But what did strike Dion as odd was when Doris failed to show up at her usual bench, located outside the building, to meet her for church on Sunday morning.
Dion said she contacted the building’s concierge, and they accompanied Dion to her mother’s third-story residence. The door was unlocked. Inside, it appeared Doris had fallen while getting up from the dining room table, her laptop still open and chair pulled away – a scene Dion would later say was staged.
“She’s here,” the employee called out to Dion. “She’s gone.”
Shannon Dion told Oxygen.com that after an hour of dealing with the shock of her mother's sudden death, she began to realize something was wrong. In particular, Doris’s jewelry was gone, most notably her guardian angel charm. Missing from Doris’ wallet was the money Dion helped her withdraw from the bank on Friday.
According to Dion, responding officers from the Dallas Police Department told her they believed someone robbed Doris after she died of natural causes, though Dion had her suspicions early on.
“It flat out didn’t make any sense,” said Dion. “But I grew up to trust police. I had nothing else to go on. What else do I do?”
Following discussions with on-premises management and a FOIL request the following month, Dion was horrified to learn her mother was the fourth to die at the Tradition-Prestonwood under similar circumstances.
What Dion hadn’t yet known was that Doris was actually the seventh person to die on the property under those circumstances within a three-and-a-half-month period, Dion explained to Oxygen.com.
Doris’ story seemed to mirror other suspicious deaths, not just at the Tradition-Prestonwood, but at other senior living properties in northern Texas, including the Edgemere of Dallas, The Parkview in Frisco, the Preston Place retirement community in Plano, and a handful of private residences in the area.
Later, Billy Kipkorir Chemirmir, now 49, would become a suspect and eventually be accused of killing no less than 22 elderly women between 2016 and 2018.
In each instance, Chemirmir allegedly posed as a handyman or caregiver and stalked each one of his victims. Then, he’d allegedly force his way into the victims’ homes, smother them (typically with a pillow), and take their jewelry and valuables with him.
Doris Gleason was victim number nine, prosecutors would later say. However, it wouldn’t be until the summer of 2018 – about a year and a half after her death – that investigators would reopen her case and begin a homicide investigation, Dion stated.
About a month after authorities reopened Gleason's investigation, Dallas detectives connected Shannon Dion with Loren Adair Smith, whose mother, Phyllis Payne, 91, is believed to be one of Chemirmir’s first victims.
Together, Dion and Smith “wanted to do something” and had the desire to “make a change” to keep this from happening to others in the elderly community, Dion told Oxygen.com.
From “that first conversation of sharing everything,” they began what would become “Secure Our Seniors’ Safety,” or SOSS. They are a Dallas-based group consisting of relatives of Chemirmir's alleged victims, hoping to raise awareness on elderly safety throughout Texas. According to Dion, they're hoping to make significant progress in their home state but would "love to expand nationally" in the future.
“We needed to work together to operate a change,” Dion stated.
By the end of 2018, Ellen House, whose mother was 85-year-old Norma French, and Mary Jo Jennings, whose mother was 83-year-old Leah Corken, joined the movement and completed the core group of SOSS.
“It was healing,” for Dion, who said it was a “grueling, grueling process” as the new friends waited for the medical examiner’s office to amend their mothers’ deaths from natural causes to homicide.
Doris’ cause of death was changed to homicidal violence by smothering, as was the case for the other women in the group.
“We all say we don’t know how we would have gotten through it without each other,” Dion said of her SOSS family.
Another SOSS member is Daniel Probst, whose aunt, Dr. Catherine Sinclair, was also investigated as a possible victim of Billy Chemirmir, although he was never formally charged in connection with her death, according to the Dallas Morning News.
“The new family that I have [with SOSS], in a strange way, shares some of the loss I and my family have experienced. … It ranges from hugging to checking on people who are still on the edge with their loss,” Probst told Oxygen.com. “SOSS is a start, but the amount of senior abuse and manipulation is very real in every segment of our society, regardless of socioeconomic stature.”
With the Baby Boomer generation getting older, the U.S. has seen a sharp rise in its elderly population. According to the Administration for Community Living – a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – people over 65 years of age accounted for 16% of the total U.S. population in 2019. That's a fourfold increase since 1900, when that figure was 4.1%.
The current population of individuals 65 or older is 54.1 million. That number is projected to reach 80.8 million by 2040 and 94.7 million by 2060, marking the elderly as one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country.
“We thought they were safe,” the SOSS website states. “They were not.”
SOSS is a nonprofit organization aimed at passing legislation that would improve security in senior living communities around the state and to spark conversations about safety protocols.
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“When you’re evaluating where a senior, a loved one, is going to live… they’re being told, ‘This is cruise-like life experience; you’re going to have great food, you’re going to have wonderful activities,’ but the bottom line is they need to look at the security,” Dion stated. “Just as when you look at a car: it’s beautiful, and the interior is all luxury, [but] you need to look under the hood, and you need to kick the tires.”
Of course the phenomenon of crimes against elderly victims isn't bound by geography. In New York City, handyman and suspected serial killer Kevin Gavin, 66, was charged with one count of first-degree murder and three counts of second-degree murder for violently stabbing or strangling three elderly women in the same senior housing development in Brooklyn between 2015 and 2021, according to the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office. In England, Stephen Akinmurele was accused of killing five pensioners before taking his own life in 1999, according to The Guardian.
Having a better sense of where elderly loved ones are living is critical, Dion said.
“You need to see where all the vulnerabilities and gaps are, where evil can come through,” Dion continued. “What measures are there? Are there cameras? Do they register people as they come in to visit? Is criminal activity shared with residents? Start asking those questions, and dig deeper than just the pretty stuff. ”
Dion added it was important that senior living communities run criminal background checks on those working on the properties and that management keep residents apprised of any criminal activity on the premises. She also explained that because many of the buildings are privately owned, it creates issues for law enforcement to access and canvas areas as easily as they could in public residential neighborhoods.
Oxygen.com reached out to the properties where Chemirmir’s alleged victims were killed, asking for information about what protocols – if any – had been placed since the nearly two dozen deaths. Edgemere and Preston Place did not respond, while the Tradition-Prestonwood – where Doris Gleason lived and died – e-mailed a prepared statement to Oxygen.com.
“The deaths by an alleged serial killer in peoples’ homes and at multiple senior living communities in the [Dallas-Fort Worth] Metroplex is a true tragedy,” the center said. “The Tradition-Prestonwood regards all our residents as family.”
They explained that they “relied on the investigations” of Dallas police and other law enforcement officials.
“Any death was investigated by Dallas police and the Dallas County Medical Examiner and ruled as attributed to natural causes,” the center continued. “Additionally, there were two autopsies which also confirmed death by natural causes. Those rulings stood for more than 27 months.”
The Tradition-Prestonwood says it continues to cooperate with authorities.
A turning point in the investigation was the March 2018 murder attempt in Plano on Mary Annis Bartel. A man, believed by authorities to have been Chemirmir, forced his way into the 91-year-old's apartment, smothered her with a pillow, and took her jewelry, according to the Associated Press. She survived the attack.
The next day, police found Chemirmir at his nearby apartment in possession of jewelry and cash belonging to 81-year-old Lu Thi Harris. This prompted authorities to check on Harris, who was found dead in her home after being smothered with a pillow.
This was when the deaths of Doris Gleason and others were reopened and investigated as homicides.
Harris was Chemirmir’s final known victim, and her murder was one of two he'd be convicted for. The second victim was 87-year-old Mary Brooks, who was killed in January 2018. Chemirmir was convicted by a Harris' murder in April; he was found guilty of Brooks' in October.
Shannon Dion called the legal proceedings “incredibly draining,” citing the courts closing down due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a deadlocked jury in the first trial for Harris’ murder.
“Then we got the two convictions, which was such a relief because now he goes away,” Dion told Oxygen.com. “He has no hope of getting out.”
After securing the convictions, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office dropped 11 additional murder indictments against Chemirmir, according to Fox News.
Dion knew the district attorney’s decision ahead of time but said it was “still a gut punch,” knowing that Chemirmir would never be convicted of her mother's murder.
“That was very difficult,” said Dion. “But SOSS came together, and we had a moment of silence after the charges had been dismissed where we were able to recognize those cases. I have goosebumps talking about it.”
On Oct. 28 – exactly six years after Doris Gleason’s murder – Shannon Dion and other victims’ relatives gathered in the rain at the Tradition-Prestonwood to honor each of the women included in the tossed indictments.
On top of the Harris and Brooks convictions, Chemirmir remains the prime suspect in the murders of Phyllis Payne, 91; Phoebe Perry, 94; Joyce Abramowitz, 82; Juanita Purdy, 82; Leah Corken, 83; Margaret White, 86; Norma French, 85; Glenna Day, 87; Doris Gleason, 92; Helen Lee, 82; Marilyn Bixler, 90; Mamie Miya, 93; Minnie Campbell, 84; Diane Delahunty, 79; Doris Wasserman, 90; Carolyn MacPhee, 81; Rosemary Curtis, 76; Martha Williams, 80; Miriam Nelson, 81; and Ann Conklin, 82.
Chemirmir faces prosecution for nine murders in Collin County.
He is now serving a life sentence in prison for the murders of Harris and Brooks without the possibility of parole, something Dion says will spare victims’ loved ones from being re-victimized if ever Chemirmir faced the possibility of release.
Chemirmir maintains his innocence.
For now, the Secure Our Seniors’ Safety family – now consisting of seven members whose loved ones were alleged victims of Chemirmir – shows no signs of stopping. They continue to fight to have laws passed to see the elderly live out their twilight years in the safety of their own homes.
“We truly are a family,” stated Dion. “We pick on each other. We laugh at each other. We have celebrated together; we’ve gotten so close.”
Dion says there are many ways to help the elderly in their community, including getting in touch with your local legislature. The SOSS website lists multiple bills they hope to see passed in the future.
"Unsung Heroes" sheds light on people who often work behind-the-scenes yet make a positive impact within the true crime space—including victims-turned-advocates, police officers, legal professionals, authors, and non-profit leaders.