The late ’90s – early ’00s were precarious years for old ladies in Mexico. For some bizarre reason, they became the targets of a serial killer. The victims had a few things in common – they were all over 60, lived on their own near parks and gardens, and were part of a government program called Sebum.
Initially, authorities refused to acknowledge that a murderer was on the loose killing little old ladies. They criticized the media for overblowing the situation and argued that the cases weren’t necessarily related.
In total, 49 women lost their lives. This clearly wasn’t random – they were being targeted.
What Kind of Monster Would Do This?
When you come to think about it, who would target defenseless grandmothers? And why?
Police had no clue. All they knew was that there was someone out there, strangling old ladies with cables, stockings, and bare hands. Once they acknowledged that the killings weren’t random, they gave the killer a moniker: “La Mataviejitas.” In English this means “The Little Old Lady Killer.”
La Mataviejitas did a pretty good job at covering their tracks and fooling law enforcement. Bernardo Bátiz, Mexico City’s chief prosecutor, initially profiled them as having “a brilliant mind, [being] quite clever and careful.”
The Search Was Full of Conflicting Evidence
In a three-year spree, the little old lady killer struck over forty victims. The public was growing more frightened by the minute, asking, why haven’t the police caught yet? The thing was, the manhunt was complicated due to conflicting evidence.
Several officers suggested it was someone posing as a government official offering the ladies a chance to enroll in welfare programs. Others believed that they were dealing with not one, but two evil murderers.
The Police Came Out With a Profile
There was one thing everyone agreed on – the little old lady killer got close to – and killed – so many people because they knew how to gain their trust. The killer must have been an innocent-looking person, police assumed, one who knew how to sweet-talk their way into their victims’ homes.
Finally, police came out with a profile – a brilliant, middle-aged psychopath who was meticulous, organized, and likely abused as a kid. The police had everything right except one thing. The little old lady killer was a woman.
They Weren’t Looking in the Right Direction
Female serial killers were so rare at the time (and still are), that police never even considered their suspect to be a woman. They spent all their energy going after guys, which is another reason why she got away with it for so long.
One witness reported seeing a muscular figure in a nurse’s uniform next to one of the crime scenes. This led police to believe they were dealing with a cross-dresser. They ended up arresting over forty male transvestites and several other sex workers.
Finally, Someone Saw Her
The cops grew more and more frustrated because none of the people they caught seemed to match their fingerprints or the sketch they had compiled based on eyewitnesses. Thankfully, a major breakthrough happened in 2006, when the little old lady killer picked the wrong grandma to kill.
Unlike her other victims, 86-year-old Ana Maria de Los-Reyes wasn’t living alone. She had a tenant living in an additional flat in the back of her house. And on the morning of January 23, just as her tenant was heading out, he managed to get a glimpse of the killer.
Strangled With a Stethoscope
Ana Maria’s tenant opened her door and saw his landlady sprawled on the floor, limp and blue. He screamed for law enforcement who, luckily, were right nearby and came just in time to see the killer fleeing down the street.
The woman was 48-year-old Juana Barraza. When the cops approached her, she had in her bag an ID identifying her as a social worker, some pension forms, and a stethoscope, which, as it turned out, was the murder weapon.
She Was a Former Wrestler
To practically everyone’s surprise, the old lady killer was a middle-aged woman who used to be one of Mexico’s female wrestlers. Her professional name was The Silent Lady (they should have named her the silent BUT DEADLY lady).
Juana was also a single mom who supported her family through her wrestling career. That is, until an injury forced her to retire early. Then, she started thinking of other ways to make ends meet. Juana wasn’t in the mood for mundane jobs like cleaning or caregiving. She had other plans.
Her Childhood Was a Nightmare
To understand why Juana Barraza turned to murder and robbery, we need to look at her childhood. The youngest of three kids, Juana was born in a rural area north of Mexico City, to a poor, alcoholic mother and a train wreck of a dad.
Juana’s parents, Justa and Trinidad Barraza met at a nightclub. Despite her best efforts to give Juana and her siblings a stable childhood, Trinidad’s philandering was too much for Justa and she walked out, taking her kids with her.
Sold for Three Beers
Her dad, Trinidad, was later arrested for all sorts of crimes. He told the police that he had slept with so many women, and fathered so many different kids, that he stopped counting after his 32nd child was born.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, her mom, Justa Samperio, sold Juana when she was just 12 years old to some random guy she met at a bar. And she didn’t sell her for a good, hefty sum. She sold her in exchange for three beers. THREE BEERS.
Her Mom Spread Lies to Cover Her Butt
Juana fell into the hands of a brutal man who locked her in the house and repeatedly raped and beat her. She became pregnant at the age of 13, miscarried, then again at 16, only to miscarry a second time.
She was held captive for five years, and all the while, her mother lied to the rest of the family and claimed that she had escaped to start a new life somewhere of her own free will. Eventually, Juana was found and rescued by her uncles.
Her Life Was a Mess
Shortly before she was rescued, Juana gave birth to a son. He was the light of her life and the only person in the world who provided her with hope and brought her joy. But sadly, he was killed in a mugging.
Juana’s life was all over the place. She would go on to have four kids by three different fathers. She couldn’t read or write (except the letters of her name) and the only outlet she had to let off some steam was wrestling. After her injury, even that was taken away from her.
History Repeated Itself
Barraza would later say that she chose older ladies as her victims as a form of revenge against her sick mother. Now, I’m not justifying Juana’s horrifying actions, but I think it’s important to understand what would drive a person to commit such crimes.
Juana’s tragic case is history repeating itself, as her mom, Justa Samperio, had herself been sold and made into a sex slave. She gave birth to Juana when she was just 13 years old. Conclusion? Trauma gives rise to more trauma which gives rise to more trauma. It’s a vicious cycle.
So, How Did She Do It?
Barraza posed as a welfare worker to gain her victims’ trust. Dressed up as a nurse, she would introduce herself as a woman of peace, who had come to spread good news.
After managing to talk her way into their homes, the strangling would commence. If they weren’t distracted, she would beat them until they could no longer move. Being a former wrestler, Juana knew just how to immobilize her opponents.
She Collected Personal Trophies
After killing her victims, Barraza would wander around the house and collect all sorts of valuables – jewelry, paintings, clothing, expensive cutlery, and vases. It’s said that she would keep some of those things in her house as personal trophies.
Barraza believed she was doing society a favor by wiping out old, widowed ladies who, she believed, had little left to contribute to the world. She saw them as a waste of space and showed absolutely no remorse for killing them.
She Set a New Record
Juana Barraza was tried in the spring of 2008, where she was accused of over 40 murders. Not all the crime scenes had her fingerprints, but there was enough evidence to conclude that she was the woman responsible.
Barraza confessed to a few of the murders, but not all of them. Eventually, she was sentenced to 759 years in prison, the longest prison sentence ever given in Mexico. La Mataviejitas will be eligible for parole in 2058. By that time, she’ll be 100 years old.
No One Suspected Her
The creepy thing about Barraza’s story was that just a week before her arrest, she had been interviewed on TV about her former wrestling career. Standing proud in front of the camera, Barraza went on and on without raising any suspicion.
The reason she felt so nonchalant about the whole thing was because she knew that no one was after her. Or, better phrased, no one was after a woman. While it’s true that most serial killers are men, Barraza’s story should serve as a lesson to us all: never eliminate a massive portion of society based on probability.
Do Men Really Kill More?
I’ll make the leap and assume that when we think of a potential serial killer, most of us will have a man in mind. Why? Maybe because Jack the Ripper pops up, or Ted Bundy, or Jeffrey Dahmer.
We’re not wrong to think that men kill more. They really do. According to information collected from Radford University, women account for a little over 11 percent of all serial killer cases in the past century.
How Female and Male Serial Killers Differ
Men and women kill differently. Their methods are different, their motives are different, their overall approach is different. According to researchers, evolution has a good explanation for this.
It all comes down to the old “hunter-gatherer” theory. Male killers tend to “hunt” their victims, who are normally strangers, while female killers tend to “gather” their victims, often targeting people they already know.
How Accurate Is This Idea?
Attributing men’s style of murder to them being hunters in the past isn’t all that far-fetched. A study done by researcher and psychologist Marissa Harrison found that male serial killers were six times more likely to kill a stranger.
Accordingly, female serial killers were twice as likely to murder a person they already know. In addition, more than 50% of the male killers stalked their victims, while only 3% of female killers took the time to follow their victims around.
The Public’s Attitude Differs Too
Not only do men and women differ in how they execute their crimes, but our reaction to them differs too. Studies have shown that female serial killers are usually given nicknames denoting their gender, like “The Giggling Granny” or “Jolly Jane.”
Men, on the other hand, are given brutal names that emphasize the cruelty of their crimes: names like “The Night Stalker,” “The Co-Ed Butcher,” the “Accra Strangler,” and the “Kansas City Slasher.”
The Starkest Difference Is Their Motive
Men and women have been found to differ tremendously when it comes to what drives them to kill. The general belief is this: Men tend to kill for power and sexual pleasure, while women tend to kill for money.
Women normally don’t feel the same compulsion as men to rape or show dominance and power over their victims. They’re in it for the money. That’s why their murder weapons aren’t as brutal. No axes or blood-soaked items of the sort. Instead, women traditionally use poison.
Valuable Lens to Help Us Understand
The fact that men kill for sex and women for money can also be explained through an evolutionary lens. Women have evolved with limited reproductive potential, so things like resources and wise mate choices are more crucial.
Men, on the other hand, have an unlimited reproductive potential (relatively unlimited); therefore, they’re predisposed to seek a large number of sexual opportunities. They’re after sex. And the psychopaths are willing to kill to get it.
Most Female Killers Are Educated, Middle\Upper Class Citizens
It’s tempting to assume that only broken down, poor, miserable, unsatisfied women go out and kill. But the evidence doesn’t support this. Marissa Harrison’s study found that most female killers are white, middle\upper class citizens.
Most of these women were educated and had attained some form of higher education. A disturbing finding was that nearly half of them were either nurses or worked in other health-related professions.
The Jolly Black Widow
Let’s look into some dangerous gals, shall we?
Exhibit A: Nannie Doss.
Known to the world as “the Jolly Black Widow” and “the Giggling Granny,” Nannie Doss’ killing spree began in the 1920s and ended long after in 1954.
Her life didn’t get off to a great start. Her dad was more like a dictator than a loving father, and she spent her teen years desperately trying to find someone to marry so she could flee her house for good.
She Topped His Whiskey With Rat Poison
To Nannie, it didn’t matter much whom she married. That’s why she ended up living with alcoholic, abusing men. Her first husband managed to save himself by leaving Doss before she could kill him. But her second husband wasn’t as lucky.
She met him through a lonely-hearts column. They were married for 16 years until one day, on one drunken evening, he decided to rape her. It was the last straw for Nannie, who poured rat poison into his whiskey jar.
Exhibit B: Amelia Dyer.
Amelia was born in 1837 in a small English town and, after contracting typhus, became violent and dangerous. Her erratic behavior led her family to distance themselves.
Amelia trained to be a nurse and even ran a boarding house for pregnant women. A lot of new moms paid for her help for delivery and even left their babies with her so she could care for them while they were off resting.
Many Died of Neglect and Abuse
In the spring of 1986, a package was found in England’s Thames River. Inside was a horrifying discovery – the body of a little baby girl who had been strangled to death with a strip of white tape.
The package contained some valuable clues, including an address that pointed straight to Amelia Dyer. As they looked into her, they discovered that several babies died while in her care, which added to their suspicion. Dyer was eventually arrested and hanged. She killed over 300 children.
Also known as The Demon Midwife, Ishikawa took it upon herself to “make people’s lives easier.” After World War II, life in Japan was difficult. Ishikawa, who worked at a maternity hospital at the time, decided it was better to kill some of the kids whose parents couldn’t afford to raise them.
She convinced parents to pay her and her colleague a sum of money so they could let them off the “parenthood hook” and kill their babies for them. “What kind of life would they have anyway?” she asked them.
She Barely Spent Any Time in Jail
Ishikawa and her colleague drew up false death certificates and got away with their murders for way too many years. They killed somewhere between 103 and 169 babies! It wasn’t until 1948 that they were finally discovered.
Two police officers stumbled upon the remains of five babies, which led to a thorough investigation of the hospital, and a discovery of 70 additional bodies. Evidence pointed straight to the midwife, but because the killings were done with the parents’ consent, she was given a wee eight-year jail sentence, and even that was cut in half after she appealed.
So, we talked about women who poisoned their victims, but what about one who butchered them with an ax? Clementine’s ax killings kicked off in the fall of 1909 in Louisiana. The first victim was a woman and her three kids.
Next, she murdered a couple and their little son, and then, four members of another Louisiana family. Gradually, police collected enough evidence to take them straight to the Barnabet household. At first, they believed it was the man of the house, Raymond, who was responsible.
Sacrificing in Exchange for Immortality
Raymond was quickly cleared of any suspicion after another family was murdered while he was in custody. That’s when they looked into his kids, Zepherin and Clementine. They shamelessly testified against their dad, saying they had seen him covered in blood once.
The police weren’t buying into it though, and after they found blood on Clementine’s clothes, they arrested her. As it turns out, Clementine was part of a cult called the Church of Sacrifice whose adherents believed that sacrificing others was the way to gain eternal life. She spent ten years in jail, even though she killed between 17-35 people (it remains unclear).
Born in southern Italy in 1894, Leonarda grew up a popular little girl. There was seemingly nothing wrong with her upbringing. It was Leonarda’s mind that was disturbed. She was very, very superstitious.
After being told by a fortune teller that all her future kids would die, she became convinced that sacrificing others would help her gain control of her life and preserve her children. So that’s exactly what she did.
With the Help of Her Trusty Ax…
Cianciulli worked as a shopkeeper and told various tales to lure people in. Once she had her victims under her spell, she drugged and then murdered them with an ax. She would dispose of their body parts by turning them into dark mush with the help of caustic soda.
As if that’s not horrifying enough, she turned her last victim into creamy soap. She boiled him in a pot, added some fragrant cologne, and then, as she explained, “[made] some most acceptable creamy soap,” which she then gave to her acquaintances.
Here’s another nursing home horror story. In 1907, Amy Archer and her husband John founded the Archer Home for Elderly and Indigent Persons, located in the serene town of Windsor, Connecticut.
When John passed away in 1910, Amy was left with a stack of bills and a child to feed. She remarried in 1913, and by the start of 1914, her new husband was no more. He was dead, and, how convenient, had left her his entire estate.
Nearly 50 People Died Under Her Care
Between 1911 and 1916, 48 patients died in Amy’s nursing home. Suspicions began to surface around 1914 when family members began to do some digging and found out that most of the deaths were stomach related.
Autopsies of several of her victims revealed arsenic, and it soon became clear what was really going on. Archer was found guilty and was originally sentenced to hanging. After some deliberation, her punishment was transmuted to life in prison.
Gesche Gottfried was known as the “Angel of Bremen,” because as far as her neighbors knew, she had faced incredible hardships. She lost her husbands, her children, her parents, her friends, her partners, yet in some miraculous way, she managed to find the power to nurse them through their illnesses.
That’s because she was the one poisoning them in the first place. Gottfried apparently suffered from a bizarre phenomenon called Munchausen’s syndrome. It’s a condition where people cause their loved ones to suffer so they can care for them.
Her Weapon of Choice
Gottfried’s weapon of choice was arsenic mixed with butter. She began killing her husband and kids, then moved on to her neighbors, her landlady, and even her maid. She was finally caught red-handed after one of her victims grew suspicious.
They had a doctor examine the food she gave them. Shortly after, she was arrested and beheaded (the year was 1831). She was the last person to be publicly executed in Bremen. To this day, a “spit stone” dedicated to her can be found in the city.
Her Case Remains One of the Most Intriguing Ones Out There
Juana Barraza’s case is so unbelievable that it has been talked about and portrayed multiple times in different outlets since being discovered. She was first played in a TV series named Mujer Casos De La Vida Real which aired in the early ’00s.
A few years later, Mexican producer Pedro Torres covered her story on television in an episode of the Mexican TV series Mujeres Asesinas (Female Killers). The episode is titled Maggie, Pensionada.
Juana Barraza was also covered in the documentary series Instinto Asesino. The show dedicated to Barraza aired on Discovery en Español in 2010 in an episode called “La Mataviejitas.”
Juana Barraza was also covered on the show La Historia Detras Del Mito, in an episode entitled “La Mataviejitas.” And lastly, in 2015, Juana was portrayed in the Discovery series Deadly Women. The episode is called Payback.