Thoroughly Modern Murdering Mothers; or, Women Who Kill for Their Children
The most notable thing you learn when you try to Google “Mothers Who Kill for Their Children” is that not a lot comes up. They’ve been pushed down the page by a more popular phenomenon: Mothers Who Kill Their Children.
Oh my god, the news media loves a Medea narrative. We are fascinated when a woman seems to violate her biological imperative and slaughter her own young. There are listicles and slideshows and rankings. Mothers who drown, mothers who strangle, mothers who poison, mothers who beat.
But this isn’t because mothers — who are, as a class, known for caring pretty strongly about their offspring — don’t kill for their children. Throughout history there have been vigilante mothers who punished their children’s abusers; Mama Grizzlies who protected their sons and daughters against sudden harm; scheming geniuses who Cersei Lannister-ed their babies into power. You don’t get to be Alexander the Great without Olympias, or Nero without Agrippina the Younger. They’re just, somehow, not as splashy and terrifying. But hey: they are still chilling murderers, and they deserve their due.
So here’s to a handful of modern-day moms who took their mothering, by reason of mental illness or extreme distress, to dark and dangerous places.
We should get the not-so-dark truth out of the way upfront: Wanda Holloway, the notably Texan mother of an aspiring middle school cheerleader, never actually succeeded in killing anyone. But as you mom might tell you this Mother’s Day, it is truly the thought that counts.
As the subject of two high-profile made-for-TV movies (Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story starring Lesley Ann Warren, and HBO’s comedic version The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, starring Holly Hunter) and the partial inspiration for the movie Serial Mom, Wanda Holloway looms large as the public idea of an overly-fierce maternal protector.
In 1991, Holloway’s 13-year-old daughter Shanna failed to make the Alice Johnson Junior High School cheerleading squad. Shanna had spent her whole short life coming in second to her neighbor Amber Heath, a 14-year-old fellow eighth grader who excelled wherever Shanna fell short.
But cheerleading was different — if not for Shanna, then for her mother. In Mother Love, Deadly Love, a fantastically-titled true crime account of the Holloway case from author Anne Meier, Meier speculated Holloway was intensely focused on cheer squad because her own Baptist father had forbidden young Wanda from a life of side-line gymnastics. This particular rejection would not stand. Holloway would find a way to get Shanna on that squad.
Mama Wanda formulated an unusually unintuitive plan. What would make a tween girl abandon her pompom dreams? The death of her own mother, Verna Heath. Naturally! Killing a child’s mother is the first thing most people think of when trying to figure out how to dissuade a teen girl from a participating in an extracurricular activity. Of course, this was the before the time of smart phones, so creativity was necessary.
Holloway offered her former brother-in-law, Terry Harper, a pair of diamond earrings in exchange for the disappearance of Verna Heath. Harper recorded the conversation and took it directly to the police, presumably not even stopping to have the earrings appraised.
Wanda endured two trials — the first, in which she was sentenced to 15 years for solicitation of capital murder, was declared a mistrial after it was discovered a juror with a coke conviction should never have been juroring. Having seen how pleading not guilty worked out for her the first time around, Wanda chose to please no contest at her second trial, and was sentenced to only 10 years.
Today her daughter, Shanna Widner, says that she is not close with her mother. Shanna lets her children chose their own after-school activities.
When Lesley Ann Warren starred as Wanda Holloway in 1992’s Willing to Kill, her film was overshadowed by HBO’s splashier version. Warren wasn’t going to be played like that, her cred as a murdering mother undermined, so she immediately followed that role with the lead in the TV movie A Mother’s Revenge. The movie was based on novel called Desperate Justice by Richard Speight. Both movie and book tell the story of a woman who, after her daughter’s rapist is found not guilty due to lack of evidence, shoots and kills him in the courtroom. Crazy! The stuff of overblown crime novels and movies-of-the week, right? Totally.
In real life, it was Ellie Nesler’s son who was molested, and she shot his assailant well before any decision was rendered.
Ellie Nesler was a religious woman. In the mid-to-late 1980’s, she sent her young son William to Bible camp, hoping to inspire his own devotion. Daniel Driver, a dishwasher on the grounds, allegedly assaulted at least five of the camp’s kindergarten-aged charges, including Willy. Long before his time at the camp Driver had pled guilty to the sexual assault of young boys, but was only given probation — thanks to an outpouring of support from fellow church-goers.
It was 1993 when Driver was finally brought up on charges in Jamestown, California. Willy was 11 by then; Ellie, 40. The pair had been dealing with the ramifications of Driver’s abuse for half a decade or more, most of Willy’s short life. The family wanted to see Driver convicted, but Ellie was anxious about having her son testify against his abuser in open court.
Unlike his fictional counterpart, Driver wasn’t falsely exonerated. The trial was still in early stages, a preliminary hearing, when Nesler snapped. It was the look on Driver’s face entering the courtroom that set Willy’s mother off. The man smirked at her.
“She wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t have that cocky look in the beginning,” Nesler’s sister Janette told The New York Times in 1993.
As the single mother approached the witness stand, she drew out a small handgun and shot Driver five times in the back of the head. She surrendered to the police just as quickly, appearing “proud” as she was lead off in cuffs. She avoided a murder charge but was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years, but appealed and was released after three. Ellie appeared on Oprah in 1995, telling O and her audience that while she was sorry, she felt she “had no choice.” It later came out that Nesler was high on meth at the time of shooting.
In 1999, anther TV movie was made, this time starring Christine Lahti. It was titled Judgement Day: The Ellie Nesler Story. Nesler’s own judgement day came in 2005, when she died at the age of 56. At the time, her son Willy Nesler was incarcerated for stomping a man to death.
After shooting her ex-husband in front of their pizza-eating offspring, Camellia Boyd Norton Brown was quoted as saying, “I’m sorry that it came to that, but I believed he was, in fact, destroying my children.”
Brown was 47 in at the time of the murder and had been locked in a custody battled with her 42-year-old ex-husband, Earl Thierry Brown, for five years. She hadn’t seen her daughter, then six, or her son, then eight, for an entire year when she met the group in Raleigh, North Carolina’s Pullen Park on March 24th, 2006. Her husband, who went by his middle name, Thierry, had been granted custody of both children in 2001, when a judged questioned the mother’s mental stability. According to the state, her behavior had already traumatized her small children.
After losing custody of her kids, Camellia Brown’s state worsened. Her behavior was erratic and irrational. Before her marriage, Brown had ran for mayor of Garner, North Carolina (as Camellia B. Norton). While unsuccessful in her bid, she had been a respectable member of the community and organized tax preparer. Now, she was breaking into her ex-husband’s home and skulking around her children’s school in a wig.
While no evidence of Mr. Brown’s transgressions ever came to light, Mrs. Brown accused him of cozying up to social workers to gain favor, molesting their daughter, and abusing their son. Her daughter was reportedly coached by Mrs. Brown in the language of molestation, and was unsure what, if anything, had actually happened to her.
There is some speculation that the meeting at Pullen Park was a custodial hand-off, with Earl giving the kids over to Camellia. But Camellia was convinced she would not see her children again, and aimed at her ex-husband spleen, claiming she thought this would simply incapacitate him.
On the 911 call, Mrs. Brown could be hearing yelling “I killed you, I killed you,” and encouraging her terrified children to pray.
In 2013, Camellia pled guilty to Thierry’s murder, and was sentenced to 16 to 20 years. Her former in-laws agreed to her plea deal to keep Brown’s still-traumatized children from testifying in open court. They are not in contact with their mother.
Meredith Haggerty is a writer and editor in Brooklyn.