THE UNFORGIVING DESERT
David Parker Ray was born on November 6, 1939, in the tiny desert town of Belen, New Mexico. From the beginning he faced an uphill struggle with an often violent father who drank heavily. It was a tough, punishing childhood that mirrored the Rio Grande Valley’s forbidding terrain.
His paternal grandfather Ethan Ray (not his real name) had come to the Abo Pass in the 1920s, homesteading a few acres of arid land outside Mountainair, thirty miles west of Belen. Like many other impoverished ranchers, he had been drawn to this inhospitable valley by the Early Day Homestead Act of 1889, which had attracted pioneering spirits to large areas of Central New Mexico.
In 1891, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad linking Kansas City to Santa Fe announced plans to build a cut-off to Belen through the Abo Pass, thereby guaranteeing a new prosperity to the town.
On hearing about these new opportunities out West, adventurous Kansas City newspaperman John Corbett and his friend Colonel E. C. Manning bought a prime site beside the projected railroad route at the summit of the six-thousand-five-hundred-foot pass. Local legend has it that they were so enchanted by the summer breeze wafting off the overhead mountains, they named it Mountainair.
In the summer of 1903 Mountainair was officially incorporated into a town, nine years before New Mexico was granted statehood. Construction of the Belen Cut-off to Mountainair was temporarily delayed by the first Wall Street crash of 1903. But four years later, the economy improved and the first passenger trains finally started rolling through the Abo Pass.
In its early days Mountainair did not have an adequate water supply for its growing population. So the first settlers hauled barrels of water eight miles into town from Barranca Canyon Wells, before wells were finally dug three hundred feet deep into the foothills outside town.
By the time former miner and geologist Ethan Ray claimed his patch of land, twenty miles outside Mountainair in Socorro County, the town was flourishing, proudly proclaiming itself the Pinto Bean Capital of the World. Ethan and his wife and two sons, Cecil and Alton, built the ranch with their bare hands, eking out a living raising cows. But the Rays mainly kept to themselves, having little to do with their neighbors, the nearest living ten miles away.
The Rays lived deep in the rural backwoods, four miles away from the nearest highway between Brook Spring and Dripping Stream. And once a week they drove the twenty-five miles into Mountainair in their ramshackle old truck to pick up essential supplies.
Opportunities were few for young men growing up in New Mexico during the Great Depression, and the two younger Rays left home at the earliest opportunity to make their ways in the outside world.
Alton Ray was a wheeler-dealer who lived on his wits, buying and selling goods he picked up on his frequent visits to Alaska. He would leave his wife Mildred for months at a time on secret trading expeditions, arriving back in Mountainair flushed with money and gifts for everyone.
In the mid-1930s his brother Cecil left home and followed the Abo Pass Trail to Belen, where he married a local girl named Nettie Opal Parker. Having little money or prospects, Cecil moved into Nettie’s parents’ tiny ranch, deep in the hills south of Schole, west of Mountainair.
In late 1939 Nettie bore Cecil a son they named David, followed a year later by daughter Peggy. But Cecil, a heavy drinker, had a restless spirit and would vent his frustrations on his wife and two young children.
“His dad had a temper,” remembered Audie Miranda, who was David’s best friend growing up. “I heard some things about his dad, but I don’t want to repeat them.”
When he had been drinking, Cecil Ray could be violent at the least provocation. Eventually when David was ten years old, his father walked out, moving to Albuquerque and divorcing Nettie.
It was a traumatic time for the Ray children, who rarely saw their father again until they were grown up. And when Nettie Parker decided to remain with her parents, David and Peggy were shipped off to Mountainair, to be raised by their grandparents.
Known to everyone as “Old Man Parker,” Ethan Ray, then in his late sixties, was a strict disciplinarian who insisted on the highest standards of dress and behavior. The kids were expected to do ranch work before they left for school in the morning and when they returned at night. But although money was short, their grandmother always made certain the children were clean and neatly turned out in their hand-me-downs.
“We were raised real old-fashioned,” Peggy would remember many years later. “You don’t even think about lying about things.”
Every morning their grandfather would drive David and his pretty red-haired sister four miles to the main road in his battered old Chevy coupe. Then he would leave them to wait for the 7:30 a.m. school bus to take them twenty miles to Mountainair High School.
Tall for the age of twelve, David appeared nervous and vulnerable when he joined Mountainair High in the seventh grade. The fair-haired boy rarely spoke and was the object of some ridicule, as his grandfather insisted he always have his shirt buttoned right up to the top, unlike the other boys, who had theirs unbuttoned. And David soon found himself bullied by his schoolmates.
“I used to defend him, because the other kids would pick on him,” remembered Audie Miranda, who lived on the neighboring ranch to the Rays. “He was very docile, and even though he could defend himself, he didn’t believe in violence.”
One day on the school bus someone pushed David too far, and he finally lashed out.
“[I said] ‘leave him alone,’ ” said Miranda. “‘You don’t know him.’ They were pulling his hair, and he just turned around and tried to hit them back.”
When the bus driver saw what was happening, he immediately stopped the bus and broke up the fight. But the incident led to a close friendship between David and Audie, who began to play together between classes.
They were soon spending weekends together at the Ray Ranch, riding horses, playing cowboys and Indians or having extended games of hide and seek in the desert.
Even as a young boy, David craved the outdoor life, collecting stones and fossils or anything else that caught his interest.
But Audie always felt that his friend was deeply affected by his grandparents’ harsh upbringing. They were devout Christians who instilled fundamentalist religion into David and Peggy. And Old Man Parker wouldn’t hesitate to beat the Ray children if they didn’t live up to his high standards.
“His grandfather was very, very strict,” said Miranda, who was also frightened of him. “He came from the old school where you had to be tough to survive. If his grandfather wanted David to do something, he’d jump. Maybe in today’s terms he was abusive, but we called it being strict.”
During the six years David and Peggy lived at their grandparents’, their father only visited twice. Nettie would occasionally come to see them, but there seemed few maternal bonds between her and her children.
Looking back, Peggy recalled that her elder brother could be “ornery” at times, but she still has fond memories of their childhood together.
“He was a loner,” said Peggy. “He spent a lot of time to himself. We lived way out in the country, so really it was just the two of us. Not a lot of friends or anything. We got along pretty good.”
When David was thirteen, his life changed when his grandparents gave him a Cushman Pacemaker motor scooter. He soon discovered a natural gift as a mechanic, and before long he could take it apart and then reassemble it. The once-timid boy gained a new confidence in life, as the school friends who had once mocked him now needed him to service their bikes.
Suddenly brimming with confidence, David claimed that then-current teenage American music heartthrob Johnny Ray was his cousin.
“He would try and convince me of it, but I never believed it,” said his former school friend, Bill Huckabay.
Even as a young teenager there was a far more sinister side to David Ray—one that would have shocked his friends and family. Years later he would impassively tell an FBI criminal profiler how he had first been drawn to the shadowy world of sadomasochism and torture at the age of thirteen. Even as a virgin he had begun to fantasize about the delights of tying women up and then torturing them.
His sister Peggy says she first discovered her older brother’s strange fascination with bondage after finding some pornographic photos and drawings hidden in his room. But when she confronted him with it he just laughed, saying it was his new hobby. Not considering it a problem, she never asked him about it again.
Years later, his fianée, Cindy Hendy, would tell the FBI that Ray had boasted of committing his first murder as a young teenager, saying he’d tied a woman to a tree and then tortured her to death.
Criminal profilers say that people like David Ray, who are naturally drawn to bondage and domination, exhibit murderous signs from a very young age.
“The serial killer’s first murder is an experience of intense physiological arousal,” wrote psychologist Dr. Jeremy Anderson in his 1994 paper Genesis of a Serial Killer: Fantasy’s Integral Role in the Creation of a Monster. Dr. Anderson explained, “. . . there is great pleasure centered in the exertion of power and control over the victim. The killer is at his peak.
“Sexually sadistic fantasies help to control the child’s fears, and act as an outlet for hostility and aggression. These aggression-centered fantasies, initially a form of escape for the child, come to serve as a substitute for the child’s sense of mastery. In other words, the child learns to depend on the fantasies for feelings of control over self, and over the external world.”
According to Dr. Anderson—who has closely studied the early years of Ted Bundy and other killers—most serial murderers share an unstable childhood without a father figure.
“Virtually all serial killers reported childhood punishment and discipline as unfair, hostile, abusive and very inconsistent,” wrote Dr. Anderson. “The primary caretakers of the future killer, be they parents, grandparents or legal guardians, are simply ‘bad’ at their job.”
Dr. Anderson also noted that serial killers never bond to their families, and are incapable of making friends or having lasting relationships with men or women.
At school David Ray would often be teased by his friends for being unusually shy of the opposite sex. “Girls would talk to him and he’d turn red,” remembered Audie. “I don’t know if something happened to him in high school that made him change that we knew nothing about.”
By the age of fifteen, David Ray was five-feet, six-inches tall, weighed eighty-four pounds and had perfect vision. A year later his school records show he’d added ten pounds and was approaching a height of six feet.
Ray’s 1955 school grade average was “D,” with his best marks for science, reading and vocabulary. He was not particularly athletic and disliked sports, apart from the odd game of catch with Audie. His only noteworthy achievement was a year playing trumpet in the Mountainair High School Band.
“I hardly even remember him as a student,” said his former teacher, Leila Holland. “He was just the usual nice little boy who lived with his grandparents on their cattle ranch. I can’t remember him causing any trouble.”
David Ray’s 1956 Mountainair High School sophomore year picture shows a handsome teenager with a blond crew-cut, buck-teeth and a wide smile. Noticeably, he is also the only boy to have his shirt buttoned right up to the top.
In the mid-fifties, Mountainair High School was a racial mix of Mexicans and Americans, who co-existed uneasily together. Both groups mainly kept to themselves, rarely mixing socially.
“[David] was real quiet and real reserved and stayed with the Anglos,” recalled his former classmate Manny Guiterrez. “I never remember him causing any problems or nothing.”
Today, David’s sister Peggy is far better remembered than he is. Their old classmates still recall that she was one of the prettiest and most popular girls in her class, with her freckles and blonde-red hair.
In the summer of 1957 their grandmother died suddenly and the two Ray children were split up. David was taken out of Mountainair High School mid-semester without graduating, and moved to Albuquerque to live with his mother. Peggy remained in Mountainair, where she went to live with a local family in town before going on to graduate.
“We all thought it was strange that Peggy didn’t go and live with her mother,” said Audie Miranda. “I never ever heard from David again after he left. That is, until I read about him in the newspapers more than forty years later.”