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Shirley Winters (born February 27, 1958) is an upstate New York resident and convicted murderer and arsonist. Her victims included her five-month old son, Ronald Winters III, in 1980 and 23-month old Ryan Rivers in 2007. She has also been under investigation for the 1979 deaths of her two older children and the 1979 deaths of three children of a friend.

Early life

In 1966, at age eight, Winters lost three siblings (a 10-year-old brother and two sisters, ages four and 11) as a result of an apparent carbon monoxide leak in the family home.

Prior to Ronald's death, Winters lost two other children, Colleen and John Winters, ages three years and 20 months, respectively, in a 1979 fire in the family's cabin on Hyde Lake in Theresa, New Yorkmarker, near Watertownmarker. The cause of the fire was determined at the time to be an electrical defect. The bodies of those children were exhumed in March 2007 along with Ronald III's; the autopsy showed that both Colleen and John suffered blunt force head injuries prior to the fire

The previous day, there had been a fire at the home of Winters' friend in nearby Hermon, New York in which her friend's three children died. St. Lawrence County authorities also re-opened their investigation into that incident in 2007. The three children were cousins of Ryan Rivers' parents.

Winters has been in close proximity to 17 fires since the 1979 fire, nine of which have been determined to be arson. She pleaded guilty to criminal mischief in 1981 in relation to two of the fires, and in 1997 was convicted of arson in another fire, one that burned her mother's home, for which she spent eight years in prison; she was released in 2005. Her mother was killed in a car accident two months before Winters' prison sentence began.

Another of the fires, on November 12, 1989, occurred in a home in which Winters was staying in Syracusemarker with her three children. She rescued her four year-old daughter and her two year-old son, but lost track of her oldest living child, a five year-old daughter, who rescued herself.

Murder charges

Initially, Ronald's death on November 21, 1980 in Otisco, New Yorkmarker was considered to be due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), but after the body was exhumed during the fourth investigation of the death in March 2007, she was charged with second-degree murder on March 28, 2007.
The latest reopening of the investigation was prompted after Ryan Rivers drowned in a bathtub at his grandparents' home during a visit by Winters on November 28, 2006 in Pierrepontmarker, New York in St. Lawrence Countymarker. Winters was indicted by a St. Lawrence County grand jury in August 2007 of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and endangering the welfare of a child in the Ryan Rivers case. Her trial for the second-degree murder of Ronald was initially scheduled to begin on March 31, 2008.

Guilty plea

On April 21, 2008, Winters pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the Ryan Rivers case. Under the terms of the plea agreement, she also agreed to plead guilty in Onondaga Countymarker Court to first-degree manslaughter in the smothering death of Ronald III in 1980. She will be sentenced to approximately 20 years in the Rivers case, and up to 25 years in the Ronald III case; the sentences will be served concurrently and she will be eligible for parole at age 67 after serving just over 17 years. If Winters had been convicted of 2nd degree murder on each indictment, she was facing multiple life sentences. The St. Lawrence County plea also allows her to avoid prosecution for the 1979 deaths of Colleen and John Winters.


  1. "New York Mom Charged in 1980 Death of Child" AP 3/29/07
  2. "On a Trail of Tragedies" Syracuse Post-Standard O'Brien, John 3/28/07
  3. "Winters enters guilty plea for manslaughter" News 10 Now Carey, Bill 4/29/07
  4. "Most Pyromaniacs Are Not Killers" Syracuse Post-Standard O'Brien, John 4/8/07
  5. "Mom Accused of Killing Son" Syracuse Post-Standard O'Hara, Jim and O'Brien, John 3/29/07
  6. "The Life of Shirley Winters" Syracuse Post-Standard 3/21/07
  7. "New York Mom Charged in 1980 Death of Child" AP 3/29/07
  8. "On a Trail of Tragedies" Syracuse Post-Standard O'Brien, John 3/28/07
  9. "Trial set for Shirley Winters" Syracuse Post Standard Ramirez III, Pedro 11/28/07
  10. "Shirley Winters trial to start in March" NewsWatch 50 WWTI 11/28/07
  11. "Shirley Winters pleads guilty" Dowty, Douglass April 22, 2008
  12. "Upstate NY woman pleads guilty to second child's death" Associated Press via 4/25/08

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