Judy Buenoano, born Judias Welty, spent the early years of her life in Texas where she was raised by her father and mother alongside her two older siblings and baby brother, Robert. Her mother died when she was 4-years-old; Judy and Robert were sent to live with their grandparents. After her father remarried, Judy and Robert moved to New Mexico to live with him and his new wife. She claimed that her father and stepmother abused and starved her, forcing her to work as their slave. At the age of 14, she was sent to prison for two months after she attacked her father, stepmother, and two stepbrothers. Upon her release she chose to attend reform school, and after graduating in 1960, she became a nursing assistant. One year later, she gave birth to her illegitimate son, Michael.
In 1962, she married Air Force officer James Goodyear. The couple lived in Orlando where they raised their son and daughter, and Michael, who James adopted. In 1971, a few months after James returned home from a tour of duty in Vietnam, he suffered from mysterious symptoms and was admitted into the hospital. James passed away and Judy collected money from his insurance policies. Later that same year, Judy’s house caught fire and she collected additional insurance money.
The following year, she began dating Bobby Joe Morris and when he moved to Colorado in 1977; Judy and her children moved with him. Just a few months later, Bobby Joe suffered from mysterious symptoms and was admitted to the hospital. Doctors released him; however, he collapsed at home, was admitted to the hospital, and died two days later. Judy was then able to collect money from the insurance policies she had taken out on him.
A couple of years later, Judy’s son Michael joined the U.S. Army and was to be stationed in Ft. Benning, Georgia. On his way to Georgia, he stopped to visit Judy at her home in Florida. Shortly after arriving at Ft. Benning, he began to show symptoms of poisoning and doctors found high levels of arsenic in his blood. A few weeks later, Michael’s muscles in his arms and legs had atrophied to the point that he could not use his hands and required metal braces on his legs to walk. He was discharged from the army and returned to his mother’s home in Florida.
In May of 1980, Judy took her sons, Michael and James, out on a canoe on Florida’s East River. The canoe overturned. James and Judy were able to swim to shore; however, Michael, who was wearing his heavy metal leg braces, drowned. After the accident, Judy collected $20,000 from Michael’s military life insurance policy.
Following Michael’s death, Judy opened her own beauty salon and began dating John Gentry, a businessman from Florida. The couple got engaged and in October of 1982 Judy got him to agree on taking out life insurance policies on each other. Judy also convinced John to take special vitamins. John did not feel better from the vitamins; instead, in December 1982, he fell ill and was hospitalized. While in the hospital he did not take the vitamins and felt better; however, he never suspected that Judy had been poisoning him.
In 1983, John was on the way to a liquor store when his car mysteriously exploded. During his recovery, police began to find several discrepancies in Buenoano’s background; further investigation revealed that Buenoano had been giving Gentry pills which contained arsenic. This raised suspicions and led to the exhumations of her son, Michael, her first husband, James Goodyear, and her ex-boyfriend, Bobby Joe Morris. It was determined that each man had been a victim of arsenic poisoning. Until the car bombing, Buenoano had not been investigated or even under suspicion for these deaths.
In 1984, Buenoano was convicted for the murders of Michael and the attempted murder of Gentry. In 1985 she was convicted of the murder of James Goodyear. She received a twelve-year sentence for the Gentry case, a life sentence for the Michael Goodyear case, and a death sentence for the James Goodyear case. She was also convicted of multiple counts of grand theft and multiple acts of arson as means to gain insurance money. She was suspected of several other deaths including a 1974 murder in Alabama and the 1980 death of her boyfriend, Gerald Dossett. Her involvement in these deaths was never proved, and by the time she was suspected, she was already on Florida’s death row.
Known as the “Black Widow”, her motive was believed to be greed – she collected a reported $240,000 in insurance money. Buenoano never admitted to any of the killings. In 1998, at the age of 54, she became the first woman executed in Florida since 1848, and the third executed in the United States since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.