For years, there were rumors.
The whispers went from sister to brother, from brother to cousin, from cousin to uncle to grandmother, until most members of three local families shared this belief: Josephine Gray, their kin, had gotten away with murder.
Make that three murders.
The speculation began soon after Gray's first husband, Norman Stribbling, was shot dead while parked on a lonely Gaithersburg road one night in 1974. Then William "Robert" Gray, husband number two, was gunned down in 1990 as he entered his Germantown apartment. Finally, in 1996, Clarence Goode, Josephine Gray's 28-year-old cousin, was found stuffed in the back of his car on a Baltimore street, dead of a 9mm gunshot wound.
"We all knew she did it," said Corliss Shields, Gray's cousin. "We didn't talk about it too much."
But authorities say it wasn't so much that family members didn't talk about it. The problem was that many wouldn't talk about it to investigators. Twice, charges were brought against Josephine Gray, and twice they were dropped when relatives declined to testify or couldn't be found.
"It was the witchcraft, mostly," said Lenron Goode, brother of the third victim.
Authorities said that notion came up repeatedly during their investigations and ultimately forced them into dead ends. At the time, relatives were unwilling to cross Gray, authorities said.
"Fear permeated this entire case," said Thomas Tamm, a former Montgomery County assistant state's attorney who tried unsuccessfully to prosecute Gray in 1991 in her two husbands' deaths.
The stories still haunt some relatives. One recently recalled a "magic spell" that she believes led Norman Stribbling uncontrollably to scratch his face to shreds. Another family member mentioned the black voodoo doll discovered among Clarence Goode's possessions after he was found dead. Court documents describe an incantation caught on tape and "voodoo ritual materials" recovered from Gray's home last month.
When she was charged in 1991, Gray and her attorneys called such claims absurd. "I do not practice no voodoo and I do not practice no witchcraft," she said then. "Just because I go and buy a lucky charm to play the lottery or something or buy herbs and drink herb tea or take olive oil and anoint myself, that's in the Bible."
She also has said that accusations against her stemmed from jealously among family members, including her children, who thought she wasn't paying enough attention to them.
Stymied for 27 years, police and prosecutors recently devised a new strategy, employing a tool frequently used in racketeering cases.
In November, a federal grand jury sitting in Greenbelt handed up an indictment charging Gray, 55, a former school janitor and Upper Marlboro mother of six, with mail and wire fraud for collecting a total of $165,000 from the three men's insurance policies. The policies are covered by Maryland's so-called slayer's rule, which prohibits any person who intentionally kills the insured from receiving benefits.
Federal prosecutors say they can prove that Josephine Gray was involved in each death, and that she didn't act alone. Instead, authorities say, she enlisted lovers to help her kill. The new charges do not require that a jury find Gray or anyone else guilty of murder in order to convict.
Gray, who has pleaded not guilty, is being held without bond in the Prince George's County Detention Center. Her trial is scheduled for July 28. Michael T. CitaraManis, the public defender who represents Gray, declined to comment on the case.
Family members said the new charges have brought them a sense of relief. But they still don't answer the most basic question, one that has left veteran investigators puzzled: What is it about Josephine Gray?
Gray, a longtime resident of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, scrubbed restrooms and mopped gym floors for most of her adult life, working from 1967 to 1998 as a custodian for the Montgomery County public schools.
"That's a benign stereotype that's hard to overcome," Assistant U.S. Attorney James M. Trusty said at her November bail hearing.
Family members describe a different image of Josephine Gray. She was flamboyant, they said, prone to wearing heavy makeup and tight skirts.
"She acted like she came out of modeling school," said Frances Gray, who at one time was married to Robert Gray, the second victim. "She tried to be 'Miss It.' "
Josephine Gray owned snazzy cars, like a Cadillac Eldorado and a Chrysler New Yorker, and went on shopping sprees at places like Saks Fifth Avenue, Lenron Goode recalled.
"She was a flaunter," he said. "She had her masquerade down to a T."
In contrast, the men she chose as partners were, by all accounts, quiet and compliant, the kind of guys who enjoyed fixing cars, watching TV and drinking beer.
For the most part, she and her lovers lived quietly in neighborhoods of working families, living in nondescript but roomy houses. Most recently, she lived on Robert Bowie Drive, a gently curving street lined with neatly kept three- and four-bedroom houses.
There was one thing, however, that at least one neighbor thought strange. Herald Prier, who lives down the street from Gray's house, said her live-in boyfriend didn't -- or couldn't -- go anywhere without her.
"He got locked out a few times because she wouldn't let him have the keys," Prier said. "It seemed that she was the dominant person there. She's the father and the mother, and he's the child."
Police said that even though the man, Andre Savoy, 48, must have known at the very least that two of Gray's partners died under suspicious circumstances, he has stayed with her for years. Only recently did he reveal that he had information implicating Gray in at least one slaying, according to court documents. The phone at Gray and Savoy's home has been disconnected, and no one answered the door during a New Year's Eve visit.
Prosecutors have said Savoy likely will testify against Gray at trial. Arguing against Gray's release at a bail hearing, Trusty said that likelihood makes Savoy the "single most identifiable potential victim today."
In 1967, Gray married Norman Stribbling, and together they had five children. Some years later, Stribbling discovered that his wife was having an affair, according to family members and police. About the same time, he began to see evidence that his life was in danger, court documents state.
The object of his wife's affections was Robert Gray, who later became her second husband.
According to Robert Gray's family, before he and Josephine met at a part-time job cleaning offices, he was a good husband and a proud father of six children. Then in his early thirties, Robert Gray and his wife, Frances, owned a home in Clarksburg, in northern Montgomery. Family members said he never went anywhere without his two youngest children.
"He worshiped the ground those kids walked on," Frances Gray said.
But by the early 1970s, something had seemed to snap. "His whole demeanor just changed," Frances Gray said. "He was distant. . . . He stopped going around to his friends, his family, everybody. I knew something had to be wrong."
"This woman had so much hold over this man," she said.
Frances Gray can think of only one reason for that.
"This is something that I don't believe in, but I hear it all the time," Gray said. "She was dealing in witchcraft and voodoo. She must have been feeding him something to make him do what she said. He wasn't himself." When Robert Gray stopped eating food cooked by Josephine, Frances Gray said, he was back to his old self -- proof, she said, of her theory.
Frances Gray remembers the night Norman Stribbling was killed, on March 4, 1974 -- and the day two weeks later when Robert and Josephine were arrested and charged with murdering him. Josephine Gray's brother was also a suspect.
All charges were dropped a short time later when witnesses -- including some family members -- refused to cooperate, authorities said.
Out of jail, the couple bought a new house on Stoneridge Drive in Gaithersburg with a $14,600 down payment -- financed through Stribbling's life insurance policy, according to an FBI affidavit in court files.
They had a child and married in 1975, but Robert Gray's mother, Dora, said her son "lived a miserable, miserable life."
Sometime in the mid-1980s, Josephine Gray's teenage cousin came to stay with her because he was having a tough time in Brooklyn, N.Y., according to his family. His name was Clarence Goode.
"He was a shy person," said brother Lenron Goode. "He didn't really know how to go about things. He may have got a little depressed."
Gray promised relatives that she would raise Goode right, but they say they were skeptical. At some point, Gray and her cousin began an affair, according to relatives and court documents.
"He was a teenager," recalled his aunt, Corliss Shields. "She was an older woman. She knew what she was doing."
Josephine Gray apparently lost interest in her husband, and police say his life was soon in danger.
In the summer of 1990, according to police and his family, Josephine Gray chased her husband through the house with a gun, sending him leaping off their home's second-floor balcony and running more than a mile to his parents' house for safety. That's when he decided to move out.
But he still wasn't safe. On Oct. 5, 1990, Robert Gray told police he was ambushed on Clopper Road by his wife, who drove her car alongside his while Clarence Goode pointed a gun out the window. Gray braked hard, put the car in reverse and escaped, Trusty said at a recent court hearing.
In early November 1990, Robert Gray rented an apartment in Germantown and invited his previous family over for a celebration.
"The spell was gone," said his daughter, Darlene Gray, 38, who lives with her mother in Germantown. "It was like a homecoming. We knew we had our dad back."
Less than a week later, about 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1990, Robert Gray got off work at Clopper Mills Elementary School, where he was a building services manager, and went home. Before he could take off his overcoat, someone fired two shots from inside his apartment, killing him.
The business card of a police detective lay feet from his body. He had visited the officer exactly one month earlier asking for help.
Frustrated by their lack of success in the Stribbling case of the 1970s -- and with their prime witness in that case now dead -- police took "extraordinary measures" to try to link Josephine Gray with her second husband's slaying, recalled Tamm, the former prosecutor in Montgomery County.
In April 1991, Gray and Clarence Goode were charged with murder. Tamm said the government's case fell apart when the two defendants were released on bail.
"There just was a marked difference in [witness] cooperation after she got out of jail," Tamm said.
Relatives were approached by Gray and intimidated or asked to provide alibis, according to authorities. At the time, Gray denied such accusations. To several family members, the behavior of Josephine and Robert Gray's teenage daughter was the most disturbing. She initially echoed her mother's story that she had been working at Richard Montgomery High School when Gray was shot. Later, however, the Grays' daughter told police the alibi was false. But when asked to repeat the assertion under oath, the daughter said she couldn't recall anything.
Other potential witnesses also began to have faulty memories.
"They were afraid she had gotten away with murder in the past, and how did they know she wasn't going to get away with murder again?" Tamm said.
Meanwhile, Clarence Goode's life was becoming miserable.
"She kept him isolated," said Lenron Goode, his brother. "He had no car, no money." Clarence Goode told his brother that Josephine Gray had taken away the phone.
Soon afterward, Clarence Goode began to shuttle between relatives' homes in Baltimore, staying wherever he could find a bed.
"She didn't want him to work," said Veronica Davenport, his sister. "When he moved in with me, he found a job. That's when she panicked and thought he was going to tell."
By 1996, Clarence Goode had decided his life was in danger, according to family members.
"That boy was scared to death," Lenron Goode said. "He knew he was going to die."
Police discovered Goode's body June 21, 1996, two months after a $100,000 life insurance policy that named Gray as the beneficiary took effect, court documents show.
Davenport remembers finding a voodoo idol among her brother's possessions, a black doll with real hair. She quickly threw it away.
What is it about Josephine Gray, authorities continue to wonder, that led men to leave their families? To remain even when they knew other loved ones had died mysteriously? To go so far, police believe, as to assist in murder?
One theory is that the men were victims of abused spouse syndrome. "I guess it is usually the woman [who's the victim] and you wonder why she stays with the guy," Tamm said. "I think you could make an argument that it's the converse" with Gray.
Family members are convinced that voodoo had something to do with Gray's powers.
"I don't know nothing about voodoo," said Dora Gray, mother of the second victim. "But I know she was good at the job, because she had three men tricked."
And circumstances had authorities frustrated.
Tamm said police and prosecutors tried "every investigative technique we could think of."
They exhumed Stribbling's body. They put a listening device in Josephine Gray's home -- and heard not incriminating evidence but some sort of ritual in which the investigating detective was mentioned by name. They searched Gray's home, taking pizza boxes and a chunk of the garage floor said to be stained with something that looked like blood, according to a neighbor. They even recorded a conversation between Gray and a "voodoo doctor."
Still, Tamm said, they could not take Gray to court on murder charges. Now, authorities believe they can gain a conviction. But they know that when the case goes to trial, prosecutors will face a formidable foe.
"My client is a 55-year-old woman who has six children and 11 grandchildren," CitaraManis told a federal judge at his client's bond hearing a few weeks ago. "She is a hardworking woman who is trying to make ends meet. She is churchgoing. . . . She is not a black widow."
Staff writer Ruben Castaneda and staff researchers Bobbye Pratt and Margaret Smith contributed to this report.