A Script of Fear : Repeated Threats by Father of Child Actress Carried to Tragic End
When Judith Barsi prepared to leave Los Angeles for the Bahamas to film “Jaws The Revenge” last year, her father pulled a knife and bade her goodby. “If you decide not to come back, I will cut your throat,” he said, according to a relative.
The 10-year-old actress returned two months later, but the rage boiling inside the family’s stucco house in the San Fernando Valley did not diminish, and the child plucked out her eyelashes and her cat’s whiskers as her distress mounted, according to her agent.
A friend and fellow plumber said “Arizona Joe” Barsi “told me 500 times he was going to kill his wife.”
“I’d try to calm him down. I’d tell him, ‘If you kill her, what will happen to your little one?’ ” said Peter Kivlen. “Little one” was Barsi’s pet name for Judith.
“I gotta kill her too,” he said.
Consumed by anger toward his wife, he did just that. Some time during a mysterious 4-day period ending on Wednesday, July 27, according to police, Barsi carried out threats he had been making for at least five years and shot and killed his wife and daughter, then turned the gun on himself. Judith’s body was found in her canopy bed, near the pink television her father had given her, according to a neighbor, to apologize for yanking her hair in a fit of anger.
Death left a bitter debt. Not only had a father killed the person he professed to love most, but what troubles officials who deal with child abuse, the social service system had failed to prevent a calamity it had been warned about. Maria Barsi, 48, who had shaped Judith’s career, went to the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services for help in May, but the case was closed a month later.
“It is frightening because it appears that people on the outside took the right steps and we didn’t manage it,” said Helen Kleinberg, a member of the watchdog Commission for Children’s Services. The commission is an advisory body on children’s issues to the Board of Supervisors.
For the first time in its four-year history, the commission has asked to review a client file from the Children’s Services agency to review the way a case was handled. Kleinberg said the commission was “not pleased” by the department’s account of the case when first questioned about it.
“We can’t save every child,” Kleinberg added. But she said she was upset by reports that the Children’s Services Department had closed the case at the mother’s request. “From my point of view, the child was the client,” not the mother.
To one person knowledgeable about child abuse, one of the problems is that the social welfare system has more trouble dealing with emotional than physical abuse. “How do we protect someone from threats? We really, honestly can’t,” said Los Angeles Police Detective Sandra Palmer, who investigated the killings. “I could say ‘I’m going to kill you.’ I have the right because we have a free society to say that. I don’t have the right to carry it out.”
The brooding enigma in the tragedy is Jozsef Barsi, 55, a plumber who was ashamed of his Hungarian accent, and who valued family so highly he told his brother-in-law, “If the family life is gone, then life is not worth living.” Yet by all accounts, he ruled his family forcefully, bludgeoning them not with fists, but with words.
His marriage was disintegrating, apparently after years of bitterness tied to his drinking and to his wife’s refusal to forgive him when he stopped, said Joseph Weldon, her brother. So why did he kill his child, whom he is said to have treasured? A final act of possession? “I guess maybe he felt that possessiveness,” said Palmer. ‘If I can’t have her, nobody’s going to have her.’ ” More sympathetic friends speculated that he may not have wanted to leave his child alone in the world after he and his wife were gone.
Maria Virovacz and Jozsef Barsi separately fled the 1956 Soviet occupation of Hungary. She was from a rural, southern university town, he from a rougher industrial area, where he had a “miserable” childhood, according to Weldon, a systems analyst with Lepel Corp. on Long Island. Barsi told friends he had no mother or father, a much more stigmatizing defect in Hungary, where families stay together, than in this country. When they fought, she would use it against him, calling him a bastard, according to friends of both.
Hungarian friends of the couple said they met at a Los Angeles restaurant that was a well-known gathering place for emigres, and where the future wife worked as a waitress. Dark and husky, Joe Barsi would sit at the bar, head down over his drinks, for which he paid with $100 bills. Maria was impressed, seeing in the brooding man, dubbed “Arizona Joe” because he had once lived there, someone who could give her security.
Continued to Work
He was a plumbing contractor, and continued working even after his daughter’s income began to rise in recent years.
In the early years of their marriage--both had been married before--they were a happy couple. “He could be quite charming,” said Weldon.
But Joe Barsi had a temper, which could be set off at any time, especially when he’d had too much to drink. If he suspected someone was snickering at him over his accent, he would “go off,” said Peter Kivlen, a friend and fellow plumber.
“He’d grab a two by four,” Kivlen said. “Not that he’d go after anybody who didn’t deserve it.” Barsi apparently liked to puff himself up in front of his friends. He told Kivlen he lost the vision in one eye in a fight, and also confided that he had served time in New York for killing a man in a brawl. There is no record of him ever being arrested on such a crime. His criminal record consisted of being arrested three times for drunk driving.
Judith Barsi was born on June 6, 1978, and would be the couple’s only child. Her mother immediately began training her for a Hollywood career. “I said I wouldn’t waste my time. I told her the chances are one in 10,000 that she would succeed,” said Weldon.
But Maria Barsi, knowing nothing of the odds against her, proved her brother wrong. Her maternal lessons in posture and poise and voice all paid off in an accidental way, when members of a crew shooting a commercial at an ice skating rink noticed the pixieish 5-year-old girl skating artfully across the ice and hired her.
She became successful as a commercial actress, according to her agent, Ruth Hansen, partly because she looked much younger than she was. “When she was 10, she was still playing 7, 8,” she said. This was because she was short for her age, standing only 3 feet, 8 inches when she turned 10. She was receiving injections at UCLA to spur her growth.
The girl appeared in 72 commercials and in recent years had grown into substantial roles, both on television and in the film, “Jaws The Revenge.” She had parts on television shows such as “Growing Pains,” “Cheers,” “Remington Steele” and the television feature, “Fatal Vision,” in which she plays a child murdered by her father.
She was not a star, but her estimated $100,000-a-year income helped buy a modest, 3-bedroom house in the West Hills area in 1985. Her attendance at a public school was often interrupted by her work schedule.
Hansen, an agent for 25 years, who specializes in child performers, called her client a “bubbly, happy little girl” when she was working. But her mood began to change in the last year, after the filming of “Jaws The Revenge.”
Her father was upset by his daughter’s departure, Hansen said, but refused an airline ticket to visit her. When the filming was over, the mother and daughter visited Weldon in Flushing, New York, where Judith talked to her father on the phone.
“Remember what I told you before you left,” he said, referring to the knife incident, according to Weldon. The girl “was terrified. She cried” and dashed off to the bedroom. The mother and daughter cut short their visit and returned to California.
Variety of Threats
He seemed perpetually angry at his wife. Several sources said Barsi would alternate his threats, sometimes saying he would kill his wife, other times saying he would kill himself and Judith and leave Maria alive “to suffer.”
Kivlen said Barsi’s world revolved around Judith, but he also tried to maintain tight control over the daughter, who was becoming successful in a world he barely knew. Once Maria bought Judith a special kite, and her father grabbed it. “Judith went hysterical and said, ‘You’re going to break it,’ ” said a neighbor who asked not to be identified.
“Look at her,” he said derisively, according to this version, given the neighbor by Maria Barsi. “She’s just a spoiled brat and doesn’t share her new toy.” He “broke it into as many pieces as he could,” the neighbor said Maria reported.
Though most of the abuse in the house was verbal, Maria Barsi filed a police report against her husband in December, 1986, accusing him of threatening over the last five years to kill her and of choking her and hitting her in the face. Police found no visible injuries and the wife eventually declined to prosecute.
Weldon, the wife’s brother, said Joe Barsi gave up drinking two years ago, but was unable to work himself back into the good graces of his wife. “Maria wouldn’t make up, so he was moping around,” he said. He also complained bitterly about her housekeeping, conducting tours of the house for friends to show them mounds of toys and clothes.
Kivlen said Barsi turned to another woman in recent months, showering her with expensive gifts, including a necklace and ring.
Family friends, who served Judith home-made Hungarian sausage when she came to visit, said the girl spoke darkly of her home life. “I’m afraid to go home. My daddy is miserable. My daddy is drunk every day, and I know he wants to kill my mother,” she told the couple, who asked not to be named but who were friends of both Barsis.
The girl’s distress increased in recent months, provoking her to pull out all of her eyelashes, according to Hansen.
But unlike other celebrated cases where witnesses turn their backs on abuse, neighbors, relatives, and industry people who knew about the threats in the Barsi household tried to help. One neighbor offered Maria Barsi refuge in her own home. But she refused.
Agent Steps In
Then in May, Judith was scheduled to audition a song for an animated feature. “That’s when I realized how bad Judith was. She was crying hysterically, she couldn’t talk,” said her agent. Hansen had seen enough and decided to step in.
She strongly suggested the mother take Judith to a child psychologist in Encino. The therapist refused to discuss the case, but Hansen said she called after one visit and said, “Ruth, it is extreme verbal, mental and emotional problems with this child and I have to report it to Children’s Services.”
Children’s Services officials also declined to discuss details of the case because of confidentiality laws. But Ray La Motte, a spokeswoman, said Maria Barsi told them she “had a plan of action she felt safe with,” and so the agency let her carry it out. That involved eventually separating from her husband.
Hansen said the mother described a different encounter with the caseworker. “She said they weren’t doing anything and so she said, ‘I guess I’ll have to handle it myself.’ ”
Kleinberg, of the Commission for Children’s Services, said there was money in the budget to remove the girl from the home, but that would have separated the mother and daughter. There is a shortage of money to monitor a child who is remaining in the home, said Kleinberg, although it is not clear whether that was a factor in how the case was handled.
An Apartment Rented
Maria Barsi’s “plan of action” involved moving to a Panorama City apartment, which she rented in May. She would spend her days there with her daughter, then return home at night.
“The woman had started, she had gotten an apartment,” said Palmer. “But she had not taken that child and moved into that apartment. Can we force that woman to do that?”
Hansen urged her to make a final break from her husband, but she kept hesitating, saying in June that she wanted to stay in the neighborhood for Judith’s birthday. Then in July, she said she didn’t want to lose her home.
“She really loved her home and the things that Judith’s career had brought her,” said neighbor Eunice Daly. “She didn’t want to leave those things.”
As for what set her husband off, Palmer said he might have discovered his wife’s plan to move out. He also might have found that she was planning a divorce, or that his daughter was seeing a psychologist.
On Monday, July 25, Judith missed an appointment at Hanna Barbera Productions Inc. Hansen said Joe Barsi told her a big car had come and taken the mother and daughter to San Diego.
Palmer believes the pair were killed Monday or Tuesday. On Tuesday night, Barsi told Hansen in a telephone call that he had decided to move out of the home for good, but planned to stick around long enough to “say goodby to his little girl.”