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Mysterious Deaths Finally Add Up to Murder Case : Family: Man got sympathy after wife, two children died. But apparent suffocation of his mother left new evidence.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

First, Jack Barron’s wife, Irene, died in bed in the spring of 1992. She was only 34, but Barron told friends and neighbors in their working-class neighborhood that she had been sick for some time.

Eight months later, Jack Barron’s son, Jeremy, 4, stopped breathing in his sleep. Barron suggested to his in-laws that there was some genetic link, and they all went in for tests to find the cause.

When Jack Barron’s daughter, Ashley, died in her sleep last August, also at the age of 4, family and friends could not believe such tragedy could strike again. Seemingly bereaved, Barron quickly sold his south Sacramento house and moved in with his mother in the Bay Area town of Benicia.

Finally, in February, when his mother also died in bed, authorities began to believe they were dealing with a serial killer.

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Last week, Barron, 33, a onetime supermarket stock clerk, was arrested and charged with killing his family members one by one--most likely by smothering them with a pillow while they slept.

Relatives and neighbors who once showered the young husband and father with sympathy are left wondering how a seemingly devoted family man could kill his own children--and, if it’s true, how he could get away with murder for so long. They wonder why detectives and the coroner’s office failed to see the signs of violence.

“Jack had a very convincing story,” said Detective Maryl Lee Cranford, who headed the investigation that finally led to Barron’s arrest. “It was always ‘poor me, poor me.’ He’s sly like a fox.”

From the Sacramento County jail, the bearded, bespectacled Barron denies killing anyone. Instead, he portrays himself as a victim of circumstances.

“They are making me out to be this horrible friggin’ monster. That’s just not true,” he tearfully told Sacramento TV station KTXL last week. “I have been put through the wringer. My life has been destroyed. My family is gone.”

To Sacramento County sheriff’s detectives, Barron is a calculating, coldblooded killer who suffocated his wife to avoid the hassle of divorce and the strain of alimony, who killed his children when they became too big a burden and who murdered his mother when she wanted him to move out of the home they shared.

Whether by chance or by plan, investigators say, the tall, heavily built Barron was able to suffocate his wife and young children without leaving telltale marks on the bodies that would indicate murder. In all three cases, the Sacramento County coroner ruled that the cause of death was undetermined.

Only his mother, 52-year-old Roberta Butler, apparently put up enough of a struggle to result in contusions and hemorrhages. Those wounds finally gave the Solano County coroner’s office clear evidence of a homicide, investigators say.

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Now, some family members are bitterly suggesting that the case may have been mishandled from the outset, and that if Irene Barron’s death had been recognized as murder earlier, the three subsequent killings could have been prevented.

“It was bad enough when we thought it was natural causes that were unexplained,” said John Paget, Irene’s father. “Now when we realize it was homicides, it is devastating. We feel a little bit ashamed we didn’t have earlier suspicions.”

But Sacramento officials say proving death by suffocation can be difficult. Despite their own suspicions, beginning with the first death, there was not enough cause for arresting Barron earlier, they say.

“He fooled everybody,” said Sheriff Glen Craig. “This would not be the first case our people were convinced was murder but did not have enough evidence. This guy obviously is a cool customer.”

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Investigators and family members portray Barron as a “control freak” obsessed with cleanliness, an egotistical loner who liked to work the graveyard shift.

“He appears to me to be a very selfish, self-centered, cold person,” Detective Cranford said. “Every conversation he always turned around to me, me, me.”

An only child who was indulged by his mother, Barron was devastated as a youngster when his father abandoned the family for another woman, the detective recounted. “He hates his father. He feels he was deserted.”

In what was to become an eerie pattern, his wife and two children all died on a Sunday, the seventh of the month. Cranford contends it is more than a coincidence that Barron’s father was born on a Sunday, the seventh of August.

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It also suggests considerable premeditation, she said, since the seventh of a month falls on a Sunday infrequently.

Piecing together Barron’s recent past, detectives say he began having an affair with a co-worker before his wife’s death. According to the warrant for his arrest, Barron told his wife he wanted a divorce, then told a friend he would never go through the trouble of divorcing her.

“I’d do away with her first,” Barron told the friend, according to an arrest warrant summary filed in Sacramento Municipal Court.

After Irene’s death, family members discovered a letter she wrote but never delivered to her husband saying she was upset and frightened by the changes she saw in him.

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“I’m really sorry your [sic] unhappy right now,” she wrote. “I have a hard time believing the only reason for this is my inability to keep the house exactly the way you like it. You obviously don’t want to talk to me about it and that really scares me.

“It really upsets me when I hear you talk about divorce,” the letter continued. “I can’t believe you are really serious about that. If you are, then you have had me and everyone fooled for a long time.”

After her death on June 7, 1992, neighbors and friends deluged the widower and his two toddlers with casseroles and good wishes. One member of his church arranged for country singer Wynonna Judd to call with condolences and invite him to a concert.

Over the following months, Barron and Judd had at least two long phone conversations and he went to two of her concerts as a guest, visiting her backstage and posing for pictures. He told some people he was dating the star--a claim her publicist said was “ludicrous.”

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Detectives speculate that the sympathy Barron received may have encouraged him to continue with murder. “When the attention is focused on him, he is absolutely in his prime,” Cranford said. “He absolutely ate it up.”

After his wife’s death, Barron’s girlfriend, Starla Hayes, and her children moved into his tidy, sun-baked house.

But life with him proved to be less than Hayes had hoped. She later told detectives that Barron could not tolerate the “normal acting-out behavior” of the children. On one occasion, according to the arrest warrant, she heard Barron tell little Jeremy, “I’ll make sure you go where your mother is.” Hayes and her children moved out soon after.

A week later, on Feb. 7, 1993, a baby-sitter found Jeremy in his bed, not moving. She called paramedics, awoke Barron and urged him to begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation. “Don’t bother. It’s too late anyway,” he told her, according to the warrant.

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But investigators and relatives say Barron seemed so genuinely grief-stricken that few suspected he may have been the killer.

He hired a new baby-sitter, a nurse who knew CPR and who was determined to keep Ashley safe from whatever mysterious ailment had struck her mother and brother, Cranford said. While Barron worked his graveyard shift, she stayed up nights and watched the little girl sleep.

Then came Sunday, Aug. 7, 1994, and the temperature reached the high 90s. In an unusual gesture, Barron made the baby-sitter iced tea, just the way she liked it. Then he told her to leave the back door open--something he’d never done before.

That night, the baby-sitter fell asleep. Barron was missing from his job for four hours, from midnight to 4 a.m., detectives say. About the time he arrived back at work, the baby-sitter awoke, checked on Ashley and found her dead.

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At the time, the sitter noted nothing unusual in Barron’s behavior and did not tell detectives about the tea and open door until months later. Cranford said there is no way to prove now whether the drink was spiked, but she believes Barron returned to the house, entered through the open door and smothered his daughter.

Once again, the coroner could not determine the cause of death, but this time, with three unexplained deaths in the family, the autopsy report declared: “Undetermined: Homicidal Violence Cannot Be Excluded.”

With suspicion among his former in-laws mounting, and sheriff’s detectives preparing to exhume the bodies for further tests, Barron moved in with his mother in Benicia. Detectives say Roberta Butler did not believe the family rumblings that her boy was a murderer.

“I think she believed he was innocent right up until the time she was about to die,” Cranford said.

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Investigators say Barron was verbally abusive to his mother and that by Feb. 27 she had decided to evict him. That day, Barron called paramedics and said he had come home to find his mother not breathing.

Her room appeared normal, with papers stacked neatly around her on the bed. But this time, the autopsy found signs of a struggle and a violent death.

Even then, it took months to develop the case. Witnesses such as Ashley’s baby-sitter were interviewed in depth for the first time. Irene Barron’s autopsy report was sent for review to a new pathologist, who found sufficient signs of suffocation to rule the death a homicide.

For the first time, Barron was interviewed at length by detectives. But during six hours of questioning--without asking for an attorney--he maintained his innocence and repeatedly turned the conversation back to his suffering, Cranford recalled.

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Last week, Barron was arrested by Sacramento detectives and Benicia police at his mother’s condo. Looking haggard, he appeared in court briefly Wednesday and was granted a one-week delay in his arraignment on charges of murdering his wife and two children. Murder charges in connection with his mother’s death are expected to be filed in Solano County.

Bob Bowers, deputy coroner, said it is easy in hindsight to see what might have been done differently, but pathologists have to base their findings on the medical evidence available at the time.

“We would all like to have some magic eye into the future that would have been able to prevent anything from happening after the first death,” he said.

Without a coroner’s finding of homicide, detectives said they were limited in what they could do. Bringing charges when the cause of death is undetermined can backfire and result in an acquittal.

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“I really, truly do not believe any agency did anything wrong,” Cranford said. “It was nobody’s fault except Jack Barron’s.”


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