Guana River State Park – Jacksonville, Florida – It is a warm evening on August 17, 2002 and a handsome young couple seek a private tryst amid the dunes beside the ocean. Justin Barber, 30 and his gorgeous wife April, 27, have sneaked into the park after sundown for a romantic walk after the couple celebrated their third wedding anniversary. April had a brilliant smile, corn silk hair, and exquisite cheekbones. Earlier in the evening, Barber claimed they’d had dinner at an Italian restaurant then drive to the ocean. Sounds picturesque, doesn’t it? That’s always the starting point of something horrific in true crime accounts.
To hear Barber tell it, a tall man with a gun appeared, demanding Barber’s car keys and cash. Instead Barber stepped in front of April and the stranger shot him. Barber fell unconscious. When he finally roused, he discovered he’d been shot four times – in both shoulders, under the right nipple and, oddly, through the left hand. That’s a pretty decent attempt at murdering a person, I must say.
Barber found April floating face down in the surf, a .22 bullet through her cheek. Barber dragged her up the beach then stopped and went to flag down cars. Barber claimed none of the cars stopped so he jumped into his Toyota 4Runner, leaving his dead wife’s body on the beach, and sped away with his flashers on. Ten miles down the road a motorist signalled him to pull over and called 911. Barber was brought to a hospital. Police found April lying face down on the beach without a pulse.
April had been a remarkable woman. During April’s senior year of high school, her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died after six months of agony. April’s father, an oil field worker, was too traumatized to care for the kids. Lucky for the children, family took them in. Influenced by her mother’s death, April became a radiation therapist. She also functioned as surrogate mother to her two younger siblings.
April was smitten when she met Justin Barber. He seemed different. He spoke of his Christian values. He had grown up in a town herding cattle with his brother on their parents’ 120-acre spread. A quiet, solitary boy, he became a star athlete in high school and graduated as valedictorian. He married in college but was unable to hold down a stable job. When he met April he was newly divorced. April and Barber quickly became engaged. On August 4, 1999, they married in a small ceremony in the Bahamas, then relocated for Barber’s new job in Douglas, Georgia. April found work at a hospital.
A month later, her siblings moved in, and the trouble began. Julie was 15 and her rebellious behavior infuriated Barber, causing fights between April and him. At one point, he threatened to never let April bear his children. Within a year, Julie and Kendon were back in Oklahoma with relatives. That sounds nasty doesn’t it? But combining families can be difficult for anyone.
In April and Barber’s case however there was more than just ordinary family trouble. April’s loved ones saw a disturbing pattern. “Justin seemed very into appearances,” claimed April’s aunt Patti Parrish, a civil court judge. Barber tried on his jeans from high school every month and fasted until they fit. He made fun of his overweight mother behind her back (nice) and publicly criticized April’s singing voice, her clothing, and her weight. He warned her not to embarrass him at his company Christmas party, whatever that meant, and discouraged her from contacting him at work. When his barbs made her cry, he mimicked her sobs. Yet April tolerated his mistreatment. Some women are gluttons for punishment I guess.
But in January 2001, Barber was transferred to Jacksonville, and April decided not to go with him. “She told me that if they lived together every day, they’d kill each other,” a friend said. Barber bought a condo in an upscale neighborhood, and the two saw each other on weekends. Usually it was April who drove the three hours to visit. For reasons of her own, April wouldn’t give up on Barber. He could be charming, and his criticisms echoed some of her deep insecurities. “She was harder on herself than anyone else. She put up with a lot from her men.”
While recovering in the hospital after the shootings Barber seemed eager to help catch his wife’s killer. But something about him made Detective Howard “Skip” Cole uneasy. “His body language and demeanor didn’t seem appropriate.” In the days that followed, Cole’s suspicions grew. Barber’s story was vague, and the details kept changing. The case raised many questions. How did Barber escape with minor wounds, while his wife was killed with a single shot? Why did he claim she’d been drinking, when her blood-alcohol level measured .000? Why had he left his cell phone at home that night, and why didn’t he use April’s?
Patti remembered that in the summer of 2001, April had told her Barber wanted them to take out $2 million insurance policies on each other’s lives. “She asked if I didn’t think it weird,” Patti stated. “I told her yeah but said I didn’t think they would qualify. She called back the next day and said, ‘You can’t say anything to Justin. He’ll be furious if he finds out I told you.’” Barber found a company that would cover them. April began to suspect he was having an affair. She found an earring in his bedroom, and in July 2002, she discovered he was playing tennis regularly with a rental-car agent named Shannon Kennedy. April e-mailed him at work, asking him to tell her when he was socializing with other women. Justin responded with a sarcastic message listing every female he’d glimpsed that day.
April told her boss, Ramesh Nair, that she was going to confront Barber on their anniversary, August 4. She visited Barber that weekend and when she returned, she told Nair she’d threatened to end the marriage. On Friday the 16th, she drove back to Jacksonville. The next night, she was dead. Barber had the audacity to ask Patti if she would front for April’s burial expenses. “What about the $2 million?” she responded. Startled, he said, “Did April tell you?” He told her he thought the policy had lapsed. Patti did some digging and learned that it hadn’t.
At the funeral, in Hennessey’s First Baptist Church, a crowd of 300 overflowed the pews. Several attendees noticed Barber’s failure to cry, though he appeared to be trying. Cole knew he was dealing with a liar, but arresting Justin for murder was another matter. There were no witnesses; no weapon had been found. Even the motive remained fuzzy. Justin had a base salary in the $70,000s; his wife earned nearly as much. Living apart from her, he could cheat with relative impunity. Did he kill her and shoot himself simply to upgrade his lifestyle a few notches? By July 2004, Cole had enough evidence to take Barber into custody, but it took another two years and advancements in computer forensics before they were ready to go to trial. The wheels of justice do turn slowly.
As to method, prosecutors argued that Barber had spent a year planning the crime. The most damning evidence came from his laptop. On February 9, 2002, Barber Googled “medical trauma right chest.” On Valentine’s Day, he tried “gunshot wound right chest.” The prosecutor asked, “What are the odds of somebody researching ‘gunshot wound to the right chest’ and getting a gunshot wound to the right chest six months later?” On July 19, Barber Googled “Florida divorce” and doubtless discovered that if April left him, he could no longer be her beneficiary. And on August 17, an hour before the fatal outing, he downloaded the Guns N’ Roses song “Used to Love Her (But I Had to Kill Her).”
Finally, there was the crime-scene evidence. Barber claimed he hauled April from the water after she was shot, carrying her in at least nine different positions. Yet the blood on her face all flowed in one direction, suggesting she had been shot on the walkway and left there to die. Foam at her nose and mouth indicated that she’d suffered a “near-drowning episode” before the shooting. The theory unfolded that Barber intended to shoot April, load her corpse in the car, and drive off in search of “help.” The scheme went awry when she tried to run. He held her underwater until she stopped struggling, then dragged her to the walkway, where he shot her and himself. The plan derailed when his pain kept him from carrying her farther. Justin had to modify his tactics but his strategy never changed.
He seemed equally unmoved when the jurors of the criminal trial, after 33 hours of deliberation, announced their verdict: guilty. His supporters wept, as did April’s mourners. Justin barely blinked, even when the jury recommended the death penalty a week later. Judge Edward Hedstrom sentenced him to life without parole. Such detachment is a classic symptom of sociopathy.
“He wanted the $2 million, he wanted sympathy for being shot, and he wanted to look like a hero who’d tried to save his wife. He wanted it all.”
So do a lot of people. But they don’t murder their spouses to get it.