Big, hulking, Stuart
Taylor was happy as he drove his girlfriend, plump and bosomy
46-year-old Velma Barfield, to a revival meeting of the famous preacher
Rex Humbard. Although Stuart was not extremely religious, he knew that
his girlfriend was a devoutly pious Christian and she would love hearing
the respected evangelist in person. Stuart was aware that there were
contradictory aspects of Velma’s personality. She was living out of
wedlock with him, a move that had shocked her children. She also had a
criminal record for forgery, a fact that Taylor had discovered by
accident and led him to decide he did not want to legally marry her.
However, as Christians say, it’s a Fallen World and many people do not
live up to their own ideals.
Both Stuart and Velma
were crisply attired in their Sunday best as they settled into chairs at
the Cumberland County Civic Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
The service had just
begun when a wave of nausea rolled over Stuart. “I’m feeling sick,” he
whispered to Velma. “Maybe it’s something I ate.”
As Humbard preached,
Stuart began feeling worse. Fierce pains gripped his stomach. “I’ve
got to go to the truck and lie down,” he told his sweetheart in a weak
The 56-year-old farmer
rushed out of the packed room and into the coolness of the evening air.
He opened up his truck and lay down on a seat. The feelings inside him
grew worse. He could hardly think as words were pushed out of his mind
by sheer awful physical pain.
Still miserable with
nausea when the meeting was finished and Velma got into the car with
him, Stuart lay back and writhed in pain as she drove them home.
“Stop,” he said at one
point, his skin clammy with sweat.
She pulled over to the
side of the road. A pale and sweaty Stuart stumbled out of the vehicle
and vomited on the dirt.
At home, he was in too
much pain to sleep. In the wee hours of the morning, Velma phoned his
pregnant daughter, Alice Storms, to tell her of her father’s disturbing
condition. It was Alice’s husband, Bill, who answered the phone. Velma
apologized for waking him up but said she thought it important that
Stuart’s daughter know that he was frighteningly sick. Later, Alice
phoned to ask Velma about Taylor’s illness. They both concurred that it
was probably just the flu.
Still later, Velma
visited one of her boyfriend’s best friends, a man named Sonny Johnson.
“Stuart’s sick and he wants to see you,” an obviously distressed Velma
Johnson rushed over to
see his friends. He found an ashen-faced, weakened Stuart Taylor, lying
in bed with a washbasin beside it to throw up in. “Could you take care
of the pigs for me until I’m over the flu?” Stuart requested.
His friend assured him
that he would.
Stuart’s condition got
worse. His chest, stomach and arms were all racked by pain and he
vomited incessantly. He felt like he was on fire from inside.
The next day, Velma
drove her terribly sick lover to the hospital. While the doctors
examined and tried to treat the man, she discussed what she knew of his
medical history. She was not well-informed about it but she knew he was
a heavy drinker.
After answering the
physician’s questions, Velma called Alice. She in turn phoned her
brother Billy who went to the hospital.
Together with Velma, he
heard a doctor say his father’s dreadful condition was “gastritis.” The
doctor prescribed medicine and told Velma she could take Stuart home
that night, which she did.
Sonny Johnson again
visited his friend at the latter’s large, white, steeple-topped
farmhouse that afternoon. Stuart had finally improved. He still looked
wan but was sitting up in bed, chatting and smoking. He asked Johnson
to talk to him from the doorway because he didn’t want to transmit his
The next day was a
Friday. At around 8 p.m., Stuart had taken a drastic turn for the
worse. Velma phoned John McPherson, a neighbor and friend. “Stuart
needs an ambulance!” she told him in a voice that sounded full of fear.
McPherson called an ambulance, then drove to the house himself.
He found Stuart Taylor
looking terrible. The room had a nauseating odor because the sick man
had suffered an attack of diarrhea in his bed. The arms and legs of the
sweaty and chalk-faced man thrashed around and he made incoherent
moaning noises. From time to time, he screamed. Velma had surrounded the
bed with chairs, their backs to the bed, to prevent him from falling out
The rescue squad worked
quickly and efficiently to bundle him into the ambulance. Its siren
wailed as it raced to the hospital. His concerned lover followed in
Doctors rushed to his
side but Taylor died an hour after arriving at the hospital.
In the waiting room were
Stuart’s children, Alice and Billy, and the girlfriend who had nursed
him through the illness, Velma Barfield. The doctor said he was puzzled
by the man’s sudden death and suggested an autopsy.
Both Alice and Billy
asked Velma what she thought. “If you don’t do it,” she said, “you’ll
Stuart Taylor’s adult
kids told the physician to perform an autopsy.
"You've Gor to Stop Her!"
Velma Barfield and
her adult son Ronnie Burke sat with Stuart’s grieving family at
his funeral. Velma placed a comforting arm around Alice and said
the words so commonly repeated under such circumstances by
believers in an afterlife: “He’s in a far better place.”
As Ronnie left the
service, he looked at another person there and observed, “You know, it’s
the saddest thing but it seems like everybody my mother ever gets close
to dies.” How could the good Lord allow this to happen to a faithful
Christian like Velma Barfield?
Earlier that same
Sunday, a phone call had awakened Lumberton Police Detective Benson
Phillips. The caller was weeping and babbling. The detective could not
easily make out her slurred, shrill words. He was able to gather from
some of the sounds: “Murder! . . . I know who did it! . . . You’ve got
to stop her! You’ve got to stop her!”
The sleepy police
officer sighed. A crank call, he thought. Just what he needed to start
the day. He had heard of no murder in the small town of Lumberton and
he would have if one had been committed since he investigated all
However, he suggested
she call him at the station before he hung up the phone.
When he got there, he
found, as he expected to, no homicide reports. The nutty morning caller
faded from his thoughts as he got on with his day’s work.
Then she phoned.
According to Jerry Bledsoe’s Death Sentence, “This time she was
calmer, more coherent. She still didn’t want to give details, but
Phillips gradually coaxed them from her. She revealed that she was
calling from South Carolina, but she couldn’t give her name. She didn’t
want anybody to know that she had called. The man who had been
murdered, she said, was the boyfriend of Velma Barfield, who had killed
him just as she had killed her own mother. The caller admitted that she
could offer no proof, but she was sure, too, that Velma’s boyfriend and
mother weren’t the only ones. Too many other people close to Velma had
died, she said, including two elderly people Velma had worked for, but
she didn’t know their names. When Phillips pressed for evidence, she
could offer none.
How did she know about
all of this? Phillips asked.
‘Because,’ she said,
‘Velma is my sister.’”
Phillips was utterly
baffled by this strange caller. He did not trust her but then again, he
could not quite dismiss her out of hand. He had to do some checking to
make sure. He called the Lumberton hospital and inquired if anyone had
died over the weekend.
Yes, he was told, Stuart
Taylor. It seemed to be a death by natural causes. Was an autopsy
being performed? Phillips asked. Regional medical examiner Dr. Bob
Andrews had performed an autopsy but did not yet have all the results
Phillips was intrigued
and disturbed but also in an awkward position. As Bledsoe, wrote, “He
had discovered that Taylor had been brought to the hospital from the
countryside near St. Paul’s. That would put any investigation under the
jurisdiction of the sheriff. He had no responsibility. Still, he made
a note to call his old friend Wilbur Lovett at the sheriff’s department
on Monday to tell him about it.”
In the meantime, Dr.
Andrews, who knew nothing of the detective’s suspicions or those nagging
doubts that Phillips related to Sheriff Lovett, was puzzling over the
results of his autopsy. Stuart Taylor had seemingly died of
gastroenteritis. It was odd for a man as healthy as Taylor to be killed
by that alone and Dr. Andrews determined to look further. Finding an
inexplicable abnormality in some liver tissue, he put some of Taylor’s
tissue samples into plastic bags. Then he mailed it to North Carolina’s
chief medical examiner and asked for more tests.
Dr. Andrews was still
waiting for the results of those tests when he spoke with a distraught
Alice Storms. Her father had been so hale and hardy. What was it that
had killed him? She had a right to know!
So Dr. Andrews phoned
North Carolina’s chief medical examiner, Page Hudson. Hudson did not
know about the tissues Andrews had sent for examination. However, he
asked Andrews for details about the death. Andrews told him about the
girlfriend, Velma Barfield, who had brought Stuart Taylor to the
hospital and described Taylor’s symptoms.
Hudson instantly grasped
the situation. “Where’d she get the arsenic, Bob?” he asked.
took a second look at the death certificates of the several people
close to Velma Barfield who had died. Even when an autopsy had
been performed, no special test had been done for poison. Rather,
with stunning regularity, those she knew expired of
“gastroenteritis.” The investigators were pretty certain they
were dealing not only with a murderer but a serial murderer.
The police always do
best if they can get a confession. What would be the best way to obtain
one from Velma? They decided to surprise her. They would pick her up
for questioning on one of the multitude of bad checks she had written,
then confront her with Stuart Taylor’s death.
Since the checks had
been written in Lumberton, Benson Phillips would question her. Sheriff
Lovett and homicide investigator Al Parnell were present as well. They
went over the checks. This was well-ploughed territory for Barfield and
she appeared nonplussed.
Then Phillips began
discussing her poor boyfriend, Stuart Taylor, who had so recently and
tragically died. “Do you know he was killed by arsenic?” the detective
The plump grandmother
appeared stunned by this news.
Phillips pressed on,
asking for details about their relationship. He was especially
interested in knowing if Barfield had reason to be angry with Taylor.
“Y’all think I poisoned
Stuart, don’t you?” she gasped in outrage. The two of them were in
love, she maintained, and planning to wed. She had nothing to gain by
killing him. It was dreadful for them to suggest such a thing. Why,
she was the one who had nursed the poor man through his illness! She
was the one who had rushed him to the hospital! Now they were trying to
throw dirt on all her good work. They ought to be ashamed of
“Would you take a lie
detector test?” Lovett asked.
Certainly. She had
nothing at all to hide.
They told her a
polygraph examination would be arranged and that she was free to go.
Just as she got up to exit, Parnell sprung on her, “Velma, you know,
this can go all the way back to your mother.”
She glared at the
investigator, made no remark, and left in a huff.
That Saturday morning,
Ronnie Burke was visiting his in-laws when his mother, Velma Barfield,
phoned their house and asked to speak to her son.
Ronnie Burke was a
26-year-old man with multiple responsibilities. He had a wife and a
3-year-old son. He worked full-time and went to college full-time at
Pembroke State University where he sought a business administration
degree. He would receive it in just a couple of months. Burke was
often pressed for time and sleep but he wanted to become the first
member of his family to earn a four-year college degree, partly because
he knew how much that would please his mother. For quite awhile, Burke
had been concerned for his mother. She had suffered far more than her
share of grief through the deaths of so many people she cared about. He
also knew that she was taking more drugs than the doctors had prescribed
His mother sounded
overwrought. The police had taken her to the station, she told him.
Oh no, he thought. She
was back to writing bad checks to cover drug bills.
Then a shock went
“They wanted to talk
about Stuart,” Mom informed him. “They said he was poisoned. They seem
to think I had something to do with it.”
Some cop had really
goofed this time, Burke thought. Burke knew that Taylor had died five
weeks previously. His Mom had been devastated. He did not know who
might have poisoned the man but he knew it could not possibly be his
He told his Mom that he
would be going home soon and she should meet him there. This was a
frightful mistake but Burke was certain it could be straightened out.
The cops would learn they were barking up the wrong tree. He was
anxious to comfort his mother and let her know things would work out as
they should in the end.
Burke, his wife, and
toddler dwelled in a modest duplex on the outskirts of Lumberton, North
Carolina. When Velma arrived there, he comforted her just like he had
intended to. He did not believe she would need a lawyer. Attorneys are
terribly expensive, after all, and he and his mother were people of very
limited means. The police would realize soon that she could not have
had anything to do with Stuart’s death and just drop it. There was no
need to worry, he assured her.
That Monday, Burke was
at work when a woman phoned. She would not say who she was but told
him, “I’m a friend of your mother’s.”
What did she want to
“I’ve heard she’s going
to be arrested today,” she said. “I thought you ought to know.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, they’re going to
charge her with Stuart’s death. . . . I know someone who works in the
It did not seem possible
that the police could go so wrong, Burke thought. Yet, Mom had told him
that they suspected her. Could the cops be about to arrest an innocent
woman for murder? That sort of thing happens in the movies but not in
Burke told his
supervisor he had to leave to attend to a family emergency. He drove to
the Lumberton Police Department and talked to Wilbur Lovett. They were
not planning to arrest her that day, the sheriff told him, but they did
consider her a suspect. He could not disclose why and Burke left
Lovett’s office even more outraged and upset than he had been when he
From there he drove to
the home in which his mother was living. Velma Barfield resided with
Mamie Warwick, a senior citizen who allowed Velma to live rent-free in
exchange for her doing some household chores. Burke found his Mom
taking a nap. She was in bed as he spoke to her, telling her that the
cops still suspected her in Stuart Taylor’s death. Velma said she could
not possibly do anything like that. Then she started sobbing. Finally,
she stopped crying and told her son something he had never expected to
hear. Her words were soft, almost a whisper, yet unmistakably clear.
“I only meant to make
him sick,” she said.
With that, Burke felt
like the floor had been cut out from under him.
So it had been an
accident. But his mother had caused it. She would have to go to
the police and explain.
Velma wept quietly as
she sat in the passenger seat of her son’s car, being driven to the
sheriff’s department. Burke could not be present while she was
questioned. She said she did not want a lawyer.
Dejected but certain he
had done the right thing, Burke phoned his sister to break the sad news
to her. They agreed to meet at her home. In times of crisis, families
need to be together and Velma’s sisters, Arlene and Faye, would
eventually drive in to join their niece and nephew.
The phone rang and Burke
spoke to investigator Al Parnell.
“It’s worse than we
thought,” Parnell said.
Burke was dumbstruck,
wondering how could it possibly be any worse?
“There are other people.
. . . Other people she’s killed,” Parnell told a stunned Ronnie Burke.
Parnell went on to relate that Velma Barfield had confessed to killing
two people to whom she had been a paid, live-in caregiver and her own
mother, Burke’s grandmother, Lillie Bullard.
When Burke repeated what
he had been told to his sister and aunts, a pandemonium of tears and
screaming broke out in the little house.
Burke recalled the
loving mother who had fed and clothed him, bandaged his cuts and wiped
his runny nose, been a conscientious grade mother for him and his
sister, taken him to church and taught him right from wrong, disciplined
him and encouraged him always to do his very best. That image was
impossible to reconcile with the poisoner of four people.
Just what kind of person
was Velma Barfield?
Daddy's Little Girl
On October 29,
1932, Margie Velma Bullard was born. Her parents, siblings, and
friends would always call her Velma. She was the second child and
first daughter of farmer Murphy Bullard and his homemaker wife,
Lillie. They would have nine children all together.
When Velma was born, the
Bullards lived in an unpainted wooden house in rural South Carolina.
The home had neither electricity nor running water. Unlike many farm
families, they did not even have an outhouse. Rather, “the necessary”
was taken care of with chamber pots and trips to the woods. Murphy’s
parents lived in the home and so did his sister, Susan Ella, who was
disabled because an arm and leg had been shriveled by polio.
As the Great Depression
worsened, Murphy Bullard found it impossible to eke out a living from
the sale of the cotton and tobacco he grew. He sought and found work as
a logger in a sawmill owned by Clarence Bunch. Through Bunch, Murphy
was able to move his family into a tiny house closer to town. Here his
third child would be born.
Then Murphy got a job in
a Fayetteville textile mill and moved his family back into his parents’
home. His father died shortly thereafter and his mother followed her
husband to the graveyard in less than a year’s time.
The Bullard family was
organized along traditional, patriarchal lines. Murphy Bullard was the
undisputed king of whatever shabby castle his family occupied and Lillie
was the submissive wife. He was an easily angered and hard-drinking man
when he did not get his way and a strict, unbending disciplinarian with
his many children. He did not spare the rod or, in this case, the strap
and the Bullard youngsters often had smarting backsides.
One thing that
especially galled him was a kid with a “smart mouth” and both his oldest
child, his son Olive, and the daughter who had been born next, Velma,
were known in the family for their tendency to give Dad back-talk.
However, Olive believed that Velma did not get punished nearly as often
or as severely as he did which led to a lot of conflict between the two
youngsters. He was convinced that their father favored Velma. She was
just as convinced that their mother favored Olive.
Velma disliked her
mother’s submissive attitude toward their father. Decades later, she
wrote in her memoirs, Woman on Death Row, “I seemed to accept
Daddy’s high-tempered ways because I thought that’s the way men are.
Mamas should love their children and stand up for them, and Mama never
stood up for me, or for any of us.” Every time Velma got a beating from
her dad, she was at least as upset with the passive Mom who saw and did
nothing as she was with the aggressive dad who actually inflicted it.
Lillie Bullard believed
she had to step carefully in her own household to deal with her
husband’s temper. She herself was frequently in danger of being on the
receiving end of Murphy’s fists because he was a hysterically jealous
man. He was also himself flagrantly unfaithful which inevitably added
to family tensions.
A 7-year-old Velma
started school in the fall of 1939. At first, she loved it. A smart
girl, she got good grades and teachers’ compliments. School also
offered a respite from her crowded home life, her father’s strap, and
her often-ill mother’s gripes and demands.
However, the child soon
began having difficulty with her schoolmates. Velma did not wear the
new, store-bought, pretty dresses that so many other girls did. Her
shoes were sturdy and worn. Other children sometimes made fun of her
garments and of the plain lunches of cornbread with a side of meat that
she brought. Velma began sneaking out of the sight of the other kids to
eat. Then she began pilfering coins from her father’s pants pockets to
buy candies from a little store that was across the street from the
The child stole $80 from
an elderly neighbor. Murphy Bullard laid the strap on long and hard,
apparently curing her of the desire to steal at least during her
childhood since there are no other reports of such youthful
As Velma grew, she was
assigned more and more chores. She had to help out on the farm and care
for her younger brothers and sisters. She resented the amount of work
she had to do but did not openly rebel for fear of angering her stern
dad. “I really never felt like my Mama or Daddy ever wanted me except
for the work I did,” she would say later . “I always felt that they
just really wanted me to be a slave.”
Not everything was bad
in the youngster’s life, however. Her father could be loving with his
kids and lead them in ventures that were lots of fun. Murphy Bullard
often organized baseball games with his children and others. Velma was
often the only girl in the game and enjoyed playing shortstop. She also
liked swimming when her dad led the kids on excursions to a local pond.
Despite his harsh
discipline, Velma was often happy to be a daddy’s girl. A 10-year-old
Velma was walking through the business district of Fayetteville with her
father. She admired a dress in a department store window. It was
covered with pink flowers and had a wide ruffle at the hem. She told
her dad how much she loved that dress and, to her very pleasant
surprise, he marched straight in and bought it for her!
Sadly, later in her
life, Velma may have become a daddy’s girl in the most negative possible
way. She told a reporter from The Village Voice that her father
had entered her bedroom and raped her. Prior to that, there had been
confusing episodes when he felt her up and she was not sure if it was
sexual or not.
Several of Velma’s
brothers and sisters furiously disputed her claim that she was an incest
victim. While her family had many of the traits characteristic of
incestuous families such as a severe power imbalance between husband and
wife and a father who drank heavily, it is not possible to say with
certainty if her accusation was true or false. Velma certainly could
lie and was a champion manipulator throughout much of her life. A claim
of sexual abuse can be an easy way to play upon people’s sympathies.
In 1945, Murphy Bullard
decided he was tired of working in the mill and wanted to go back to
full-time farming. He bought more acres and, with that purchase, a
small but far more modern home for his family. After only a year, he
realized he could not support his large brood on what he could make from
his crops. He returned to supplementing farm income with work in a
Later, he got a job at a
textile plant in the town of Red Springs and moved his family there.
The house they moved into lacked the modern conveniences of the one they
had lived in for the last couple of years.
Velma was now in high
school. She no longer got the good grades she had achieved in
elementary school. However, she found one activity that she enjoyed at
Parkton Public School and that, surprisingly, was basketball. Although
it was not standard in that era, Parkton had a girls’ team and Velma
found the fast-moving sport a good way to work off energy. Then her
mother insisted that Velma quit the team. Lillie had recently given
birth to twins and needed her eldest daughter’s help with housework more
than she ever had. Velma was terribly disappointed and saddened by her
Meanwhile, Velma and a
high school boy named Thomas Burke had developed a mutual crush. A year
older than she, Thomas was a thin-faced, jug-eared, dark-haired and
lanky youth with a tender streak and a good sense of humor. The two
found each other regularly at school to make friends and flirt.
No dating would be
allowed until Velma was 16, her father told her when she expressed a
wish to begin seeing Thomas outside of school. Then her 16th birthday
rolled around but her father seemed to have changed his mind. He still
did not want his daughter going out. After much pleading, Velma got
Murphy to agree to her dating. He placed firm restrictions on her,
saying she usually had to double date and always had to be home by 10
p.m. on the dot. Although she chafed under these restrictions, Velma
went along with them. She did not have much choice if she was to avoid
her father’s wrath.
Battling Over Booze
When she was 17,
Thomas proposed marriage and Velma accepted. She had a tremendous
row with her father, at the end of which Murphy Bullard broke down
in tears. Velma had never seen her father, so steadfastly and
traditionally masculine, cry before. But she still wanted to be
Both Thomas and Velma
quit school shortly after marrying. Thomas Burke held different jobs,
in a cotton mill, as a farm laborer, and then driving a delivery truck.
Velma worked for a while in a drugstore but Thomas disliked having her
work outside the home so she quit.
The newlywed Burkes were
residing in a small Parkton home where Velma’s family had once lived
when the young wife got pregnant in 1951. On December 15 of that year,
she gave birth to Ronald Thomas. His sister, Kim,was born on September
Velma Burke adored
taking care of her babies. She was an indulgent and protective mother
who frequently read to her youngsters and could not stand to be
separated from them even for brief periods. She wanted both children to
grow up to be ardent Christians and regularly took them to a Baptist
When her children
started school, Velma Burke quickly became known as one of the most
involved mothers. She was “grade mother” for the classes of both her
youngsters and always available for class field trips and the like. She
and her children joked that they had “automatic arms” because whenever a
teacher asked the class if someone’s mother would be willing to assist
with a project, their arms instantly shot into the air. Velma Burke
could always be counted on. She often drove children in the classes her
kids attended on field trips and the youngsters would fight to ride with
her because she was so much fun.
Around this time, Velma
got another paying job. Apparently Thomas did not object. The family
needed some extra cash. She took the midnight to 8 a.m. shift at a
textile plant. Thomas began a job as delivery driver for Pepsi-Cola.
The family now had enough funds to move into a more comfortable house in
Parkton. The Burkes enjoyed several good years.
In 1963, Velma began
having medical problems and had to undergo a hysterectomy. They were
not as distraught as some couples might have been because both Velma and
Thomas agreed that the two children were all they wanted.
The surgery appeared to
have a drastic, and negative, affect on Velma. She was alternately
nervous or depressed and often snappish. She began worrying that the
fact that she could no longer get pregnant made her seem less womanly
and, therefore, less attractive to her husband. She started to have
more physical problems and was especially troubled by lower back pain.
Thomas Burke decided to
join the Jaycees. He went off to their weekly meetings while Velma sat
at home with the kids. She began to resent his evening absences.
Even more, she resented
his drinking. Velma was a firm teetotaler who agreed with her church
that alcoholic beverages were the devil’s drinks. Thus, she was deeply
upset when she found out that Thomas was regularly going out with his
male friends for a few beers.
In 1965, Thomas had an
accident as he was driving his three-year-old Ford Galaxy. As described
in Death Sentence, “The car left the highway, hit a culvert,
sailed into the air and landed on its wheels in the driveway of a
house. Thomas’ head banged the steering wheel and he was knocked
He had a concussion and
would ever after suffer severe headaches. He always maintained that he
had not been drinking but had only been tired and had fallen asleep at
the wheel. His wife would not buy it. She was certain he had been
drunk and redoubled her nagging on the subject.
Thomas resented her
noisy attempts to talk him into abstaining from booze. He drank no more
than most of the guys he hung around with. Why was his wife trying to
run his life?
Their battles over booze
became an almost daily affair. Usually, Velma started them, upset
because Thomas had liquor on his breath. A shouting, name-calling match
would follow and the children were inevitably frightened and disturbed
by their argumentative parents. Ronnie was especially concerned because
he feared his dad would eventually settle the disputes the way so many
other men did-- with his fists.
To his credit, however,
Thomas never employed brute strength in his many and furious arguments
with his wife.
Thomas was arrested for
drunken driving in 1967. As a result he lost his driver’s license and,
with it, his job at Pepsi-Cola. He was devastated. The shame and
despair plunged him into a depression and he drank more than ever to
dull a pain that was caused by his drinking. The Burke kids no longer
invited friends over to their home because they did not want the other
kids to hear their parents fight or see their dad wiped out from booze.
A mill hired Thomas and
he was able to ride to work in a carpool (even if the word was not in
common use at the time).
The household tension
was taking a great toll on Velma. She was ever more worried and frantic
and had been drastically losing weight. One day, Ronnie came home to
find his mother lying on the kitchen floor in a dead faint.
He was able to help her
back to consciousness but insisted on a trip to the hospital. Doctors
there recommended she remain hospitalized for a week. She was given
vitamins and sedatives before being released with a prescription for a
mild tranquilizer, Librium.
When she got home, she
eventually began taking more Librium than was prescribed. She also went
to another physician and got a prescription for Valium. Velma Barfield
had begun the avocation of “doctor shopping” that she would pursue up
until her arrest for murder. It was a pattern of going to doctors and
getting prescriptions without telling one doctor that she was seeing
another. Thus, she took medicines that were not supposed to be taken in
conjunction with each other.
Even as she constantly
and loudly fretted about her husband’s alcohol use, Thomas and her
teenaged kids worried about her use of prescription medicines. She was
taking too much, sometimes leaving her as groggy as a drunkard.
One day in April, the
Burke house caught on fire. The only person home was Thomas Burke.
Both youngsters were at school. Velma said she had been at the
laundromat when she came home to see the house in flames.
Thomas Burke died of smoke inhalation.
At the hospital, Velma
collapsed when she was told of her husband’s death. Ronnie and her
sister caught her before she could fall to the floor.
A few months after
this loss, Velma Burke experienced great joy and triumph through
the achievement of her son. Ronnie was graduating from high
school as salutatorian. His mother sat proudly among the
spectators as he spoke at the commencement. He chose the subject
nearest to his heart: his mother. In his speech, he paid tribute
to her as the reason for all of the good qualities he possessed.
Velma cried as she listened to his public praise. What a joy to
be so appreciated by one’s grateful son and to have everyone know
However, the Burke
family continued to have bad luck. There was another fire at their
home. This time, no one was inside and no one was hurt. But the house
was gutted. While they waited for the insurance to pay for the damage,
the Burkes moved back in with Velma’s parents, Murphy and Lillie
Soon after Thomas’
death, Velma began dating a widower named Jennings Barfield. Barfield
was a man who had taken early retirement due to numerous health
problems. He suffered from diabetes, emphysema, and heart disease. He
had lost his wife close to the time Velma had lost her husband and the
two were probably initially brought together by a mutual desire to
comfort each other in grief. Then a romance grew and deepened and
wedding bells were in the air.
They were married on
August 23, 1970. It was a church wedding, something Velma felt she had
missed out on in her youthful elopement to Thomas Burke. Velma moved
into the small home in Fayetteville that her groom shared with his
teenaged daughter, Nancy.
The newlyweds were soon
having troubles, partly because of Velma’s penchant for overdoing it
with prescription medications. Jennings found his wife in a
semi-conscious state and took her to the hospital. The doctor on duty
said she had overdosed. They separated, then reconciled when she
promised to quit taking so many pills. She broke her word and went back
to the emergency room with another overdose. Both Velma and Jennings
confided to others that they believed the marriage had been a mistake.
Divorce seemed in the offing with it just a question of who would leave
It never actually came
to that, however.
Jennings Barfield died
on March 21, 1971, apparently of the heart failure that had troubled him
Widowed again, Velma did
not appear to be coping well. She was despondent and listless, often
medicating herself into oblivion and spending much of her time in bed.
“After Jennings’s death,” she would recall, “I felt emptier and more
depressed than ever. I kept going to my doctors. I had prescriptions
from at least two, and usually three, doctors at a time. . . . No matter
how many pills any one doctor prescribed, they never lasted until time
for the next refill.”
She worked at Belk’s
department store but her performance there was being badly affected by
her mood swings and evident drug dependency. Her boss was a sympathetic
man so, instead of firing her, he put her in the stockroom where she
could not alienate customers with a snippy or brusque manner.
Adding to Velma’s
despair was a separation from her son. The Vietnam War was raging and
Ronnie felt it was only a matter of time before he was drafted so he
decided to sign up. He had second thoughts after Jennings Barfield’s
death and his mother begged him to attempt to persuade the military
that he needed to be allowed to stay with his sick mom. He made a
sincere effort in that direction. Doctors wrote to the Army telling of
Velma Barfield’s precarious health and asking that Ronnie be permitted
to honorably opt out of his contract. It did not work and he was
ordered to report to Fort Jackson in South Carolina.
When it seemed like
things could not get worse, they did. Velma’s house once again caught
fire! Velma went into hysterics. She was simply inconsolable. Why did
such things keep happening to her?
She and her daughter
once again moved back in with Murphy and Lillie Bullard. It was just in
time-- for Velma was fired from Belk’s. She had been coming in late and
unable to perform her duties when she was there. Unemployment led
Velma’s chronic depression to deepen. It got even blacker when she
learned that Murphy Bullard had lung cancer. His death at 61 plunged
her into a horrible grief. Life hardly seemed worth living. Her father
was dead and her son could be sent to Vietnam and be killed.
It seemed that she would
lose Ronnie even if he did not die because he told her he was planning
to marry. She did not give her son and his prospective bride her
blessing. Instead, she was crushed. She told her son, “I’ve always
been the most important woman in your life and now you’re going to have
her and you won’t even want me to come around at all!”
Ronnie tried to reassure
her that his love for his future wife did not take away from his love
for his mother. His earnest reassurance did nothing to ease her
jealousy of the young woman who was to share his life. But neither did
mom’s jealousy dissuade Ronnie from going ahead with the plans for his
In March 1972, Velma
Barfield was arrested for forging a prescription. She pleaded guilty in
April and got off with a suspended sentence and a fine. Then, finally,
she got some genuinely welcome news: Ronnie was discharged from the
Grandma and Dottie
Despite the bright spot
of Ronnie’s return, Velma was still having a great deal of trouble.
After her father’s death, she and her mother fell into a pattern of
frequent quarreling. Velma claimed that Lillie was constantly ordering
her about. The older woman expected to be waited on hand and foot and
the grown-up Velma was not going to be treated like a slave by anyone.
Lillie, for her part, was dismayed by Velma’s frequent use of pills and
her tendency to sometimes simply pass out from taking too many.
Lillie got dreadfully
sick during the summer of 1974. Her stomach was racked by painful
cramps. She began throwing up uncontrollably and suffering a violent
diarrhea. It got so bad that Velma drove her mother to the hospital.
The doctors could not determine the cause of the sudden illness.
However, Lillie was better after a few days and went home.
On August 23, a man
Velma had been dating was killed in a traffic accident. (Velma was not
present so this death, at least, was probably just a melancholy
coincidence.) He had made Velma Barfield the beneficiary of his life
insurance policy and she received a check for $5,000.
That Christmas appeared,
as that holiday so often does, to be a time of sharing, forgiveness and
reconciliation. Both Lillie and Velma enjoyed bustling about in the
kitchen, making a big turkey dinner along with a variety of rich
desserts for their big extended family. Everybody at Grandma Bullard’s
house kidded around and laughed, then opened presents.
However, Lillie pulled
one of her sons aside to talk to him about something odd that troubled
her. She had gotten a letter from a finance company telling her that a
loan was overdue on her car and it would be repossessed if she failed to
promptly pay it. Lillie had not taken out any loan on the car and she
owned it free and clear! Her son saw no problem. It was probably just
one of those paperwork snafus, nothing to fret about.
A couple of days later,
Lillie got terribly sick. She was nauseous, then vomiting. That was
followed by an awful attack of diarrhea. Her insides felt like they
were burning up. She told Velma that she had hideous pains in her belly
and upper back. Her arms and legs flailed about her. She threw up again
and threw up blood.
Velma phoned her brother
Olive who immediately drove over. He was appalled to see their mother
so sick and called an ambulance. The rescue squad allowed Velma to ride
in the ambulance with her mother.
Lillie Bullard died two
hours after arriving at the hospital.
Early in 1975, Velma was
once again in hot water with the law. She had written another string of
bad checks. She was convicted on seven counts of writing bad checks.
The judge sent her to prison for six months. She was released after
Awhile after obtaining
her freedom, Velma started to look for jobs as a caregiver for elderly,
sick people. In 1976, she was living with and working for Montgomery
and Dollie Edwards. Montgomery was 94, bedridden and incontinent. He
was a diabetic and had lost his vision to that disease as well as both
legs that had been amputated. He could not feed himself. Eighty-four
year-old Dollie was in somewhat better shape but she was a cancer
survivor who had had a colostomy. At first, Velma seemed pleased to be
able to move into their comfortable brick ranch house. She got along
well with both Edwardses and found a church she liked attending, the
First Pentecostal Church in Lumberton.
As time wore on,
tensions surfaced between the caregiver and her employers. Dollie often
thought Velma was falling down on the job and told her so in no
uncertain terms. Velma complained that Dollie was a demanding
nitpicker. Their quarrels got more frequent and more heated.
Montgomery died in
January 1977. Velma stayed on to aid Dollie. The two continued to
It was February 26, a
Saturday, when Dollie got sick. She told her visiting stepson, Preston
Edwards, that she believed she must have the flu. Vomiting and diarrhea
plagued her. He came to see her the next night and was horrified by how
weak and pale she looked. She had to go to the hospital, he said. An
obliging Velma Barfield called an ambulance. Dollie was treated by
doctors in the emergency room and sent back home without having spent
the night there. She took a turn for the worse the next day and was
back in the hospital by Tuesday. She died that evening.
Now Velma had no
livelihood. That did not last long. She was soon caring for another
ailing and elderly couple, 80-year-old farmer John Henry Lee and his
76-year-old wife, Record. Record was the one needing special assistance
for she had recently broken her leg and was hobbling around on crutches
when she could manage to get around at all.
The position seemed
quite suitable to Velma. The Lees lived in a brick house in a rural
area on the outskirts of Lumberton. They were willing to let Velma have
Sundays and Wednesdays evenings off so she could attend church services.
surfacing. Record Lee loved to gab and the incessant chitchat got on
Velma’s nerves. She and her husband often argued and Velma disliked
being present during their fights.
Then there was a check
that puzzled Record. She knew she had not signed it. John Henry called
the cops but the case stalled because no one could think of anyone who
might have forged Record’s name.
On April 27, John Henry
got sick. His stomach was upset and he developed diarrhea. His
condition worsened and Velma called an ambulance. The medics rushed the
sweaty, gray-faced man to the hospital. He gradually recovered and was
released on May 2, after he had spent four days there. Doctors were
mystified about the source of the sickness but thought it was probably a
“Throughout May, John
Henry continued to be sick,” according to Death Sentence. “For a
few days he would be perfectly okay, then the vomiting, the diarrhea,
the cramps, the cold sweats, would start again. His weight continued to
drop drastically. His daughters were very grateful for the
attentiveness that Velma showed him. She was so sweet to him, so
caring. They felt themselves lucky that she was there.”
He took a turn for the
worse and Velma called another ambulance for him. There was little the
hospital could do for the dehydrated, terribly sick man. He died on
Some time after the
funeral of John Henry Lee Velma Barfield moved into the home of Stuart
Taylor. Before Taylor became ill at the Rex Humbard revival meeting,
Velma had visited his daughter, Alice, and asked to see a picture of her
father that she had taken as a joke. It was his “dead” picture. Stuart
Taylor had stretched out on a couch, closed his eyes and folded his
hands across his chest to simulate the image of a man in a coffin. Velma
laughed along with Alice and Stuart when Alice brought the photograph to
Later, the memory of
that shared laughter would cause Alice to shudder.
The prosecutor in
Velma Barfield’s case was a large, blustery man named Joe Freeman
Britt. He was an ardent advocate of capital punishment who had
been called “the world’s deadliest prosecutor.” During one period
of seventeen months, Britt had prosecuted thirteen first-degree
murder trials and won convictions in all of them. That was a
record and got him a mention in a Newsweek article.
Defending the accused
serial poisoner was Bob Jacobson. He was a short, freckled lawyer and
one of the few in Lumberton who would accept court-appointed cases. He
had never previously tried a death penalty case.
Velma was being tried
for one count of first-degree murder, that of Stuart Taylor. Her
defense was that she did not mean to kill, only to render her victim ill
while she attempted to cover up thefts by returning money she had
pilfered from him. If true, she was guilty only of second-degree murder
and the death sentence would not even be at issue.
Because the question of
intent was so crucial, Britt argued that the jury was entitled to hear
of other poisonings she had committed and their results. Jacobson
argued that that would be prejudicial since she was only being tried for
the death of Taylor.
The judge in the case
was Henry McKinnon. He ruled that the evidence linking Velma to the
deaths of John Henry Lee, Dottie Edwards, and her own mother, Lillie
Bullard, be admitted.
First, the prosecutor
put on both medical personnel and family who testified to the horror of
Stuart Taylor’s death. Britt also brought out the fact that his life
could have been saved had the antidote for arsenic poisoning British
antilewisite, or BAL, been administered. However, to do that, the
doctors would have had to have been informed that Taylor had been
poisoned with arsenic -- and the one person who knew that, Velma
Barfield, did not tell them.
Jacobson asked doctors about the effects of the various drugs Velma had
been taking and their possible interactions with each other. Some of
the physicians who testified about treating Stuart had also treated
Velma and prescribed medications for her. Their testimony showed that
she was on drugs that could have badly impaired her judgment and were
Jacobson put Velma on
the stand in her own defense. He knew he was taking an enormous risk in
doing so but felt he had to let her explain her own confused thinking to
the jury. She did well on direct examination, saying that she had given
her boyfriend poison to make him sick but not to kill him. She said she
did not tell doctors what she had done because she feared being returned
to prison. He also brought out her extensive use of various
medications, her combining a wide variety of drugs, and her dependency
on them. She admitted forging checks because she was addicted to drugs
and could not pay for them out of her own limited resources.
In the opinion of Britt,
Velma Barfield was a cold-blooded and cunning murderer who hid behind a
sweet little old lady and pious Christian masks. He would tear those
masks off and show the jury who she really was. When he cross-examined
her, he began with no pretense of being amiable or friendly. In his
stance, manner, and voice, he bristled with hostility.
She bristled right back
and that was precisely what he wanted. At one point, she seemed to be
trying to argue that she had not killed her victims. Rather, people
coincidentally happened to die after she poisoned them! After all, the
first autopsies all indicated natural deaths.
“What I would like, your
Honor,” Velma began during this astonishing statement, “to say to the
jury and all, these autopsies – let me say first of all, when a person
dies . . . and they ask for an autopsy to be performed, is it not true
that we have an autopsy performed to find out the reason of the death? .
. . So I don’t believe it killed them really. That is exactly the way I
feel about it.”
A stunned Britt asked,
“Beg your pardon?”
“I don’t think it killed
At another point, Velma
seemed oddly arrogant and snippy.
“You made Mrs. Edwards
sick with Singletary’s rat poison, did you not?”
“No, I thought it was
roach and ant poison.”
“So you knew these
compounds would certainly make people sick?”
“I knew it would make
them sick,” the witness replied.
“You knew it would kill
them, too, didn’t you?”
“No, I did not.”
The defense put on
several medical witnesses to testify to Velma’s lengthy history of
chronic and overlapping drug use. None of them could say that she had
been rendered insane in the legal sense by drugs but they testified that
her judgment could have been terribly clouded.
Right after the
prosecutor gave his summation to the jury, Velma made a gesture of
silent applause, repeatedly putting her hands together without actually
clapping. Her attorney and family were crestfallen. Britt was elated.
With that single, uncalled for sarcasm, he was certain that Velma
Barfield had as good as signed her own death warrant.
The jury came back with
a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder. Then it found the
“aggravating circumstances” to recommend the death penalty. Judge
McKinnon fixed her punishment at death.
Death Row for One
Like most states,
North Carolina had no “row” of women waiting to be executed. When
she was sentenced, Velma Barfield was the only female in the state
doomed by the law. She was housed in the Central Prison’s section
for mental cases, especially assaultive inmates, and prisoners
considered prone to escape.
Early in her prison
stay, Velma went through drug withdrawal. She had been supplied with
many of her accustomed medications during her trial. Her first days as
a condemned prisoner were spent without them and she showed the classic
symptoms of cold turkey: lack of appetite, insomnia, nausea, cold
sweats, and splitting headaches. The doctor who treated her gave her
anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. Then gradually, over a
period of over a year, she was weaned off of them.
To the extent possible,
Velma made her cell into a home. She put up photographs of her children
and grandchildren along with knick-knacks she crocheted and
inspirational religious slogans. Velma did not usually smoke but she
usually had a pack of Salem’s so that she could light one up while
having a bowel movement on her cell toilet. Velma, whose victims had
usually suffered a horrendous diarrhea before death, did not want to
offend her guards with the odor of her own excrement.
Velma’s radio was
usually tuned into a Christian program. Velma claimed that she had
become a born-again Christian while in jail.
Although she had been a
churchgoer and professed to love Jesus all her life, Velma said that she
recognized that she had never been a true Christian. Her Christianity
had been a matter of form and gesture. Then, while at her lowest ebb
and awaiting trial for her life, she had finally, genuinely, opened her
heart to Jesus and received forgiveness and salvation. She was
listening to a sermon by J. K. Kinkle when the message of God’s love hit
home for the first time. “All my life I was weighted down by my sins
because I couldn’t do better,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It
never occurred to me that Jesus really did pay the price, that Jesus
alone bore the extreme punishment – death – for my sins, not just
for my “good” neighbors. And, even more glorious, Jesus is willing to
be my friend even now. I can talk to Him, and He will listen.”
Her conversion was
greeted with skepticism by many, including the families of her victims.
After all, she had spoken of Jesus and salvation when they knew her and
when she was poisoning their loved ones. Her Christian faith had always
been a fraud, they believed, and it continued to be one. It was just a
ploy to try to save her life.
However, many people
were favorably impressed by Velma’s claim to be, for the first time in
her life, filled with the Holy Spirit. Tommy Fuquay, a Pentecostal
Holiness minister, believed that she was a true Christian. “I don’t
think I had ever seen anybody who had the repentant spirit she had,” he
commented. “I could see her growing and her attitude changing. The
faith in her just grew and grew each time I would see her.”
The famous evangelist
Billy Graham and his wife Ruth would come to believe Velma Barfield was
their sister in Christ. Ruth Graham kept in frequent touch with Velma
Velma found meaning in
her limited life by helping other prisoners. She was dismayed to
discover how many inmates were functionally illiterate. She often wrote
letters for them.
Special rules applied to
Velma because of the death sentence and included no contact with the
other inmates. However, the prison authorities frequently broke this
rule because they found that she could be a positive influence on other
prisoners. Assistant superintendent for treatment and programs at the
prison, Jennie Lancaster, put a 15-year-old named Beth into the cell
next to Velma’s. Lancaster asked Velma to try to help the girl who had
been convicted as an accessory to murder.
Velma put her hand
through the bars of her own cell and toward the next one so that Beth
could hold hands with her. Beth took Velma into her confidence, pouring
out her fears, while Velma prayed aloud for her and tried to comfort.
For the first time in her life, Velma was known by her first name and
Beth was the first prisoner to call her Mama Margie. She would not be
the last. Other inmates often came to Velma for advice and words of
Letter writing for
herself and others consumed much of Velma’s time. She wrote to her
family and to supporters she had never met. She also kept up with her
crocheting. Velma prayed and read the Bible on a daily basis. Her son
and daughter visited and sometimes brought her grandchildren with them.
Together with a pastor, she worked on her memoirs, Woman on Death Row.
"Gateway to Heaven"
Any death sentence
is automatically appealed. In June 1990, the Supreme Court turned
down her appeal because it found no unconstitutional element in
the way North Carolina’s death penalty statutes read.
A new attorney was
handling Velma’s case. He six foot tall, 200 pound, longhaired and
thickly bearded 30-year-old Richard Burr. He was the lawyer for the
Southern Prisoners Defense Committee and dedicated to aiding prisoners
under a death sentence. Velma was the first doomed prisoner he would
defend. Two hundred other condemned would follow.
On September 17, the
Supreme Court turned down another appeal filed by Burr on Velma
Barfield’s behalf. Her best shot would be in North Carolina’s state
courts, Burr concluded, but he had no license to practice in North
Thus, a short and
slender 36-year-old named Jimmie Little became her lawyer of record with
Burr assisting him. Little had once been a public defender. He also had
a reputation for being willing to stick his neck out. He had fought for
his interpretation of free speech when he was a student at the
University of North Carolina by opposing the ban on communist speakers
at state campuses. As an Army officer during the Vietnam War, he had
vocally opposed America’s being in that conflict.
Little went to the
Bladen County Superior Court. He filed a motion asking for a hearing to
determine whether or not his client was entitled to a new trial. There
were several complaints behind this motion but the chief one was
“ineffective assistance of counsel.” Thus, Velma was pitted against Bob
Jacobson, her previous attorney. Little argued that Jacobson had failed
in his duty to make appropriate motions and to put on helpful
The judge ruled against
Velma and set another execution date. Her lawyers soon got a stay and
filed more appeals. Over the next six years, several appeals were filed
and turned down, several execution dates were set and avoided.
Both Ronnie and Kim
continued to visit. As mother and son realized time was running out,
Ronnie Burke brought up the painful subject of his father’s death in one
of their conversations. He was palpably terrified of the answer but had
to ask the question.
“Did you kill him?”
“I’m sure I probably
did,” she sadly replied. Slowly, the story spilled out. Her memory was
fuzzy but she believed that he had been drunk and asleep and she lay
either a cigarette or a match at the foot of the bed, then shut the
She also admitted to the
minister who helped her write Woman on Death Row, that she had
murdered Jennings Barfield.
Once the appeals had
been exhausted, Velma and her supporters had a thin ray of hope in the
form of clemency from North Carolina’s governor. That governor was
James Hunt who was running against famous incumbent Jesse Helms for the
U.S. Senate. The governor refused Velma’s request for clemency saying
her victims had been “literally tortured to death.” Hunt tersely denied
that the senate race had played any part in his decision.
As she prepared for
death, Velma was able to speak over the phone with Billy Graham.
“Velma, in a way I envy you,” the famous pastor told her, “because
you’re going to get to heaven before I do.”
Later she spoke to the
Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, who comforted Velma by saying,
“Don’t think of it as the execution chamber. Think of it as the gateway
As they do at all
American executions, demonstrators both for and against capital
punishment gathered outside the prison before Velma’s death. Opponents
held lit candles and hummed Amazing Grace, Velma’s favorite
hymn. A festive mood prevailed among the capital punishment
supporters. They held signs saying, “Velma’s going to have a hell
of a time” and “Bye-Bye Velma” and chanted “Die, bitch, die!”
In her cell, Velma took
a final communion. They put on an adult diaper underneath the cotton
pajamas in which she had chosen to die.
“Velma, it’s time,” she
Velma requested and got
permission to put a robe on. Then she checked her hair in the mirror
and stepped into the hallway. She was taken to a “preparation room” and
asked if she had any last words. She did. “I want to say that I am
sorry for all the hurt that I have caused,” she began in a firm voice.
“I know that everybody has gone through a lot of pain – all the families
connected – and I am sorry, and I want to thank everybody who has been
supporting me all these six years. I want to thank my family for
standing with me through all this and my attorneys and all the support
to me, everybody, the people with the prison department. I appreciate
everything – their kindness and everything that they have shown me
during these six years.”
Then the condemned
prisoner was escorted to her “gateway to heaven.” That gateway was a
tiny, sterile room with a gurney in it. Velma got up on that gurney,
then lay flat down on it. Needles connected to IV leads were inserted
into her arms. She would receive something to make her sleep, then a
poison to stop her heart.
There were two lines
into Velma but three executioners. One of their thumbs would press upon
a plunger that was connected to a dummy so no one would know for certain
that he or she had taken a life.
“Velma,” she was told,
“Please start counting backward from one hundred.”
Obediently, Velma began,
“One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight . . . “ Her voice slurred into
silence and she started to snore. Her breathing got lighter and lighter
with each breath. Then her skin turned an ashen gray. The monitor
connected to her heart showed a flat line. At 2:15 a.m., on November 2,
1984, Velma Barfield, serial murderer and born again Christian, loving
mother and killer of her children’s father and grandmother, was dead.
Woman on Death Row, World Wide Publications, Minneapolis, Minnesota,
Bledsoe, Jerry, Death
Sentence, Penguin Putnam, New York, NY 1998.
Jones, Ann, Women Who
Kill, Beacon Press, Boston, 1996.
Kelleher, Michael D. and
Kelleher, C. L., Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer,
Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT, 1998.
Schoen, Elin, Village Voice, “Does This Woman Deserve to Die?”
June 5, 1984.
State v. Barfield, 259 S.E. 2d 510
Prior to January 1978, defendant and Stewart Taylor
had been going together. On occasion, defendant stayed with Taylor at
his home in St. Pauls, North Carolina. At the time of his *310 death,
Taylor was fifty-six years old.
He had been in fairly good health until
the evening of 31 January 1978, four days before his death. On that
evening, defendant and Taylor went to Fayetteville to attend a gospel
sing. While at the performance, Taylor became ill. The couple left and
returned to St. Pauls. At approximately 2:30 the following morning,
Taylor began vomiting and having diarrhea. He continued to be ill
throughout the day.
On the next day defendant took Taylor to Southeastern
General Hospital in Lumberton **519 where he was treated. At the time he
was examined by an emergency room physician, Taylor was complaining of
nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, as well as general pain in his muscles,
chest and abdomen.
His blood pressure was low. His pulse was weak and
rapid. He was dehydrated and his skin was ashen in color. After
receiving intravenous fluids and vitamins, as well as other treatment,
Taylor was released from the hospital and defendant took him back to his
home in St. Pauls where she fed him.
The next day, 3 February 1978, an
ambulance was summoned to Taylor's home. The attendants found him to be
in great pain. His blood pressure was very low, his breathing was rapid,
and his skin was gray. During the trip to the hospital, Taylor was
restless and moaning. While he was in the emergency room, he was given
A tracheotomy was performed but he died in the
emergency room approximately one hour after he was brought in. One of
the attending physicians, Dr. Richard Jordan, was "not satisfied" as to
the precise cause of death. After talking with two of the attending
physicians, members of Taylor's family requested that an autopsy be
The autopsy was performed by Dr. Bob Andrews, a
pathologist. During the course of the autopsy, toxicological screenings
were performed on samples of Taylor's liver and blood.
Though the normal
human body contains no arsenic in the blood or in liver tissue, Taylor's
blood was found to have an arsenic level of .13 milligrams percent. His
liver had an arsenic level of one milligram percent. These findings led
Dr. Andrews to conclude that Taylor died from acute arsenic poisoning.
On 10 March 1978, Robeson County Deputy Sheriffs Wilbur Lovette and Al
Parnell talked with defendant at the Sheriff's Department in Lumberton.
After having been given her Miranda *311 warnings, defendant executed a
written waiver indicating that she understood what her rights were and
that she was willing to make a statement as well as answer questions
without the presence of an attorney.
The conversation between defendant
and the deputies related to a number of checks that had been forged on
the account of Stewart Taylor. During the interview, the officers
produced a check dated 31 January 1978 in the amount of $300.00.
Defendant stated that she had seen the check before; that she had cashed
the check; and that while she had "filled out" the check it was signed
by Taylor himself. While she talked with the officers, defendant
produced two checks from her pocketbook which were dated 4 November 1977
and 23 November 1977.
Both checks were drawn on Taylor's checking
account and were payable to her. They were in the amounts of $100.00 and
The State introduced evidence obtained through
handwriting analysis which tended to show that the three checks were not
written by Stewart Taylor; and that the checks had been cashed by
defendant at a branch of First Union National Bank in Lumberton.
the interview with the deputies, defendant denied that she had forged
any checks on Taylor's account. Defendant was asked by the officers if
she knew the cause of Taylor's death.
Upon being told that the autopsy
had indicated that arsenic poisoning was the cause of Taylor's death,
defendant began crying, stating that "You all think I put poison in his
food." She then proceeded to deny that she was in any way involved with
Taylor's death. After making that denial, defendant was taken home. The
investigation continued through the weekend.
On Monday, 13 March 1978, defendant returned to the
sheriff's department accompanied by her son, Ronald Burke. After she was
again advised of her constitutional rights, she executed another written
waiver. She then made a lengthy statement in the presence of Deputies
Lovette and Parnell.
In her statement, she admitted that before 1 January
1978 she had forged some checks on Taylor's account which he found out
about when his bank statements came in the mail; that upon finding out
about the forgeries, Taylor talked with her and **520 threatened to "turn
her in" to the authorities; that she forged another check on Taylor's
account on 31 January 1978; that the *312 forgery bothered her because
Taylor would find out about it; that on that day, she and Taylor went to
Lumberton because she had an appointment with her doctor; that after
they left the doctor's office, they stopped at a drug store ostensibly
for her to purchase some hair spray; that instead she purchased a bottle
of Terro Ant Poison; that the next day, 1 February 1978, she put some of
the poison in Taylor's tea at lunchtime; and that later that same day,
she put more of the substance in Taylor's beer.
Defendant told the officers that she felt sure that
what she had done was wrong but that she had not told anyone at the
hospital about it on the two occasions that Taylor had been taken there
She stated that she gave Taylor the poison because she
was afraid that he would "turn her in" for forgery. She further stated
that she used the money she got out of the 31 January check to pay bills
for doctors and medicine.
She concluded by confessing that she had given
poison to other persons besides Taylor and that they too had died.
Deputy Lovette then advised defendant that there was a possibility that
a number of bodies would be exhumed.
He asked her if arsenic would be
found in the bodies. When she answered affirmatively, Deputy Lovette
asked her in which bodies arsenic would be found.
Defendant admitted that while she lived and worked in
the home of John Henry Lee as a housekeeper and nurse's aide in early
1977 she found a checkbook for an account in the joint names of Lee and
his wife, Record; that she wrote a check on the account in the amount of
$50.00; that Mr. and Mrs. Lee found out about the forgery and asked her
about it; that she then purchased a bottle of poison, pausing to read
the label which said "May be fatal if swallowed" and that she gave Mr.
Lee poison three times once in his tea and twice in his coffee.
The state introduced other evidence which tended to
show: On or about 28 April 1977 Mr. Lee, 80 years old, became ill. Until
then he had been in good health and attended to numerous chores around
his home. On 29 April 1977, he was taken to the hospital complaining of
vomiting and diarrhea.
Though he was released from the hospital on 2 May
1977, he continued to be ill throughout the month of May, complaining of
vomiting, diarrhea, and general pain through his body. On 3 June 1977,
he was taken to the *313 hospital again where the attending physician,
Dr. Alexander, observed that he was critically ill. Deep blue in color,
his skin was cold and wet with perspiration. He was confused and
unresponsive and his blood pressure was subnormal. On 4 June 1977 he
Though no autopsy was performed at the time of Mr.
Lee's death, his body was exhumed pursuant to a court order on 18 March
1978 and taken to the office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel
Hill where an autopsy was performed.
Toxicological screenings revealed
that the liver contained an arsenic level of 2.8 milligrams percent and
the muscle tissue contained an arsenic level of 0.3 milligrams percent.
Dr. Page Hudson, Chief Medical Examiner of the State of North Carolina,
testified that in his opinion Mr. Lee's death was caused by arsenic
Defendant admitted to the officers that she had
poisoned Mrs. Dolly Taylor Edwards; that in early 1976 she moved into
the home of Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery Edwards in Lumberton as a live-in
helper; that Mr. Edwards died on 29 January 1977; that in late February
1977 she drove to St. Pauls where she purchased a bottle of poison; that
she noticed on the bottle the words "Could be fatal if swallowed"; that
returning home she put some of the poison in Mrs. Edwards coffee and
cereal; and that shortly afterwards Mrs. Edwards became ill, suffering
from nausea and general weakness in her body.
The state introduced
evidence that Mrs. Edwards was taken to the hospital on 27 February
1977, was treated and released. Her condition did not improve and she
was again taken to the hospital on 1 March 1977 **521 where she died
later that evening. The attending physician, Dr. Henry Neill Lee, Jr.,
testified that Mrs. Edwards was dehydrated and suffered from nausea,
diarrhea, and vomiting.
In her statement to the deputies, defendant said that
she knew that the poison was responsible for the death of Mrs. Edwards;
that after Mrs. Edwards died, she threw the bottle of poison into a
field behind the Edwards residence; and that she did not know why she
gave the poison to Mrs. Edwards.
Officer Lovette testified that during
the course of his investigation he went to the field behind the Edwards
home and *314 found an empty bottle of Singletary's Rat Poison which
still bore the original label. He initialed the bottom of the bottle and
kept it in his sole possession until the time of trial.
Though no autopsy was performed on the body of Mrs.
Edwards at the time of her death, pursuant to a court order, her body
was exhumed on 18 March 1978 and sent to the Office of the Chief Medical
Examiner in Chapel Hill where an autopsy was performed. During the
autopsy, toxicological screenings were conducted on samples of Mrs.
Edwards' liver tissue and muscle tissue. In the liver tissue, there was
found an arsenic level of 0.4 milligrams percent.
In the muscle tissue,
there was found an arsenic level of .08 milligrams percent. Dr. Page
testified that in his opinion Mrs. Edwards' death was caused by arsenic
Defendant further admitted in her statement to the
deputies that she had poisoned her mother, Lillie McMillan Bullard; that
during 1974 she lived with her mother in Parkton, N. C.; and that while
she lived with her mother she forged her mother's name to a note in
favor of the Commercial Credit Company of Lumberton. (Other testimony
indicated that the note was in the amount of $1,048.00.)
told the deputies that she was afraid that her mother would find out
about the note; that she bought a bottle of poison and the bottle bore
the warning "Can be fatal if swallowed"; that one day at dinnertime she
put some of the poison in some soup and a soft drink and gave both to
her mother; that later in the evening on the same day she gave her
mother a soft drink which contained a dose of the poison; that Mrs.
Bullard began to vomit and have diarrhea; and that she was taken to Cape
Fear Valley Hospital in Fayetteville on 30 December 1974 where she died
shortly after her arrival.
The attending physician, Dr. Weldon Jordan,
testified that Mrs. Bullard was restless and gasping for breath when she
was brought into the hospital; that she was in shock; and that he was
unable to discern any blood pressure.
Upon the death of Mrs. Bullard, an autopsy was
performed with the permission of her family, including defendant. No
toxicological screenings were conducted at that time. Pursuant to a
court order the body of Mrs. Bullard was exhumed on 18 March 1978 and
taken to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in *315 Chapel Hill.
Dr. William Frank Hamilton testified that he performed toxicological
screenings upon samples of hair, muscle tissue and skin which had been
taken from the body; that the hair sample revealed an arsenic
concentration of .6 milligrams percent; that the muscle tissue had an
arsenic level of .3 milligrams percent; that the skin sample had an
arsenic level of .1 milligrams percent; and that in his opinion, Mrs.
Bullard's death was caused by arsenic poisoning.
Although defendant did not admit any involvement in
the death of her husband, Jennings L. Barfield, his body was exhumed
pursuant to a court order on 31 May 1978. It was taken to the Office of
the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill where an autopsy was performed.
Toxicological screenings indicated that varying levels of arsenic were
present in his body tissue. Dr. Neil A. Worden testified that he treated
Mr. Barfield when he was brought to the emergency room of the Cape Fear
Valley Hospital in Fayetteville on 22 March 1971.
At that time Mr.
Barfield complained of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and aching throughout
his body. Mr. Barfield had **522 been brought to the emergency room for
the first time at about 11:00 p. m. on 21 March 1971. At that time he
was treated and released.
However, he returned to the hospital at 5:00
the next morning at which time he was given intravenous fluids. By the
time that Dr. Worden first saw him at about 8:00 a. m., Mr. Barfield was
in shock; his blood pressure was low; his pulse was rapid; and his
complexion was ashen. Dehydrated and gasping for air, Mr. Barfield
appeared to Dr. Worden to be in great pain.
Dr. Hamilton testified that
the cause of Mr. Barfield's death was arsenic poisoning. At the close of
the state's evidence, defendant made a motion to dismiss. Upon the
court's denial of the motion, she presented evidence which tended to
During the month of January 1978 defendant was under
the care of five doctors none of whom knew she was under the care of the
others. She had been seeing the doctors for some time and had obtained
prescriptions for a number of drugs from them.
Among the drugs she was
taking at that time were: Elavil, Sinequan, Tranxene, Tylenol III, and
Valium. She had a history of drug abuse and had been admitted to the
hospital at least four times for overdoses.