Scared To Death

Observant 48 Hours viewer Lynn Craigie notes: "I am astounded that everyone nit picks whether 'for help' could be run together, which it can and not wonder why, if Barton knew Phelps, he called him Phelp not Phelps. Phelp is NOT a common surname, but Phelps is."
CBS 48 Hours
CBS 48 Hours
Mystery
Oct. 29, 2005

(CBS) 
Police Lt. Jim Barton found his wife, Vickie, murdered execution-style on their farm in Warren County, Ohio, in 1995.

With limited physical evidence and no suspects, the investigation lay dormant for nine years until a tip opened up the case.

Jim Barton soon found himself under arrest with charges related to the slaying. Prosecutors had a troubling theory: did Jim Barton’s ambition to become police chief lead to his wife’s murder?

Correspondent Peter Van Sant reports.
Vickie and Jim Barton
Vickie and Jim Barton
Growing up in Middletown, Ohio, Vickie Siebert seemed to have one passion in life: horses.

But Vickie’s mother, Mary Jane Siebert, soon discovered her daughter had another interest at the stable. “She would go out practically every day, out to the barn. … I thought she was riding the horse. She wasn’t. She was out there with Jim.”

Jim Barton says Vickie loved the outdoors and that their love of riding horses brought them together. In 1980, after a five-year courtship, Jim and Vickie married.

The newlyweds moved into the small town of Springboro, where Jim became a police officer, rising to the rank of lieutenant.

Darlene Bisgaard and Cathy Trame knew Vickie as both a friend and a co-worker and they say she loved being a cop’s wife. “I think she looked up to him as kind of her protector,” said Trame.

Like Jim, Vickie chose a career helping people, eventually becoming a head nurse at a local hospital.

But Jim and Vickie never let their careers stand in the way of their goal of owning a farm. In 1988, they purchased a horse farm just outside Springboro, which they called "Locust Knoll."

“In my eyes, it was Ponderosa. Whether it was to anybody else other than Vicky and I, I don’t know,” said Jim.

For the next seven years, Jim and Vickie spent every spare moment rebuilding the home, putting up a network of fencing, and adding a new barn.

But neither Jim nor Vickie could have planned for what happened back on April 11, 1995.

Jim remembers the last time he saw his wife. “It was a sunny spring day. I told her ‘I love you’ and kissed her goodbye.”

Later that afternoon, Jim finished work, left the police station, and headed for home.

As he drove up to the farm, he noticed that the garage and interior doors were open, something he thought was “a bit odd.”

Inside, his wife lay motionless with a blood-stained pillow over her head. Jim says he touched her leg, remembering that her skin felt ice cold.

Jim called 911 (audio). “I knew it was a lost cause but yet, you know, I kept hoping,” he said.

Worrying that someone might still be in the home, Jim says he searched the house, with his gun drawn. But the killer or killers had left.

Detectives discovered a puzzling crime scene yielding few clues. Vickie was murdered execution-style, with three gun shot wounds to the head. But there were no eyewitnesses, no murder weapon, and no strange fingerprints.

“You hope to come away from a crime scene with crucial evidence. We just didn’t have it,” said retired Det. J.R. Abshear, who was assigned to the case. “I kind of got the feeling there that something might be staged.”

The house appeared to have been burglarized but valuable items like Jim’s guns and Vickie’s jewelry were left behind.

The only physical evidence at the crime scene was found on Vickie’s body. Her shirt, along with her bra, had been pushed up and her breast had been bitten.

The saliva left from the bite provided valuable DNA but Abshear says no match was made from a number of people, including Jim Barton and his friends.

One of the few leads early on in the case came from Vickie herself.

Several hours before she was murdered, Vickie told Jim about a stranded motorist who had dropped by the farm with a gasoline can looking for fuel. Det. Abshear spent months trying to track down the man, but his identity remained a mystery.

The investigation limped along, but Jim, still a cop, tried to go on with his life. One year after the murder, he remarried.

In a bizarre twist, his new bride was Mary Ann Lacy, Vickie’s childhood friend and matron of honor. Mary Ann says she fell in love with his charming side and attentiveness but the marriage fell apart with a year.

Mary Ann says Vickie’s unsolved murder proved to be too great a strain. “I said, ‘What happened?’ Because I really wanted to know, I wanted to understand. And he was quite reluctant to talk about it with me. And that bothered me and I told him,” she said.

Jim says he may not have talked about Vickie, but she was always on his mind and so was the investigation.

The 1995 murder of Vickie Barton remained unsolved for three frustrating years.

Then, in 1998, investigators finally got a break in the case, from a small-time career criminal named Gary Henson.

Frank Hensley of the Middletown police department had just arrested Henson for burglary and drug possession. At the end of his interrogation, Henson dropped a bombshell, saying he knew who shot Lt. Barton’s wife.

Henson told the detective the killer was his half-brother William Phelps.

Phelps allegedly revealed his dark secret to Henson just days after the murder. “Phelps finally confided in him. He said, ‘I’ve done a horrible thing.’ And, finally, Will says, ‘I’m the one who shot her,’ ” said Det. Hensley.

Henson said Phelps, along with an unidentified accomplice, had planned to burglarize the Barton home.

“Gary told me that Will said, ‘I panicked and I shot her in the head,’” said Hensley.

Four months after the murder, Phelps committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Henson said his brother couldn’t cope with the guilt of killing Vickie.

Detectives Hensley and J.R. Abshear believed Henson. “He knew that she had been bitten, which had not been released to the media,” said Abshear.

But the only hard evidence Abshear had to link Phelps to the crime was the DNA found on Vickie’s body. He immediately ordered Phelps’ body exhumed, hoping for a DNA match.

But Abshear says there was no DNA match to Will Phelps.

With no direct evidence linking Phelps to the crime — and the identity of his accomplice still a mystery — the question of who killed Vickie remained unanswered and so the case remained open.

Moving on with his life, Jim had begun dating Elaine Geswein, a human resources manager. One year later, they were married.

And, Jim says, there was more good news. In 2003, a countywide cold case team was formed to take a second look at Vickie’s murder. “I was thinking, maybe they’ll get some energy behind this crime, this investigation, and solve it once and for all,” said Jim.

The cold case squad was led by seasoned homicide Capt. John Newsom from the Warren County Sheriff’s Office. For weeks, they combed through all the evidence.

Just six weeks into the probe, the squad discovered a clue buried in the evidence. It’s on Jim Barton’s frantic 911 call (audio). Two and a half seconds of audiotape that broke this case wide open.

On the tape, Newsom says Jim can he heard saying “I gotta call Phelp, man,” referring to William Phelps, the man once suspected of shooting Vickie. Suddenly there appeared to be a link between Jim Barton and Phelps.

But Jim says he never knew or met Phelps and says Newsom is misinterpreting the call. He says he told the 911 operator “I gotta call fo-help. I’m slurring the words “for help” together. I gotta call ‘fo-help.’”

Jim says he was not getting anywhere with the 911 operator and started thinking about calling someone else.

But the cold case squad was convinced that Jim was saying “Phelp.” To prove their theory, they turned back to Phelps’ half-brother Gary Henson, who told stunned investigators that Barton had hired Phelps.

This new detail that Jim was involved in his wife’s death was never mentioned by Henson when he talked to police five years earlier.

“He told us ‘Jim Barton met Will and came to him and said stage a burglary at his house. And then scare Vickie when she got home from work,’ ” said Newsom.

It seemed utterly fantastic. Why would a distinguished police officer hire criminals to scare his wife?

John Newsom says it has to do with Jim’s ambition. “He wanted to be police chief.”

According to Det. Newsom, there was an unwritten rule in Springboro that the Chief of Police had to live within city limits and that meant Jim would have had to move off his farm and into town.

But Newsom believes Vickie would have never agreed to sell her dream ranch. So, the theory goes, Jim hired Will Phelps and an accomplice to scare her, hoping that would get her to move into town where she would feel safe.

Newsom doesn’t think Jim wanted Vickie dead but only wanted her frightened and that something went “terribly wrong” in the process.

Jim calls that theory “crazy,” saying he loved the ranch and would not have left it to become police chief. He also thinks Henson is a liar, stressing that he had no involvement in this crime.

But investigators chose to believe the career criminal and not the career cop. “Gary Henson told us things that we were able to corroborate,” said Newsom.

Besides knowing about the bite mark on Vickie, Henson said his brother was the mysterious motorist who asked Vickie for gasoline the morning of the murder. According to Henson, that’s how Phelps would “case” a house before robbing it.

To prove his innocence, Barton agreed to take a polygraph test. But in the end, Barton failed.

Newsom says the failed polygraph was the tipping point in the case. In April 2004, nine years after Vickie’s murder, Jim Barton was arrested for having caused his wife’s death.

Jim Barton, the veteran cop, faced the ultimate humiliation of being arrested by his fellow officers, charged with causing his wife’s death.

“It’s like I was totally drained at that point. I knew I had committed no crimes. But now I’ve got handcuffs. It’s one of the lowest moments of my life,” said Jim.

In February of this year, Prosecutors Leslie Myer and Josh Engel took the case to trial.

“Our theory was that he wanted to scare her so that she would move with him into the city of Springboro so that he can be chief,” said Engel.

“Everyone knew that. That’s undisputed," adds Myer. "He applied multiple times. He wanted to be police chief."

Jim Barton calls that theory “absurd” and “crazy.”

Vickie’s friends Darlene Bisgaard and Cathy Trame also say the theory doesn’t make sense to them. Bisgaard doesn’t think a burglary would have frightened Vickie to the point of selling the farm. “It would have challenged her to be more aggressive in protecting their farm.”

At trial, the defense will argue that the prosecution’s case is thin, their motive absurd, and their lead witness, Gary Henson, unbelievable.

Prosecutors, however, will argue that Henson is telling the truth and will use Jim’s own words on the 911 tape to prove it.

Prosecutors begin trying to establish that Jim Barton knew who killed Vickie and call Lt. George Hunter, the first officer to arrive at the Barton farm.

Asked if Barton made any statements when he arrived, Lt. Hunter says, “He did. He told me ‘They shot her, man. They’ve killed her. Why did they have to kill her, those murdering bastards.’ ”

Prosecutor Josh Engel says the testimony is very significant. “He [Barton] knew there was more than one person involved in this crime, right from the beginning.”

But Jim says he was “just lashing out at criminals per se.”

Next up for the prosecution is former waitress Barb Palmer. On the stand, she claims she saw Jim Barton and Phelps together at a local diner 20 years ago, a claim Jim says is a lie.

Prosecutors admit there’s no evidence that Phelps was ever in the Barton home. But, they say, that’s because Jim Barton wiped down the crime scene before investigators arrived.

Leslie Myer says investigators found fewer than 10 fingerprints in the entire home, including those of Jim and Vickie Barton. And prosecutors claim you can hear Jim Barton cleaning the crime scene on the 911 call.

Jim calls the claim “totally absurd,” adding, the sound on the tape is his “searching the house, moving the clothing back on the hangers that were in there. Going room to room, going through closets.”

But for Jim, it’s what the jury hears at the end of the 911 tape that matters most: the controversial two-and-a-half second clip, eight minutes into the call.

“What do you want people to know that you said on that 911 tape?” asked Van Sant.

“I gotta call ‘fo help,’” Barton replied.

Prosecutors are convinced he was saying “Phelp.”

But JR Abshear, the lead detective back in 1995, isn’t so convinced. “To be very honest with you, I thought he said 'help.' ”

Both sides introduced experts to tug and pull at every modulating sound Jim uttered during the call. In the end, it all boils down to how many syllables the jury hears.

Forensic audio expert Tom Owen testified for the defense. “The word is a two syllable word, ‘for help.’ It has two beats. And after you slow it down, you can clearly hear that." Owen narrowed in on the critical tenth of a second on the tape, playing the call slowly.

Prosecutors produce their own audio expert, Jim Fox, who heard only one word and one syllable, “Phelp.”

After four experts and seven hours of testimony, the jury, along with everyone else in the courtroom, had heard enough.

But what the jury hasn’t heard yet is testimony from Gary Henson, the state’s star witness, a career criminal with a rap sheet spanning 20 years.

For Mary Jane Siebert, it had been nine desolate years, and countless visits to her daughter Vickie’s grave before there was any hint at justice. “It should never have happened,” she said.

So when she got the chance, Mary Jane made sure she was in the same courtroom as the veteran cop, who had allegedly turned criminal.

But like so much in the case against Jim Barton nothing was quite what it seemed. Mary Jane testified for the defense, saying she remained close with Jim and that “he’s like my son.”

Prosecutor Myer tried to imply that sadly, with her daughter murdered, Mary Jane was holding on to the only family she had left, her son-in-law Jim.

That notion upset Mary Jane. “I would like to tell you what she is, but I don’t dare use the language.”

Three days after the trial began, the government brought its star witness out of the shadows and into the courtroom.

Henson said there were no discussions about a deal for his testimony and then testified about some of his past crimes.

Henson also testified that Jim enlisted his half-brother, Will Phelps, to scare Vickie right off the farm and that Phelps had asked him to join in on the planned crime.

“When she pulled in the driveway, we was going to meet her and then shoot over her head,” Henson testified, saying that Jim Barton had provided two guns.

But that plan fell apart because Henson was locked up in a county jail on the day of the murder. He says Phelps found another man to take his place and testified that he read about Vickie’s murder in the newspaper.

Henson said Phelps told him during a phone call that Vickie had been shot by accident by the unidentified accomplice.

But back in 1998, Henson told police that Phelps confessed to being the killer.

“Isn’t it fair to say that in 1998 Gary Henson lied?” Van Sant asked Leslie Myer. “Well, by saying that his brother shot her. Yeah, I mean that’s a lie,” she replied.

And in 1998, when he first talked to police about the murder, Det. Frank Hensley says, Jim’s name never even came up in connection with the plot.

Hensley did testify at trial but was never asked about Henson changing stories. “Henson not only knows how to manipulate investigators, but that’s his total way of life. He’s a manipulator,” Hensley told Van Sant.

And J.R. Abshear, the original investigator into Vickie Barton’s murder, had the exact same experience when he questioned Gary Henson in 1998. During the questioning, Abshear says Henson never mentioned Barton’s name in the plot.

Jim Barton says Henson is a liar. “I never knew Will Phelps. I have no idea who these people are.”

But, despite all the lies he had been caught telling, it was Henson’s accuracy about the hideous and secret forensic detail that ultimately convinced prosecutors that he was telling the truth. He testified that the mysterious accomplice bit and raped Vickie.

And the prosecution team had one more bit of evidence they were banking on: testimony from Henson about a gas can Phelps used to case the Barton home and allegedly left behind after the murder.

In an exhibit photo, Henson pointed out a gas can, saying it looked like his brother’s.

But Jim’s wife, Elaine, says that’s a lie. She says it’s Jim’s gas can that he has owned for years, showing it to Van Sant in the garage.

Still, Barton’s lawyers were banking on the jury never believing a crook and a liar. And at the heart of their closing argument was this: Jim Barton arrested criminals, he didn’t conspire with them.

Ten years after Vickie Barton was murdered on her farm, jurors were weighing the guilt or innocence of her husband Jim.

Everything about that day seemed unexpected and unpredictable, yet Jim says he felt confident that he was going to be acquitted.

Then came the verdict: jurors convicted Jim Barton of complicity to commit involuntary manslaughter.

He was immediately taken into custody and led away. To hear Jim Barton tell it, just as Vickie was taken from him, now two more lives were being stolen: his own, and that of his new wife, Elaine.

“I think 'How in the world could this have happened?' I have heard of innocent people going to jail, but I certainly never thought I would experience it,” Elaine said.

And Vickie’s mother, Mary Jane, was also shocked by the verdict. “I could not believe that that jury came back and said he’s guilty. Because he’s not.”

But the jury had spoken. Jim Barton, the veteran cop, was now inside the same Warren County jail where he used to send common criminals. All that was left was the judge’s sentence.

The case was closed. Or was it?

“I was in my cell, and a note came under my door. And it said, ‘You need to have your attorney contact me right away.’ And the guy signed his name at the bottom,” Barton said. The name was Danny Ray Clark, a successful businessman.

At the time, Clark was in jail for violating a temporary protection order involving his wife.

Van Sant met Clark just after he had been released from jail, where Clark says Henson told him something stunning. “Gary Henson wasn’t convinced of Mr. Barton’s guilt. Didn’t know if Mr. Barton was guilty or not guilty. And, really, it didn’t seem to matter,” Clark said.

“I’m thinking this could be earth-shattering information that we need,” Jim said.

Just days after dismissing the jury, Judge James Flannery ushered Jim’s defense team back into his courtroom to hear explosive new testimony.

“Gary actually said he didn’t know if Jim Barton was involved or not and he didn’t care,” Clark testified.

And, amazingly, there was more to come.

Barton’s lawyers produced a second jail-house confidant of Henson’s, Michael Moore, a former deputy sheriff, who was doing 90 days time for taking marijuana from a police evidence room.

Moore testified that Henson told him he only testified because prosecutors forced him to. “He stated that if he didn’t testify he could face obstruction charges,” Moore testified.

Prosecutors emphatically deny that Henson was ever threatened to testify.

And then a third witness testified; he was James Calvin Hodge, who had also met Henson in prison.

“Gary told me that Mr. Barton was not in any way involved in this case,” Hodge testified. “He said, ‘I know he’s innocent.’ Then, later on, he just said, ‘I know the cop didn’t have nothing to do with it, didn’t hire nobody to do it, didn’t even have a clue about it,’ ” he continued.

But Judge James Flannery decided the three men’s testimony was not enough to order a new trial, so no jury would hear it.

48 Hours showed video of the new testimony to Vikkie Fletcher and Dave Rice, two jurors who voted to convict Barton.

“I would still say guilty,” said Fletcher.

“If you believe one snitch, Gary Henson, why not believe these three criminals,” asked Van Sant.

“Because Gary Henson didn’t want anything out of this," Fletcher said. "Again, I still go back to the fact that Gary wanted to do something right by his brother.”

And David Rice says the testimony did not create any reasonable doubt in his mind. “I feel there’s not a lot of new evidence presented by these three fellas.”

Jim does not think he had a fair trial. “I had no involvement in this crime. Absolutely, I had no involvement in this crime. I’m innocent.”

Jim says he and Vickie dreamed about having their horses and farm, and retiring on the property.

But what becomes of any dreams Jim might have left is uncertain.

What is certain now are two things: Jim Barton will serve at least 15 years in prison; and neither the convicted cop, nor the convicted conman killed Vickie Barton.

Whoever committed that crime remains a mystery.

Wrongfully Convicted Cops
Truth in Justice