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The saint

Barbara was devoted to her disabled sister. Endlessly patient, everyone said. Then a body was found in an abandoned double-wide, a bullet through the forehead. And Barbara was gone.

By LANE DeGREGORY
Published September 18, 2005


First of two parts.

ST. PETERSBURG - There's a dog in there, the woman next door told him. At least there was a dog. One of those yipping little ones, with long hair. Wonder what happened to that dog.

No one has lived in that mobile home for months, the woman said.

Phillip McCain already knew that. For six months, no one had paid the mortgage on the double-wide near the end of Yellow Pine Street. The bank was foreclosing. McCain and his son Jason had been hired to clear out the place.

McCain unlocked the door and walked into the kitchen. It was May 4, about 1 p.m. The house was dark. All the blinds were drawn, curtains closed. The air was thick and hot. Sour.

McCain's stomach churned. What was that rancid smell? Like rotten food, only worse. As he walked into the living room, the odor got stronger.

He clicked on his flashlight, aimed the beam up and down. It looked like someone had just walked away and left everything: couch, TV, computer. The walls were papered with Star Wars posters; every shelf was full of Star Wars games, Star Wars magazines, little R2-D2s and a Yoda. Some spoiled kid must have lived here, McCain thought.

He followed the hall to the bedrooms. Two doors were open. The third was closed. As McCain approached the closed door, the stench grew.

He pushed it open, and almost retched.

Someone had tried to mask the smell. Dozens of cardboard air fresheners dangled around the room. Plug-in air fresheners bloomed from every outlet. In the master bathroom, empty spray cans of air freshener filled the trash can, the tub, the sink.

McCain and his son looked at each other. What was this?

"You don't reckon," he remembered saying to Jason, "that someone just left that dog in here to die?"

Two single beds shared the room, set close, in an L-shape. One of the beds was piled with sheets and blankets. Someone had strewn baskets of potpourri across the covers.

McCain reached to pick up the pile of bedding, but couldn't lift it.

Something was in there. Something heavy.

His son tried to help. He tugged at the fitted sheet, and the whole pile thudded to the floor. Jason started peeling back the layers.

Then he ran, screaming, out of the house.

The McCains had been expecting just another cleanup job. What they uncovered was the story of two desperately intertwined lives: a story of love, death and crushing obligation.

* * *

Susan Ignacio, from the Pinellas County Medical Examiner's Office, knelt in the front bedroom and began to unwrap the body.

A Star Wars comforter formed the outer layer of the shroud. She turned it back and found a brown blanket, and beneath that, a white shower curtain. Inside the shower curtain was a 2004 Star Wars calendar marked only with the times of a few TV shows, or countdowns to the shows. Its owner didn't seem to look forward to much else.

Next came a light blue comforter, then a faded Star Wars sheet. The medical examiner pulled at the sheet and found, finally:

A skull cradled on two pillows.

It looked as if the person had been sleeping, lying on the left side. The right arm was bent at the elbow, draped across the chest. The left arm was tucked beneath the pillows. The body was so badly decomposed, Pinellas County sheriff's deputies couldn't tell whether it was a man or woman, black or white, old or young.

In the front of the skull, right in the center of the forehead, was a hole where a bullet had gone in.

* * *

By the time Detective Ed Judy arrived about 5:30 p.m., 15 officers already were working the scene. The deputies logged everything that might be a clue: a Sony camera, a wedding veil, a blood-stained mattress and box spring.

But they had only a few facts. A call to the power company let them know that the electricity had been cut off seven months earlier. In the two months before that, the power bill had more than tripled. It seemed someone had cranked down the air conditioning as cold as it would go, and left it there.

The investigators found out something else. Through tax records, they learned that the mobile home had been occupied by two women.

Barbara and Debbie Burns.

* * *

The neighbors didn't know much about the women who lived in the white double-wide.

At door after door, deputies heard the same answer: We don't know them. Never met them. We hardly ever saw anyone go in or come out.

Only the woman next door had talked to them. "They were sisters," Shirley Greilick told detectives. "They moved in four or five years ago. Always stayed to themselves.

"The older one, Barbara, I'd just see her going in and out to her car. That was it. I never saw any company come. Never saw anyone else over there at all. We'd just say, "Hello,' or, "Nice weather.' That was it.

"The younger one, Debbie, you couldn't understand her real good. She'd try, but you know, I think she was retarded or something."

Debbie didn't drive, the neighbor said. Barbara had to take her everywhere she wanted to go.

The neighbor told detectives she hadn't seen Barbara in months. But it had been even longer since she had seen Debbie. Once, she had asked Barbara if her sister was sick or something.

Debbie's in California, Barbara had said. Taking care of our aunt.

* * *

The night the body was found, detectives worked until dawn trying to identify the victim.

They learned that Barbara Burns was 53, Debbie 40. A background check showed neither had ever been arrested. From picture IDs, the detectives could see that both sisters were short and stocky, with shoulder-length light brown hair. The kind of women you'd walk right by without noticing.

"They looked a lot alike," the neighbor had said, except for their smiles. Debbie had only three teeth. Barbara didn't have any.

That description helped detectives determine which sister was dead: The skull on those pillows had three rotten teeth.

Now detectives knew it was Debbie Burns who had been shot.

The obvious question: Where was Barbara?

* * *

Barbara drove a gray 1994 Dodge Caravan, which she had bought at Pinellas Auto Brokers, Detective Judy found out. He called the car dealership and talked to a woman who remembered the Burns sisters.

They were very nice, the woman said. When they came in to make their car payment, they'd bring cupcakes.

But the woman hadn't seen them since last year. They had stopped paying on the van, and repo men had spent months searching for it.

Around January, the woman said, she got a call from someone at the Greyhound station in St. Petersburg. The Dodge Caravan had been abandoned behind the bus depot. Homeless people were living in it.

Barbara's credit application at the auto broker showed she had worked for 10 years at Howard Johnson's in St. Pete Beach, then at Bealls Outlet and Lowe's. Detective Judy tracked names and phone numbers of Barbara's bosses. He talked to them that day.

They all used the same words to describe her: quiet and reliable, straightforward, honest. One of the most patient people you'll ever meet.

"Barbara was very nice," said Linda Ware, who was Barbara's supervisor at Bealls. On birthdays and holidays, Linda and Barbara would go out for a drink on Treasure Island. Barbara would always bring Debbie along.

Linda said Debbie walked with a limp and had the mind of a child. She could be demanding, Linda told the detective. Whenever Barbara was having fun, Debbie would start complaining, loudly, saying she was tired, ready to go home RIGHT NOW. Like a first-grader throwing a tantrum.

Barbara was always kind to her sister, though, Linda said. Even if Barbara hadn't finished her first Coors Light, she'd help Debbie up from her chair and drive her home.

Then Linda told the detective something else. Sometime around 2000, Debbie had inherited some money. She didn't know how much.

Was money a motive for the killing, Judy wondered? It didn't seem likely: All the evidence showed the sisters were broke. Barbara had filed for bankruptcy just three years later: July 2003.

That same month, she had started working at Lowe's as a cashier for $7 an hour.

Barbara was always on time, her boss, Jason Carrier, told the detective. She never argued. She was friendly to the customers. She was voted Employee of the Month. Once, she gave a co-worker a smiley face coffee cup.

After working at Lowe's for more than a year, Barbara abruptly quit. She said she had to take care of a sick relative.

That was in late August 2004, eight months before her sister's body was found.

* * *

Two days into his investigation, Detective Judy discovered someone was still cashing Debbie's disability checks. The money was going to a bank in Virginia Beach, Va., into the account of Barbara Ann Burns.

Bank statements also showed Barbara was getting paychecks from a 7-Eleven in Virginia Beach. The detective called the convenience store. The manager said Barbara was on the schedule for the next night.

It was a big break. Now detectives knew where Barbara was and when they could find her. Barbara hadn't changed her name or tried to hide her identity.

Detective Judy and his partner flew to Virginia Beach and staked out the 7-Eleven. Barbara looked so much older, more worn out, than in her driver's license photo. Dark circles underlined her tired eyes. Her frizzy hair was streaked with gray. She kept slumping against the cash register. All night, she sold cigarettes and lottery tickets: other people's escapes and dreams.

As he watched through the window, Detective Judy kept wondering: What makes a person suddenly snap? He thought about all Barbara had done for her sister: paid the bills, bought her drinks, helped her walk, driven her places, even shared a room with her.

How could she have wrapped Debbie in blankets and left her to rot?

* * *

At daybreak, when Barbara's shift ended, the detectives introduced themselves. "We're from Florida," Detective Judy told Barbara. "We want to talk to you."

Barbara followed them to their car. She didn't ask why or how they found her.

She seemed to be expecting them.

On the way to the Virginia Beach police station, detectives asked Barbara about her house and family. She said she was living in a homeless shelter. She swore she had never owned a mobile home - not in Florida or anywhere else - and didn't have any family. Again and again, she said she never had a sister.

An hour into the interview, Detective Judy showed Barbara copies of the deed for her mobile home, her power and cable TV bills. Barbara kept saying she didn't remember signing them. She insisted she had never lived in any double-wide in St. Petersburg.

"Barbara," the detective said. "At this residence, uh, we found a body."

"A body?"

"Yes."

"Okay, I don't - I don't know. I couldn't tell you."

"Couldn't tell me?" the detective repeated.

"Well, whatever you're asking."

Detective Judy pulled out some pictures: Barbara, holding a long-haired chihuahua; Debbie, hugging the same little dog.

Barbara's face fell. She stared at her lap. "Could you pick that up and look at it?" the detective asked, sliding the photo toward her. "Do you recognize her?"

"Honestly, I've never seen her," Barbara said quickly.

Detective Judy pulled out more pictures. He said he had talked to Barbara's neighbor, her bosses, people who could confirm she had a sister. Then the other detective, Misty Manning, turned to Barbara.

"While he's been talking to you, I've been just sitting here observing you," she said. "Every time you look at this picture, you tear up."

Barbara wouldn't look up. "I do," she said softly. It was a statement more than a question.

* * *

After almost three hours, Barbara admitted she had a sister. She told detectives how much Debbie loved soap operas and Star Wars and her little dog, Leo. How sweet Debbie was. How they'd watch movies and sometimes go to the mall together.

"I loved when she was fine," Barbara said.

"You loved when she was fine?" Detective Manning asked. "Okay."

Debbie was fine, Barbara insisted, the last time she saw her. The day she drove away. "I just, uh, got in the van and left," Barbara stammered. "I told her I needed some down time. That's what I told her, and she said okay."

She said she waved goodbye to her sister through the front bedroom window. She said she never called Debbie after that.

The detectives pressed her. You wouldn't just walk away from someone you loved, someone who needed you, they told Barbara. You're not that kind of a person.

"All the people we have interviewed, they said Barbara is an unbelievable person," Detective Judy told her. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but the word that was used to describe your sister, who you loved, was a bitch. And, and I apologize to use that language in front of you. She was demanding; I'm not making this up."

"Yeah, I know," Barbara said. "She was demanding."

"Okay, and they said they did not understand how you could - you were a saint."

Barbara started sobbing. "I was a saint," she echoed.

Then the saint told detectives what she had done, and why.

NEXT: Barbara Burns is charged with first-degree murder. She talks about the life she shared with her sister - and what happened the night Debbie died. In Monday's Floridian.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com