Woman gets 15 years in
After caring for her mentally disabled sister for decades, one
night two years ago she snapped. A detective said of her: "She's
the nicest murderer I've ever met."
By Chris Tisch - Tampa Bay Times
LARGO - Even the lead
detective called Barbara Burns the nicest murderer he had ever
Burns doted over her
mentally disabled sister, Debbie, for 40 years. She sacrificed
many of life's pleasures to care for her younger sibling, who
could be crabby and demanding.
But on an August night two
years ago, Burns snapped. She shot her sister in the head with a
.38-caliber revolver, killing her on her 40th birthday.
Prosecutors and Burns'
attorney realized this was not a standard murder case. In a fairly
rare move, prosecutors on Tuesday allowed Burns to plead guilty to
manslaughter and receive 15 years in prison.
After the shooting, Burns
lived with her sister's rotting body in their St. Petersburg
double-wide mobiel home for six weeks, then fled the state. Movers
found her sister's badly decomposed body six months later after
the bank foreclosed on the home.
Detectives tracked Burns to
Virginia and arrested her on a first-degree murder charge.
On Tuesday, Burns quietly
answered questions posed to her by Pinellas Circuit Judge Doug
Baird he sentenced her. With credit for time already served in
jail and gain time, Burns could be out of prison in less than 12
"It's just an unusual,
compelling situation," said Michael Hays, the assistant public
defender who represented Burns. "She didn't have any prior
criminal history at all. She was just in a situation where she
If convicted of first-degree
murder, Burns could have received life in prison without the
possibility of parole or the death penalty.
Prosecutor Kendall Davidson
said he didn't believe Burns, 55, would pose a threat to society
when she was released from prison, one of the reasons his office
agreed to the plea deal.
"I would not expect her to
be a danger in the future," Davidson said.
He said a sister and brother
of the Burns sisters wrote letters urging a lighter sentence.
"She is a gentle person,"
her brother, Robert Burns, wrote in a letter. "Everyone she comes
in contact with likes her. I don't think she belongs in a prison
for hardened criminals. She will not survive. That would be like
putting a gentle beagle in a room full of attack-trained pit
The St. Petersburg Times
published a two-part series about the case in September.
The Burns sisters were born
13 years apart in Maryland. At a young age, Debbie Burns got a
high fever that damaged her brain. Her mind would never outgrow
that of a 6-year-old and she never would be able to care for
herself, her brother told the Times.
Barbara Burns became her
main caretaker. Eventually, they moved to Florida with their
mother, who later died. Another brother also died, leaving the
sisters with his estate, worth about $350,000.
Barbara Burns spent the
money taking her sister on trips to California and Australia and
buying her memorabilia from favorite movies and TV shows like Star
Wars and Snow White.
Three years later, the money
was gone, but Debbie Burns continued to demand the comforts she
had become used to. Barbara Burns took a job and worked extra
shifts trying to make ends meet, but their mortgage on the
double-wide on Yellow Pine Street in St. Petersburg was too much.
On the night of Aug. 15,
2004, Debbie pestered her sister for more things. They began
arguing about money. After Debbie fell asleep, Burns grabbed a
.38-caliber revolver she kept in a dresser. She pointed the gun at
Debbie's head and pulled the trigger.
"I just took it all in to
the breaking point," Burns told the Times last year from the
Pinellas County Jail. "Then I exploded."
Burns wrapped Debbie in
blankets and a shower curtain. She cranked the air conditioner and
bought potpourri and air fresheners. Six weeks later, she headed
to Virginia and began working for a convenience store.
After movers found her
sister's body six months later, detectives used bank records to
track Burns to Virginia. She at first denied having a sister, then
broke down and admitted to killing Debbie.
"She kept crying. She said
she wished she hadn't done it. She was sorry," Pinellas sheriff's
Detective Ed Judy told the Times. "She's a really nice person, as
far as murderers go. She's the nicest murderer I've ever
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 - Tampa Bay
September 18, 2005
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
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.
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,
McCain and his son looked at each other. What
"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
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
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
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
Now detectives knew it was Debbie Burns who had
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
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
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
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."
"Okay, I don't - I don't know. I couldn't tell
"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
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
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
"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
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
"Okay, and they said they did not understand
how you could - you were a saint."
Barbara started sobbing. "I was a saint," she
Then the saint told detectives what she had
done, and why.
CLEARWATER - "Patience is my virtue," Barbara
Burns says through the video screen at the Pinellas County jail.
Visitors aren't allowed into the lockdown, so she has to hold a
phone and look into a camera.
"I'm very patient," she says softly. "You
wouldn't think so now. But I am."
Barbara has been in jail for four months, ever
since a cleanup crew found her sister's body in an abandoned
mobile home in St. Petersburg. Debbie had been shot in the
forehead and swaddled in Star Wars sheets.
It's late August now - a year since Debbie
When detectives first questioned Barbara, she
insisted she never had a sister. Later, after seeing a photo of
her sister with her dog, Barbara broke down and confessed.
"She kept crying. She said she wished she
hadn't done it. She was sorry," Detective Ed Judy would say of the
interview. "She's a really nice person, as far as murderers go.
She's the nicest murderer I've ever met."
Barbara is charged with first-degree murder.
Her court-appointed lawyer hasn't decided whether he'll enter a
plea or take the case to trial.
He told Barbara not to talk about what happened
to her sister.
But if you visit Barbara, if you sit and talk
with her through the video screen, she'll tell you about herself
and her sister, about their lives together, how she looked after
Debbie, helped her walk, drove her everywhere she wanted to go.
"I just took it all in to the breaking point,"
Barbara says softly, through the jail phone. "Then I exploded."
Barbara looked after her disabled younger
sister for 40 years - Debbie's whole life. People described
Barbara as an angel, or a saint.
She paid a price for her goodness. Being
selfless means you lose yourself. And there's a fine line between
saint and martyr.
* * *
Barbara grew up in Maryland, just outside
Washington, D.C. Her dad, John, was a printer who worked nights,
drank days; her mom, Margaret, stayed home with the kids.
Barbara's parents had four kids in five years.
For a long time, when she was little, her dad would drive the
family to Virginia Beach every summer, Barbara said in the jail
interview. She loved splashing in the surf with her brothers and
sister, building castles in the sand.
Then along came Debbie, who changed everything.
Barbara was 13 when Debbie was born. Debbie was
the baby, so she was spoiled from the start. Plus, it was hard to
take a baby to the beach, so that ended their vacations.
Then, when Debbie was 2, she got scarlet fever.
She was never right again, said her brother Bob, a truck driver
who lives in Maryland. The high fever, raging for days, damaged
Debbie's brain. Doctors said she would grow to have, at best, the
mind of a 6-year-old. She would never be able to take care of
The next year, their dad died. Their mom had to
start waiting tables to pay the bills. She couldn't afford child
care, so she made Barbara drop out of school to look after Debbie.
Barbara was 16, the age most girls' lives
begin. Debbie was 3, still in diapers.
"That was it for Barbara. After that, she just
stuck around the house all the time," Bob said. "She never had any
friends or went out with anybody that I know of. Only Debbie."
Soon, the other siblings moved out. Barbara and
Debbie stayed in Maryland with their mom, in the house they grew
up in, sharing a room, sleeping in single beds, side by side.
"Barbara was slow too. Not as bad as Debbie,
just slow," Bob said. "My mother was always brow-beating her,
telling her, "You're not smart enough to go out alone.' Barbara
didn't leave because she didn't have the confidence to leave.
"But she never complained," Bob said. "She
never asked for help. It was like that was what she was supposed
to do, take care of Debbie."
In 1981, when their mom got too tired and
arthritic to work, Barbara and Debbie moved with her to Florida.
Barbara was 30, Debbie 17. Now Barbara had two people to care for.
Her mom's Social Security plus Debbie's disability checks didn't
even cover the rent on their little house in South Pasadena. So
Barbara had to become the breadwinner too.
Her first job was dishwasher at the Howard
Johnson's on St. Pete Beach. Barbara said she loved that job,
loved having a reason to get out of the house. She would wake up
an hour early and ride her bike to the beach. With her headphones
on, a Garth Brooks tape blaring, she would walk the sand behind
the motel, watching the sunrise, waiting for her shift to start.
Those were the only hours Barbara ever had to
* * *
For more than a decade, Barbara worked at the
Howard Johnson's, moving up to busing tables, then cooking. She
always worked the day shift. She had to be home in time to make
dinner for her mom and Debbie. She never had time for hobbies, not
even much TV.
Debbie, though, had all day - every day - for
whatever she wanted to do. She loved Star Wars and Snow White and
soap operas, especially General Hospital. She spent hours on
computer chat rooms. She adored dogs. She always went overboard,
craving more of whatever she was into. She was always bombarding
strangers with her stories.
"Debbie would get into these conversations that
would go on and on and on, about Elvis, Star Wars, whatever," said
Debra Henson. Henson worked at the Mail Boxes Etc. near where the
Burnses lived. Once a week, the sisters would come in to buy a
money order or mail a package.
"I guess Debbie had met someone on a chat room,
and she'd send him things: T-shirts, teddy bears, little trinkets
and stuff," Henson said. "She said she was going to marry him, but
you never knew what to believe."
Barbara didn't talk much, Henson said, except
to urge Debbie along. "She was always nice to Debbie, she wouldn't
fuss at her, even when she wanted to leave and Debbie kept
talking. She was always totally patient," Henson said. "Debbie
limped, a bad back or something. And Barbara was always helping
her get around."
When they walked out of the shop, Henson said,
the sisters usually were holding hands.
* * *
In the fall of 2000, everything
changed. Barbara and Debbie's mom died, leaving the sisters alone.
Within days, they got a call from a lawyer.
Their brother John had just died of diabetes and left his entire
estate - about $350,000 - to Debbie, to make sure she was cared
"That's the last time I talked to either one of
those two, when I told them there was money coming their way,"
their brother Bob said. "I got nothing. Our sister Jo, nothing.
Barbara and Debbie, they were just gone after that."
Bob said he called them seven or eight times
and left messages. Then the number was disconnected.
"For a person who never had money, to get a
boatload of it," Bob said, "well, you might go a little crazy."
Debbie had always been excitable. People said
she acted like a little kid, upbeat one minute, brooding the next.
She could be demanding.
She knew just what she wanted to do, now that
she was rich. She wanted to travel, see places she'd seen on TV.
And collect Star Wars stuff. Lots of Star Wars stuff. Oh, and buy
a pinball machine and a foosball table and a dart board and a
skateboard . . .
On a computer chat room, Debbie read about a
General Hospital fan club convention that was coming up. In
California. Barbara booked two plane tickets and a hotel room and
the sisters flew across the country.
Australia was another adventure, Barbara said
from jail. The leading man on General Hospital was supposed to be
from Down Under, so of course that's where Debbie wanted to go.
Barbara got the brochures, made the reservations and the sisters
flew to the other side of the world.
In October 2001, home from their travels, they
put a down payment on a double-wide near the end of Yellow Pine
Street in the Tyrone area of St. Petersburg. They signed a loan
for $81,126: their first house.
The mobile home has three bedrooms. But Debbie
was scared of the dark, scared of being alone, scared of
everything. So Barbara stayed in the front room with her. She
pushed her single bed close to Debbie's, their heads almost
Every night, Barbara said, she fell asleep
listening to her sister breathe.
* * *
The money trickled away, sand through a sieve.
In less than three years, the Burns sisters blew through the
Barbara declared bankruptcy. She had to go back
to work. She started working as a cashier at Lowe's, taking extra
shifts, trying to meet the mortgage.
Debbie was home alone all the time, so Barbara
bought her a dog. It was a tiny chihuahua with long, silky brown
hair like a guinea pig, pointy ears like a gremlin and a
triangular nose that made it look like a teddy bear. Debbie loved
that dog. Barbara too. They called him Leo.
Even working holidays and overtime, Barbara
couldn't make the $766 monthly payment on their double-wide. In
2003, the bank started calling. Barbara said she was trying.
Before she knew what it was like to have money,
she said, she didn't miss it. But once she and Debbie got the
inheritance - once they got used to eating out, traveling, buying
whatever they wanted - they got used to an easier lifestyle. That
made everything so much harder when the money ran out.
Especially when Barbara was working so hard,
taking extra hours, and still couldn't keep up.
Especially when her sister was sitting home all
day watching soap operas, ordering pay-per-view movies, playing
with her Yoda doll, complaining that Barbara was home late, and
demanding: Where's dinner?
After awhile, Barbara got tired of it. But
there was no one to help, no one even to talk to. No end in sight.
* * *
Much later, when the detectives tracked her
down, Barbara had no trouble remembering the exact date of the
shooting. Aug. 15, 2004 - Debbie's 40th birthday.
She had taken her sister out to dinner at
Macaroni Grill the night before, she told them. They had started
arguing about money. Debbie wanted more and more things, and she
got angry when Barbara said they couldn't afford them. Debbie
couldn't understand why not, since her brother had left her all
All the way home, they fought, all the way
through that night's TV news. A little after 11 p.m., Debbie fell
asleep. Barbara lay in the bed beside her.
A few hours later, before it got light, Barbara
got up. She told detectives she walked to the dresser, opened the
third drawer from the top and took out a Smith & Wesson
.38-caliber revolver. She had bought it years ago at a pawn shop
to ward off intruders.
She pulled out a box of bullets and loaded one
into the steel blue gun.
The shot was fired from 2 feet away from
Debbie's forehead, detectives said.
Barbara tucked the gun back beneath some
clothes in her dresser. The detectives found it much later, among
things the cleanup crew had taken out of the double-wide.
* * *
How can you take care of your sister for 40
years, love her, raise her, put up with her, protect her, fold
your whole life into hers, then suddenly do away with your only
Experts say sister killings are extremely rare.
And it's unusual for caregivers to harm their patients. Barbara
Burns was the rarest case of all: a sister and a lifelong
For other caregivers, duties eventually end.
Parents die. Children grow up. You may end up looking after your
spouse your whole life, but when you get married you know that's a
It can be even harder to take care of someone
when you didn't choose it. Things can work out if you have other
people to help you and you have a life of your own, says Dr.
Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor at the University of South
"But if the two individuals do not have other
healthy relationships and good boundaries in place," Heide says,
"the relationship can become increasingly taxing for both
Even the most devoted person can run out of
patience, Heide says. "Issues can be minor," she says. Over the
years, the buildup of little things can lead to suppressed rage.
"The triggering incident for the explosion of a torrent of
homicidal rage can be quite trivial."
Debbie wanted to order more premium cable
channels and Barbara couldn't make her understand they were broke.
* * *
A few hours after shooting her sister, Barbara
told the detectives, she went to work at Lowe's. When she got back
to the mobile home that night, she moved her mattress out of the
front bedroom. For the first time in 40 years, she slept by
Later, Barbara returned to Debbie's body, which
still lay on the bed. She wrapped Debbie in blankets, then a
shower curtain. She added comforters, threw in a Star Wars
For the next six weeks, she stayed in that
double-wide, living with her dead sister. She kept adding air
fresheners and baskets of potpourri to mask the smell. She turned
down the air conditioning as low as it would go.
She knew she didn't have long. Soon, the bank
would come to reclaim the double-wide.
One day last fall, Barbara's neighbor saw her
digging in the front yard, a hole at least 3 feet long and just as
wide. Barbara had lined four bags of concrete mix along the
driveway. The neighbor had never seen Barbara working in the yard,
so she asked what she was doing.
"She said she was going to put a piece of
concrete out there to put her chair on. And I thought, "Oh my
gosh, her whole front is already concrete!' " Shirley Greilick
said. "But I never asked anything more about it."
Barbara quit her job at Lowe's, telling her
boss she was going to California to care for a sick aunt. On Oct.
1, she packed two suitcases, ditched her van at the bus station
and rode the Greyhound to Virginia Beach. No one noticed she was
gone. Nobody missed Debbie, either. For the next seven months, no
one asked about the Burns sisters - not until the crew came to
clean out their abandoned mobile home.
In Virginia Beach, Barbara moved into a
homeless shelter within walking distance of a 7-Eleven. Now that
she didn't have to cook dinner for anyone, she worked the night
In the jail interview, Barbara remembered how
she spent her free time. Every morning when her shift ended, she
would walk to the beach and watch the sunrise, a new day. She
loved being back on the same sand she used to chase her brothers
on, back when she was a girl, and had a life.
* * *
"I'm finishing high school here. They're
helping me," Barbara says through the video camera at the jail.
She spends her days, now, talking to the other
inmates, eating meals someone else cooks, watching TV she never
had time for before.
She's making friends here, she says. Everyone
treats her real nice. When you've already served a life sentence,
the county jail might not seem so bad.
One more question, Barbara, before the guards
cut us off: Whatever happened to that little dog you and Debbie
loved so much?
"Oh, Leo!" Barbara says, and her face lights up
for an instant. "He was real sweet. When I left, I had to put him
in the shelter."
Barbara sounds sad now. She says she hopes
someone nice took him home. She didn't want to drop him off there,
but she says she didn't have a choice. Did she?
She couldn't just leave a little dog like that
all alone, to die.
The Saint: a story of love, duty and betrayal
June 4, 1951: Barbara Ann Burns is born in
Maryland. Her father, John, is a printer. Her mother, Margaret,
stays home with her and her two older brothers and later a younger
Aug. 14, 1964: Debbie Burns, the fifth child,
is born. Barbara, who is 13, takes over most of the babysitting.
1966: At age 2, Debbie gets scarlet fever,
which leaves her mentally disabled.
1967: Their father dies and their mother goes
to work. Barbara, who is 16, quits school to look after Debbie.
1981: Barbara, Debbie and their mother move to
Florida. By now, their mother is unable to work, so Barbara
supports the family with minimum-wage jobs at Howard Johnson's and
Nov. 2, 2000: Barbara and Debbie's mother dies,
leaving the sisters alone. About this time, their brother John
also dies, leaving Debbie $350,000.
2001: Barbara and Debbie to go Australia and
California, tracking soap opera stars. They also place a down
payment on an $81,126 mobile home in St. Petersburg.
2003: Money starts running out. Barbara stops
paying the mortgage. The bank begins foreclosure on the mobile
July 2, 2003: Barbara files for bankruptcy and
starts working at Lowe's. She makes reduced payments on the mobile
Aug. 14, 2004: During a birthday dinner for
Debbie, the sisters argue over money.
Aug. 15, 2004: Debbie turns 40. Sometime before
dawn, while she's still asleep, Barbara shoots Debbie in the head,
according to police.
Barbara goes to work at Lowe's. That night, she
moves into another bedroom. She continues to live in the mobile
home with her sister's body for six weeks.
September 2004: A neighbor asks about Debbie.
Barbara says she's in California with a sick aunt.
Oct. 1, 2004: After abandoning her 1994 Dodge
Caravan at the St. Petersburg bus station, Barbara buys a one-way
ticket to Virginia Beach.
November 2004: Barbara starts working the night
shift at a 7-Eleven. As the winter gets colder, she moves into a
January 2005: Barbara's van is found at the
March 1, 2005: Barbara opens a bank account in
Virginia Beach and has Debbie's disability checks sent there.
May 4, 2005: The mortgage company sends workers
to clear out the mobile home. In the master bedroom, workers
discover Debbie's decomposed body wrapped in Star Wars blankets.
Debbie has been dead for more than eight months.
May 8, 2005: Detective Ed Judy flies to
Virginia Beach and stakes out the 7-Eleven where Barbara works.
May 9, 2005: Barbara is charged with
first-degree murder. Ultimately, she confesses to the crime.
July 6, 2005: Back in Pinellas County, Barbara
is arraigned. She is being held without bail pending trial.