From the bestselling author of The Search for the Green River Killer: The account of the family tragedy that became one of California’s most shocking murder cases.
On a picturesque street in Sacramento County, California, three healthy saplings stand side by side. But what they symbolize are the deaths of three innocent people—two of them children. The man who took their lives, then planted trees in their honor, was their own husband and father.
Hearts went out to Jack Barron when his wife, Irene, died mysteriously in her sleep. Soon after, his two young children were also found dead in their beds. Barron claimed they suffered from the same rare genetic disorder as their mother. But when his fifty-two-year-old mother died, also of asphyxiation in her sleep, law enforcement officials finally took action: The fatal pattern was impossible to ignore.
Was this “devoted” father really a heartless murderer? Did he suffer from a bizarre syndrome known as Munchausen by proxy, whereby a parent kills a child to gain sympathy? With firsthand interviews and exclusive inside information, author Carlton Smith paints a chilling portrait of a man driven to commit the most unspeakable of acts.
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Punchout time came sooner than Jack expected, almost before he was ready. He'd risen before dawn — what was it, 4:30A.M.? — to drive to his new job on the trains. Even though he was sick, Jack wanted to show his new bosses they could depend on him.
For the first time in many years, Jack had all the reasons he needed to be happy. It was the new job. After years of shelving canned goods, paper products, and cereal boxes, of being a rarely noticed grunt worker in the anonymous aisles of supermarkets from Shasta to Sacramento, Jack finally had a real job, the one he'd always wanted: he was a railroad man.
The thundering throb of the locomotives, loud enough to make the air vibrate and the ground shake with all the power they contained, had always thrilled Jack Barron. The sheer, frightening energy of the gigantic diesel engines, the whoosh of the air hoses, the squeal of the braking wheels on the hard steel of the tracks, coupled with the intense awareness that a single moment's inattention could result in instant annihilation, all bespoke the awesome magic of the world of rails.
The world of trains had been important to Jack almost as long as he could remember. It had begun when he was small, when his father was an engineer for the Southern Pacific. Being able to control the enormous power of the locomotive, the complex switching mechanisms, the time and motion and distance of the elaborate network that tied a continent into a steel-solid whole — this was satisfaction the ordinary man might never enjoy. From the cab of a locomotive, the whistle said it all, even if the pay was only $13 an hour and change.
Not that Jack got to go very far, at least so far; he hadn't seen much of America yet. As a new hire for Amtrak's Northern California operations, Jack was the low man on the signal-pole; although grandly titled Assistant Conductor, Jack spent most of his time helping two other men assemble the Amtrak trains at the Alameda, California, maintenance yard — hooking up the airbrake hoses between the locomotives and the passenger cars, relaying hand signals between the conductor at the rear of the train and the engineer in front, and in general, helping to bring this newly composed train into the Oakland depot, where the operating crew would take over, after which the passengers to points north, south, and east would take their seats.
After that, for Jack and his co-workers, it was back to the maintenance yard to put another train away, and to get yet another train together for the journey into the heartland of America. Grunt work, it was.
But still, it was railroad work, just as he'd yearned for, for almost 20 years — ever since the day in the early 1970s when his father, Elmore the railroad engineer, had walked out of Jack's life and had never come back, thereby leaving a 13-year-old boy to wonder what it was that he had to do to be a man.
Jack had wanted this railroad job so badly for so long that his mother Roberta, despite her bitterness toward Elmore, had prayed every night, rosary in hand, for Jack to get his wish, his chance on the Big Steel.
On this Monday, February 27, Jack spent his worktime with Frank Klatt, the conductor, and Phil Gosney, the engineer. Together the trio worked to retrieve locomotives from the roundhouse, connect them to the cleaned and serviced passenger cars, and run the assembled train into the Oakland station five minutes away.
Then, as usual, the three would wait for an incoming train, pick up that train when it arrived, and deliver it back to the yard, where the locomotive and the cars would be separated, the engine washed down, and the cars delivered for servicing. Jack spent much of the time with either Klatt at the rear of the train, with Gosney in the cab, or in between the two as Jack connected the cars or relayed hand signals from Klatt to Gosney, or from Gosney to Klatt. It was fairly intense work: a lot of running around, punctuated by intermittent periods of inactivity while the crew waited for another train to arrive or depart.
But just after 1:30 P.M., the workday was over. Klatt and Gosney marched to the timeclock at the stationhouse and punched out promptly. So did Jack.
As he drove his van east on State Highway 24, through the Caldecott Tunnel burrowed under the Berkeley hills, through the suburb of Lafayette and down into Walnut Creek, Jack considered his relationship with his mother, Roberta. They'd had a few troubles recently — pretty much what you might expect when a 34-year-old man moves back home to share space with his 52-year-old parent.
She still treats me like I'm 13 or 14 sometimes, Jack thought. It was irritating.
But, Jack supposed, occasional flare-ups were only to be expected under the circumstances. Roberta Butler had never been known as any kind of shrinking violet when expressing her opinions. She had a tart tongue and was quick to use it. Still, he loved his mom, and he was sure she loved him. After all, she'd stood by him, no matter how bad it had gotten over the past few years, even when people had said things that weren't fair ... While he drove, the wipers swished across the windscreen, spreading the drizzle. The wet weather wasn't making him feel any better, especially with his cold. It had been raining forever, it seemed. The storms had started just after Christmas, and the water came down unrelentingly throughout the month of January and much of February. It was, some said, the most rain the Bay Area had had in years — and desperately needed after a long drought. Even so, with the reservoirs now filled to overflowing and some small towns inundated with flood waters, there were limits to too much of a good thing. It was all a matter of degree. That's what everyone always said, that moderation in everything was the key. That's what Roberta had always argued, even if she didn't always practice what she preached.
In Walnut Creek Jack merged onto Interstate 680 and headed north. In just a few minutes he passed Concord and was on his way into Martinez, where the gray waters of Suisun Bay soon came into view. As he crossed the Benicia Bridge across the east end of the Carquinez Strait, he could see the scores of empty gray ships tied up, bulkhead to bulkhead, masts and superstructures looking like some exotic, unreachable, technical city of the future, even though you knew they were just riding high and empty, useless, mothballed in the backwater. Then farther in the distance, just over the far hill, came the tops of the towers, tanks, and pipe lattices of the refineries behind Benicia, still more outsized technological artforms.
At the north end of the bridge Jack slowed down and passed through the toll booth, handing over the toll coupon and getting a receipt that was time-stamped in return. As soon as he was through the tollgate, Jack swung west onto Interstate 780, and the last mile. At the West Seventh off-ramp Jack exited once again, and drove under the freeway into the Southampton residential development. From there it was a short distance to home — actually, Roberta's home, a modest green, woodsided condominium that overlooked the freeway.
Jack turned into the asphalt driveway off Sunset Circle and into the parking space in front of 103 Sunset Circle, Number 7. The time was just after 2 P.M.
Jack crossed the small footbridge that led to the front door. He took out his key and opened it, coming into the living room.
"Mom?" he called out. "I'm home."
Mom didn't answer.
Jack went to his mother's bedroom. The door was slightly open. He pushed it open all the way.
Roberta Butler was lying diagonally across her waterbed, faceup, with the top of her head toward the foot of the bed, rather than toward the headboard. She wasn't moving. A side railing from the bed was on the floor beside the bed. Several stacks of papers were piled on the bed, near Roberta's head.
Jack crossed over to the bedside and put his hand out to touch his mother's face. It was cold. There was no breathing, and Jack knew that she was dead.
At 2:17 that afternoon, Jack called 911. The Benicia Fire Department dispatched its emergency medical team, which arrived just four minutes later. The EMTs found Jack's mother clad only in a pink bathrobe. Like Jack, they detected no pulse or breathing. Rigor mortis had already begun, and lividity — the process of blood draining to the lowest part of the body after death — was well underway. Not only was Roberta Butler definitely dead, she had been dead for some time.
A Benicia police officer who also came to the scene, Tom Dalby, drew Jack into the living room. Dalby looked at Jack.
Dalby saw a good-looking, dark-haired, bearded man, a few inches over six feet, weighing close to 220 pounds. Jack's hands were large, his eyes clear behind his heavily framed glasses. He neither smiled nor frowned. He waited patiently, looking back at Dalby calmly.
What's your name? Dalby asked.
Jack Barron, said Jack.
She's your mother? Dalby asked.
Yes, Jack said.
What's her name?
Roberta, Jack said. Roberta Butler.
She was like this when you found her? Dalby asked.
Yes, just like that, Jack said. I saw her, I said, Mom, but when I touched her, she was cold, so I knew. That's when I called 911.
What time was this, when you found her? Dalby asked.
Just after I got home. Just after two, Jack said.
Was the door locked?
Yes, it was.
Do you live here?
Yes. Since last fall.
When you came in, did you notice anything unusual?
The doors were locked?
Dalby now telephoned the Solano County Coroner's Office and requested that a coroner's deputy be put on the line. Coroner's Deputy Stanley Loveless came on. Dalby briefly described the scene. Loveless asked Dalby whether the dead woman had any history of recent illness. Dalby said he didn't know of any. Were there obvious signs of foul play? No, said Dalby.
Let me talk to the son, Loveless said.
Dalby put Jack on the line.
Was your mother under a physician's care?
No, said Jack.
Well, was she taking any medicine?
When was the last time you spoke to your mother?
About ten last night, Jack said. Over the telephone.
Did she have any complaints, anything wrong with her when you talked to her?
She said she was tired, Jack told Loveless. That she felt weak, and she said she had a headache. She's been under a lot of stress lately.
What kind of stress? Loveless asked.
Job stress, Jack said.
What do you mean?
Well, Jack said, she was a safety director for Safeway Stores. She had to travel a lot, and this was causing her stress.
Yes, Jack said. There were problems in the union, the retail clerks' union, in Vallejo, and that was causing her stress too.
Well, she was depressed.
Loveless considered what he'd learned, then made a decision. In the absence of obvious signs of homicide, he ordered Roberta Butler's body transported to the Coroner's office for a full autopsy and toxicology screen. That would be the first step in trying to find out what happened to Roberta Butler. It was routine in cases when ordinarily healthy people suddenly turned up dead.
But something besides Roberta Butler's recent health history troubled Loveless. His conversation with Jack Barron seemed odd, in some peculiar way — or at least, that's what Loveless thought.
Over the telephone, anyway, Jack seemed flat, unemotional, Loveless believed.
"This writer," Loveless wrote later in his report, "felt that the manner and tone of the deceased's son at that time were unusual for someone who just found out his mother was expired. Mr. Barron appeared to me as though this were an everyday occurrence."
While Jack had been speaking to Loveless, Dalby was hearing something weird from one of the paramedics. Chatting with one of the neighbors, the paramedic had learned some startling information about Jack Barron and Roberta Butler.
Next door to Number 7 one of the paramedics had encountered neighbor Margaret Hawes. Hawes had been shocked to learn that her good friend Roberta Butler was dead.
Oh, this is tragic, just tragic, Hawes told the paramedic. That poor man.
Which poor man? the paramedic asked. Who do you mean?
Why, her son, Hawes said. First his wife, then his son, then his daughter, and now his mother. It's so sad.
Her mind whirling from this casually imparted information, the paramedic pulled Dalby aside and told him what Hawes had said. Dalby now visited Hawes to find out what she meant.
Wait a minute, Dalby said. What's this about his wife, his children? What do you mean?
Dead, too, Hawes told Dalby. All of them dead, one after another. It's just tragic.
Dalby's own brain was well into overdrive when he went back inside the condominium. Jack Barron's wife was dead. His two children were dead. And now his mother was dead? Whoa, Dalby said to himself. What's going on here?
Dalby confronted Jack. Jack watched him, still calm.
What's all this about your wife and your children? Dalby asked Jack. Is it true they died? How?
Yes, Jack told Dalby, it was true. First his wife had died, then later his son. No one knew what caused either of the deaths.
They thought it might be something hereditary, or possibly some sort of environmental poisoning, like toxic waste, Jack told Dalby. But, he said, they could never figure out exactly what it was.
The experts were still working on it last summer, Jack added, when my four-year-old, my daughter, Ashley, died too. Nobody's ever been able to say why any of it ever happened.
Jack looked at Dalby.
Where was this? Dalby asked.
Sacramento, Jack said. I come from Sacramento.
The city of Sacramento is California's capital, a 96-square-mile sprawl housing nearly 400,000 souls athwart the American River, where that smaller stream joins the larger, gray-brown Sacramento, one of the largest rivers in the state.
There, in 1839, a Swiss immigrant named Johann Augustes Sutter received a Mexican land grant of 49,000 acres and began laying out a settlement he called New Helvetia.
It was nine years later when a man named James Marshall, one of Sutter's most recent partners, began building a sawmill on the American River some 30 miles upstream from New Helvetia. Prowling the uncompleted millrace one day, Marshall bent down and pried up a small number of yellow fragments from the sediment. With that simple act, the greatest gold rush in history was underway.
Within a year, New Helvetia had become Sacramento, the closest deepwater port to the goldfields of the Sierra Nevada. Every day throughout 1849 and on into the 1850s, hundreds of new immigrants poured upriver from San Francisco and from all other points of the compass, exploding the town's population.
By 1860 the city had become the state capital, and work was started on a large Capitol dome, surrounded by stately Victorian mansions, all set back from a bustling business district that had grown up along the riverfront.
The city expanded enthusiastically over the next hundred years, adding streets by letter east and west and by number north and south, in an ever-widening grid-like pattern toward the southeast, steadily encroaching on fertile farmland in the flatland to the south and east. Throughout the 1890s, on into the twentieth century, as the Golden State grew ever more prosperous, Sacramento doubled and redoubled in population.
By the end of World War II, as the state government and its bureaucracy exploded in the aftermath of the war, new office buildings began popping up in the downtown core, interspersed with pocket parks, box-like apartment buildings, Chinese laundries, and a heavy sprinkling of bars, restaurants, and saloons, some of the latter notorious for their politician clientele.
By the early 1990s, Sacramento was one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, with a growth rate surpassing 30 percent every ten years. Counting the surrounding area of the entire county, by 1990 the total metropolitan population of the Sacramento metropolitan area was well over 1.1 million residents.
As the city grew in the 1980s, it outstripped its boundaries once more, spilling over into the flat, rich farmland to the south. New residential developments sprouted, leapfrogging their way down the asphalt ribbon of the old military road linking Sacramento to the city of Stockton, some 40 miles away.
It was in one such development, a modest accretion of single-storied, composition-roofed drywalled ramblers, in an unincorporated area of the county called Florin, that a young U.S. Air Force wife and mother, Christina Hamilton, arose early on a muggy morning in June of 1992.
Excerpted from "Dying for Daddy"
Copyright © 1998 Carlton Smith.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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