Or Maybe a Railroaded Victim
(“Chief Suspect,” Forensic Files)
This week, it’s back to Forensic Files with one of the more perplexing episodes in the series.
The evidence used to convict Jim Barton for his alleged role in a home invasion that left his wife dead seemed shaky. And unlike other accused Forensic Files spouse killers, Barton was something of a sympathetic character.
While his alleged crime was highly inadvisable, it didn’t carry much in the way of malice — if he really did it, that is. A jury thought so, and convicted him in 2005.
Eye on the prize. I checked into an epilogue for the 6-foot-5-inch former lawman, but first here’s a recap of the episode, “Chief Suspect,” along with additional information from internet research and insights from YouTube commenters.
Jim Barton was a well-liked lieutenant with the Springboro, Ohio, police department. His wife, Vickie, worked as a nurse supervisor at Sycamore Hospital.
The couple met through their love of riding and lived on a horse farm called Locust Knoll in Franklin Township, outside of Springboro. By all reports, Jim and Vickie had a happy marriage.
By the time he was around 40, Jim allegedly was aiming to win the top job of police chief, but that position would usually go to someone who resided within the city limits.
Horrific scene. On April 11, 1995, he called 911 to report finding his wife on the floor. She was undressed, not breathing, and had three bullet wounds to the head from a .22 caliber.
Someone had ransacked the household’s gun collection but didn’t steal anything.
The crime shocked the small community, and police geared up for a thorough investigation. But they found no suspects and no helpful evidence.
The case went cold for a few years, until police arrested a local career criminal named Gary Henson over an unrelated burglary. Henson said he knew something about the Vickie Barton homicide.
Suicide adds intrigue. His half-brother, William Phelps, was paid $3,000 by Jim Barton to rob his home in order to scare Vickie so that she’d agree to move away from their rural property and into the city of Springboro, Henson contended.
But Phelps went off the rails and raped and murdered Vickie, said Henson, who also told police that the original plan was for Henson himself to go along on the robbery but that he was in jail then.
Phelps committed suicide just weeks after the murder. (Henson later changed his story, testifying that Phelps had an accomplice, and the accomplice was the one who assaulted and killed Vickie.)
The revelations were more than enough reason for a cold case squad to reopen the investigation in 2003.
Detectives listened to Jim Barton’s 911 tape for any hints pertaining to a robbery-for-hire, and came up with a lot of what it considered red flags.
Tale of the tape. First, the detectives noted that Barton referred to the killers in the plural, evidence that he knew that two people committed the crime, they theorized. But as a YouTube commenter noted:
Susan Adams7 months ago “They” could be said because you don’t know if the person who committed the crime was man, woman, one person or several. Saying “they” shouldn’t have [raised] red flags.
Detectives also interpreted noise on the tape as the sounds of Barton moving objects around, possibly tampering with evidence.
But the offending noise, which the episode broadcast, sounded rather nonspecific. It could have been the house’s HVAC system or a breeze through a window.
In an interview for “Scared to Death,” a 20/20 episode about the Barton case, Jim Barton said that he looked around the house in case an assailant was still on the scene. Perhaps that accounted for some of the noise on the 911 tape.
Jumping to conclusions. Also, the theory about the attack as a scare tactic seemed a little far-fetched.
Before voting for conviction, I’d want to hear something along the lines of a secret recording of Barton admitting to the crime. No evidence like that existed. As another commenter wrote:
Sam Rod1 year ago (edited) “hmm, the evidence was terrible in convicting this guy. this was a long reach for the prosecution.“
And on the subject of long reaches, one of the prosecution’s witnesses (presumably Henson) was hypnotized in order to extract information from him, said Barton defense lawyer Jon Paul Rion.
According to the 20/20 episode, in his earliest police interviews, Henson didn’t mention a robbery-for-hire plan; he added that part of the story later.
Henson sounded like a none-too-reliable witness all in all.
A CBS story published on truthinjustice.com reported that Vickie’s friends considered the frighten-into-relocating theory a stretch as well: “It would have challenged her to be more aggressive in protecting their farm,” Vickie’s girlfriend Darlene Bisgaard told CBS.
Here’s the part that really made me lose respect for the methodology of the investigation.
Hokey experiment. On the 911 tape, Barton said, “I gotta call [unintelligible word that sounded like ‘felp’], man.” Prosecutors asserted the garbled word was “Phelps” — thereby proving that Barton was in cahoots with Henson’s half-brother, William Phelps.
Barton maintained that he said “help” as in “I gotta call for help.”
To prove otherwise, the prosecution brought in Robert Fox, an Ohio State University linguistic and acoustic-phonic expert.
“To eliminate any potential bias,” narrator Peter Thomas explained, the professor was given only two choices: Was the word “help” or “Phelps”?
But why even give him suggestions? They should have simply let him interpret the word in question instead of prejudicing him.
Fox concluded that Barton said “Phelps” despite what seemed like a lack of a final “s” sound on the tape.
Failed second marriage. And there were other weak revelations as well. Barton’s second wife, Mary Ann Lacy, said that he sometimes spent time alone in their darkened basement, which investigators translated into evidence of guilt.
But Barton had married Lacy, who was Vickie’s best friend, only 15 months after the murder, and he may have still had sorrow to process. It didn’t make him guilty of anything. Or as an online commenter put it:
Dan Kirchner1 year ago (edited) “so the 2nd wife dumped him for spending alone time in the basement?? wtf? its called a mancave these days, right?”
Another piece of new evidence the prosecutors seized upon: A waitress named Barb Palmer suddenly remembered that, 10 years earlier, she had seen Jim Barton and William Phelps eating together at a local diner called Mom’s Restaurant.
Unless they left her a $100 tip, how could she recall them after all that time?
DNA taken from the crime scene didn’t match that of Gary Henson or William Phelps (authorities exhumed his body to get a sample).
Credit undeserved. But members of the jury apparently harbored few doubts. They convicted Barton of complicity to commit manslaughter. On April 15, 2005, he received a sentence of 15 to 50 years at the Southeastern Correctional Institution in Lancaster.
“Had it not been for the forensic analysis of Jim’s 911 call, the case might never have been solved,” narrator Peter Thomas concludes. But as another commenter noted:
Babalwa Brook2 years ago “I love how they are crediting forensics for solving this case when it clearly was the informant who brought up Phelps and the waitress who confirmed that dude knew Phelps smh”
The Forensic Files episode left off in 2006, but more has happened since then.
Barton wins a round. In 2015, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that authorities improperly withheld evidence about a break-in that happened in another rural home in Warren County, where the Bartons lived.
The panel of judges also said that the state’s case hinged on “unsupported, shifting and somewhat fantastical” witness testimony (presumably referring to Henson’s assertions).
In March 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reinstate Barton’s conviction, meaning Ohio authorities would have to give him a second trial or set him free.
The following month, Jim’s third wife, Elaine Geswein Barton, put up $350,000 in bail, and he exited prison.
In September 2016, Barton avoided a new trial by entering an Alford plea, whereby the accused maintains his innocence while admitting that enough evidence exists to convict him.
Who knows? Of course, maybe Barton really did cause his wife’s death via the Fargo-like plot that Henson related. The time Barton served behind razor wire seems like adequate punishment for a crime of that nature.
From the evidence shown on Forensic Files and detailed in newspaper stories, however, his chance of being guilty seems around 50 percent. As a juror, I’d want to be 99 percent sure before convicting.
That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. — RR