In the early 1990s, the Barron family’s "home sweet home" in Sacramento County, California became a home of homicide. Over the course of three years, the family patriarch, Jack Barron, launched a methodical murder spree that took the lives of his wife, his two children, and his mother. By 1995, a group of commemorative saplings stood on the family property—one for each person Jack killed.
Jack’s wife, Irene Barron, was his first victim. Despite feeling sympathetic towards Jack's grief, suspicions soon arose: How could a healthy woman of 34 die so suddenly in her bed? Jack claimed she had a genetic disorder, but many friends and family recalled stories of his violent outbursts and obsessive behaviors—a minor fender-bender was grounds for a thunderous tantrum.
Quite troubling were the signs of Munchausen syndrome by proxy—a condition in which someone exaggerates the health problems of those in their care in order to receive sympathy or attention from others. At the funeral, Jack basked in the attention from fellow mourners. Was it possible, some began to wonder, that Jack was responsible for Irene's death?
The answer would come three years later—after the subsequent deaths of Jack’s son, daughter, and mother—when a re-examination of Irene’s autopsy would uncover evidence of murder. But by then, of course, it was already far too late.
Read on for an excerpt of Dying for Daddy, by Carlton Smith, and then download the book.
I am really sorry you’re unhappy right now. I have a hard time believing the only reason for this is my inability to keep the house exactly the way you like it .… We usually have so much fun together. We have so much to be happy and thankful for … It really upsets me when I hear you talk about divorce … Things have been so good for us for so long, you don’t just wake up one day and suddenly decide something like that.
All my love,
[from the Warrant for the Arrest of Jack Kenneth Barron]
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.
After getting her child up and herself ready to go to work, Christina took her child over to her next-door neighbor’s house on Southbreeze Drive. The woman in the neighboring house, Irene, ran a small day-care business, supervising neighborhood children for employed parents like Christina.
Christina knew a little about Irene; after all, it’s difficult to live next door to someone without knowing something about them. And, of course, Irene had been taking care of Christina’s child for some time, so it was natural for both women to exchange some confidences.
Christina knew that Irene had two children of her own, a son, Jeremy, a bit over three years old, and Ashley, a daughter, a little over two. Christina knew that Irene’s husband, Jack, worked late nights and early mornings as a shelf-stocker in a supermarket in east Sacramento. Because of the difference in their schedules, Christina did not see as much of Jack Barron as she did of Irene. As far as she could tell, however, Jack seemed much like everyone else on the block—fairly young, with a working-class job, and with hopes and ambitions “common to most growing families trying to stretch a limited paycheck as far as possible.
At 7:10 in the morning Christina knocked on the Barron front door. Receiving no response, Christina knocked again. Again no one answered.
Leaving her child with friends staying at her house, Christina drove to work. On arriving there, she again called Irene, thinking that perhaps Irene had been distracted earlier, or out. Again the telephone rang, with still no response.
By this point, Christina was worried as well as mystified. What if there was something wrong? Christina decided she had to go back to Irene’s house to see if anything was amiss.
Pulling up to the house on Southbreeze Drive shortly after 8:00 A.M., Christina again knocked on the front door. Again receiving no response, Christina tried to open the door but found it locked. Moving around the side of the house, Christina tried the side doors, then the windows, each time trying to find a way to get inside. As she moved around the house, she realized that she could hear someone inside.
"I can't wake mommy up," he told her.
It was Jeremy, Christina realized. Tapping on one of the window’s “Christina got Jeremy’s attention. After a few minutes she coaxed Jeremy into opening a sliding glass door at the rear of the house. To open the door, Jeremy removed a small dowel from the sliding track, which ordinarily blocked its passage.
Jeremy looked up at Christina.
“I can’t wake my mommy up,” he told her.
Christina went through the house until she came to the rear bedroom, the one shared by Irene and Jack. As she came into the room, trailed by both Jeremy and Ashley, Christina realized almost at once that something was very wrong.
Irene lay back on the Barrons’ waterbed, feet on the floor. She was wearing a pink nightgown and pink panties. Her feet were encased in fuzzy pink slippers. The strangest thing was Irene’s face. It was covered with a bed pillow.
“Irene?” Christina called out. Irene didn’t move. Christina went to the bed and removed the pillow from Irene’s face. Irene’s left arm extended across her chest to the right, with the back of the left hand lying palm-up on the bed; her right arm lay extended by her side. Her face was turned toward the right. Christina saw blood on a pillow underneath Irene’s head, and more blood that had trickled down from Irene’s nose. Irene’s eyes were fixed and the pupils were dilated. To Christina, Irene appeared to be dead.
Quickly backing out of the bedroom, Christina told Jeremy and Ashley to go to their bedrooms. Trying to quell her panic, Christina dialed 911.
Christina told the operator about Irene. The operator asked Christina if she could perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR. Christina put the phone down and went back into the bedroom. She tried moving Irene’s arms, but the arms were rigid.
Christina went back to the telephone and reported the situation to the operator. Please stay there, Christina was told; the paramedics are on the way.
In a major metropolitan area like Sacramento, thousands of people die every year. Some die in car wrecks; some commit suicide; many die in hospitals, prey to myriad natural causes that limit even the longest life span. And some, of course, are murdered.
With so many deaths, it’s not surprising that government authorities have devised a process for dealing with unexpected death. The shock troops of the process—those who respond first—are the paramedics, the emergency medical technicians, frequently employed by local fire departments. On that morning in June of 1992, the first to arrive on Southbreeze Drive were paramedics from the Florin Fire District.
The firemen were admitted to the house by Christina, who showed them Irene’s body in the back bedroom. Then Christina took Jeremy and Ashley over to her house, and then returned to the Barron house to wait for the police to arrive.
The emergency medical personnel quickly concluded that there was nothing they could do for Irene; as Christina had realized, Irene was beyond any medical help. Now the ball was in the hands of the patrol officers from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, who had arrived shortly after the Florin EMTs.
The two patrol officers, Mark Freeman and Mitchell Boyes, looked over the bedroom and Irene’s body. They noted her dress, and most of all, the pillow that Christina had said she’d removed from Irene’s face. While there was no overt evidence of foul play—no gunshot wound, no substantial blood, no apparent bruising, no visible evidence of strangulation—the death of an otherwise apparently healthy 34-year-old woman was nonetheless an unusual event. The patrol officers decided to activate the next level of death response—they called the Sheriff’s Department’s homicide detectives, just to be sure.
Sheriff’s detectives Rick Lauther and Bob Riesdorph soon arrived, to be briefed by the patrol officers, the EMTs, and Christina. The detectives walked through the house and found nothing to indicate that anyone had broken in. Questioning Christina, they learned that all the doors had been locked, and that she had only gotten inside after Jeremy removed the dowel from the sliding door track.
By this point, Southbreeze Drive was crowded with emergency vehicles—the EMT van, the Sheriff’s patrol cars, the detectives’ car, and an ambulance.
Thus it was, at about 9:30 A.M., that Jack Barron drove down his street toward his house, only to see a hum of ominous activity in front.
Jack parked his car on the opposite side of the street and began walking toward the front door. Christina must have identified Jack for the detectives as he approached, because Detective Lauther met Jack halfway across the street.
Mr. Barron? Lauther asked.
Yes, Jack said. I’m Jack Barron.
Lauther told Jack that his wife, Irene, had been found dead that morning by their neighbor, Christina Hamilton. Jack seemed staggered by this news, so much so that Lauther had to keep him from collapsing in the street. Jack said he didn’t understand. He began to cry. He wanted to go into the house, but Lauther prevented him. Jack asked Lauther how Irene had died. Lauther said it wasn’t clear yet, but that it appeared to be from natural causes.
Jack asked about Jeremy and Ashley, but Lauther assured him they were being taken care of by Christina. Then Lauther asked Jack some questions.
You were at work last night?
Yes, Jack said.
Where do you work?
You worked all night?
What time did you leave to go to work?
Did you see Irene at any time after that?
No, I was at work.
She was all right when you last saw her?
Any medical problems?
Not that I know of, Jack said. She’d had a little cold recently, and had been coughing a bit. A few headaches but nothing really bad.
To Lauther, it seemed that Jack was suffering real grief and shock at the death of his wife. He asked Jack to go over to Christina’s house and wait for him; there was more the police had to do in the house.
The question was: how did Irene die? When Lauther added it all up, nothing was very clear. There were no obvious signs of trauma on the body—no gunshot wounds, no stab wounds, no stocking knotted around the neck—and it seemed clear the house had been securely locked against all intruders. Still, the whole situation seemed a bit suspicious. Perhaps an expert opinion might clarify matters.
At that point, Lauther and Reisdorph activated the next level in the death response protocol, as they understood it: they called the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office and asked for the on-duty forensic pathologist. Dr. Gregory Schmunk took this call from Reisdorph. Reisdorph told him that they had a “possible scene,” Schmunk reported later. The fact that Reisdorph asked for a forensic pathologist to come to the scene was unusual; generally, in a county that performed as many as 1,000 autopsies a year, forensic pathologists waited in the laboratory for the dead to be brought to them, and Reisdorph certainly knew this.
But in requesting the presence of a pathologist, Reisdorph appears to have been asking for professional help in deciding just how the detectives should next proceed. At the time, however, Schmunk told Reisdorph to call the Coroner’s Office directly and talk to a coroner’s investigator and let the investigator decide whether Schmunk’s services were needed.
Coroner’s investigator Bob Brian then received this call from Reisdorph, just as Lauther finished talking with Jack. Brian consulted with Schmunk, and after some discussion, the two decided to go to the Southbreeze house as Reisdorph had requested. They arrived about 10 A.M.
At the house, Schmunk and Brian entered the bedroom, and found Irene, as described, lying on her back on the bed, feet on the floor. Three pillows were on the bed around her head, including the one with the apparent blood stains found under Irene’s head by Christina Hamilton.
The detectives briefed Schmunk. They said they had learned from Jack and Christina Hamilton that Irene had been suffering a series of headaches over the weekend. Christina recalled that while shopping with Irene on Saturday, Irene had slurred her speech.
Schmunk’s examination of Irene began at 10:15 A.M. He noted the almost complete rigidity of the extremities and the jaw; moreover, he noted that the lividity—the downward draining of the body’s blood after death—was fixed, meaning that the draining process had been completed hours earlier. The body was cold to the touch, with the exception of a slightly warmer area in the midsection. Schmunk and Brian put plastic bags around Irene’s hands to preserve any possible evidence that might have been caught up under her fingernails.
Schmunk now turned his attention to the pillows. One pillow—the one with blood—was on the bed above Irene’s head. A second was lying next to the right hand, and a third along the left side of the body. This last pillow, Schmunk thought, appeared to have been the one Christina said she had found over Irene’s face. The pillow had black streaks on it, which Schmunk thought might be from eye makeup. He noted that Irene did appear to be wearing dark eye makeup.
The question was: how did Irene die?
Schmunk looked closer at Irene’s face. He noticed a number of tiny broken blood vessels in Irene’s eyes. He saw no other injuries besides what appeared to be a bruise on the back of the right calf.
Schmunk took the ambient temperature of the bed surface around Irene, and recorded it as 79 degrees. A few minutes later he cut an incision in Irene’s side and took a liver temperature of 91 degrees.
As a general rule, a dead body loses its heat at a rate of approximately one-half a degree per hour, less if the environment is quite warm. Assuming that Irene had had a normal temperature of 98.6 at the time she died, that was an indication that Irene had died as long as 15 hours earlier. The extent of the rigor mortis and the fixed lividity seemed to support that indication as well.
Counting backward from 10:30 A.M. would therefore put the time of Irene’s death at as early as 7:30 P.M. the night before, perhaps slightly later because of the temperature of the waterbed. But that wasn’t possible: hadn’t Jack said he’d seen Irene alive and well at about 11 P.M. as he left for work?
The truth is, despite the time-honored tradition of English country house murder mysteries, in which the culprit is invariably unmasked by the clever exposure of a bogus alibi for the exact time of the murder, in the real world fixing the time of death is a notoriously difficult undertaking. Most medical examiners, in fact, don’t even attempt to do it; they frequently consider the time of death to be somewhere between the time a person is last seen and the time the body is discovered.
But with a cold, rigid body in a locked house, found with bedroom slippers on, and still wearing eye makeup, there could be only one conclusion—that Irene Barron died before going to bed the night before. The question was: exactly when?
Did she die after Jack left for work, or before?
And what about the pillow? How had it gotten over her face?
Schmunk did not consider the pillow that Christina had removed from Irene’s body directly indicative of foul play; sometimes, he told the detectives, people suffering from headaches pull pillows over their faces to shut out the light and ease the pain.
Still, these results of Schmunk’s on-scene examination should have fired the suspicions of everyone present at the Southbreeze house that day, particularly the suggestive evidence about the possible time of death. That they did not was to set the stage for untold pain and confusion for three entire families for three long years.
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