Unhappy Anniversary

Oklahoma Gazette | June 9, 2006
It’s a beautiful summer’s day in sunny Jacksonville, Fla. An attractive young husband and wife, recent transplants from Oklahoma, are about to hit the town to celebrate their third wedding anniversary.

The man is Justin Barber, a handsome University of Oklahoma grad from Wetumka, a small town east of Shawnee. He’s a go-getter who obtained his MBA at OU, then moved to Florida to pursue the highest-paying job he could find.

The woman is 27-year-old April Barber, a striking beauty who grew up in Hennessey, a little town just down the road from Stillwater. April went to college at Oklahoma State University and was a member of Kappa Delta sorority. But when her mom died of cancer, April decided she wanted to help save others from that disease. So she went to OU to study radiology and then went to work in that capacity in Thomasville, Ga.

It’s approaching dinnertime, so Justin and April climb in their Toyota 4Runner and head off to a romantic Italian restaurant at Jacksonville Beach, 20 miles east of Jacksonville. And there on the Atlantic Ocean, with the sun setting in the west, they dine.

It’s a pleasant evening, for August, so Justin and April walk down the street and shoot pool. According to Justin, they’re having a good time.

They return to the 4Runner and head 15 miles south, down to Guana River State Park, a remote beach area where they’ve spent time before. Justin and April park and take a stroll down the boardwalk. They take off their shoes and go for a moonlit walk in the cool sand. They’re chatting and watching the waves roll in. >>>

Sounds pretty dreamy, doesn’t it? We should all have anniversaries like this.

Unfortunately, this dreamy scene will soon turn into a horrible nightmare. Within minutes, five shots will ring out, piercing through the quiet sound of rustling palm trees and gentle waves. April Barber will receive a fatal gunshot to the face from close range. Justin Barber will be shot four separate times — in the hand, the shoulder, the ribs and just below the neck. And he will soon be back in the 4Runner, driving madly down the highway, bleeding and alone.

What happened on the beach that night of Aug. 17, 2002? Was this the work of an unidentified assailant who saw an opportunity to rob two unsuspecting lovers? Or, as prosecutors allege, was this the cold, calculated handiwork of Justin Barber, a small-town Oklahoma boy who has been sitting in a Florida prison cell for nearly two years, accused of first-degree murder?

Who murdered April Barber?

Justin’s account

According to various statements Justin gave, as the couple walked along the beach that night, he and April saw a stranger approaching quickly from the north. The man walked directly at the couple, pointing a gun.

The man shouted something loud and incomprehensible in an angry tone. He jerked his gun toward Justin and April in a thrusting motion. For some reason, Justin couldn’t understand what the man was saying, except he said something about money.

The stranger then pointed his gun at April, and, as Justin attempted to step between them, the assailant pulled the trigger. Justin lunged at the man, and they began struggling for the gun.

Some time later, Justin found himself lying alone on the beach, partially in the water. He had apparently passed out. He looked around for April, but did not see her.

Justin ran up and down the beach, searching frantically for his wife. And then he saw something terrifying: April’s body floating facedown in the water. Upon reaching her, he found she’d been shot beneath the eye.

Justin attempted to carry April back to the car, but due to his own injuries he couldn’t. So he began dragging April by her hands, arms and the waistband of her pants. After many agonizing minutes, Justin had pulled her back to the boardwalk. But he couldn’t get her any farther than that.

So Justin left April there on the boardwalk. Indeed, he left the scene altogether. He drove about 12 miles north and found someone who would help.

Before long, an ambulance arrived to take Justin Barber, now a widower, to the hospital. He had received four gunshot wounds.


According to newspaper accounts in The St. Augustine Record a few days after the murder, Justin Barber was not initially considered a suspect in this crime. The murder seemed to be a random, fluky tragedy.

But it didn’t take long before the Florida authorities and the media began to suspect that Justin was the man behind the trigger that night. Indeed, less than a week after the shooting, the newspapers began to cautiously reveal surprising new facts. The Barbers lived apart, meeting only on weekends. Justin’s car (with a gun inside) had been stolen recently, and April’s home in Thomasville had been recently burglarized. The insurance aspects of those incidents were left to the imagination. And why did Justin drive roughly 12 miles before he was able to find help?

Within a month, Florida authorities had reportedly changed their mind about Justin Barber. There were discrepancies between Barber’s account and the physical evidence. While the police did not name Barber directly, they did everything but, pointing to key omissions in his original story, recent marital difficulties between the pair and a “significant” amount of life-insurance taken out on April Barber’s life less than a year before her murder.

Nine months after the incident, authorities publicly admitted that they believed Justin was their man. The crime-scene evidence did not support Justin’s version of the events, they said. His stories were contradictory. Plus, the would-be robber had taken no money from either victim.

But, at the same time, authorities felt that the evidence to charge Justin with murder was somewhat lacking. What the state prosecutors had was a fairly difficult circumstantial case and a fairly strong motive: more than $2 million in life insurance.

If this suspect was indeed their man, Justin, who had since relocated to Portland, Ore., appeared to have slipped through the authorities’ clutching fingers.

The tide changes

But in late 2003 to mid-2004, the evidentiary tide, which had been heading out to sea, shifted. Explosive new evidence was uncovered that bolstered the circumstantial case.

One discovery was some rather damning information on Justin’s computers. According to newspaper accounts, witnesses and other sources, Justin was doing Yahoo or Google Internet searches, using keywords like gunshot wound, chest trauma, death from acute blood loss and immigration to Brazil. He was also looking up famous murder cases.

Assuming authorities have evidence to back that up, it will be interesting to see if authorities can prove when those searches were done — i.e., before or after April’s death. Authorities have stayed tight-lipped on that issue, but any pre-murder searches of that type would not be helpful to Justin’s cause.

Likewise, the timing of a downloaded song seems significant. A Florida television station, First Coast News, and The Florida Times-Union have both reported that Justin downloaded a song on the night his wife was murdered: a Guns N’ Roses song, with the lyrics “I used to love her, but I had to kill her.”

Another major discovery concerned Justin’s reported admission to a string of affairs, at least five, that occurred during his rather brief marriage. One affair was supposedly ongoing. April’s friends claim she had confronted Justin about at least one of these relationships, causing added tension to an already shaky marriage.

Based upon these revelations, and others, Justin Barber was indicted on a charge of murdering April Barber in July of 2004. The grand jury returned with the indictment.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Thursday.

What about those four bullets?

But as bad as all of the above information may sound, this is no open and shut case. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime. The smoking gun was never found. Other violent crimes have occurred in the area.

Plus, who would do some of the crazy things Justin allegedly did that night if he was hoping to get away with murder? After all, Justin’s an educated man with an MBA.

For Justin to be convicted, jurors must find him guilty of premeditated murder beyond a reasonable doubt. And to do that, they must be willing to find that he is a viciously cold murderer, one who would go so far as to murder an innocent young girl who was considered a near saint by practically everyone who knew her.

And to do that, jurors will have to confront the fact that Justin was himself shot four separate times. The bullet wounds have been described as “superficial,” but three of those bullets reportedly remain in Justin to this day.

Could someone shoot himself not once, not twice, but four separate times? This is a key question that must be addressed, and it is as daunting as the issue of O.J.’s gloves.

Family matters

Is it possible that Justin Barber, though no saint, is the victim of wildly unfortunate circumstances?

Justin’s mother, Linda Barber, thinks so. In December of 2005, Ms. Barber, an Edmond native, traveled to Florida, seeking to post bond for her son so he could be released from prison pending his trial.

Ms. Barber and Justin’s grandparents put in all the money they have in the world to secure Justin’s release. Indeed, Justin’s grandparents literally “pledged the farm” — that is, their Dustin farm that has been in the family for two generations. This request was ultimately overruled, a sign that the trial judge didn’t buy Justin’s “series of unfortunate events” tale. But the heartfelt support behind that pledge cannot be dismissed.

Ms. Barber declined to give any detailed comments about the trial. She has been warned against jeopardizing the case by speaking to reporters.

But Ms. Barber did indicate her steadfast belief in her son’s innocence. When asked about her noble money-raising efforts, Ms. Barber said, “We did it because we believe in him, and we know he didn’t do it. It’s ridiculous, these things they’re saying about him.” Those sentiments were echoed by Joy Beth Smith, Justin’s aunt, who said, “We believe in his innocence very strongly. This was a simple walk on the beach that turned into a nightmare.”

Others who knew Justin, like his former boss Tod McClain, expressed shock at the news. “My memory of Justin was the all-American kid, a pleasant young man, with a bright future.” Family friend Bob Hamm said Justin came from a good family and that he’d never seen him lose his temper.

But April’s friends and relatives, along with others who knew Justin, are equally convinced that Justin murdered April on that August night and had been planning to do so for some time. Although few were willing to speak on the record with the trial pending, several expressed that they are “100 percent certain” that Justin is guilty. Indeed, Amber Mitchell, who was April’s best friend, said she has “no doubt” of Justin’s guilt.

The group’s certainty is based on many things, some of which may never be heard in his trial. This includes the day-to-day operation of the couple’s crumbling marriage, mounting debts and high stress over Justin’s affairs. Justin was repeatedly described as an “intense” and “competitive” person who was driven to succeed. His previous marriage failed, records show.

Numerous sources confirmed the fact that April had confronted Justin about his affair and was making steady plans to leave him. It is possible, then, that April gave Justin an ultimatum in the days before she died. If so, the timing of April’s death is key and those lovely moments on the beach described at the beginning of this story may have been purely fictitious. That beach scene may have gotten really ugly.

And then there are questions relating to the more than $2 million in life insurance.

The ‘case of a career’

As you can now see, this is going to be a difficult case for everyone involved. April left behind a brother and a sister, a de facto mom (aunt Patricia Parrish, who is an Oklahoma County district court judge), as well as many other close friends and relatives. Justin has a brother as well as those who have already been mentioned.

Parrish declined comment for this story, and attorneys involved with the case did not return calls.

All of these people will have to endure hell over the next two weeks, waiting in suspense as a Florida jury attempts to administer justice. Fortunately, those who aren’t called to testify may be able to watch the trial, as there has been talk that it will be carried on Court TV.

It’s going to be a cliffhanger. Even some of the attorneys have acknowledged that, from a purely legal standpoint, cases don’t get any better than this one. Indeed, one of Justin’s attorneys has called this the “case of a career.”

So who murdered April Barber? We can only wait and hope the evidence revealed in the Florida trial will provide a definitive answer.

Oklahoma Gazette

In its inaugural issue of Oct. 15, 1979, Oklahoma Gazette, at that time an upstart, bimonthly publication with a mere 2,000 circulation, featured a page-one story about the Oklahoma City Council’s recent passage of an urban conservation district. Hardly sexy...
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