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Secrets In The Sand

Justin Barber Interview 02:27

This broadcast first aired on Jan. 30, 2007. It was updated on June 21, 2007.

April Barber had the kind of wedding most girls only dream about: a beach in the Bahamas, at sunset, a beautiful dress and a handsome groom, Justin Barber.

But April's aunt, Patty Parrish, says April was hardly a traditional bride. "She was more of a country girl at heart," Patty remembers. "She had a gorgeous white dress that I remember cramming into her suitcase, and here we are trying to get the wrinkles out of it the day of the wedding."

If anyone deserved such a happy day, it was April; so many of the days before it had been difficult and sad.

"Her mother had passed away when April was 17. She died from cancer and that was very difficult," Justin explains.

As 48 Hours correspondent Harold Dow reports, her mother's death made April grow up fast. Her father fell apart and later got into trouble over drugs. So April briefly took over the mothering of her younger brother Kendon, who was only one, and her sister, Julie, who was nine.

"She took care of us. She would get me up for school, get me off to school. She'd cook us dinner. She just took the place of our mother," Julie remembers.

Losing her mother also gave April's life a purpose: she went to college determined to pursue a career in medicine, treating cancer patients.

"She definitely didn't take life for granted, and had pretty clear goals about what she wanted out of life," remembers April's best friend Amber Mitchell. She says college also opened up a whole new world for April.

In 1998, when she was 23, April's world became even brighter. She met Justin, at the time a top student in the University of Oklahoma's MBA program. Amber was there the night they met.

When Justin first brought April home, his mother, Linda, took to her right away.

"I liked her immediately. She was very beautiful. Very natural. You could just tell she was a good person. She was just wonderful. She fit in real well with the family," Linda remembers.

It was just ten months after they began dating that Justin and April eloped to the Bahamas.

"I was worried that it was really quick and maybe they didn't know each other well enough yet to do that. But I supported her completely, because she was happy and I wanted to see her happy," Amber remembers.

When they returned from the honeymoon, April and Justin moved to Georgia for work. And April's siblings, Julie and Kendon, came to live with them for a while. But it didn't last—it was too much for the young couple to handle.

"Of course it was difficult for them, 'cause they were so young and trying to raise two kids. It was very hard, I understood that. But they tried their hardest to give us everything that we could possibly want or need," Julie remembers.

Then, just two years into the marriage, Justin and April's careers forced them apart. April, who worked in radiology, took a new job in Georgia. But Justin, a business executive, was transferred to Jacksonville, Fla., nearly three hours away. They saw each other mainly on weekends.

Asked if he wanted April to quit her job and live with him, Justin says, "It wasn't just a normal job that she took there, it was the next step up in her career. And it was a very, very good opportunity for her at an early age. And so I fully supported that."

They had lived like this for more than a year when, in the summer of 2002, April came to Jacksonville to celebrate their third wedding anniversary. On the night of Saturday, Aug. 17, they went out for dinner and drinks.

After dinner, Justin says the couple shot a few games of pool and then went for a drive.

Justin says their destination was a remote state beach, where he and April had been before. "We had been there a few times before. April's previous birthday, and I think perhaps our anniversary the year before. It was a place that we would go to be alone on the beach," he explains.

The couple took off their shoes and started walking along the shoreline. Suddenly, Justin says, a strange and threatening man appeared right in front of them.

"He was Caucasian. He had a hat on. It's a dark hat with a logo," Justin tells Dow.

Asked if he thinks it was a robbery, Justin says "Yes." He also says he saw a gun.

Justin says he lunged at the man. Then shots rang out. Justin doesn't remember what happened next—he thinks he passed out.

When he came to, he says he didn't see anything at first—April was nowhere to be seen and didn't respond to his calls.

Justin's wife and his attacker had both disappeared into the darkness. "I ran down the beach. I couldn't find her. I was screaming," he remembers.

After desperately scouring the beach in search of his wife, Justin says he finally found 27-year-old April floating face down in the surf. He rushed into the water and tried to revive her.

"She wasn't responding to me," he remembers.

Justin says he pulled April to shore, and that's when he noticed she'd been shot. He tried several times to lift her into his arms, but he couldn't do it. "My body was not responding the way that I think that it should have," he remembers.

Panicking, he bent over April's limp body and grabbed the waistband of her pants, then dragged her several hundred feet.

"We got to the point at which the boardwalk meets the sand. And then there's a set of stairs that lead up to the boardwalk," Justin tells Dow. "I couldn't very well drag her up the stairs. I wanted to lean her over my shoulder and try to carry her that way to the road."

But his last ditch effort to lift April also failed. "I dropped her. And I think the sound of her hitting the ground caused a reaction in me. I knew at that point that what I was doing was just not working."

It was at that moment that Justin says he figured out what was wrong. The reason he couldn't carry his petite wife to safety was because Justin himself had been shot—and not just once—but four times. And now Justin says he was forced to do the unthinkable: leave his wife on the beach, while he blazed a trail to find help, alone.

Realizing he had left his cell phone at home, Justin says he darted into the middle of the road to wave for help but three cars whizzed past him.

"I ran to our vehicle," he recalls. "I remember getting in the truck and driving back to town." Shaken and injured, Justin sped off into the darkness.

"I was driving very, very fast with my four-way flashers on. Driving erratically. I was looking for help. I was looking for attention," he explains. "I remember seeing a red light. And stopping there and cars were there. And I started yelling for help."

At a major intersection, Justin says he finally found a good Samaritan who called 911.

Within minutes paramedics arrived. Justin told them what happened to April and they rushed him to the emergency room.

Meanwhile, Det. Howard Cole and the entire St. John's Sheriff's Department immediately sprang into action.

"We had a gentleman up there who had been shot four times and initially we didn't know where. We just knew that he had said that it was on the beach," Cole remembers.

When police reached the beach they instantly made a chilling discovery. "She was laying there, on her back, at the foot of the boardwalk, completely wet," Cole explains. "She was in fact deceased right there at the scene."

Police now had a homicide investigation on their hands and a killer on the loose. Cole rushed to the hospital to find out from Justin everything he knew.

After learning his wife was dead, Justin managed to compose himself, and tried to describe the gunman who killed April.

"He did not know what the guy looked like. He did not see his face. It was too dark. His description of a suspect at that time is that 'He was taller than me. He was stronger than me. And he had on a baggy tee shirt and a ball cap,'" Cole says.

Cole then photographed the wounds the gunman had inflicted on Justin: he had been shot in his left hand, his left shoulder, the base of his neck, and, most alarmingly, his chest.

Justin's wounds turned out not to be life-threatening, and doctors released him the next day. A short time later, he flew back to Oklahoma to face the grim task of burying his wife.

April's best friend Amber says the funeral made it clear just how many people loved April and felt close to her. "We did everything we could to make it a tribute of how wonderful she was," Amber remembers.

Justin, however, seemed distant, according to Amber. "Justin was almost mute. He was looking at the floor. He wouldn't make eye contact with anybody," she remembers.

Justin's brother Charlie wasn't surprised. He says Justin was simply overcome with grief over losing April. "He was emotionally devastated. Physically wounded and emotionally devastated. I've never seen him like that. Even when our dad died."

Charlie was so worried about Justin, he wouldn't leave his side. So they flew back to Florida together. Once there, Charlie says Justin was able to put his grief aside for one reason only.

"He wanted to get back as soon as possible. So he could help in any way he could with the investigation," Charlie says.

He even returned to the place where April died, and spent over 10 hours with police to help look for clues.

"Everything they asked for, I gave them. Every time they wanted me to come back to St. John's County and talk to them some more, I did. Whenever they wanted a statement, I gave it them," he says.

But almost immediately, Justin felt police were overlooking critical clues that pointed to April's possible killer. The biggest one: witnesses told police they had seen a second car parked at the beach around the time Justin and April were shot.

"We didn't have a tag number. We didn't have a reliable make. I would have loved to have found it 'cause you know what? That was a potential witness in my mind. The simple fact is we could not," Det. Cole explains.

Justin was also mystified why police weren't thoroughly investigating suspicious incidents that happened while April was living on her own in Georgia.

April's car was broken into, and just three weeks before the murder, so was her house.

"We did speak to the investigators that actually worked that burglary. There is no connection with that in this case," Cole says.

Asked if he was aware of any people he considered a threat to his wife, Justin says, "I think that we're stretching a bit when we say that. I think that there were some folks in April's life that should have been investigated. There were certainly a few people there that had a romantic interest in April. But did the police follow up on those leads? No, I don't believe they did."

But what he didn't know is police were pursuing leads of their own and in fact, they thought they were already zeroing in on April's killer: Justin Barber himself.

"The situation as he presented it wasn't adding up," says Cole.

Even the basic premise of Justin's story didn't make sense to Cole. The detective thinks the location itself was an unusual place for a stick-up. "I don't see why they would. It just doesn't make any sense. It never happened before and it hasn't happened since," he says.

Cole's suspicions were first raised when he found out nothing was taken during the alleged robbery, including Justin's wallet and April's diamond ring. And when Cole took Justin to the beach after April's funeral, he became even more suspicious.

"He certainly appeared to be crying but there's no tears coming down his face. He was almost rubbing his eyes, trying to force up some emotion," the detective remembers.

So Cole took a closer look at Justin's account of what happened after he left April on the beach that night, beginning with his attempt to flag down three passing cars.

"If what he's saying is true, I would expect to get numerous 911 calls, and we received none," he says.

Most troubling of all to Cole was that when Justin got into his car to find help for his wife, he drove almost ten miles before stopping.

"There's a McDonald's right here, that would have been opened. There's a Walgreen's right here. That's 24-hours. Just north of here there's a 24-hour Shell station. And they're very well-illuminated. I mean if you truly were trying to get help, that certainly would be a place that I would consider getting help," Cole points out. "I don't think anybody would accept that that man left his wife and drove ten miles away to get help. That defies reason."

Meanwhile, April's family, and friends like Amber Mitchell, were comparing notes and growing suspicious of Justin, too.

The story they began to piece together was of a marriage in trouble. And they realized that problems surfaced right at the beginning, when April's siblings, Julie and Kendon, came to live with the newlyweds in Georgia.

"Whenever we first lived with them, it was good. Towards the end of living with them, it got kind of tense. I was very strong-willed and I didn't like it," Julie says.

So the family brought Julie back to Oklahoma, and Kendon soon followed, against Justin's wishes.

"He was really angry. None of us understood why he cared so much about it except for if he liked the appearance of being such a noble guy to take in these children," Amber says.

She says she realized appearances were very important to Justin. "He would put his high school jeans on once a month to make sure they still fit. And if they didn't, he would fast until they did. He gave April a hard time about weight to the point where she was almost paranoid about gaining weight. And she was tiny," Amber remembers.

Amber also knew that April suspected Justin was having an affair in Jacksonville. When confronted by his wife, Amber says Justin denied the affair.

Det. Cole discovered the "other" woman was Shannon Kennedy, who worked at the agency where Justin's company rented cars. Cole invited Shannon to the police station the same afternoon he was interviewing Justin.

"Shannon Kennedy came in right away. And she was very honest. She said it started out as kind of a social relationship. They'd go out, have drinks and what not. And eventually progressed into a sexual relationship," Cole says.

Justin, however, was less honest, at least at first. "He adamantly denied having any affairs with anyone, Shannon Kennedy specifically. I said, 'Well, I'm gonna bring her in this room. We're gonna get to the bottom.' He said, 'No, no, no.' He said, 'I did sleep with her. I have been having an affair with her.' Only confronted with her and he being in the same room did he tell the truth. To me, that's huge," Cole says.

When he searched Justin's apartment, Cole made another discovery: two life insurance policies, one in Justin's name, one in April's, for $2 million each.

April's aunt Patty says she had always been troubled by that. "April thought it was a lotta money. Neither April nor I could understand why he was insisting to have a $2 million life insurance policy on her life," she explains.

Amber Mitchell thinks she knows why: "He was in debt up to his eyeballs," she says.

Stock market losses and other expenses had left Justin over $50,000 in debt. And by the summer of 2002, between the affair and the money problems, April had had enough.

"She was leaving him. She told him, the last time she saw him alive, that she was leaving him," Amber says.

As circumstantial evidence implicating Justin was mounting, Cole began to examine the crime scene more closely. And now, even the fact that Justin had been shot four times began to seem suspicious.

"He had one wound to his left shoulder, which was out and away. He had another one in his right shoulder. Same thing. It was kind of out and away," Cole says.

None of the wounds were near his vital organs.

But Justin and his brother Charlie found Cole's description of the wounds preposterous. "It hurt him. He was in a lot of pain for a few weeks after. He had to keep the one arm in a sling," Charlie says.

Then, just months after the murder, while police were still trying to gather hard evidence against him, Justin suddenly moved to Oregon, where he got a new job, a new woman, and started a new life, far from Det. Cole's scrutiny. But suspicions about Justin persisted.

Even though he had moved to Portland, Ore., far from the scene of April's murder, Justin says she was always on his mind.

He wore his wedding band around his neck, "because I just wasn't ready to let it go. It was a reminder of her. And it was a reminder of my failure during our marriage."

So Justin distracted himself with work, and with a new woman.

Lisa, who asked 48 Hours not to use her last name, says Justin often re-lived what happened to April that night on the beach. "He felt like he just abandoned her. He never forgave himself," she says.

Justin never forgave April's family either. It was because of them, he claims, that he remained the prime suspect.

April's aunt Patty makes no apologies for putting the spotlight on Justin. "He planned every moment of it," she says. "This was premeditated, cold, calculated."

Yet months, and then years went by, without an arrest. So Patty, who is a judge in Oklahoma, stepped up the pressure on Florida prosecutors to arrest Justin.

But State Attorney John Tanner worried his prosecutors would get burned by the case. "We knew it was a case that could be lost," he explains. "You just don't expect a person to shoot themselves four times, or to seriously attempt to injure themselves. But, as we began to search for who did it, we determined that all the evidence led back to the husband."

After years of pressure, and painstakingly weighing the evidence—which was largely circumstantial—prosecutors finally rolled the dice. In July 2004, Justin was arrested for murder.

Speaking to Dow, Justin maintained he did not kill his wife or shoot himself to cover up the murder.

In June, 2006, four years after April's murder, with his family behind him, Justin was finally put on trial in St. Augustine, Fla.

The state attorney's office was seeking the death penalty, and two of its youngest prosecutors—Matt Foxman and Chris France—were trying this high-profile case.

"Justin Barber has insisted, and I believe, that he's an innocent man. And the only thing we're interested in is an exoneration," says defense attorney Bob Willis, who would try to convince jurors that a robber, and not Justin Barber, killed April on the beach.

"You will find that within a very short period of time after April Barber's death, it was found on the evening of August 17, 2002 that the police focused exclusively their attention on Justin Barber," Willis told jurors during opening arguments.

But the prosecution's star witness, Det. Cole, disagreed.

Cole testified that he asked Justin why he drove more than nine miles from the beach after the shooting. "He said he didn't really remember much about that drive," Cole testified.

"Did you ask him why he didn't stop at any houses?" Foxman asked.

"Yes," Cole replied.

"And what did he tell you?" Foxman asked.

"He said he didn't want to get some old man out of bed," Cole testified.

Cole also testified that even though Justin said he dragged April by her waistband and had a bullet hole in his hand, his blood wasn't visible on her pants.

But the defense struck, saying Justin's blood was found on April.

"How about the blood that was here on her, right here, inside, upper left arm? Did you know at that time that that was Justin Barber's blood?" Willis asked Cole.

"No sir," Cole answered.

"You know it now though, don't you?" Willis asked.

"Yes," Cole acknowledged.

Prosecutors turned their attention to Justin's possible motives, and called Shannon Kennedy to the stand. She testified that she didn't originally know Justin was married but that once she found out, he told her, "He said that he loved her, he just couldn't live with her."

"If you want to look at just the fact that he was cheating on his wife, and the fact that there was two million dollars, and you want to stop right there, then we can't do anything about that. If on the other hand, you're really seriously interested in who killed April Barber, let's look at the evidence," defense attorney Willis argued.

"That's exactly what prosecutors did next, when they dropped a bombshell. Six months before the murder, they say, Justin went online to research how to shoot himself without getting hurt. A computer expert recovered a record of those Google searches.

Then, just hours before April was murdered, Justin went online again. The expert testified Justin downloaded an mp3 of the Guns N' Roses tune, "Used To Love Her," which includes the lyrics, "I used to love her but I had to kill her."

Asked how significant that song was in this case, prosecutor Foxman tells Dow, "Well, it was significant because of the timing. Downloaded just hours before the murder. Then, when he set to turn his computer over to law enforcement after the murder, that was the only song deleted."

Justin surfed the Internet so often, his lawyer says, the evidence is meaningless.

"Out of potentially 2,200 queries, they wind up with two that look bad in retrospect. I think I could probably do that on anybody's computer," Willis says.

And Justin says he's not giving up. "I will fight until I have no more options," he says.

As Justin's murder trial dragged into a second week, the pressure was growing on two families who once were close.

"This is devastating for us. And it's devastating for them," Amber says.

It's particularly tough on April's siblings, Julie and Kendon, whom Justin once helped raise.

"It was heartbreaking, because somebody that we had trusted and somebody that we had loved would be capable of doing something like that to our sister. We both looked up to him," Julie says.

The defense attacked one of the most critical points in the case: whether Justin's wounds were superficial or not. A defense expert testified that Justin's wounds were serious and that one nearly struck an artery.

Then prosecutors presented two witnesses who say they saw another car at the crime scene. The problem is, they can't agree what color the car was.

The trial finally boiled down to a key point, illustrated by a graphic, which represented a crime scene photo of April's face that the jury was shown.

To prosecutors, the blood flowing in a single direction proved Justin was lying.

"The blood flow is everything. Justin Barber's story is that she was shot down by the water and then carried 18 different positions with her head moving in all kinds of directions. The blood flow would be everywhere. Instead, it's in a unified direction. And, what the significance of that is, his story just wasn't true."

But the defense's expert testifies the blood flow is consistent with Justin's story.

"In my view, she was shot in that location near the water, and other blood which had come out was probably washed away by the waves. As I understand it, she was face down in about a foot of water," the expert testified.

Finally, the case drew to a close. If the jury found Justin guilty, he could be sentenced to death.

Deliberations dragged into a second day, then a third.

"By the third day I was beginning to fear that the jury was hung," Amber remembers.

But jurors were still trying to sort it all out and finally rendered their verdict on the fourth day of deliberations: guilty.

April's family and friends were overcome, but their emotions were mixed.

"I was happy, but then again it breaks my heart," Julie told Dow.

"Relieved for an instance and then heartbroken for Justin's mother," was April's aunt's reaction to the verdict.

But Justin's family did not have mixed emotions: they were simply furious.

His mother Linda told Dow she had lost faith in the criminal justice system. "It didn't work at all this time," she said. "I would love to know what those jurors saw that made them think that he did this. Because he didn't and they didn't prove that he did it. So I don't know what they went by."

The jurors say they were swayed by many factors, especially the blood evidence.

"If she had been shot out on the beach, there would have been some smearing, some blood flow in another direction," one female juror explained. "Also, there was the computer that he had searched for gunshot wounds," she added.

"I really can't tell you on national TV what I think about him. But it's not good. It's not good at all," a male juror told Dow.

Pressed, the juror said, "I think he's a dirty son of a bitch.

But Justin—who might now be sentenced to death—is defiant. "If that jury thinks I killed April, then they should execute me. I would never ask for mercy for the person who killed her."
Asked why not, Justin says, "Because they don't deserve it. And if that jury believes that I'm that person, then they should send me to death row."

The jury did recommend the death penalty for Justin Barber. The judge, however, sentenced Justin to life in prison, without parole.

Barber's attorneys are working on an appeal. They are also investigating other possible suspects in the murder.
Produced By Paul Ryan and Sara Rodriguez

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