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The Sacrifice: Barbara Burns wanted her life back, so she took another

She had given up 40 years of her life to take care of her disabled sister.
In a family photo taken around 1980, Barbara Burns, second from left on top, poses with her mom Margaret Burns, left, John Burns, top right, sister Debbie Burns, bottom left, Bob Burns and Jessica Burns, age 3. (Courtesy Burns family)
In a family photo taken around 1980, Barbara Burns, second from left on top, poses with her mom Margaret Burns, left, John Burns, top right, sister Debbie Burns, bottom left, Bob Burns and Jessica Burns, age 3. (Courtesy Burns family) [ HANDOUT | Times files ]
Published Sep. 19, 2005|Updated Nov. 4, 2020

Second of two parts. Originally published on Sept. 19, 2005.

Read the first part of the series here — The Saint.

“Patience is my virtue,” Barbara Burns says through the video screen at the Pinellas County jail. Visitors aren’t allowed into the lockdown, so she has to hold a phone and look into a camera.

"I'm very patient," she says softly. "You wouldn't think so now. But I am."

Barbara has been in jail for four months, ever since a cleanup crew found her sister's body in an abandoned mobile home in St. Petersburg. Debbie had been shot in the forehead and swaddled in Star Wars sheets.

It’s late August now — a year since Debbie died.

When detectives first questioned Barbara, she insisted she never had a sister. Later, after seeing a photo of her sister with her dog, Barbara broke down and confessed.

"She kept crying. She said she wished she hadn't done it. She was sorry," Detective Ed Judy would say of the interview. "She's a really nice person, as far as murderers go. She's the nicest murderer I've ever met."

Barbara is charged with first-degree murder. Her court-appointed lawyer hasn't decided whether he'll enter a plea or take the case to trial.

He told Barbara not to talk about what happened to her sister.

But if you visit Barbara, if you sit and talk with her through the video screen, she'll tell you about herself and her sister, about their lives together, how she looked after Debbie, helped her walk, drove her everywhere she wanted to go.

"I just took it all in to the breaking point," Barbara says softly, through the jail phone. "Then I exploded."

Barbara looked after her disabled younger sister for 40 years — Debbie’s whole life. People described Barbara as an angel, or a saint.

She paid a price for her goodness. Being selfless means you lose yourself. And there's a fine line between saint and martyr.

Barbara grew up in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Her dad, John, was a printer who worked nights, drank days; her mom, Margaret, stayed home with the kids.

Barbara's parents had four kids in five years. For a long time, when she was little, her dad would drive the family to Virginia Beach every summer, Barbara said in the jail interview. She loved splashing in the surf with her brothers and sister, building castles in the sand.

Then along came Debbie, who changed everything.

Barbara was 13 when Debbie was born. Debbie was the baby, so she was spoiled from the start. Plus, it was hard to take a baby to the beach, so that ended their vacations.

Then, when Debbie was 2, she got scarlet fever. She was never right again, said her brother Bob, a truck driver who lives in Maryland. The high fever, raging for days, damaged Debbie's brain. Doctors said she would grow to have, at best, the mind of a 6-year-old. She would never be able to take care of herself.

The next year, their dad died. Their mom had to start waiting tables to pay the bills. She couldn't afford child care, so she made Barbara drop out of school to look after Debbie.

Barbara was 16, the age most girls' lives begin. Debbie was 3, still in diapers.

"That was it for Barbara. After that, she just stuck around the house all the time," Bob said. "She never had any friends or went out with anybody that I know of. Only Debbie."

Soon, the other siblings moved out. Barbara and Debbie stayed in Maryland with their mom, in the house they grew up in, sharing a room, sleeping in single beds, side by side.

“Barbara was slow, too. Not as bad as Debbie, just slow,” Bob said. "My mother was always brow-beating her, telling her, ‘You’re not smart enough to go out alone.’ Barbara didn’t leave because she didn’t have the confidence to leave.

"But she never complained," Bob said. "She never asked for help. It was like that was what she was supposed to do, take care of Debbie."

In 1981, when their mom got too tired and arthritic to work, Barbara and Debbie moved with her to Florida. Barbara was 30, Debbie 17. Now Barbara had two people to care for. Her mom’s Social Security plus Debbie’s disability checks didn’t even cover the rent on their little house in South Pasadena. So Barbara had to become the breadwinner, too.

Her first job was dishwasher at the Howard Johnson's on St. Pete Beach. Barbara said she loved that job, loved having a reason to get out of the house. She would wake up an hour early and ride her bike to the beach. With her headphones on, a Garth Brooks tape blaring, she would walk the sand behind the motel, watching the sunrise, waiting for her shift to start.

Those were the only hours Barbara ever had to herself.

For more than a decade, Barbara worked at the Howard Johnson's, moving up to busing tables, then cooking. She always worked the day shift. She had to be home in time to make dinner for her mom and Debbie. She never had time for hobbies, not even much TV.

Debbie, though, had all day — every day — for whatever she wanted to do. She loved Star Wars and Snow White and soap operas, especially General Hospital. She spent hours on computer chat rooms. She adored dogs. She always went overboard, craving more of whatever she was into. She was always bombarding strangers with her stories.

"Debbie would get into these conversations that would go on and on and on, about Elvis, Star Wars, whatever," said Debra Henson. Henson worked at the Mail Boxes Etc. near where the Burnses lived. Once a week, the sisters would come in to buy a money order or mail a package.

"I guess Debbie had met someone on a chat room, and she'd send him things: T-shirts, teddy bears, little trinkets and stuff," Henson said. "She said she was going to marry him, but you never knew what to believe."

Barbara didn't talk much, Henson said, except to urge Debbie along. "She was always nice to Debbie, she wouldn't fuss at her, even when she wanted to leave and Debbie kept talking. She was always totally patient," Henson said. "Debbie limped, a bad back or something. And Barbara was always helping her get around."

When they walked out of the shop, Henson said, the sisters usually were holding hands.

In the fall of 2000, everything changed. Barbara and Debbie's mom died, leaving the sisters alone.

Within days, they got a call from a lawyer. Their brother John had just died of diabetes and left his entire estate — about $350,000 — to Debbie, to make sure she was cared for.

"That's the last time I talked to either one of those two, when I told them there was money coming their way," their brother Bob said. "I got nothing. Our sister Jo, nothing. Barbara and Debbie, they were just gone after that."

Bob said he called them seven or eight times and left messages. Then the number was disconnected.

"For a person who never had money, to get a boatload of it," Bob said, "well, you might go a little crazy."

Debbie had always been excitable. People said she acted like a little kid, upbeat one minute, brooding the next. She could be demanding.

She knew just what she wanted to do, now that she was rich. She wanted to travel, see places she'd seen on TV. And collect Star Wars stuff. Lots of Star Wars stuff. Oh, and buy a pinball machine and a foosball table and a dart board and a skateboard . . .

On a computer chat room, Debbie read about a General Hospital fan club convention that was coming up. In California. Barbara booked two plane tickets and a hotel room and the sisters flew across the country.

Australia was another adventure, Barbara said from jail. The leading man on General Hospital was supposed to be from Down Under, so of course that's where Debbie wanted to go. Barbara got the brochures, made the reservations and the sisters flew to the other side of the world.

In October 2001, home from their travels, they put a down payment on a double-wide near the end of Yellow Pine Street in the Tyrone area of St. Petersburg. They signed a loan for $81,126: their first house.

The mobile home has three bedrooms. But Debbie was scared of the dark, scared of being alone, scared of everything. So Barbara stayed in the front room with her. She pushed her single bed close to Debbie's, their heads almost touching.

Every night, Barbara said, she fell asleep listening to her sister breathe.

The money trickled away, sand through a sieve. In less than three years, the Burns sisters blew through the $350,000.

Barbara declared bankruptcy. She had to go back to work. She started working as a cashier at Lowe's, taking extra shifts, trying to meet the mortgage.

Debbie was home alone all the time, so Barbara bought her a dog. It was a tiny chihuahua with long, silky brown hair like a guinea pig, pointy ears like a gremlin and a triangular pink nose that made it look like a teddy bear. Debbie loved that dog. Barbara, too. They called him Leo.

Even working holidays and overtime, Barbara couldn't make the $766 monthly payment on their double-wide. In 2003, the bank started calling. Barbara said she was trying.

Before she knew what it was like to have money, she said, she didn’t miss it. But once she and Debbie got the inheritance — once they got used to eating out, traveling, buying whatever they wanted — they got used to an easier lifestyle. That made everything so much harder when the money ran out.

Especially when Barbara was working so hard, taking extra hours, and still couldn't keep up.

Especially when her sister was sitting home all day watching soap operas, ordering pay-per-view movies, playing with her Yoda doll, complaining that Barbara was home late, and demanding: Where's dinner?

After awhile, Barbara got tired of it. But there was no one to help, no one even to talk to. No end in sight.

Much later, when the detectives tracked her down, Barbara had no trouble remembering the exact date of the shooting. Aug. 15, 2004 — Debbie’s 40th birthday.

Mugshot of Barbara Burns after her arrest. (Photo courtesy of Pinellas County Sheriff's Office)
Mugshot of Barbara Burns after her arrest. (Photo courtesy of Pinellas County Sheriff's Office) [ HANDOUT | Pinellas County Sheriff's Office ]

She had taken her sister out to dinner at Macaroni Grill the night before, she told them. They had started arguing about money. Debbie wanted more and more things, and she got angry when Barbara said they couldn't afford them. Debbie couldn't understand why not, since her brother had left her all that money.

All the way home, they fought, all the way through that night's TV news. A little after 11 p.m., Debbie fell asleep. Barbara lay in the bed beside her.

A few hours later, before it got light, Barbara got up. She told detectives she walked to the dresser, opened the third drawer from the top and took out a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver. She had bought it years ago at a pawn shop to ward off intruders.

She pulled out a box of bullets and loaded one into the steel blue gun.

The shot was fired from 2 feet away from Debbie's forehead, detectives said.

Barbara tucked the gun back beneath some clothes in her dresser. The detectives found it much later, among things the cleanup crew had taken out of the double-wide.

How can you take care of your sister for 40 years, love her, raise her, put up with her, protect her, fold your whole life into hers, then suddenly do away with your only companion?

Experts say sister killings are extremely rare. And it's unusual for caregivers to murder their patients. Barbara Burns was the rarest case of all: a sister and a lifelong caregiver.

For other caregivers, duties eventually end. Parents die. Children grow up. You may end up looking after your spouse your whole life, but when you get married you know that's a possibility.

It can be even harder to take care of someone when you didn't choose it. Things can work out if you have other people to help you and you have a life of your own, says Dr. Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida.

"But if the two individuals do not have other healthy relationships and good boundaries in place," Heide says, "the relationship can become increasingly taxing for both parties."

Even the most devoted person can run out of patience, Heide says. "Issues can be minor," she says. Over the years, the buildup of little things can lead to suppressed rage. "The triggering incident for the explosion of a torrent of homicidal rage can be quite trivial."

Debbie wanted to order more premium cable channels and Barbara couldn't make her understand they were broke.

A few hours after shooting her sister, Barbara told the detectives, she went to work at Lowe's. When she got back to the mobile home that night, she moved her mattress out of the front bedroom. For the first time in 40 years, she slept by herself.

Later, Barbara returned to Debbie's body, which still lay on the bed. She wrapped Debbie in blankets, then a shower curtain. She added comforters, threw in a Star Wars calendar.

For the next six weeks, she stayed in that double-wide, living with her dead sister. She kept adding air fresheners and baskets of potpourri to mask the smell. She turned down the air conditioning as low as it would go.

She knew she didn't have long. Soon, the bank would come to reclaim the double-wide.

One day last fall, Barbara's neighbor saw her digging in the front yard, a hole at least 3 feet long and just as wide. Barbara had lined four bags of concrete mix along the driveway. The neighbor had never seen Barbara working in the yard, so she asked what she was doing.

"She said she was going to put a piece of concrete out there to put her chair on. And I thought, "Oh my gosh, her whole front is already concrete!' " Shirley Greilick said. "But I never asked anything more about it."

Barbara quit her job at Lowe’s, telling her boss she was going to California to care for a sick aunt. On Oct. 1, she packed two suitcases, ditched her van at the bus station and rode the Greyhound to Virginia Beach. No one noticed she was gone. Nobody missed Debbie, either. For the next seven months, no one asked about the Burns sisters — not until the crew came to clean out their abandoned mobile home.

On the screened-in front porch, Barbara Burns stored a concrete mixer and four bags of concrete mix. She told her neighbor, who had seen her digging in the front yard, that she planned to pour a patio to put her chair on. The neighbor though that was odd, since most of the front yard was already a concrete driveway. (Photo courtesy of Jason McCain)
On the screened-in front porch, Barbara Burns stored a concrete mixer and four bags of concrete mix. She told her neighbor, who had seen her digging in the front yard, that she planned to pour a patio to put her chair on. The neighbor though that was odd, since most of the front yard was already a concrete driveway. (Photo courtesy of Jason McCain) [ HANDOUT | Handout ]

In Virginia Beach, Barbara moved into a homeless shelter within walking distance of a 7-Eleven. Now that she didn't have to cook dinner for anyone, she worked nights.

In the jail interview, Barbara remembered how she spent her free time. Every morning when her shift ended, she would walk to the beach and watch the sunrise, a new day. She loved being back on the same sand she used to chase her brothers on when she was a girl, and had a life.

"I'm finishing high school here. They're helping me," Barbara says through the video camera at the jail.

She spends her days, now, talking to the other inmates, eating meals someone else cooks, watching TV she never had time for before.

She's making friends here, she says. Everyone treats her real nice. When you've already served a life sentence, the county jail might not seem so bad.

One more question, Barbara, before the guards cut us off: Whatever happened to that little dog you and Debbie loved so much?

"Oh, Leo!" Barbara says, and her face lights up for an instant. "He was real sweet. When I left, I had to put him in the shelter."

Barbara sounds sad now. She says she hopes someone nice took him home. She didn't want to drop him off there, but she says she didn't have a choice. Did she?

She couldn't just leave a little dog like that all alone, to die.

In July 2006, Barbara Burns accepted a plea agreement, and Judge Doug Baird  sentenced her to 15 years behind bars.
In July 2006, Barbara Burns accepted a plea agreement, and Judge Doug Baird sentenced her to 15 years behind bars. [ BILL SERNE | St. Petersburg Times ]


June 4, 1951: Barbara Ann Burns is born in Maryland. Her father, John, is a printer. Her mother, Margaret, stays home with her and her two older brothers and later a younger sister.

Aug. 14, 1964: Debbie Burns, the fifth child, is born. Barbara, who is 13, takes over most of the babysitting.

1966: At age 2, Debbie gets scarlet fever, which leaves her mentally disabled.

1967: Their father dies and their mother goes to work. Barbara, who is 16, quits school to look after Debbie.

1981: Barbara, Debbie and their mother move to Florida. By now, their mother is unable to work, so Barbara supports the family with minimum-wage jobs at Howard Johnson's and Bealls Outlet.

Nov. 2, 2000: Barbara and Debbie's mother dies, leaving the sisters alone. About this time, their brother John also dies, leaving Debbie $350,000.

2001: Barbara and Debbie to go Australia and California, tracking soap opera stars. They also place a down payment on an $81,126 mobile home in St. Petersburg.

2003: Money starts running out. Barbara stops paying the mortgage. The bank begins foreclosure on the mobile home.

July 2, 2003: Barbara files for bankruptcy and starts working at Lowe's. She makes reduced payments on the mobile home.

Aug. 14, 2004: During a birthday dinner for Debbie, the sisters argue over money.

Aug. 15, 2004: Debbie turns 40. Sometime after midnight, after she goes to sleep, Barbara shoots Debbie in the head, according to police.

Barbara goes to work at Lowe's. That night, she moves into another bedroom. She continues to live in the mobile home with her sister's body for six weeks.

September 2004: A neighbor asks about Debbie. Barbara says she's in California with a sick aunt.

Oct. 1, 2004: After abandoning her 1994 Dodge Caravan at the St. Petersburg bus station, Barbara buys a one-way ticket to Virginia Beach.

November 2004: Barbara starts working the night shift at a 7-Eleven. As the winter gets colder, she moves into a homeless shelter.

January 2005: Barbara's van is found at the Greyhound station.

March 1, 2005: Barbara opens a bank account in Virginia Beach and has Debbie's disability checks sent there.

May 4, 2005: The mortgage company sends workers to clear out the mobile home. In the master bedroom, workers discover Debbie's decomposed body wrapped in Star Wars blankets. Debbie has been dead for more than eight months.

May 8, 2005: Detective Ed Judy flies to Virginia Beach and stakes out the 7-Eleven where Barbara works.

May 9, 2005: Barbara is charged with first-degree murder. Ultimately, she confesses to the crime.

July 6, 2005: Back in Pinellas County, Barbara is arraigned. She is being held without bail pending trial.

About “The Saint”

To report this series, staff writer Lane DeGregory interviewed Barbara Burns through a video phone at the Pinellas County jail. She interviewed Barbara’s brother and niece; her neighbors, bosses and former co-workers; her lawyer; the men who found the body in her mobile home; and the woman who runs the homeless shelter where Barbara stayed in Virginia Beach. With Barbara’s permission, she spoke to the sisters' doctor. DeGregory also talked to a criminology professor and interviewed the detective who led the murder investigation. Many details are taken from hundreds of pages of police and court documents, including a 169-page transcript of Barbara’s confession.

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


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