They argued that night about money, as they often did. “It’s gone,” Barbara Burns kept telling her sister. “You spent it all.”
Barbara, then 53, wanted to move to Virginia Beach, where she thought things would be cheaper. Her sister Debbie, 40, wanted to stay in their double-wide in the Tyrone area of St. Petersburg, order more cable channels, buy more Star Wars stuff.
Debbie was mentally disabled and couldn’t understand that, in five years, they had blown through more than $350,000 of the inheritance their brother left for her care. Barbara tried to explain, tried to be patient.
She had taken care of Debbie for her whole life. The sisters even slept in the same room, their single beds in an L-shape, their heads almost touching.
That night, Aug. 15, 2004, Barbara remembers they had gone to Macaroni Grill, had a couple of Coors Lights, come home and fought through the evening news. She remembers her tears, Debbie’s tantrum. She remembers her sister fell asleep first, remembers listening to her breathe.
She says she doesn’t know what happened next. Only what the detectives told her.
“They told me I shot her,” Barbara said. “I went to a prison psychologist, and he said it’s a good thing I can’t remember.”
Her story first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times in September 2005.
On Monday, it will be featured in a true-crime documentary on Investigation Discovery, called Twisted Sisters.
Barbara wonders who will play her on TV.
“There are some wonderful, gothic qualities to this story: a body, a pile of air fresheners, a bridal veil,” said Pam Deutsch, the show’s executive producer.
Sister killings are rare, which also was intriguing to Deutsch. “On our show, seven out of 10 episodes are about sisters working together to kill one of their husbands. Here, the family dynamic is very relatable. But how did things go so far?”
A bonus for the filmmakers is that Barbara agreed to be interviewed on camera. “You really feel sympathy for her,” Deutsch said. “It surprised me that I felt that way.”
The gun was in their dresser, third drawer from the top. Barbara had bought the .38-caliber revolver at a pawn shop years before, for protection. Police say she pulled it out, loaded a single bullet, stood over her sister and fired into her forehead.
She wrapped the body in a white shower curtain, threw in a calendar marked only with the times of a few TV shows — a lonely life with little to look forward to. She rolled a brown blanket around that, then added an outside layer: the Star Wars comforter her sister loved.
She left the body in the bed, its head on a pillow, like Debbie was sleeping.
The next morning, she told Debbie goodbye through the door — and showed up on time for her shift at Lowe’s.
For the next six weeks, she lived with her dead sister, cranking down the A/C to mask the odor, hanging dozens of cardboard air fresheners around the room, piling potpourri on the comforter. She kept up her routine, never told anyone what happened.
When a neighbor asked about Debbie, Barbara told her she had gone to California to take care of an aunt. On Oct. 1, Barbara backed her Dodge Caravan out of the driveway — and never came back.
No one seemed to notice the Burns sisters were gone until the mortgage company repossessed the trailer eight months later. Inside, a cleaning crew smelled something rancid and found Debbie’s decomposed body still in its shroud.
Barbara grew up in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., with two brothers and a sister, each a year apart. Their dad was a printer. Mom stayed home with the kids. Each summer, the family vacationed in Virginia Beach.
But when Debbie was born, everything changed. She got scarlet fever as a toddler, which stunted her development. Then their dad died, and their mom had to wait tables. Barbara, who was 13 years older, dropped out of high school to take care of Debbie.
“I never got to be a teenager. I resent my mom for that, for making me in charge of her,” Barbara said. “My brothers and sister got to have a life I never had.”
In 1981, when their mom got too sick to work, Barbara moved her and Debbie to Florida and got a job washing dishes at the Howard Johnson’s on St. Pete Beach. After her shift, she’d come home to make dinner for her mom and Debbie. For 20 years. She never dated, seldom went out. When she did, she brought her sister.
“When Debbie got older, we became more like friends,” Barbara said. “We did everything together.”
Their mom died in 2000. Then they lost their brother, who left his estate to take care of Debbie.
The money didn’t last long.
Debbie wanted to travel to California, for a soap opera convention; to Australia, to see where her favorite actor lived. She bought a pinball machine, a foosball table, a computer. Barbara booked the trips, drove them everywhere, paid the bills.
When the inheritance ran out, she got the job at Lowe’s, making $7 an hour.
The few people who knew them said Debbie was demanding, often shouting at Barbara. Barbara, they said, was devoted to her sister, infinitely patient. A saint.
By the time she shot Debbie, she felt like she’d already served a life sentence.
Police tracked Barbara to Virginia Beach, where she was working the night shift at a 7-Eleven, living in a homeless shelter, back near the place she had been happiest as a child.
Barbara told two St. Petersburg detectives that she never owned a double-wide in Florida, never had a sister. But when they showed her a photo of Debbie holding their chihuahua, Leo, she broke down. She had dropped Leo at a shelter, so he wouldn’t die in their trailer, alone.
Later, a detective said, “She’s the nicest murderer I’ve ever met.”
The Times talked to Barbara when she was in the Pinellas County jail, facing the death penalty, but enjoying the stay. For the first time in her life, she didn’t have to work, cook or take care of anyone.
Her public defender persuaded her to take a plea. She was one of the oldest women in the Gadsden Correctional Facility in Quincy. Inmates called her Gangsta Granny. “I thought that was cute,” she said. She’d never had a nickname.
After 12 years, Barbara was released on Feb. 8, 2018.
Since then, she has been trying to build a life. And forgive herself.
“I’m a very loving, caring person. I’d give anyone the shirt off my back,” she said. “I don’t know how to make sense of all this.”
She still swears she blacked out the night of the murder, that she doesn’t remember shooting her sister.
She lives in a halfway house now, in a two-story stucco building in an industrial area behind Gibbs High, where old sheets shade the windows and people push grocery carts filled with blankets.
She scrapes by on Social Security, goes to AA meetings, rides the bus to Walmart, hangs out with other residents at “Celebrate Recovery.” She shares an apartment with two women. For the first time in 69 years, she has her own room.
“I’m enjoying my freedom,” she said last month. “I’m finally starting to feel happy. Like a bird that’s never been able to fly."
She wants to go to the movies, to the mall, to the beach. She wants to get a dog. She wants to talk to her other sister, who hasn’t spoken to her since Debbie died.
“I’m not sure, really, what else I want,” Barbara said. “Debbie was always the one telling me what to do.”
She fell silent. Then started to sob. “I wish I had a picture of her. It’s so hard,” she said. She lost her only friend.
She misses her, “constantly.”
“I want to tell her I love her. I always have. I always will.”
Investigation Discovery will feature Barbara Burns' story in a new episode of “Twisted Sisters” at 9 p.m. Nov. 16.