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Florida death row inmate set to be executed this week claimed he killed more

James Barnes, on death row for the 1988 murder of a Brevard County woman, confessed to killing a Manatee County teen. Authorities don’t believe him.
 
This image provided by the Florida Department of Corrections shows James Phillip Barnes, who is scheduled to be executed Thursday.
This image provided by the Florida Department of Corrections shows James Phillip Barnes, who is scheduled to be executed Thursday. [ UNCREDITED | AP ]
Published Aug. 2, 2023|Updated Aug. 3, 2023

A Florida death row inmate scheduled to be executed Thursday evening confessed in a documentary that he was responsible for at least two more killings for which he has not been charged, including the case of a Manatee County teen who went missing in 1986.

Related: UPDATE: Florida man who dropped appeals is executed for 1988 rape, hammer killing of nurse

James Barnes told acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog that he shot and killed Chester Wetmore, who went missing when he was 15, then buried his body.

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office investigated Barnes’ claims, which included an interview with Barnes on death row. The interview did not reveal Barnes had any information about Wetmore beyond what had been published in news articles, and he did not tell detectives where he buried the body, said Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Theron Robinson.

Robinson said he doesn’t believe Barnes killed the boy.

“I can’t sit here and say 100% that he didn’t kill Chester Wetmore,” Robinson said. “But the names he mentioned, where, how he did it, there’s no evidence there’s any validity.”

If Barnes is responsible for more murders, he is scheduled to take that information to his grave at Florida State Prison on Thursday evening. He is set to be executed for the 1988 murder of Patricia “Patsy” Miller in Brevard County.

Barnes was already serving a life sentence for killing his wife when he confessed to Miller’s murder. He said he converted to Islam in prison and, during the month of Ramadan in 2005, sought atonement with a detailed confession.

He told police he broke into Miller’s Brevard County condo and hid naked in a closet for hours, watching her. He later raped her, choked her with a belt, bludgeoned her with a hammer and tied her body to her bed, then set the bed on fire.

That confession led to him being charged with Miller’s murder. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death.

Herzog, who is known for making movies and documentaries such as “Grizzly Man” and “Into the Abyss,” heard about the case and traveled to Florida State Prison to interview Barnes for his 2012 docuseries “On Death Row.” After the initial interview, Barnes sent Herzog a letter asking him to come back — he had more crimes to confess.

German director Werner Herzog talks about the "On Death Row" documentary series in 2012.
German director Werner Herzog talks about the "On Death Row" documentary series in 2012. [ DANNY MOLOSHOK | Associated Press ]

In addition to saying he had killed Wetmore, Barnes told Herzog he murdered Brenda Fletcher, whose body was found in a water-filled Brevard County ditch in 1991. Barnes told Herzog that Fletcher had stolen his wallet and refused to give his license back, so he killed her. The case remains unsolved.

Barnes described Wetmore, who is still listed on the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office website as a missing person, as a runaway looking for a place to hide from his family, who were searching for him. Barnes said Wetmore broke into his car and stole 2 ounces of cocaine Barnes and two accomplices had bought for more than $2,200 to sell, so he got his shotgun from the trunk and shot him. Barnes told Herzog he buried Wetmore’s body in a place that had been prepared to easily dump a body and cover it up.

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Robinson, the Manatee sheriff’s sergeant, said detectives pursued the lead with vigor. Wetmore is Manatee County’s longest-standing unsolved missing-child case.

“We hit this pretty hard because we don’t like to have open cases, especially regarding juveniles,” Robinson said.

The disappearance of Chester Wetmore is the oldest missing-juvenile case in Manatee County. Information about Wetmore is displayed on the Manatee County Sheriff's Office's missing persons webpage.
The disappearance of Chester Wetmore is the oldest missing-juvenile case in Manatee County. Information about Wetmore is displayed on the Manatee County Sheriff's Office's missing persons webpage. [ Manatee County Sheriff's Office ]

Barnes declined to speak to detectives again after an initial interview. Efforts by the Tampa Bay Times to reach Wetmore’s family by phone over the last several weeks were unsuccessful.

Herzog sent detectives the uncut footage of his interviews with Barnes, which included the names of the two accomplices Barnes claimed witnessed the crime. Detectives tracked down the first witness who, when shown a picture of Barnes, said he did not recognize him. The second witness had died of a drug overdose, Robinson said.

Detectives contacted a close friend of the second witness, who said Barnes hung around their friend group for a couple of weeks because they had drugs, but eventually got in a fight with a member of the group and never showed up again. The friend called the second witness his best friend of 20 years. He said if his friend got caught up in Wetmore’s death, he would have known.

Ultimately, the sheriff’s office decided the investigation into Barnes’ confession yielded no significant evidence he killed Wetmore.

But why would someone confess to murders they did not commit?

Before handing over his unedited footage of Barnes, Herzog gave detectives a warning: Barnes is an intelligent man who knew the legal system. Herzog feared Barnes, who a forensic psychologist once determined was a psychopath with antisocial personality disorder and borderline narcissistic characteristics, was manipulating law enforcement through false confessions.

“I was suspicious of Barnes using me either as an instrument either to procrastinate or speed up his execution by opening new cases against him,” Herzog said in the docuseries.

Robinson said false confessions are rare, but people on death row who have exhausted their legal options may feel they have nothing to lose from a last-ditch effort to delay their execution.

“Most of the homicides I’ve worked, this doesn’t happen,” Robinson said. “We don’t get false confessions. But we don’t also have people sitting on death row trying to save their lives and trying to find any way they can to do it.”

However, Barnes is not fighting his death sentence. According to court documents, Barnes represented himself in the Miller murder case, waived his right to a jury trial and pleaded guilty.

He appealed his death penalty ruling — but only in protest of the court appointing a lawyer to present mitigating evidence to try to spare him from a death sentence. According to court documents, Barnes objected to the presentation of mitigating factors, claiming his goal in confessing was to “clean the slate” and give resolution to the victim’s family.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Barnes’ death warrant on June 22. He is set to be the fifth death row inmate executed in Florida this year.

Barnes did not respond to efforts by the Times to contact him in recent weeks.

In the Herzog documentary, Barnes told the filmmaker: “There are other crimes out there that I’ve committed that I’ve never been held accountable for.”

Herzog asked Barnes if he had considered confessing all of his crimes in his final moments while strapped to the gurney.

“Absolutely,” he said.