Seeking truth, finding peace: One man's journey toward closure

Friday, November 30, 2012

As a 2 year old, Jimmy probably liked a lot of things boys were into -- toy cars, superheroes or even baseballs. But on Sept. 14, 1971, while he was visiting his grandparents' house in Gilliam, Jimmy's childhood and the course of his life would change.

The sun would have been close to setting that day, when from the bedroom ... bang!

At 7:20 p.m. his father, outside the home, sat in the driver's seat of his car, hunched over and bleeding to death.

Although James Barber has no real memory of it, the day his 34-year-old father died would follow him like a shadow.

"I'm not mad. I'm just trying to figure out what really happened so I can put it behind me," Barber said in an interview this past winter.

Throughout his life, Barber would imagine that day through the eyes of a child. Bits of memory tearing away like worn paper, while he grasped on to what he could.

For more than 40 years, Barber struggled to understand why his mother killed his father. And on a path to find and stitch the pieces of truth together, his journey toward reconciliation, forgiveness and closure began.

"When I was growing up, I knew probably two or three different stories," Barber said of the gossip in Slater, where he went to school and where his parents were from. "One story was that a sheriff's deputy shot my dad. One story was that my uncle had shot my dad. Another was that my mom shot my dad. So all those stories circulated ... for a long time."

According to Circuit Court documents, Diana Sue Barber pled guilty to manslaughter on Dec. 8, 1971. She was sentenced to four years in the Department of Corrections. Barber said Diana was in her children's life off and on, having met her for the first time when he was approximately 5 years old. Their relationship: strained. That and growing up under the veil of multiple rumors were the primary reasons Barber decided to research the circumstances of William Rudolph Lee's death.

"Because of the rumors and everything, I just wanted to know what the actual reports stated," he said. "It was a painful situation for my mom, and difficult for her to sit down and talk about it."

Even while researching, those walls obstructed his path like a labyrinth, with various law enforcement personnel trying to recall back that far. Since last winter, Barber managed to climb some of those walls, making small but measurable progress -- often finding a lot of waiting.

Barber was originally informed the incident happened in Slater, which led him to begin his search just where it had left off. After traveling back home, he learned that wasn't the case. There were no records with Slater Police Department.

A call to the Saline County Clerk's Office in late May helped determine Saline County Sheriff's Department responded to the scene. Barber was able to study the police report, which noted the sheriff at the time and a deputy arrived on scene at 7:33 p.m. and requested Slater Ambulance.

"He was laying on his left side (in the vehicle) with his head on a pillow," the report read. "It appeared he had lost a lot of blood. He was laying with his face down and on his left side."

Lee wasn't loaded into an ambulance until roughly 7:55 p.m., according to the report. He was pronounced dead at the old Fitzgibbon Hospital emergency room in Marshall.

"The report was disappointing," Barber said. "If the same situation occurred today, (I think) my dad would have a very good chance of being saved. The time frame of the response (was upsetting). It took so long to get him medical attention."

But finding that account left Barber unfulfilled. It wasn't quite what he'd set out for, and Barber wasn't able to locate any other information. By August, it seemed no other entity could supply the documents he was seeking, even through several attempts to contact staff at the prosecuting attorney's office.

"Everybody seemed confused or didn't care or was too busy," he explained. "It seems everything got lost. The autopsy report got lost, the tapes got lost. Everything got lost. ... There's no signed affidavits, just one typed summary of everyone's point of view."

He did learn Lee was shot with a .22 caliber rifle from the bedroom window, more than 64 feet away, and six pictures of the vehicle were taken by law enforcement while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. The research process proved as emotionally rocky as he'd anticipated.

"I got very depressed," he said. "I'm in counseling now, just dealing with the emotions of it all. ... I've had so many nightmares over the years of not knowing. I guess my brain tried to put it together (with) different scenarios."

While Barber wrestled with the fabric of family history, he also struggled through memories of what his childhood had become. As children, Barber and his older sister dealt with the stares of others. They dealt with the whispers that suddenly drew quiet when they passed by.

"We got teased and picked on," he said. "The whole town knew about it."

Barber occasionally got into fights because of the situation. And if struggles with the outside world weren't enough, the reality behind his grandmother's front door, where children should feel the most secure, was also a challenge.

"What it boils down to is abuse happens under the table way too much," he said, adding he and his older sister felt abused even by the school system. "Stuff ... really developed a lot of anger in me."

At times, Barber and his sister begged for food and rummaged through trash cans to eat. When they needed someone the most, they had each other.

Regardless of their hardships, the past year has allowed Barber to put some closure on the incident. He would learn that both of his parents were cruel to each other at times. He'd also learn that Lee apparently had taken his daughter from the bus stop earlier in the day, then returned and threatened to poison her if Diana didn't come with him.

By stepping into the role of researcher, Barber realized his attitude was strengthening. And as he managed to separate local narratives from facts, he started to put the past to rest.

"Where I go from here ... forward," he said. "I want to build relationships with (relatives) on my dad's side of the family, because we need all the family we can get."

He's even talked to his mother about it for the first time in recent weeks -- finally quilting together a better knowledge of what truly happened in the town of less than 200 people.

"I have found total forgiveness for my mom," he said. "I lost two parents that night. I'm glad to have one of them back."

For now, he's glad the events have unfolded in front of him this past year, and he's eager to begin bridging the gaps between communication and relationships. The husband and father of three looks back, not through the blurry eyes of a child, but through a clear scope of self-discovery and hope.

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