Bad Decisions: Stephen Barbee

Jayden Underwood was a typical first grader. He played soccer and he loved super heros. He wore glasses to help his big, brown eyes because his vision was poor. He was friendly, sweet, outgoing, and very excited about his new baby sister. Lisa Underwood had always been a single mom. Jayden’s father hadn’t been involved in his life and Lisa didn’t expect much more from her unborn child’s father.

Friends describe Lisa as hard-working. Whatever Lisa did, in love, work, or motherhood, she gave it her all. Lisa owned a restaurant, Boopa’s Bagel Deli, along with her best friend Holly Pils. Boopa was her nickname for Jayden so she had named her business after the most important person in her life.

Stephen Barbee and Lisa had dated on and off. They weren’t exclusive, but when she found out she was pregnant with a girl, she was thrilled at the idea of another child. Barbee wasn’t pleased at all.  Sheila Underwood, Lisa’s mother, was also less than thrilled with the situation, but she was extremely close to her only child and grandchild. Jayden spent almost every Friday night with his “Tita.”  Sheila decided to build a bigger house in anticipation of adding her granddaughter to those sleepovers.  Lisa tentatively named her  daughter Marleigh, although she told friends she wouldn’t be certain of the name until she met her daughter face to face. She kept the name to herself, refusing to disclose it.

 

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Stephen Barbee had a real problem. Barbee had married just two months before and hadn’t told his wife about the baby.  If she found out, she would do the math and realize he was sleeping with Lisa and her at the same time. He just couldn’t allow this to happen. He was certain Lisa Underwood was going to ruin his life.

Barbee grew up in Azle, just north of Fort Worth. His mother worked at the school he attended and his father worked for Bell, the predecessor of Lockheed. Barbee was one of three children and his childhood was fairly normal until tragedy struck. His beloved older sister died at the age of 20. His brother also died when he reached the age 20 and Barbee became fixated on the notion that he wouldn’t live to see 21. He dropped out of sports and cramming in every bit of living that he could. Before, people had described him as fun-loving. Now they said he was just plain wild.  He began to get into trouble, but his mother was always right there for him, doing anything she could to smooth over problems for her only living child.

Barbee dropped out of school but settled on a GED. For a time, he seemed headed for disaster, but things improved for him over the years. He built up his own tree trimming business and was even a reserve police officer for the city of Blue Mound. He drove a Corvette and developed a reputation for splashing his money around and for always having women around him. There were a lot of women.

Barbee married one of his women,  Theresa Barbee. The relationship was volatile and there were allegations of abuse. Theresa could forgive a lot of things from her husband, but she couldn’t take the cheating. Seven years later they divorced, but they continued working together with the tree trimming business that they co-owned. Theresa moved on. She became involved with one of their employees, a man named Ronald Dodd who would become a good friend of Barbees. Dodd and moved in with her. Barbee also moved on.

During their marriage, Theresa and Stephen Barbee employed a whole crew of workers. She would often go into Boopa’s to pick up breakfast. After the divorce, Barbee took over this role and it was there that he met Lisa Underwood, the cute, bubbly blonde owner of this business. After he had been dating Lisa for about a year, he reconnected with an old friend who was also divorced: Trish, the woman he would marry. It seems that Lisa knew about Trish, but Trish did not know about Lisa. One night when Lisa showed up knocking on Barbee’s door, he brushed it off as a crazy ex-girlfriend. Baarbee and Trish were eating dinner that unknown to her had been dropped off by another of Barbee’s girlfriends. He would later laugh that he was juggling three of his “girls” at the same time that night. Lisa and Barbee did stop dating, but then she found out she was pregnant.

Barbee wanted nothing to do with Lisa  or the baby. He told her he wanted a family with Trish. Lisa told him she was certain he was the father and she was going to name him on the birth certificate. At the very least, she wanted her daughter to have a listed father. She also wanted his help with insurance because she was self-employed and her insurance was expensive.

Barbee became desperate to keep his wife from finding out and decided to go see Lisa the night of February 18th, 2005. She was seven and a half months pregnant at the time.

Around 3:00 on morning of the 19th, Denton County Deputy Sheriff David Brawner saw a man walking along the service road of Interstate Highway 35. It was cold outside, and it had been raining.  When he pulled his patrol car in behind him, the Deputy saw the man’s clothes were “very wet” and that he was “covered in mud.” He asked the man for identification, but the man claimed he’d left his wallet at his friend’s house. He gave the Deputy a fake name and date of birth. When the Deputy turned to speak with dispatch, the man bolted and ran. He chased the man, but lost him in the thick woods.

 

Boopa's inside

Holly Pils  and Sheila Underwood had planned a baby shower for February 19th. Lisa never had a shower when she was pregnant with Jayden. Now she would get to have a party with family and friends and open all those packages with little pink girl outfits. Of course the party would be at Boopa’s.

Holly called Lisa at 7:45 pm on the night of the 18th. Lisa and Jayden had both been fighting colds and Holly wanted to be sure they were still  on for the shower. Lisa assured her she was feeling better. Holly teased that if only Lisa would give her the first letter of they baby’s name, she could buy plates with initals on them. Lisa just laughed and told her it was a nice try.

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Lisa was due at Boopa’s around 4 pm. Since it was raining heavily, friends saved her a spot in front so she could park right by the door. They decorated and then waited for Lisa, anxiously staring out the window.

They waited and waited, but Lisa never came.  When she didn’t answer her phone that morning, Holly and Sheila had been worried, but figured she might be sleeping in. When she didn’t appear for the shower, they were frantic. Lisa was never late. Finally Sheila decided to go to Lisa’s house. Holly began calling hospitals, just in case Lisa had been in an accident.

Sheila arrived to find that Lisa’s Dodge Durango was gone, She knew immediately something was wrong. Lisa and Jayden’s little dog was outside in the rain and he always stayed inside the house. Lisa would never have left him outside while she was gone and certainly not in that weather. Sheila had a key and let herself inside. Things didn’t look right. She called the police and waited.

Sheila and Holly re-entered the house with the police. Sheila noticed a strange place on the carpet. When she touched it, it was wet with soap and water. A coffee table had been moved to try and cover a stain. Holly noticed Jayden’s shoes and his glasses were still at the house. He wouldn’t leave without them. He had very poor vision and couldn’t see anything without his glasses. Something was terrible wrong.

The closer the police looked, the more they discovered bits of blood. There was blood everywhere that had been inexpertly cleaned. Traces of blood were on the entertainment center, the livingroom floor and the couch. Inside the garage, there was blood on the floor. Testing would later confirm this was Lisa’s blood. Lisa’s computer was checked. She had logged off around midnight on the 18th. The last site she had visited was birthplan.com.

When police interviewed family and friends after Lisa’s disappearance, they asked the usual questions including Is there anyone who might want to harm Lisa? One name came up over and over. Stephen Barbee

Two days later, Lisa’s  Dodge Durango was found  just a couple hundred yards from where Deputy Brawner had encountered the wet, muddy man. The front end of the car was submerged in a creek with the windows down and the hatchback up. Nearby were Lisa’s keys and her purse. Any hopes of finding Lisa and Jayden alive were rapidly fading.

Fort Worth police were being led by veteran detectives John McCaskill and Mike Carroll. They badly wanted to speak with Barbee. When they learned the Barbee had gone to Tyler on business with his wife, Trish, and his best friend, Ron Dodd, they made arrangements to meet with them there. McCaskill interviewed Dodd while Carroll interviewed Barbee. Trish and her kids cooled their heels out in the lobby of the Tyler police department.

Ron Dodd

Dodd

At first, Dodd played it cool. He told the police he had only seen Barbee with Lisa once and didn’t even realize she was pregnant. He admitted having been with Barbee on the night Lisa and Jayden vanished but he claimed they had spent the time working on a truck. When McCaskill pressed him, Dodd admitted being a little afraid of Barbee. He told the detective about a time Barbee was angry with Theresa and had threatened to put her in the wood chipper. Bit by bit, McCaskill pushed harder until he broke Dodd down. Finally, Dodd told a different story.

Dodd told McCaskill about picking Barbee up on the night of the 18th. Barbee confessed to Dodd that he had a problem. He said he had gotten a girl pregnant and Trish was going to leave him and “take me for everything I got.” Then he told Dodd, “I gotta get rid of the problem.” Dodd said he told Barbee that his choices were simple. Either get back with that girl and raise the kid, or don’t and stay with Trish. Barbee didn’t want to hear it.

Dodd said Barbee gave him directions to get to Lisa’s house, claiming he was going to “do the right thing, and step up to the plate.” Dodd assumed that meant Barbee was going to break up with his wife and be a father to the baby.

Dodd dropped Barbee off,at Lisa’s house. Just an hour later Barbee called him to say that ‘they’ were out riding around and ran out of gas. Dodd agreed to bring him gas.  He met Barbee up north of town, along the border of Tarrant and Denton counties. Barbee poured the gas into a blue, Dodge SUV.  When he lifted the gate to the hatchback and Dodd saw the bodies. He said nothing. Then Dodd took the can and drove off.

Barbee called Dodd again saying he had broken down and for asking Dodd  to come and pick him up. Dodd told the police that he drove to where Barbee said he was what he saw stopped him cold. He saw Barbee standing beside the rode, illuminated in the lights of Denton County Sheriff patrol vehicle talking to Deputy Brawner. Dodd was still on parole at the time and wanted nothing to do with any trouble. He drove on by. He pulled into a store and waited until he was called by Barbee who had seen him drive by earlier.

Dodd again picked Barbee up. Dodd says Barbee told him what he had done and apologized for bringing him into the mess. He said he had dumped the bodies just off the road from where Dodd had brought him the gas. Dodd claims Barbee threatened him and his family if he spoke to anyone, so Dodd just took him home and kept his mouth shut.

Meanwhile, Detective Mike Carroll was in a separate interview room with Barbee and he wasn’t talking. His version of events had him and Dodd working on his truck and driving it around in the rain and dark. When confronted about the incident with the Deputy, Barbee admitted getting out and walking. He said he gave the name of a friend he was mad at, and then he ran because the officer had no reason to hold him. His story didn’t make sense.

At one point, Carroll took a break to go to the restroom. Barbee asked to be allowed to go to the restroom as well. On the way, he saw Trish and her kids sleeping in the lobby and he began to cry. Carroll and Barbee had a conversation in the bathroom. Barbee broke down and told Carroll a completely different version of events. This version is far closer to the truth, although strongly colored by Barbee’s narcissism. They went back into the interview room to record this story.

Barbee admitted going to see Lisa. He said that after Dodd dropped him off, Lisa let him in. He said they were sitting down and talking about the baby. “She kept throwing up everything about insurance and child support and telling Trish.” Barbee claimed that he wanted to leave, but Lisa wouldn’t let him. She got mad and kicked him in the leg. He said he then punched her in the nose and they were “fist fighting.”

“What killed her?” Carroll asked.

“I don’t know.”

“The whole thing took place in the livingroom?”

Barbee confirmed that it did. “We was wrestling and I was holding her down.” He paused. “And she stopped moving. Then I knew I done something wrong.”

“Then you knew you did something wrong?” Carroll prompted him.

“I knew I had done something wrong ’cause she wasn’t moving. I guess I held her down too long. I just didn’t want her kicking me and stuff. I was trying to hold her.”

Lisa’s body told a different story. She fought for her life, fought for  Marleigh’s life. This was no mutual combat situation. Barbee had a bruise to his leg and scratches from his run through the woods after dumping her car. Lisa’s face was horribly bruised and battered. Her nose was broken. One eye was swollen shut. She had a broken rib and wrist. Her back had massive bruises that could have been caused by being forcibly held down for a long period of time, such as if someone were kneeling on her back and pressing her face down. She’d suffered a sever beating. Remember that she had been sick from  a cold and was extremely pregnant and awkward. This was no attempt to calm her down. This was rage, pure and simple.

Lisa died from “traumatic asphyxiation” due to a combination of congestion, pregnancy, and the covering of her face and mouth. With her mother dead, Marleigh slowly asphyxiated in her mother’s body.

Missing from Barbee’s story was Jayden. Carroll had to remind Barbee about the little boy. Then Barbee told him about how Jayden heard the murder of his mother. He came into the room screaming and “emotional.” Barbee insisted he just meant to make the boy quiet when he put his hand over Jayden’s mouth and nose. Again, he just held on too long. That murder was also accidental, according to Barbee. He had managed to “accidentally” suffocate three people in the space of a few minutes: Lisa, Marleigh, and Jayden.

Like Lisa’s body, Jayden’s showed signs of a beating. His face was bruised, an eye swollen shut and a large contusion against his head as if it had been struck against something. His lips and mouth were bloody from his face being pressed so hard.

Barbee claimed that he tried calling Dodd for help cleaning up, but he didn’t answer. Dodd was out to dinner with Theresa. Barbee had no transportation. He had to take Lisa’s car. He cleaned up as best he could, but there was so much blood. The carpet remained pinkish, so he moved a coffee table to cover things up. He dragged Lisa and Jayden out to her Dodge Durango and put them in the cargo area.

He headed north up I-35. Finally Dodd answered his phone and agreed to meet him, although according to Barbee, Dodd brought him not gas, but a shovel. Barbee described the location he had taken Lisa and Jayden’s bodies. He put them in a single hole together.

“I put them together because they needed to be together,” he said. “I dug ’em a little hole. Said a prayer.” He drove the car down a muddy track and abandoned it. He walked back along the rode, after calling Dodd to retrieve him. That’s where he had the incident with Deputy Brawner.

Barbee reminded Carroll that he didn’t want to hurt Lisa. She forced his hand. She was going to ruin him. He had to protect his family. All he wanted to do now was talk to Trish. Carroll agreed and the two were left alone together in the room, but the recording kept running.

His first words were about himself and what was going to happen to him. “I’m going to jail for a long time. My life is over,” Barbee said.

Trish asked him repeatedly what he had done. Did he get that woman pregnant? Did he kill her?

He responded that he didn’t know. Then he told s her that he didn’t mean to, that Lisa had been calling and threatening him for months. He had just gone to talk to her and she attacked him. He only held her down, but it had been for a little too long.  He told the story like was a tragedy and he was the victim.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.

“I was afraid you would leave me.”

“God Steve, was it worth it? Was it?”

He had no answer for that.

Trish answered for him. “It was not worth that. It wasn’t worth it, Steve.”

He hung his head. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“And then you got rid of her body. ”

“I didn’t want to lose you all.”

She still couldn’t accept that. “What did you think was going to happen?”

Unable to answer, he fell back on justifying his actions. “And then she started fighting me. She said she would ruin me. I didn’t mean for her to stop breathing. I just held her too long.”

She continued questioning him about Dodd’s involvement and what he had done, so Barbee turned the focus back on him, back to his plight.

“My life is over,” he said. “I’m going to die in prison. They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in prison. I’m going to die…I made a bad decision to go talk to her…All I’m asking is to have somebody who loves me.”

He went on to make her promise she believed him and would keep loving him. He said he was suicidal and couldn’t live if she left him.

Trish couldn’t let go of his reasoning. “Why couldn’t you just talk to me?” She had done the math. She knew he had been sleeping with her and Lisa at the same time, but she loved him. If he had come and admitted the truth to her, they could have worked it out.

He blamed her. He told her it was his deep love for her that prompted him to action. That’s right. Love made him kill Lisa, Marleigh, and Jayden.

Trish struggled with the magnitude of what her husband had done. She wondered aloud what she would tell her children, what she would tell his parents. Ever the narcissist, Barbee asked “Does this mean we’re breaking up?”

At that time, she promised him she wasn’t leaving. She sat down with Detective Carroll and recalled what Barbee had done the day after he murdered an entire family. He was completely normal. They went to the stables and played with the horses. They hung out with Trish’s children and watched movies. They went to some appointments they had scheduled. They had a great day. He didn’t seem the least bit worried or troubled, even though the news had begun reporting his ex-girlfriend was missing.

Police had their man and soon they would have the bodies of his victims. The day after those interviews, Barbee led them to a shallow grave in Denton.

Barbee may have confessed, but he would change his story several times. Sometimes he was innocent. Sometimes it was a version of the accident. Theresa Barbee, visited her ex-husband while he was in jail and he held up a piece of paper asking her to tell the police Dodd did it. She left crying and he removed her from his visitors list.

Theresa testified against Barbee, describing physical violence in the relationship. There was a time he beat her unconscious. She woke bleeding and dizzy from a concussion. Barbee was eating ice cream and watching TV. He made her drive herself to the hospital.  She wasn’t the only woman with a story about Barbee and his temper.

A woman named Marie Mendoza testified that Barbee would often come in to her business and flirt. He told her he was single and owned a tree trimming business. He surprised her by trimming her trees and then wanted a date. She told him she wasn’t interested in a relationship and offered to pay. Instead, Barbee was furious and screamed and cursed at her. She cut off all contact with him after that.

Barbee was convicted based on the overwhelming evidence and he was sentenced to death for killing multiple people in a single incident.  Although he was convicted in 2006, this was just the start of legal wrangling that would keep him still on death row today. His initial appeal was denied in 2008. In 2012, Barbee filed a writ of habeas corpus alleging secret deals between his defense attorney and the judge. That matter is a story in itself. This fight continued into Federal Court.  I included all of those links if you want to read the details. Multiple hearings were held until finally in 2017, the death penalty sentence was upheld, clearing the way for an execution date to be set for Barbee.

A sweet memorial exists at Boopa’s. Jayden’s bedroom door now stands in Boopa’s bearing his hand-written admonition “Do Not Enter” and decorated with super hero and cartoon stickers. A friend of Sheila Underwood’s was so moved that she wrote a book about a child name Jayden and his magical door. The book is still available on Amazon.

Jayden's door.jpg

We will never know the truth of what was in Stephen Barbee’s heart. Why did he really go there to Lisa’s house that night? Why did he go there so late? Why didn’t he call or drive over himself? Perhaps he went there intending to solve his problem permanently. He could have planned to have Dodd drop him off and then meet him with the shovel. It would be reasonable to think Jayden was with his grandmother and he would have had Lisa alone. Pregnant. Helpless. He might not have expected her to put up a fight. Or maybe he really did just intend to talk and didn’t form his intent to kill until he was there.

In an ironic twist, DNA testing revealed Barbee wasn’t the father of Marleigh. If only he had been honest with his wife, three people would be alive today and Sheila’s world would be whole.  Instead, memories are all Sheila Underwood has left. Her only child and her grandchildren are gone because one man couldn’t handle the consequences of his bad decisions.

Source Note: In researching this case, I relied on the original reports, transcripts, court documents, appellate opinions, and the following sources:

 Lethal Charmer by Patricia Springer, from Pinnacle Books, 2010.

The Lubbock Avalanche Journal

The StandDown Texas Project

The Fort Worth Star Telegram

My Life of Crime

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