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  • Writer's pictureKathryn McMaster

Velma Barfield Woman Serial Killer

July 29, 1984: Stuart Taylor's Agony

Stuart Taylor was happy as he drove his girlfriend, 46-year-old Velma Barfield, to a revival meeting of the famous preacher Rex Humbard. Stuart was not extremely religious, but he knew that going to the meeting would please his girlfriend who was a devoutly pious Christian and she would love hearing the respected evangelist in person.

Stuart had been together with Velma to be aware of her oddities and ever-changing personality. She was living out of wedlock with him, a move that had shocked her children, knowing how religious she was. And yet, it wasn’t entirely out of character as she had a criminal history. She had been arrested for forgery, something Taylor had recently discovered by accident. They rowed over the forgery, and in the heat of the moment Taylor became physical towards Velma. It was his undoing.

During the revival meeting held at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and just as the service began, Stuart started feeling nauseous. He leaned over and whispered to Velma, “I’m feeling sick. Maybe it’s something I ate.”

As Rex Humbard continued preaching from the stage, Stuart began to feel worse. Fiery pains gripped his stomach. “I’ve got to go to the truck and lie down,” he told Velma who looked suitably alarmed and concerned, but who remained in her seat listening to the preacher.

The 56-year-old farmer opened up his vehicle and lay down on a seat. Pain gripped his stomach with pangs so bad it took his breath away. The waves of nausea continued, and finally, when the long meeting was over, Velma returned to the truck and drove them both home, as Stuart was just too sick to drive. At one point she had to pull over as he vomited out of the open door into the dirt below. She noticed his skin was clammy and shiny with sweat. He flopped back into his seat and lay back with his eyes closed.

As soon as they arrived home she helped him to his bed but he was so ill and in pain that he couldn’t sleep. All night he tossed and turned, and the vomiting continued. In the early hours of the morning, Velma Barfield expressed her concern at Stuart’s deterioration and decided to contact his daughter, Alice. Alice was informed of her father’s condition and was concerned about him, but said she would phone in the morning to get an update on her father. True to her word, she phoned again and the two women agreed that it was probably not something he had eaten but more likely the flu.

Despite being so sick, Stuart was fretting about his animals. He was a pig farmer and he needed someone to take care of them while he recovered. Sonny Johnson, a good friend was summoned to the house to ask if he would help out. He said he would, but when he looked at Stuart, he didn’t like what he saw. The friend he knew as a strapping man, was a shadow of his former self. He was weak and feeble and obviously in a great deal of pain.

Stuart hoped that whatever he had would soon depart. But instead of getting better, he got progressively worse. The fire in his belly spread to his chest and arms. The intense pain had invaded his whole system.

The next day, Velma decided that he could not continue like that, and insisted that she take him to the hospital. On arrival the doctors started questioning her on how long he had been sick and what he had eaten. While they continued to examine her sick boyfriend, Velma called Alice up again and told her where they were.

Alice, not able to go to the hospital in person called her brother, Billy who came in her stead.

Finally, the doctor came out after the examination, and spoke to Velma and Billy telling them that Stuart had a bad case of gastritis. With some medication he had prescribed he felt that Stuart would soon be on the road to recovery. With that, they released him from hospital a few hours later, and Velma Barfield took him back home.

Later that day, Sonny came to the farm to sort out the pigs and dropped in to see how Stuart was doing. He was pleased to see that there was some improvement. Stuart was finally sitting up, chatting happily and was even having a cigarette.

The follow day, Friday, at approximately 8 p.m., Stuart took a turn for the worse. Velma phoned a neighbor and friend, John McPherson, and said frantically on the other end of the line, “Stuart needs an ambulance!” McPherson called the ambulance, then drove to the house himself so that he could assess the situation.

What he found, was shocking. Stuart Taylor looked terrible. As John McPherson walked into the room a wave of stench hit him; Stuart had suffered an attack of diarrhea in his bed. The arms and legs of the sweaty, chalk-faced man thrashed around making incoherent moaning noises. From time to time, he screamed out in agony. Velma had surrounded the bed with chairs, their backs to the bed, to prevent him from falling out of it.

The ambulance finally arrived and transported him back to hospital, as Velma Barfield traveled closely behind in Stuart’s truck.

Despite all effort made, Stuart Taylor died with an hour after arrival, on February 3, 1978.

In the waiting room were Stuart’s children, Alice and Billy, and the concerned girlfriend who had nursed him through the illness, Velma Barfield. The doctor said he was puzzled by the man’s sudden death and suggested an autopsy.

Both Alice and Billy asked Velma what she thought. “If you don’t do it,” she said, “you’ll always wonder.”

Stuart Taylor’s adult kids told the physician to go ahead and perform an autopsy.

Velma Barfield Attends Stuart Taylor’s Funeral

Velma Barfield in a gray dress before her arrest.
Velma Barfield

Velma Barfield and her adult son, Ronnie Burke from a previous marriage, sat with Stuart’s grieving family at his funeral. Velma placed a comforting arm around heavily pregnant Alice murmured platitudes one says at funerals, when one doesn't know what else to say.

As Ronnie left the service he couldn’t help but ponder over the many people his mother knew and loved, and yet they kept on dying. How could the good Lord allow this to happen to a faithful Christian like Velma Barfield?

On Sunday morning, an early phone call awakened Lumberton Police Detective, Benson Phillips. The caller was weeping and her words were a garbled mess. The detective could not easily make out what she was saying. Eventually, he got the following out of her: “Murder! ... I know who did it! . . . You’ve got to stop her! You’ve got to stop her!”

The police officer replaced the phone receiver in the cradle and sighed. He had heard of no murder in the small town of Lumberton and put it down to a crank call, or just some drunk, crazy woman. If there had been a murder, he would have been aware since he investigated all homicides.

However, before he cut the call, he suggested she come around to the station and talk to him in person, or call him later on that day.

By the time the phone call came through, he had forgotten all about his interrupted sleep. It was the same woman, this time, a little calmer. She explained that she would rather not say who she was, but she wanted the officer to know that the man who had just died in town, Stuart Taylor, was the boyfriend of Velma Barfield. She said that he had died in the same way as Barfield’s own mother. Although she admitted that she had no proof, she felt that the deaths of Taylor and Barfield’s mother were not the only deaths connected to Velma. The numerous deaths of people close to Velma, she felt, were no longer circumstantial.

When Officer Phillips pressed her for evidence, she could offer none. When Phillips asked her how she knew all of this, the woman replied, “I know because Velma Barfield is my sister.”

Officer Phillips put the phone down and started to ponder over the call. On the one hand, he thought the call was odd, on the other, he couldn’t ignore it. He started by contacting the Lumberton Hospital and asking if anyone had died over the weekend. Hospital authorities told him there had been a death. It was a male called Stuart Taylor. On inquiring about the cause of death, he was told that it looked like natural causes. However, Dr. Bob Andrews had performed an autopsy and they were waiting for the results.

Although Phillips wanted to do further investigation he was in an invidious position. The man had been brought to the hospital from an outlying area near St. Paul’s. He had no jurisdiction over that area. If this was a murder case, it would fall under the jurisdiction of the sheriff. Still, he knew Sheriff Wilbur Lovett well, and he made a note to call him on Monday to report what he knew to date.

In the meantime, Dr. Andrews was looking at his autopsy findings and found them puzzling. Not privy to any suspicions from various parties, he looked at the results purely from a scientific view. The man, it appeared had died from gastroenteritis, however, for one so fit and healthy prior to this illness, the doctor found it puzzling that it would have affected him to the point of death. As a result, he decided to look further.

There he found some abnormalities in some of the liver tissue. Not having the equipment to do a more sophisticated test, he placed some of the tissue samples into plastic bags and mailed them to the chief medical examiner in North Carolina.

Alice Storms, Stuart’s daughter was still grieving over her father’s inexplicable death, and was losing patience with the hospital who still could not tell her, a month after her father’s death, what he had died from. The hospital finally put her in contact with Dr. Andrews. She demanded to know how a man as fit and healthy as her father had been, could suddenly die.

Dr. Bob Andrews decided to phone the medical examiner, Page Hudson, to find out if he had managed to find anything in the liver tissue samples he had sent over. Once on the phone, Hudson asked Andrews about Taylor’s symptoms and, questioned him closely about Taylor’s girlfriend, Velma Barfield.

Page Hudson told Andrews that initial test showed arsenic poisoning. However, as it was the weekend, he wouldn’t know for sure until Monday morning.

On the Monday, his suspicions were confirmed. Stuart Taylor had died from arsenic poisoning. Bob Andrews receiving the news said, “What do I tell the family?”

“Don’t tell them a damn thing. Contact the D.A.”

Was Velma Barfield a Serial Killer?

Authorities started investigating the deaths of those close to Velma Barfield, and looking at the death certificates. Despite having had autopsies performed after some of the deaths, no special test had been done for poison. However, a pattern seemed to be emerging. All the death certificates had the same cause of death, gastroenteritis. Suddenly, investigators felt they were dealing not only with a female murderer, but also a serial killer.

The police wanted to get a confession out of Velma, so they decided to blindside her by picking her up for questioning on the many bad checks she had written, and then ask her about the death of Stuart Taylor.

As the checks had been written in Lumberton, Officer Benson Phillips would be the person who would question her. However, Sheriff Lovett and homicide investigator Al Parnell would also be present. Barfield was brought in for questioning and she seemed unperturbed as they asked her about the forgeries.

Velma Barfield in her prison uniform after her arrest.
Velma Barfield after her arrest.

The plump, rosy-cheeked grandmother was friendly enough, even a little shy as they spoke to her in the interrogation room. She answered them in her soft Southern drawl and looked like someone who should be at home baking cookies for her grandchildren, rather than being on suspicion of murder.

When the direction turned to Stuart Taylor, and she was told that he had died from arsenic poisoning she appeared astounded by the news. Phillips pressed her for information on their relationship and wanted to know if she had any reason to be angry with Taylor. She was outraged at the implication that she had something to do with his death.

“Y’all think I poisoned Stuart, don’t you?” she said indignantly. It couldn’t have been further from the truth. They loved each other, she told them, and they had planned to get married. It was she who had nursed him day and night. It was she who had insisted on taking him to the hospital the first time, getting an ambulance the second time, and suggesting an autopsy. If she were guilty, why would she have helped to save him?

Lovett asked her if she would be willing to take a lie detector test. She agreed without reservation. She had nothing to hide, she assured him.

They said that they would organize for her to come in again for a polygraph test, and in the meantime, she was free to go. As she was about to leave, Parnell said, “Velma, you know, this can go all the way back to your mother.”

Velma’s response was an icy stare and she left without saying a word.

As soon as she returned home, Velma Barfield phoned her son, Ronnie Burke. The 26-year-old married man was the father to a 3-year-old son and had a lot of responsibilities. He was working fulltime, and also went to college fulltime at Pembroke State University and was just months away from completing a business administration degree. He was looking forward to graduating and pleasing his mother, whom he knew would be so proud of him, being the first one in his family to complete a four-year university degree.

Ronnie Burke, like all good sons, was concerned for his mother who kept losing loved ones unexpectedly. He admired her fortitude in dealing with such grief. He was also worried at the number of drugs she was taking, far more than doctors had prescribed.

While listening to her on the phone she sounded slightly hysterical. The police had taken her down to the station, she told him. While his immediate thoughts went to drug habit and wondering if she had written bad checks to cover these purchases, he was shocked when she told him the police suspected her of murdering Stuart Taylor.

Ronnie assured her that it must be a mistake. He knew how devastated she had been when Stuart had died, and that although he may have been poisoned, it certainly wasn’t his mother. He told her to come over so that he could tell her that it would all work out in the end.

When Velma Barfield arrived at her son’s modest duplex on the outskirts of Lumberton, North Carolina, Ronnie Burke gave her the comfort she was seeking. He told her that she didn’t need a lawyer, besides, it was an expense no one could afford. She just had to let things take its course, because eventually they would see that she was innocent.

That Monday, when Ronnie Burke was at work, he received an anonymous call from a woman telling him that his mother would be arrested later on that day. When he asked if she was sure, she said, “Yes, they’re going to charge her with Stuart’s death…I know someone in the sheriff’s department.”

Burke left work immediately, telling his supervisor he had an emergency, and drove directly to the Lumberton Police Department to speak to Wilbur Lovett. The sheriff assured him that they were not arresting his mother that day, but they did consider her a suspect in Taylor’s death. When Burke pressed him for further details, the sheriff refused to discuss the case with him.

He felt he needed to tell his mother, so from there he went to the home of Mamie Warwick where his mother lived. She lived rent-free with the senior citizen in exchange for doing household chores. On arrival Burke found his mother taking a nap. He told her why he was there, and Velma broke into sobs professing her innocence once again. As soon as her tears were dry, she turned to her son and said, “I only meant to make him sick.”

Burke was shocked, but still believing in his mother said that if it had been an accident she should explain this to the police authorities. Velma agreed and wept during the short journey. Once there, she was taken into the interrogation room while Burke paced the floor outside.

Giving himself something to do, Burke phoned his sister to break the news to her. After much discussion it was decided that he would meet her at her house and that she needed to inform Velma’s sister Arlene and Faye of the news too. Both women agreed to drive over to join their niece and nephew.

Soon Ronnie Burke’s world as he knew it would end. Investigator Al Parnell tracked him down at his sisters and via a telephone call informed Ronnie that it was much worse than first thought. Velma Barfield had just confessed to killing three more people. One was her mother and Ronnie’s grandmother Lillie Bullard, the other two were people whom Velma had been a paid, live-in caregiver.

When Burke relayed the news to his sister and aunts the women were stunned into silence.

Burke kept on thinking about the woman who had loved and cared for him, took him to church and taught him the difference between right and wrong. The image he had of her was impossible to reconcile as the poisoner of four people.

Velma Barfield’s Early Years

Velma Barfield was born Margie Velma Bullard to her farmer father, Murphy Olive Bullard and his wife, Lillian ‘Lillie’ McQueen neé McMillan. Velma was born October 29, 1932 and family and friends called her Velma, rather than Margie. She was born the second child in the family and the first daughter, with her brother Olive Odell Bullard, being born two years prior. Her parents would go on to have another seven more children.

The Bullard family were poor. They lived in an unpainted wooden house, with no electricity or running water in Wade, North Carolina. With no toilet or outhouse, the family relied on chamber pots and trips to the woods. Her father’s parents also lived in the house, as did his sister, Susan Ella, disabled through polio, and leaving her with a shriveled arm and leg.

Although they had survived the worst years of the Great Depression, Murphy Bullard was still finding it a financial strain to care for the growing number of people under his roof. Sales from the cotton and tobacco he grew were not paying the bills. He decided to leave his fields to find work as a logger in a saw mill owned by Clarence Bunch. With the help of Clarence Bunch, Murphy was able to move his family closer to town where they lived in a much smaller house, and it was here that his third child was born.

A better job came along with a Fayetteville textile mill, and he moved his family yet again, moving them back into his parent’s home. His father died shortly after that, and his mother followed within the year.

Murphy Bullard was the traditional patriarch in the family. He expected his children to obey and his wife to be subservient. He was a hard-drinking man who was quick to anger when he didn’t get what he wanted. He was also a strict disciplinarian who took the switch, belt, or anything else he could find, to instill the discipline if he thought it wanting.

His pet peeve was a kid who was sassy. His eldest son, Olive and daughter Velma were known to be fearless and often back-chatted their father. However, Olive felt that his father was unfair in doling out punishment to the pair, and that Velma often got away with far more than he did. This caused a lot of jealousy between the siblings. He thought Velma was his father’s favorite, whereas Velma thought her mother doted on Olive, and favored him over her.

Velma was strong-willed and lacked respect for her mother with her subservient attitude towards Murphy. She wrote years later, in her memoirs Woman on Death Row, “I seemed to accept Daddy’s high-tempered ways because I thought that’s the way men are. Mamas should love their children and stand up for them, and Mama never stood up for me, or for any of us.”

Every time Velma got a hiding from her dad, she was just as angry with her passive mother who saw and did nothing, as she was with the aggressive father who did the beating. It was not a happy household. Murphy was insanely jealous of his wife, accusing her of flirting, when he himself was philandering and being unfaithful. Lillie Bullard learned to tread carefully around her husband when he was in a rage for fear of getting a beating herself. Something that happened from time to time.

When Velma started school at the age of seven in the fall of 1939, she loved the experience. She was a smart student, got good grades, and teacher’s loved teaching her. School was an escape from the tensions at home and she thrived in this new environment.

It was not before long that Velma was bullied by her new classmates. She did not have the pretty dresses they wore, or the good shoes. They made fun of her clothes and her packed lunches of cornbread with a side of meat. She ate her lunch away from the others and began stealing money from her father’s pants pockets to buy candy from a store across from the schoolyard.

She soon became emboldened in her thievery when she stole $80 from an elderly neighbor. Murphy Bullard heard of what she had done and did not spare the rod. The punishment seemed to have worked as Velma did not steal during her youth again.

As Velma grew up she was expected to do more and more around the house, including looking after her younger siblings. She had to clean the house, wash, iron, and mend the clothing for all 11 family members. On some days, when there was a lot of clothes washing to be done her father would excuse her early from school so that she could come home and start her chores. She resented it but felt she could not openly rebel. “I really never felt like my Mama or Daddy ever wanted me, except for the work I did,” she would say later. “I always felt that they just really wanted me to be a slave.”

Although life was tough, Murphy Bullard also did a lot of activities with his children and as a family they enjoyed many hours of fun. He often organized games for them, especially baseball, and trips to the local pond where the children learned to swim.

Velma was a daddy’s girl and she remembers being 10-years-old and seeing a pretty pink dress in a window in Fayetteville which she drew her father’s attention to, telling him how much she liked it. She was delighted when he went straight into the store and bought it for her.

However, Velma would go on to say that the attention her father gave her was not all positive. Once she remembers being confused at some inappropriate touching. Later, she would say, he would enter her bedroom when she was older, and rape her.

Some of Velma’s siblings deny such a thing took place and violently oppose the suggestion that she was a victim of incest. Instead, they said Velma was a liar and a manipulator whose claims of incest and sexual abuse was an easy way to gain sympathy from those who were willing to listen.

In 1945 Murphy Bullard decided that working at the mill had run its course and he wanted to return to farming. He purchased some acreage and a small, modern home for his growing family. However, it wasn’t long before he realized that farming would no pay the bills and so he returned to the mill part-time to help supplement the money he got from farming.

Later, he got a job at a textile plant in the town of Red Springs and moved his family there. The house they moved into lacked the modern conveniences of the one they had lived in for the last couple of years.

Once Velma got to high school the excitement of school had worn off, and she no longer got the good grades she used to get. Nevertheless, while at Parkton Public School she took up basketball and was very good at it. Velma, quick on her feet around the court, made the girls’ basketball team. The joy was short-lived as Lillie had recently given birth to twins and was finding keeping house overwhelming. She needed another pair of hands and insisted that Velma give up her basketball games and practice, and help out more at home with chores and housework.

While at high school, Velma met Thomas Burke and the two began flirting before it evolved into something more serious. Thomas was a year older than Velma, wasn’t particularly handsome, but he was good to her and he made her laugh. The flirting was confined to the schoolyard as her father insisted that no dating would take place until Velma had turned 16.

Once her 16th birthday came around her father moved the goal posts. Now he said he did not want Velma to go out with boys, period. After much nagging and cajoling, Murphy finally agreed that she could see Thomas outside of school. There were, however, strict rules that she needed to abide by. She was to only go out if there was another couple present and she had to be home before 10 p.m.

Escalating Arguments over Alcohol

A year later, at 17 Thomas asked Velma to marry him and she accepted. When she told her father she was getting married Murphy Bullard was furious and they had a terrible row where he even broke down and cried, begging her to rethink. Velma was not swayed, she wanted to get married.

Soon after the wedding both Thomas and Velma stopped going to school. Thomas first got a job at a cotton mill, then worked as a farm laborer, and then a delivery truck driver. Velma worked for a while in a drugstore but Thomas didn’t like the idea of her working, and so she stayed at home.

The couple lived in a small Parkton house where Velma’s family once lived. It wasn’t long before Velma fell pregnant and on December 15, 1951 she gave birth to Ronald Thomas Burke, followed by a daughter, Kim, on September 3, 1953.

Motherhood suited Velma and she loved caring for her babies. She was a protective mother who played with her children, read to them and couldn’t stand being apart from them for long. As a Christian she wanted her children to grow up with a strong faith and took them regularly to services at the Baptist church.

Once the children started school Velma was an involved parent who could always be counted on to accompany the students on field trips and would volunteer to help out whenever someone was needed.

With the children off her hands during the day, Velma decided it would be good if she had a small job. Thomas did not object this time. In fact, he welcomed it as the family needed the money. She took a midnight to 8 a.m. shift at a textile plant. Thomas was working as a delivery driver for Pepsi-Cola. With the combined salaries, it allowed the family to move into a better house in Parkton.

While their marriage was a happy one, Velma’s health began to suffer in 1963 and she had to have a hysterectomy. As both she and Thomas had agreed they didn’t want any more children, this was not an issue for this couple. The operation went well, but the aftermath caused her to go into depression. She experienced mood swings and was often nervous. She obsessed whether her husband would find her less attractive now that she could no longer bear children. Her health continued to plague her, and now she developed pains in her lower back.

With feelings of anxiety mounting, and insecurities increasing, Velma began to resent Thomas’s weekly meetings when he went off to his Jaycees. She was left at home to mind the kids. It was not just the freedom she resented, but his increased drinking, especially as Velma was a teetotaler firmly in accordance with her Baptist faith.

When she heard that Thomas had joined his friends for a few rounds of beers, she was visibly upset. It caused some tension between the couple. This increased after Thomas, after one of his evenings out, in 1965, was driving his car when it hit a culvert, flew up into the air, and landed on its wheels in the driveway of a stranger’s house. During the accident Thomas suffered head injuries which caused severe headaches for the rest of his life. Although he claimed that he was sober and had just fallen asleep at the wheel, Velma didn’t believe him and was even more convinced that drinking was evil and she nagged him to stop his drinking for good.

Thomas was annoyed at her nagging and he resented the way she monitored what he drank. Alcohol became the focus of their daily arguments. If he came home with a whiff of alcohol on his breath Velma would initiate the argument which scaled up into a slanging match. Raised voices would waken and frighten the children as they listened to the angry voices and the name-calling. Thankfully, there was no domestic abuse involved, just a lot of yelling and hurt feelings.

In 1967 Velma’s worst fears were realized when he was arrested for drunk driving. As a result of this arrest, he lost his driving license for a while, and without it, his job as a delivery driver for the Pepsi-Cola company. Instead of assessing his life and finding a new job, Thomas stayed at home, wallowed in self-pity and drank more than ever to forget his troubles. The children were ashamed of their father, and no longer brought friends around.

Finally, the family had a break when Thomas was employed by a mill and got a lift to work. The everyday tension was taking its toll on Velma who was still suffering from ill health. She had lost a lot of weight, and one day, Ronald came home to find his mother lying on the floor in a dead faint.

Once she came round he insisted that she go to hospital. Once admitted, doctors recommended that she stay for a week while they gave her vitamins and sedatives, before releasing her with a mild tranquilizer, called Librium to help calm her jagged nerves.

Once home she took more Librium than prescribed. When that wasn’t enough she found another doctor who prescribed Valium. She soon fell into the pattern of doctor hopping. She got drugs from several doctors, none of whom knew that they were not her only physician and the drugs often conflicted with one another, causing additional problems.

Just as she had worried and nagged Thomas about his alcohol abuse, he now was worried about her drug abuse for she was often spacey and it was clear that she had a problem with prescription drugs.

One day in April, the Burke house caught on fire. The only person at home at the time was Thomas Burke for both children were at school. Velma was out too. She was at the Laundromat and when she returned, her house was in flames. Thomas never made it out of the burning home and although he was rescued and taken to hospital, he later died of smoke inhalation. On hearing the news of his death, Velma collapsed in grief.

Jennings Barfield

Within months of losing his father, Ronald Burke graduated as the second highest scoring student and was made salutatorian. Velma was so proud of her son’s achievement, and burst with pride as she listened to his speech where he honored her, telling the audience, the good qualities he possessed were due to his mother’s guidance and nurture.

Tragedy was about to hit the family again. There was a second fire at their home. This time, luckily no one was at home, but the house was gutted and the family had to move back with Velma’s ageing parents, Murphy and Lillie Bullard as they waited for the insurance money to be released for repairs.

After Thomas’s death, Velma met a widower called Jennings Barfield. He too did not enjoy good health. He had numerous issues; diabetes, heart disease, and emphysema to name just a few. He had lost his own wife at about the same time as Velma had lost her Thomas. It was their shared grief that initially brought them together.

The couple married on August 23, 1970. It was a church wedding, unlike the civil ceremony she had had with Thomas. After the wedding, she moved into the tiny home in Fayetteville that Jennings Barfield shared with his teenage daughter, Nancy.

The marriage was in trouble shortly afterwards, and it was because of Velma’s addiction to the medications. One day, Jennings came home to find his wife almost comatose from a drug overdose. He took her to the hospital and his fears were confirmed. Soon after that the couple separated. Velma then promised Jennings that she would stop taking so much medication. They reconciled before she broke her promise and ended up back at the emergency department of the local hospital. Both couples were separately telling their friends that they believed the marriage was a mistake. Divorces seemed on the cards, but it never came to that when Jennings Barfield died on March 21, 1971, of the heart failure that had troubled him for years.

Widowed again, Velma did not appear to be coping well. She was despondent and listless, often medicating herself into a stupor and spending much of her time in bed. “After Jennings’s death,” she would recall, “I felt emptier and more depressed than ever. I kept going to my doctors. I had prescriptions from at least two, and usually three, doctors at a time. . . . No matter how many pills any one doctor prescribed, they never lasted until time for the next refill.”

Although she worked at Belk’s department store her work performance was affected by her depression and mood swings, often being short with customers and snapping at them. Her boss was sympathetic to her condition and took her off the shop floor and put her to work in the stockroom where she would not have to interface with the customers.

Velma’s depression worsened when Ronald told his mother that he had decided to enlist in the army. It was the time of the Vietnam War and his mother was terrified he wouldn’t come back. His mother begged him to change his mind, something he did after the death of Jennings Barfield when he saw how badly his mother was coping. He then visited his doctors asking them to send a letter to the army to explain Velma Barfield’s fragile mental health and drug dependency and asking them if he could rescind his contract. The request was denied and he was to report to Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

Bad luck followed bad luck when Velma Barfield’s house caught fire again. Velma fell apart after this. What had she done to deserve all these tragedies?

Once again, she and her daughter Kim, moved back with her parents, Murphy and Lillie Bullard. The timing was fortuitous as by that time the store owner at Belk’s had run out of sympathy for Velma who had been coming in late and was sloppy at her the tasks she was given. Being unemployed added to her depression and when she discovered her father had lung cancer, things couldn’t get any worse. However, it did, for her father died shortly after that at 61. Now she worried if Ronald would be next.

When she heard Ronald was getting married, she felt she had already lost him. She was hurt and emotional over the news and did not give the happy couple her blessing. She felt displaced and that Ronald would no longer want or need her around.

Ronald tried to explain to his mother that she could never be replaced, but the jealousy simmered and the relationship towards her new daughter-in-law was almost non-existent after the marriage.

In March 1972, Velma Barfield was arrested for the first time for forging a prescription. She pleaded guilty a month later and was given a fine and a suspended sentence. Shortly after that she finally had some good news, Ronald was discharged from the army.

The happiness was short-lived as Velma and her mother Lillie were constantly at each other’s throats. Velma was no longer the daughter she could boss about and insist she do housework and other chores. Lillie nagged and badgered Velma constantly, ordered her about and expected to be waited on in her old age. She also did not approve of Velma’s constant pill popping and her tendency to pass out after taking one too many.

In the summer of 1974 Lillie had a bad attack of something. It always seemed to happen after Velma had served her a Coca Cola. She had vice-like gripes in her stomach, diarrhea , and uncontrollable vomiting. In the end, Velma bundled her off to the hospital where doctors were unable to find the root cause of this sudden illness. Lillie improved while away from the home environment, well enough to be released and sent home.

In August of the same year, Velma had been dating a man he was killed in a car accident. Velma was not in the car at the time but during their relationship he had made Velma Barfield the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. On his death she received $5,000.

By Christmas, the two women in the household seemed to be getting along better. They enjoyed preparing for the festive season and baked and cooked the turkey and the Christmas meal for the large extended family who were coming over to the house to celebrate the occasion.

It was on Christmas Day that Lillie took on of her sons aside and told him that she was most concerned about an issue she didn’t quite understand. She had recently received a letter from a finance company informing her that the loan she had out on her car was overdue and if it wasn’t paid shortly, the car would be repossessed. The problem wasn’t that she was short of cash and couldn’t meet the repayments. The problem was she had never taken out a loan against the car, because she had paid cash for it. Her son assured her that he would look into it, and that it was probably a mistake on the behalf of the insurance company. He would sort it out.

Shortly after that, Lillie had another attack of the same illness that had struck her down in the summer. This time her symptoms were much worse. Pain had spread from her belly to her upper back. When she vomited this time, she was vomiting up blood. Velma contacted her brother Olive who left what he was doing and came over to see for himself. He was shocked at her appearance and immediately called for an ambulance. Velma traveled in the ambulance with her mother while Olive followed behind. No medical knowledge could save Lillie. She died two hours after her arrival.

It wasn’t long before Velma was in trouble with the police once again. Early in 1975 she was caught writing a number of bad checks. This time there was no suspended sentence. She was sentenced for six months, but was lucky enough to be out after three.

Time in prison had kept her away from her pills and so after her release from prison she decided she needed to find a meaningful job. She decided she would work as a caregiver for the elderly. In 1976 she was working for a couple who were both ailing in health due to the their old age. They were Montgomery and Dollie Edwards. Montgomery was 94, blind from diabetes, and the disease had also robbed him of both legs which had to be amputated. His condition left him bed ridden and incontinent. Nor could he feed himself. Dollie Edwards was ten years younger at 84 and was in better health than her husband despite having had cancer in the past. She had survived that, but had had a colostomy. They couple lived comfortable in a large brick ranch home and Velma enjoyed living there with them. She got on well with the couple and found a church nearby that she liked going to, the First Pentecostal Church in Lumberton.

The longer Velma Barfield stayed with the couple the unhappier they became with her. Dollie was outspoken about Velma’s shortcomings and she voiced these loudly to her son on several occasions. Velma defended herself by saying that Dollie was nit picking, and her accusations of her being a slacker were entirely untrue. The bickering between the three increased and became more frequent.

Three years late, Montgomery died in January 1977. After his death, Velma continued to live in the house with Dollie but the women’s relationship did not improve. It deteriorated.

One Saturday, Dollie’s stepson, Preston Edwards visited the house and Dollie said the thought she had caught the flu. It was February 26 and she complained of vomiting and having diarrhea. He came back the next day to check on her and was horrified to see how washed out and weak she looked by comparison to how she was the day before. Velma Barfield called an ambulance and Dollie Edwards and doctors treated her in the emergency room for her ailments and then sent her home that same night. The following day, Dollie took a turn for the worse and was back in the hospital by Tuesday. By the end of the same evening, she was dead.

With no means of supporting herself Velma Barfield needed to find another elderly couple who needed her services. She found John Henry Lee , 86, and his wife, Record 76. John was a farmer but still able, despite his advancing years. Record, however, was the one who needed help. He had recently broken her leg and was on crutches.

The couple lived in a rural area on the outskirts of Lumberton and they were most generous in giving Velma Sundays and Wednesday evenings off so she could attend her church services and Bible meetings. However, it wasn’t long before cracks appeared in the new relationship. Record Lee loved to talk and her constant chatter got on Velma’s nerves. Not only that, but the elderly couple bickered constantly and Velma felt awkward being in the house during their squabbles.

While Velma was taking care of them a check was written in Record Lee’s name, but she knew she hadn’t signed it. Her husband notified the police but no one was able to trace the person who had signed it.

On April 27 elderly John Henry found himself sweating heavily with an upset stomach, pains in his belly and bad diarrhea. His conditioned worsened and again Velma was phoning the ambulance service to take John to the local hospital. After a fairly long stay, the man recovered sufficiently enough to be discharged on May 2. Doctors put his illness down to a virus.

During the month of May, John Henry was plagued by the virus that just wouldn’t leave him. For a few days he would be fine and then down he would go again, with the same symptoms reappearing. He lost weight and although his daughters were concerned for him, they were grateful for Velma’s presence and her devoted attention she showed their parents.

He took a turn for the worse and Velma called another ambulance for him. There was little the hospital could do for the dehydrated, terribly sick man. He died on June 4.

Sometime after the funeral of John Henry Lee, Velma Barfield moved into the home of Stuart Taylor. Before Taylor became ill at the Rex Humbard revival meeting, Velma had visited his daughter, Alice, and asked to see a picture of her father that she had taken as a joke. It was his ‘dead’ picture. Stuart Taylor had stretched out on a couch, closed his eyes and folded his hands across his chest to simulate the image of a man in a coffin. Velma laughed along with Alice and Stuart when Alice brought the photograph to her.

Later, the memory of that shared laughter would cause Alice to shudder.

Velma's Trial

Joe Freeman Britt was Velma Barfield’s public prosecutor. He was a believer in capital punishment and had earned the dubious title of being the world’s deadliest prosecutor. Over a 17-month period Britt prosecuted 13 first-degree murder trials and won convictions on all 13.

Defending Velma was Bob Jacobson a short, freckle-faced lawyer on of the few in Lumberton who would accept court-appointed cases. Bad news for Velma, he lacked experience as he had never tried a death penalty case before. Velma Barfield’s case was his first.

The presiding judge was Henry McKinnon and on looking at the case, he ruled that the evidence linking Velma to the deaths of John Henry Lee, Dottie Edwards, and her own mother Lillie Bullard, be admitted, in addition to the death of Stuart Taylor which had initiated the investigation into the poisonings.

First, the prosecutor put on both medical personnel and family who testified to the horror of Stuart Taylor’s death. Britt also brought out the fact that his life could have been saved had the antidote for arsenic poisoning British Antilewisite, or BAL, been administered. However, to do that, the doctors would have had to have been informed that Taylor had been poisoned with arsenic -- and the one person who knew that, Velma Barfield, did not tell them that she had poured ant poison into his tea and beer before she watched him die.

Defense attorney Jacobson asked doctors about the effects of the various drugs Velma had been taking and their possible interactions with each other. Some of the physicians who testified about treating Stuart had also treated Velma and prescribed medications for her. Their testimony showed that she was on drugs that could have badly impaired her judgment and were addictive.

Jacobson put Velma on the stand in her own defense. He knew he was taking an enormous risk in doing so but felt he had to let her explain her own confused thinking to the jury. She did well on direct examination, saying that she had given her boyfriend poison to make him sick but not to kill him. She said she did not tell doctors what she had done because she feared being returned to prison. He also brought out her extensive use of various medications, her combining a wide variety of drugs, and her dependency on them. She admitted forging checks because she was addicted to drugs and could not pay for them out of her own limited resources.

In the opinion of Britt, Velma Barfield was a cold-blooded and cunning murderer who hid behind a sweet little old lady and pious Christian masks. He would tear those masks off and show the jury who she really was. When he cross-examined her, he began with no pretense of being amiable or friendly. In his stance, manner, and voice, he bristled with hostility.

She bristled right back and that was precisely what he wanted. At one point, she seemed to be trying to argue that she had not killed her victims. Rather, people coincidentally happened to die after she poisoned them! After all, the first autopsies all indicated natural deaths.

“What I would like, your Honor,” Velma began during this astonishing statement, “to say to the jury and all, these autopsies let me say first of all, when a person dies . . . and they ask for an autopsy to be performed, is it not true that we have an autopsy performed to find out the reason of the death? . . . So I don’t believe it killed them really. That is exactly the way I feel about it.”

A stunned Britt asked, “Beg your pardon?”

“I don’t think it killed them.”

At another point, Velma seemed oddly arrogant and snippy.

“You made Mrs. Edwards sick with Singletary’s rat poison, did you not?”

“No, I thought it was roach and ant poison.”

“So you knew these compounds would certainly make people sick?”

“I knew it would make them sick,” the witness replied.

“You knew it would kill them, too, didn’t you?”

“No, I did not.”

The defense put on several medical witnesses to testify to Velma’s lengthy history of chronic and overlapping drug use. None of them could say that she had been rendered insane in the legal sense by drugs but they testified that her judgment could have been terribly clouded.

Right after the prosecutor gave his summation to the jury, Velma made a gesture of silent applause, repeatedly putting her hands together without actually clapping. Her attorney and family were crestfallen. Britt was elated. With that single, uncalled for sarcasm, he was certain that Velma Barfield had as good as signed her own death warrant.

The jury came back with a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder. Then it found the ‘aggravating circumstances’ to recommend the death penalty. Judge McKinnon fixed her punishment at death.

On Death Row

Like most states, North Carolina had no ‘row’ of women waiting to be executed. When she was sentenced, Velma Barfield was the only female in the state doomed by the law. She was housed in the Central Prison’s section for mental cases, especially inmates and prisoners considered prone to escape.

Early in her prison stay, Velma went through drug withdrawal. She had been supplied with many of her accustomed medications during her trial. Her first days as a condemned prisoner were spent without them and she showed the classic symptoms of cold turkey: lack of appetite, insomnia, nausea, cold sweats, and splitting headaches. The doctor who treated her gave her anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. Then gradually, over a period of over a year, she was weaned off of them.

To the extent possible, Velma made her cell into a home. She put up photographs of her children and grandchildren along with knick-knacks she crocheted and inspirational religious slogans. Velma confessed that she had picked up a few bad habits while inside. One of them was smoking. She had a packet of Salems next to her bed, and she smoked one every evening before going to bed.

Velma’s radio was usually tuned into a Christian program. Velma claimed that she had become a born-again Christian while in jail.

Although she had been a churchgoer and professed to love Jesus all her life, Velma said that she recognized that she had never been a true Christian. Her Christianity had been a matter of form and gesture. Then, while at her lowest ebb and awaiting trial for her life, she had finally, genuinely, opened her heart to Jesus and received forgiveness and salvation. She was listening to a sermon by J. K. Kinkle when the message of God’s love hit home for the first time. “All my life I was weighted down by my sins because I couldn’t do better,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It never occurred to me that Jesus really did pay the price, that Jesus alone bore the extreme punishment ‘ death ‘ for my sins, not just for my ‘good’ neighbors. And, even more glorious, Jesus is willing to be my friend even now. I can talk to Him, and He will listen.”

Her conversion was greeted with skepticism by many, including the families of her victims. After all, she had spoken of Jesus and salvation when they knew her and when she was poisoning their loved ones. Her Christian faith had always been a fraud, they believed, and it continued to be one. It was just a ploy to try to save her life.

However, many people were favorably impressed by Velma’s claim to be, for the first time in her life, filled with the Holy Spirit. Tommy Fuquay, a Pentecostal Holiness minister, believed that she was a true Christian. “I don’t think I had ever seen anybody who had the repentant spirit she had,” he commented. “I could see her growing and her attitude changing. The faith in her just grew and grew each time I would see her.”

The famous evangelist Billy Graham and his wife Ruth would come to believe Velma Barfield was their sister in Christ. Ruth Graham kept in frequent touch with Velma by mail.

Velma found meaning in her limited life by helping other prisoners. She was dismayed to discover how many inmates were functionally illiterate. She often wrote letters for them. She was so kind to inmates and others, and was a model prisoner, that she earned the name, Sweet Velma.

Special rules applied to Velma because of the death sentence and included no contact with the other inmates. However, the prison authorities frequently broke this rule because they found that she could be a positive influence on other prisoners. Assistant superintendent for treatment and programs at the prison, Jennie Lancaster, put a 15-year-old named Beth into the cell next to Velma’s. Lancaster asked Velma to try to help the girl who had been convicted as an accessory to murder.

Velma put her hand through the bars of her own cell and toward the next one so that Beth could hold hands with her. Beth took Velma into her confidence, pouring out her fears, while Velma prayed aloud for her and tried to comfort. For the first time in her life, Velma was known by her first name and Beth was the first prisoner to call her Mama Margie. She would not be the last. Other inmates often came to Velma for advice and words of reassurance.

Letter writing for herself and others consumed much of Velma’s time. She wrote to her family and to supporters she had never met. She also kept up with her crocheting. Velma prayed and read the Bible on a daily basis. Her son and daughter visited and sometimes brought her grandchildren with them. Together with a pastor, she worked on her memoirs, Woman on Death Row.

Gateway to Heaven

Any death sentence is automatically appealed. In June 1990, the Supreme Court turned down her appeal because it found no unconstitutional element in the way North Carolina’s death penalty statutes read.

A new attorney was handling Velma’s case. He was six foot tall, 200 pound, longhaired and thickly bearded. He was 30-year-old Richard Burr. He was the lawyer for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee and dedicated to aiding prisoners under a death sentence. Velma was the first doomed prisoner he would defend. Two hundred other condemned would follow.

On September 17, the Supreme Court turned down another appeal filed by Burr on Velma Barfield’s behalf. Her best shot would be in North Carolina’s state courts, Burr concluded, but he had no license to practice in North Carolina.

Thus, a short and slender 36-year-old named Jimmie Little became her lawyer of record with Burr assisting him. Little had once been a public defender. He also had a reputation for being willing to stick his neck out. He had fought for his interpretation of free speech when he was a student at the University of North Carolina by opposing the ban on communist speakers at state campuses. As an Army officer during the Vietnam War, he had vocally opposed America’s being in that conflict.

Little went to the Bladen County Superior Court. He filed a motion asking for a hearing to determine whether or not his client was entitled to a new trial. There were several complaints behind this motion but the chief one was ‘ineffective assistance of counsel’. Thus, Velma was pitted against Bob Jacobson, her previous attorney. Little argued that Jacobson had failed in his duty to make appropriate motions and to put on helpful psychiatric witnesses.

The judge ruled against Velma and set another execution date. Her lawyers soon got a stay and filed more appeals. Over the next six years, several appeals were filed and turned down, several execution dates were set and avoided.

Both Ronnie and Kim continued to visit. As mother and son realized time was running out, Ronnie Burke brought up the painful subject of his father’s death in one of their conversations. He was palpably terrified of the answer but had to ask the question.

“Did you kill him?” Ronnie asked.

“I’m sure I probably did,” she sadly replied. Slowly, the story spilled out. Her memory was fuzzy but she believed that he had been drunk and asleep and she lay either a cigarette or a match at the foot of the bed, then shut the door.

She also admitted to the minister who helped her write Woman on Death Row, that she had murdered Jennings Barfield.

Once the appeals had been exhausted, Velma and her supporters had a thin ray of hope in the form of clemency from North Carolina’s governor. That governor was James Hunt who was running against famous incumbent Jesse Helms for the U.S. Senate. The governor refused Velma’s request for clemency saying her victims had been ‘literally tortured to death.’ Hunt tersely denied that the senate race had played any part in his decision.

As she prepared for death, Velma was able to speak over the phone with Billy Graham. “Velma, in a way I envy you,” the famous pastor told her, “because you’re going to get to heaven before I do.”

Later she spoke to the Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, who comforted Velma by saying, “Don’t think of it as the execution chamber. Think of it as the gateway to heaven”.

As they do at all American executions, demonstrators both for and against capital punishment gathered outside the prison before Velma’s death. Opponents held lit candles and hummed Amazing Grace, Velma’s favorite hymn. A festive mood prevailed among the capital punishment supporters. They held signs saying, “Velma’s going to have a hell of a time” and “Bye-Bye Velma” and chanted, “Die, bitch, die!”

In her cell, Velma took a final communion. They put on an adult diaper underneath the cotton pajamas in which she had chosen to die.

“Velma, it’s time,” she was told.

Velma requested and got permission to put a robe on. Then she checked her hair in the mirror and stepped into the hallway. She was taken to a ‘preparation room’ and asked if she had any last words. She did. “I want to say that I am sorry for all the hurt that I have caused,” she began in a firm voice. “I know that everybody has gone through a lot of pain and I am sorry. I want to thank everybody who has been supporting me all these six years. I want to thank my family for standing with me through all this and my attorneys and all the support to me, everybody, the people with the Prison Department. I appreciate everything, their kindness and everything that they have shown me during these six years.”

Then the condemned prisoner was escorted to her ‘gateway to heaven.’ That gateway was a tiny, sterile room with a gurney in it. Velma got up on that gurney, and lay flat down on it. Needles connected to IV leads were inserted into her arms. She would receive something to make her sleep, then a poison to stop her heart.

There were two lines into Velma but three executioners. One of their thumbs would press upon a plunger that was connected to a dummy so no one would know for certain that he or she had taken a life.

“Velma,” she was told, “Please start counting backward from one hundred.”

Obediently, Velma began, “One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight . . .” Her voice slurred into silence and she started to snore. Her breathing got lighter and lighter with each breath. Then her skin turned an ashen gray. The monitor connected to her heart showed a flat line.

At 2:15 a.m., on November 2, 1984, Velma Barfield, serial murderer and born again Christian, loving mother and killer of her children’s father and grandmother, was dead. She was the first woman executed in the United States in 22 years.

Velma Barfield's adult children, Kim Norton and Richard Burke.
Kim Norton and Richard Burke, grieving during the night Velma Barfield was executed.

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