A couple of weeks after Valentine’s Day, 1979, 21-year-old Carol Ann Willits was found dead in her car, an apparent suicide. She was seated, wearing men’s cotton work gloves and blindfolded, shot through the temple, and a suicide note in her handwriting was found next to her body. It read in part: “I’m sorry I’ve caused you so much trouble. I hope you find your peace. I’ve found mine.”
In her lap was the .38 caliber handgun Carol had purchased two days earlier.
Also in the car, police found a three-page letter from Bryan Kirby Barrett, a man who Carol may or may not have been dating. Bryan’s letter informed Carol that her feelings of affection for him were not returned and that he was romantically involved with another woman, Cynthia Walker, 19. A card in an envelope addressed to Walker by Barrett was also found in the car, as was a hair from Walker’s head.
Several miles from where Carol was found, police discovered Cynthia Kay Walker lying dead on a rural Iowa gravel road. Cynthia had been shot three times with the same gun that killed Carol.
At first blush, it appeared that Carol had murdered her rival and then, despondent, killed herself.
The initial investigation seemed to confirm this hypothesis. Cynthia Walker was Barrett’s girlfriend, he told police, but he admitted having a sexual affair with Carol, as well. In fact, Barrett said gave police the apparent motive for Carol’s acts. On Feb. 16, a week before the apparent murder/suicide, Carol caught him and Cynthia en flagrante, and become enraged. It was after Carol surprised him with Cynthia that Barrett wrote his “Dear Jane” letter ending their relationship.
Cynthia and Carol were friends, and Cynthia’s mother told authorities that Carol had called the night before to make arrangements to pick up a mutual friend. Circumstantial evidence seemed to indicate that Cynthia had been in Carol’s car the night of the murder and sand on the bumper of the car was consistent with the soil where Cynthia was found.
For several months, the case was considered a tragic, yet classic love triangle. The two young women were buried and mourned by their families. But little by little, the facade collapsed. Explanations, reasons, assurances and answers didn’t hold up to the light of day. Before long, it began to look as if there wasn’t just one woman murdered on February 23, but two.
Take, for instance, Barrett’s claim that Carol had walked in on him while he was in bed with Cynthia on February 16. Carol’s car was in the shop that day, and she would have had to have walked 20 blocks in subzero temperatures to surprise the pair.
And then there was the gun Carol bought. Investigators looking into the case discovered that while Carol did buy the gun, she did so at Barrett’s request and with his money. Although she bought the gun two days before she died, she sought a handgun purchase permit from the State of Iowa before February 16 — that is, before she was supposed to have become so angry with her friend Cynthia that she wanted to kill her.
The evidence also portrayed Carol Ann Willits as an unlikely murderer. Former coworkers told authorities that on the night of the murder, a cheerful Carol prepared a spaghetti dinner, shared family photos of the recent Christmas, and was eagerly awaiting a trip to Ireland with other friends.
They told police that it was their impression that she regarded Barrett as a friend, and some of them recalled that he had telephoned her the night of the shootings.
Moreover, friends of Carol strongly asserted that Carol had firm convictions against premarital sex and that they did not believe Barrett’s claim that he and Carol were lovers.
Witnesses who saw Carol’s car on the road that tragic night also reported seeing another vehicle matching the description of a Buick owned by Barrett’s parents.
The blindfold itself appeared to have been made from cloth taken from a pillowcase in the Barrett household.
A number of aspects of the suicide raised red flags to experts, as well. A forensic pathologist with years of experience studied the scene and found six significant irregularities.
- The presence of a blindfold at the scene of a suicide is highly unusual
- The knot on the blindfold was on the left side which would not be the typical placement of a knot tied by a right-handed person
- Carol was wearing cotton work gloves that were much too large for her hands, making it difficult to tie a blindfold and handle a small pistol
- Carol’s hand was found in her lap with the gun on top of her hand; in most suicides-by-handgun, the weapon is found still clutched in the deceased’s hand or to the side of the body, depending on whether the person was left- or right-handed
- The path of the bullet was straight, where most self-inflicted gunshot wounds are canted at an angle
- There was an intact paper bag on the seat that should have been flattened by the gun.
The pathologist stressed that none of these factors on its own would be enough to make him question the suicide theory, but combined, they did cause him enough concern.
The pathologist — who was brought in as a consultant and had not visited the scene — conceded that had Carol lowered her left elbow to avoid hitting the driver’s side window while tying the blindfold, the knot would have probably ended up more left-of-center. Also in support of the suicide theory, a friend of Carol’s recalled that she had once said if she “did something terrible,” she would shoot herself while wearing a blindfold.
In Carol’s apartment, authorities found a “rough draft” of the suicide note torn up and discarded, which is not unusual. On the margins of the rough draft, however, Carol’s name is misspelled several different ways. Equally curious, a note added as an afterthought on the first draft was also included on the note found at the scene of Carol’s death — again as a postscript.
As the evidence began to indicate that Barrett had a hand in the events of February 23, 1979, police began to wonder what motive he might have had to kill the two women. They were not shocked when it all came down to money.
A few months before Cynthia died, she took out a $50,000 life insurance policy on herself, naming Barrett as the sole beneficiary. The policy carried a double indemnity clause that would have paid him a cool hundred grand if Cynthia died an unnatural death.
When police questioned Barrett about the policy, his explanation was that he had agreed to take her on a trip to California in 1978 and as a condition of letting her ride with him; he made her take out the policy — which he paid for — in case something should happen to her and her parents sued him. Although they never took the trip, Barrett was good enough not to let the life insurance policy lapse.
Why Carol had to die is unknown, but at the time the authorities believed she was killed just to throw police off his trail.
Barrett’s “perfect crime” was finally tripped up by his own ineptitude.
Like many psychopaths, Barrett had a large ego and delusions of being smarter than he really was. He also had a demonstrated propensity toward cruelty. In mid-1979, he handed a smoking gun to police.
A prodigious diarist, Barrett kept a journal dating back to before he began his relationship with either Carol or Cynthia. The 143-page journal details outlandish and violent plans to kill or hurt his ex-wife — who divorced him before he met the younger women — including a plan to throw acid in her face.
“The journal is replete with drawings, diagrams, and sketches of his sinister designs,” wrote the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999. “In the journal, Barrett repeatedly refers to his need to get rid of his ex-wife.”
Those fantasies could be written off as the rantings of a man going through a contentious divorce, but there was more in them.
“It describes plans for the kidnapping and murder of a Des Moines Register paper carrier,” the Iowa Supreme Court wrote years later. “These plans include planting false clues for the authorities indicating the crime was committed by some unidentified person other than defendant. They suggest that it is defendant’s intention to convince authorities that this person committed the crime in order that defendant might collect a reward.”
The most damning circumstantial evidence was evidence that Barrett had forged his ex-wife’s signature on an application for life insurance previously and had kept the policy in force until his arrest. While he never wrote in the journal about killing his wife specifically to collect an insurance payoff, Barrett did write that one motive for killing her was “profit.”
The journal came to light in the summer of 1979 when for some strange reason, Barrett left it in the dining room of a fast food restaurant where employees found it.
When the workers read the violent fantasies and plans in the diary, they turned it over to police, who photocopied it before returning it to Barrett.
When he was arrested and went on trial five years after the killings of Carol and Cynthia, Barrett challenged the introduction of the journal as evidence. He claimed that it was seized in violation of his Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizures, and that the portion of the diary unrelated to his ex-wife and his anger toward her would unfairly influence the jury.
The court allowed the journal to be introduced and the jury convicted Barrett of two counts of first degree murder.
On appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, the justices reversed his conviction, agreeing that the journal entries about wanting to kidnap a newspaper carrier for a reward was inflammatory. They ordered a new trial and he was convicted again a year later.
He filed for a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted at the district court level. However, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the request and vacated the lower court’s order.
Barrett continues to serve out his sentence.