• U.S.

A Portrait of the Killer

12 minute read
Adam Cohen

The manager and his secretary thought they knew Mark Barton when he walked into the Atlanta office of All-Tech Investment Group last Thursday afternoon. They greeted the day trader by name, and he commiserated with them over the news lighting up every trader’s terminal: the Dow’s nearly 200-point slide. He seemed to be the old client they were familiar with. No one knew that Barton was packing two handguns; that on Tuesday he had murdered his wife, on Wednesday his son and daughter; that he had just been at the building across the street, at another brokerage, Momentum Securities, where he had also started off with small talk about the declining stock market before opening fire with a 9-mm Glock and a .45-cal. Colt, killing four people. At All-Tech, the pleasantries were about to end too.

Five shots rang out from the meeting room, and the manager and his assistant were on the floor, seriously wounded. With his Colt in one hand and his Glock in the other, Barton marched onto the main trading floor. Nell Jones, 53, looked up from her computer. “I was the first person who looked into his eyes,” she says. From 10 ft. away, he raised a pistol, pointed at her and fired, missing her forehead by inches and hitting her terminal. He went on firing, was “very calm, very determined,” she says. “No feeling.” Except for one ghoulish aside, uttered as he departed All-Tech: “I hope this won’t ruin your trading day.”

Five people would die at All-Tech. And by dusk, Barton, 44, had turned Glock and Colt on himself as police cornered him at a gas station in an Atlanta suburb. By that time, America had seen hours of TV images of panic in Atlanta’s streets and of the city’s financial center under almost martial rule. As his victims are mourned, the dead murderer’s grim story keeps unfolding, with details of financial folly, maudlin suicide notes, adultery, brutality, suspected fraud, even an earlier set of suspected murders. At a time of increased public anxiety over such shooting sprees, he is a severed Gorgon’s head, freezing onlookers with horrific astonishment. Who was Mark Orrin Barton? Why did he go berserk?

Barton speaks through the notes that were found lying on the corpses of his murdered wife Leigh Ann, 27, daughter Mychelle, 8, and son Matthew, 12, shrouded in towels and sheets, only their faces showing. He wrote in another note, “I don’t plan to live very much longer, just long enough to kill as many of the people that greedily sought my destruction.” But Barton also speaks in a 1995 deposition, obtained by TIME, in which he narrates his life in sober and calculated tones. Barton was trying to collect the $600,000 in insurance he had taken out on his first wife months before she and her mother were murdered in Alabama in 1993. The police had considered Barton a suspect, so the insurance company balked, subjecting him to six hours of questioning.

He argued his case by talking about his life, appearing to discuss candidly the rootlessness of his life, the deterioration of his marriage to first wife Debra Spivey and his affair with Leigh Ann Lang. The only child of parents in the Air Force, Barton worked as a manual laborer and drifted briefly through one college before settling at the University of South Carolina, where he graduated with a chemistry degree in 1979. That same year, he married Spivey, a fellow student he had met while working as night auditor at a local hotel. After living in Atlanta, where Barton tested cleaning compounds, they moved to Texarkana, Texas. In 1988 he became president of TLC Manufacturing, a company he founded with some friends. He made about $86,000 a year.

Then, in 1990, he had a mysterious parting of ways with his company. “Officially, I was fired,” Barton said in his deposition, explaining that it was a way for the company to save face and not scare off suppliers. But after his last day at TLC, someone broke into the offices, stole secret formulas and erased computer files. Police went to Barton’s home and arrested him on a burglary charge. However, according to a report at the time, a detective investigating the case believed the burglary “was not intended for the theft of the product formula but to hide kickbacks, discrepancies in inventory or the possible sale of chemicals for drug activity.” The same day a TLC board member called the police to say, without elaboration, that the company had reached an agreement with Barton. The charges were dropped.

Barton moved to Georgia with his wife and, after starting up a firm he compared with a “paper route,” he took a job as a salesman for a chemical company. In his new position, he got to know a young receptionist named Leigh Ann Lang. She was married at the time, but apparently not happily. “She liked older guys,” Barton said. “She made that known to everybody.” By May 1993, Barton and Lang were having an affair. He bought a new wardrobe and began keeping up a tan. Debra grew suspicious. “The key to the whole thing was I started going to the tanning bed, and she didn’t like that,” he said. She was jealous, he added, “all throughout the relationship…because I was in outside sales. She found her own dog’s hair on me one time…and she asked me if it was another lady’s hair… I just denied it.” At the same time, Barton took out the life-insurance policy on Debra. He had wanted to take out $1 million, couldn’t afford the premiums and settled for $600,000. It was her idea, he rationalized to the insurer. Debra had enjoyed being the wife of a company president. “She felt as time went on that she was just as important as I was … And she developed an extreme sense of self-worth.”

In June 1993, Barton and Leigh Ann took a trip to Charlotte, N.C., where they had dinner with friends of hers. Over dinner, Barton said he had never loved anyone more than Leigh Ann, and that he would be free to marry her by Oct. 1. At the end of August, Leigh Ann was ready to end her own marriage. She found an apartment and moved in with her sister.

A few days later, Debra Barton went to Alabama to spend Labor Day weekend with her mother in a lakeside trailer. Barton stayed home with their children Mychelle and Matthew–or at least that was what he told the authorities. By the end of the weekend, the bodies of Debra Barton and her mother Eloise Spivey were found in a trailer, hacked to death by an axlike tool that police never recovered.

Less than an hour after his wife’s funeral, police showed up at Barton’s home looking for evidence. He played a cat-and-mouse game with the investigators, who searched his possessions and sprayed the house with Luminol, a chemical that causes blood to glow in the dark. Although he was a chemist, Barton claimed never to have heard of it but then added, “I had seen it on one episode of Columbo.” The police got a positive reaction in Barton’s car, on the ignition switch and a seat belt. Barton had no explanation for why there might be blood there, but he did have a challenge for them: “If there is a ton of blood in my car, why aren’t you arresting me?” He said, “Well, now, why am I not in handcuffs?” The police admitted there was not enough blood evident to require an arrest.

Barton later made a trip to Alabama to offer a reason for the blood in his car. It had occurred to him, he told police there, that he had cut his finger to the bone during the summer before his wife’s murder. If there was any blood in the car, he insisted, it was his own. But Barton refused to give blood or saliva samples for DNA testing or take a lie-detector test. In the end, the authorities had strong feelings Barton was guilty, but there were no witnesses to place him at the campground, no fingerprints and only inconclusive forensic evidence. Before they could retest the blood traces in his car, Barton claimed to have spilled a soft drink on them, destroying the evidence.

Within a week of Debra’s death, Leigh Ann was spending nights at the house with Barton and his kids. The month after Debra’s murder, Leigh Ann’s divorce was final, and six months later, the two moved in together. By then Barton was living in Morrow, Ga., where neighbors knew nothing about his first wife’s murder–until last week. His second marriage, however, gave little promise of a happily-ever-after life. Leigh Ann would often pick up and leave, and neighbors would gossip about problems at home. There had been family trouble in February 1994, when Mychelle, then 2 1/2, told a day-care worker that her father had sexually molested her. During the mental evaluations that followed, a psychologist said Barton “certainly was capable” of committing homicide. However, given Mychelle’s age, it was difficult for state attorneys to build a solid case around her against Barton or prevent him from keeping custody of the kids. “It was disturbing enough to have a trained psychologist and competent prosecutors reporting these things back to us back then,” says David McDade, the Douglas County district attorney who has reviewed the 1994 custody hearing. “It’s absolutely chilling to think about it now.”

Then, in 1997, the insurance company decided to settle for $450,000, figuring a jury would have sympathized with the plight of Barton’s kids if the case went to court. The company stipulated, however, that $150,000 go into a trust for Mychelle and Matthew. With the insurance windfall, Barton soon allowed himself to be swept into the risk-loving fraternity of day traders who try to make a living hunched over a computer terminal, betting on the daily gyrations of individual stocks (see accompanying story). By this year Barton was a full-time day trader. But things turned bad this summer. Barton had lost about $105,000 since June, almost all of it on volatile Internet stocks, according to Momentum Securities, where he traded most recently. Some reports said his account there had been closed on Tuesday after he was unable to meet a margin call–a brokerage firm’s demand that a customer put up cash to cover a debt caused by falling stock prices. To reopen the account, he reportedly wrote a check for $50,000; it bounced, and he was denied trading privileges Wednesday and Thursday. Momentum was his first stop when he began his shooting spree on Thursday. All-Tech says Barton was a customer but had not traded with the company for months. The company is not divulging his trading records, but according to some accounts, Barton’s total stock-market losses in the past year may have been as much as $300,000.

The words of Barton’s suicide notes present some tantalizing enigmas. There is anger at the “people who greedily sought my destruction.” Was this the world of the day traders? Then there is blame, regret and denial about his family. “I killed Leigh Ann because she was one of the main reasons for my demise … She really couldn’t help it, and I love her so much anyway.” She was bludgeoned to death, her body hidden from the children in a closet. Mychelle (“my sweetheart”) and Matthew (“my buddy”), he insisted, died “with little pain.” He bashed their heads with a hammer while they slept, then held them underwater in a bathtub to ensure they were dead. He placed a teddy bear on Mychelle’s body, a video game on Matthew’s. “There may be similarities between these deaths and the death of my first wife, Debra Spivey,” he wrote. “However, I deny killing her and her mother. There is no reason for me to lie now.”

He scatters clues but no answers. He wrote: “I have been dying since October. I wake up at night so afraid, so terrified that I couldn’t be that afraid while awake it has taken its toll. I have come to hate this life and this system of things. I have come to have no hope … The fears of the father are transferred to the son. It was from my father to me and from me to my son… I’m sure the details don’t matter. There is no excuse, no good reason I am sure no one will understand. If they could I wouldn’t want them to… You should kill me if you can.” He took care of that himself, but not before arming himself with 200 rounds of ammo and a small collection of guns–a couple of which he had owned for years–and taking nine more people with him.

On Thursday night, eight-year-old Tiffany DeFreese sat alone on the sloping grass, bare feet poking beneath the yellow police tape, eyes on an open door 150 ft. away. “I’m just trying to get a sneak peek in so I can see my best friend,” she says of Mychelle. “I just saw them take a bag out. It was a big bag. It must have been the mother.”

“I wish it hadn’t happened. I’m mad cause now I can’t go to Girl Scouts with her,” Tiffany says. “She would whisper things to me when I really needed help with things.” She pauses. “I’m probably going to buy some flowers,” she says. “I wish they would give me something of hers–one of her toys or something.” She continues: “I wish she wasn’t even there. I wish she was spending the night with us. It’s so stupid.” She wonders, “Maybe I could take her cat. Is the cat dead too?”

–Reported by Greg Fulton, Sylvester Monroe, David Nordan, Tim Padgett and Tim Roche/Atlanta, Hilary Hylton/Austin and Victoria Rainert/New York

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