'You've Got to Stop Her!'
Velma Barfield and her adult son Ronnie Burke sat with Stuart's grieving family at his funeral. Velma placed a comforting arm around Alice and said the words so commonly repeated under such circumstances by believers in an afterlife: "He's in a far better place."
As Ronnie left the service, he looked at another person there and observed, "You know, it's the saddest thing but it seems like everybody my mother ever gets close to dies." How could the good Lord allow this to happen to a faithful Christian like Velma Barfield?
Earlier that same Sunday, a phone call had awakened Lumberton Police Detective Benson Phillips. The caller was weeping and babbling. The detective could not easily make out her slurred, shrill words. He was able to gather from some of the sounds: "Murder! . . . I know who did it! . . . You've got to stop her! You've got to stop her!"
The sleepy police officer sighed. A crank call, he thought. Just what he needed to start the day. He had heard of no murder in the small town of Lumberton and he would have if one had been committed since he investigated all homicides.
However, he suggested she call him at the station before he hung up the phone.
When he got there, he found, as he expected to, no homicide reports. The nutty morning caller faded from his thoughts as he got on with his day's work.
Then she phoned. According to Jerry Bledsoe's Death Sentence, "This time she was calmer, more coherent. She still didn't want to give details, but Phillips gradually coaxed them from her. She revealed that she was calling from South Carolina, but she couldn't give her name. She didn't want anybody to know that she had called. The man who had been murdered, she said, was the boyfriend of Velma Barfield, who had killed him just as she had killed her own mother. The caller admitted that she could offer no proof, but she was sure, too, that Velma's boyfriend and mother weren't the only ones. Too many other people close to Velma had died, she said, including two elderly people Velma had worked for, but she didn't know their names. When Phillips pressed for evidence, she could offer none.
How did she know about all of this? Phillips asked.
'Because,' she said, 'Velma is my sister.'"
Phillips was utterly baffled by this strange caller. He did not trust her but then again, he could not quite dismiss her out of hand. He had to do some checking to make sure. He called the Lumberton hospital and inquired if anyone had died over the weekend.
Yes, he was told, Stuart Taylor. It seemed to be a death by natural causes. Was an autopsy being performed? Phillips asked. Regional medical examiner Dr. Bob Andrews had performed an autopsy but did not yet have all the results back.
Phillips was intrigued and disturbed but also in an awkward position. As Bledsoe, wrote, "He had discovered that Taylor had been brought to the hospital from the countryside near St. Paul's. That would put any investigation under the jurisdiction of the sheriff. He had no responsibility. Still, he made a note to call his old friend Wilbur Lovett at the sheriff's department on Monday to tell him about it."
In the meantime, Dr. Andrews, who knew nothing of the detective's suspicions or those nagging doubts that Phillips related to Sheriff Lovett, was puzzling over the results of his autopsy. Stuart Taylor had seemingly died of gastroenteritis. It was odd for a man as healthy as Taylor to be killed by that alone and Dr. Andrews determined to look further. Finding an inexplicable abnormality in some liver tissue, he put some of Taylor's tissue samples into plastic bags. Then he mailed it to North Carolina's chief medical examiner and asked for more tests.
Dr. Andrews was still waiting for the results of those tests when he spoke with a distraught Alice Storms. Her father had been so hale and hardy. What was it that had killed him? She had a right to know!
So Dr. Andrews phoned North Carolina's chief medical examiner, Page Hudson. Hudson did not know about the tissues Andrews had sent for examination. However, he asked Andrews for details about the death. Andrews told him about the girlfriend, Velma Barfield, who had brought Stuart Taylor to the hospital and described Taylor's symptoms.
Hudson instantly grasped the situation. "Where'd she get the arsenic, Bob?" he asked.