Soon authorities took a second look at the death certificates of the several people close to Velma Barfield who had died. Even when an autopsy had been performed, no special test had been done for poison. Rather, with stunning regularity, those she knew expired of "gastroenteritis." The investigators were pretty certain they were dealing not only with a murderer but a serial murderer.
The police always do best if they can get a confession. What would be the best way to obtain one from Velma? They decided to surprise her. They would pick her up for questioning on one of the multitude of bad checks she had written, then confront her with Stuart Taylor's death.
Since the checks had been written in Lumberton, Benson Phillips would question her. Sheriff Lovett and homicide investigator Al Parnell were present as well. They went over the checks. This was well-ploughed territory for Barfield and she appeared nonplussed.
Then Phillips began discussing her poor boyfriend, Stuart Taylor, who had so recently and tragically died. "Do you know he was killed by arsenic?" the detective asked.
The plump grandmother appeared stunned by this news.
Phillips pressed on, asking for details about their relationship. He was especially interested in knowing if Barfield had reason to be angry with Taylor.
"Y'all think I poisoned Stuart, don't you?" she gasped in outrage. The two of them were in love, she maintained, and planning to wed. She had nothing to gain by killing him. It was dreadful for them to suggest such a thing. Why, she was the one who had nursed the poor man through his illness! She was the one who had rushed him to the hospital! Now they were trying to throw dirt on all her good work. They ought to be ashamed of themselves.
"Would you take a lie detector test?" Lovett asked.
Certainly. She had nothing at all to hide.
They told her a polygraph examination would be arranged and that she was free to go. Just as she got up to exit, Parnell sprung on her, "Velma, you know, this can go all the way back to your mother."
She glared at the investigator, made no remark, and left in a huff.
That Saturday morning, Ronnie Burke was visiting his in-laws when his mother, Velma Barfield, phoned their house and asked to speak to her son.
Ronnie Burke was a 26-year-old man with multiple responsibilities. He had a wife and a 3-year-old son. He worked full-time and went to college full-time at Pembroke State University where he sought a business administration degree. He would receive it in just a couple of months. Burke was often pressed for time and sleep but he wanted to become the first member of his family to earn a four-year college degree, partly because he knew how much that would please his mother. For quite awhile, Burke had been concerned for his mother. She had suffered far more than her share of grief through the deaths of so many people she cared about. He also knew that she was taking more drugs than the doctors had prescribed for her.
His mother sounded overwrought. The police had taken her to the station, she told him.
Oh no, he thought. She was back to writing bad checks to cover drug bills.
Then a shock went through him.
"They wanted to talk about Stuart," Mom informed him. "They said he was poisoned. They seem to think I had something to do with it."
Some cop had really goofed this time, Burke thought. Burke knew that Taylor had died five weeks previously. His Mom had been devastated. He did not know who might have poisoned the man but he knew it could not possibly be his mother.
He told his Mom that he would be going home soon and she should meet him there. This was a frightful mistake but Burke was certain it could be straightened out. The cops would learn they were barking up the wrong tree. He was anxious to comfort his mother and let her know things would work out as they should in the end.
Burke, his wife, and toddler dwelled in a modest duplex on the outskirts of Lumberton, North Carolina. When Velma arrived there, he comforted her just like he had intended to. He did not believe she would need a lawyer. Attorneys are terribly expensive, after all, and he and his mother were people of very limited means. The police would realize soon that she could not have had anything to do with Stuart's death and just drop it. There was no need to worry, he assured her.
That Monday, Burke was at work when a woman phoned. She would not say who she was but told him, "I'm a friend of your mother's."
What did she want to tell him?
"I've heard she's going to be arrested today," she said. "I thought you ought to know."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, they're going to charge her with Stuart's death. . . . I know someone who works in the sheriff's department."
It did not seem possible that the police could go so wrong, Burke thought. Yet, Mom had told him that they suspected her. Could the cops be about to arrest an innocent woman for murder? That sort of thing happens in the movies but not in real life.
Burke told his supervisor he had to leave to attend to a family emergency. He drove to the Lumberton Police Department and talked to Wilbur Lovett. They were not planning to arrest her that day, the sheriff told him, but they did consider her a suspect. He could not disclose why and Burke left Lovett's office even more outraged and upset than he had been when he walked in.
From there he drove to the home in which his mother was living. Velma Barfield resided with Mamie Warwick, a senior citizen who allowed Velma to live rent-free in exchange for her doing some household chores. Burke found his Mom taking a nap. She was in bed as he spoke to her, telling her that the cops still suspected her in Stuart Taylor's death. Velma said she could not possibly do anything like that. Then she started sobbing. Finally, she stopped crying and told her son something he had never expected to hear. Her words were soft, almost a whisper, yet unmistakably clear.
"I only meant to make him sick," she said.
With that, Burke felt like the floor had been cut out from under him.
So it had been an accident. But his mother had caused it. She would have to go to the police and explain.
Velma wept quietly as she sat in the passenger seat of her son's car, being driven to the sheriff's department. Burke could not be present while she was questioned. She said she did not want a lawyer.
Dejected but certain he had done the right thing, Burke phoned his sister to break the sad news to her. They agreed to meet at her home. In times of crisis, families need to be together and Velma's sisters, Arlene and Faye, would eventually drive in to join their niece and nephew.
The phone rang and Burke spoke to investigator Al Parnell.
"It's worse than we thought," Parnell said.
Burke was dumbstruck, wondering how could it possibly be any worse?
"There are other people. . . . Other people she's killed," Parnell told a stunned Ronnie Burke. Parnell went on to relate that Velma Barfield had confessed to killing two people to whom she had been a paid, live-in caregiver and her own mother, Burke's grandmother, Lillie Bullard.
When Burke repeated what he had been told to his sister and aunts, a pandemonium of tears and screaming broke out in the little house.
Burke recalled the loving mother who had fed and clothed him, bandaged his cuts and wiped his runny nose, been a conscientious grade mother for him and his sister, taken him to church and taught him right from wrong, disciplined him and encouraged him always to do his very best. That image was impossible to reconcile with the poisoner of four people.
Just what kind of person was Velma Barfield?