Battling Over Booze
When she was 17, Thomas proposed marriage and Velma accepted. She had a tremendous row with her father, at the end of which Murphy Bullard broke down in tears. Velma had never seen her father, so steadfastly and traditionally masculine, cry before. But she still wanted to be with Thomas.
Both Thomas and Velma quit school shortly after marrying. Thomas Burke held different jobs, in a cotton mill, as a farm laborer, and then driving a delivery truck. Velma worked for a while in a drugstore but Thomas disliked having her work outside the home so she quit.
The newlywed Burkes were residing in a small Parkton home where Velma's family had once lived when the young wife got pregnant in 1951. On December 15 of that year, she gave birth to Ronald Thomas. His sister, Kim, was born on September 3, 1953.
Velma Burke adored taking care of her babies. She was an indulgent and protective mother who frequently read to her youngsters and could not stand to be separated from them even for brief periods. She wanted both children to grow up to be ardent Christians and regularly took them to a Baptist church.
When her children started school, Velma Burke quickly became known as one of the most involved mothers. She was "grade mother" for the classes of both her youngsters and always available for class field trips and the like. She and her children joked that they had "automatic arms" because whenever a teacher asked the class if someone's mother would be willing to assist with a project, their arms instantly shot into the air. Velma Burke could always be counted on. She often drove children in the classes her kids attended on field trips and the youngsters would fight to ride with her because she was so much fun.
Around this time, Velma got another paying job. Apparently Thomas did not object. The family needed some extra cash. She took the midnight to 8 a.m. shift at a textile plant. Thomas began a job as delivery driver for Pepsi-Cola. The family now had enough funds to move into a more comfortable house in Parkton. The Burkes enjoyed several good years.
In 1963, Velma began having medical problems and had to undergo a hysterectomy. They were not as distraught as some couples might have been because both Velma and Thomas agreed that the two children were all they wanted.
The surgery appeared to have a drastic, and negative, affect on Velma. She was alternately nervous or depressed and often snappish. She began worrying that the fact that she could no longer get pregnant made her seem less womanly and, therefore, less attractive to her husband. She started to have more physical problems and was especially troubled by lower back pain.
Thomas Burke decided to join the Jaycees. He went off to their weekly meetings while Velma sat at home with the kids. She began to resent his evening absences.
Even more, she resented his drinking. Velma was a firm teetotaler who agreed with her church that alcoholic beverages were the devil's drinks. Thus, she was deeply upset when she found out that Thomas was regularly going out with his male friends for a few beers.
In 1965, Thomas had an accident as he was driving his three-year-old Ford Galaxy. As described in Death Sentence, "The car left the highway, hit a culvert, sailed into the air and landed on its wheels in the driveway of a house. Thomas' head banged the steering wheel and he was knocked unconscious."
He had a concussion and would ever after suffer severe headaches. He always maintained that he had not been drinking but had only been tired and had fallen asleep at the wheel. His wife would not buy it. She was certain he had been drunk and redoubled her nagging on the subject.
Thomas resented her noisy attempts to talk him into abstaining from booze. He drank no more than most of the guys he hung around with. Why was his wife trying to run his life?
Their battles over booze became an almost daily affair. Usually, Velma started them, upset because Thomas had liquor on his breath. A shouting, name-calling match would follow and the children were inevitably frightened and disturbed by their argumentative parents. Ronnie was especially concerned because he feared his dad would eventually settle the disputes the way so many other men did— with his fists.
To his credit, however, Thomas never employed brute strength in his many and furious arguments with his wife.
Thomas was arrested for drunken driving in 1967. As a result he lost his driver's license and, with it, his job at Pepsi-Cola. He was devastated. The shame and despair plunged him into a depression and he drank more than ever to dull a pain that was caused by his drinking. The Burke kids no longer invited friends over to their home because they did not want the other kids to hear their parents fight or see their dad wiped out from booze.
A mill hired Thomas and he was able to ride to work in a carpool (even if the word was not in common use at the time).
The household tension was taking a great toll on Velma. She was ever more worried and frantic and had been drastically losing weight. One day, Ronnie came home to find his mother lying on the kitchen floor in a dead faint.
He was able to help her back to consciousness but insisted on a trip to the hospital. Doctors there recommended she remain hospitalized for a week. She was given vitamins and sedatives before being released with a prescription for a mild tranquilizer, Librium.
When she got home, she eventually began taking more Librium than was prescribed. She also went to another physician and got a prescription for Valium. Velma Barfield had begun the avocation of "doctor shopping" that she would pursue up until her arrest for murder. It was a pattern of going to doctors and getting prescriptions without telling one doctor that she was seeing another. Thus, she took medicines that were not supposed to be taken in conjunction with each other.
Even as she constantly and loudly fretted about her husband's alcohol use, Thomas and her teenaged kids worried about her use of prescription medicines. She was taking too much, sometimes leaving her as groggy as a drunkard.
One day in April, the Burke house caught on fire. The only person home was Thomas Burke. Both youngsters were at school. Velma said she had been at the laundromat when she came home to see the house in flames.
Thomas Burke died of smoke inhalation.
At the hospital, Velma collapsed when she was told of her husband's death. Ronnie and her sister caught her before she could fall to the floor.