Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Velma Barfield

Jennings Barfield

A few months after this loss, Velma Burke experienced great joy and triumph through the achievement of her son. Ronnie was graduating from high school as salutatorian. His mother sat proudly among the spectators as he spoke at the commencement. He chose the subject nearest to his heart: his mother. In his speech, he paid tribute to her as the reason for all of the good qualities he possessed. Velma cried as she listened to his public praise. What a joy to be so appreciated by one's grateful son and to have everyone know it.

However, the Burke family continued to have bad luck. There was another fire at their home. This time, no one was inside and no one was hurt. But the house was gutted. While they waited for the insurance to pay for the damage, the Burkes moved back in with Velma's parents, Murphy and Lillie Bullard.

Soon after Thomas' death, Velma began dating a widower named Jennings Barfield. Barfield was a man who had taken early retirement due to numerous health problems. He suffered from diabetes, emphysema, and heart disease. He had lost his wife close to the time Velma had lost her husband and the two were probably initially brought together by a mutual desire to comfort each other in grief. Then a romance grew and deepened and wedding bells were in the air.

They were married on August 23, 1970. It was a church wedding, something Velma felt she had missed out on in her youthful elopement to Thomas Burke. Velma moved into the small home in Fayetteville that her groom shared with his teenaged daughter, Nancy.

The newlyweds were soon having troubles, partly because of Velma's penchant for overdoing it with prescription medications. Jennings found his wife in a semi-conscious state and took her to the hospital. The doctor on duty said she had overdosed. They separated, then reconciled when she promised to quit taking so many pills. She broke her word and went back to the emergency room with another overdose. Both Velma and Jennings confided to others that they believed the marriage had been a mistake. Divorce seemed in the offing with it just a question of who would leave first.

It never actually came to that, however.

Jennings Barfield died on March 21, 1971, apparently of the heart failure that had troubled him for years.

Widowed again, Velma did not appear to be coping well. She was despondent and listless, often medicating herself into oblivion and spending much of her time in bed. "After Jennings's death," she would recall, "I felt emptier and more depressed than ever. I kept going to my doctors. I had prescriptions from at least two, and usually three, doctors at a time. . . . No matter how many pills any one doctor prescribed, they never lasted until time for the next refill."

She worked at Belk's department store but her performance there was being badly affected by her mood swings and evident drug dependency. Her boss was a sympathetic man so, instead of firing her, he put her in the stockroom where she could not alienate customers with a snippy or brusque manner.

Adding to Velma's despair was a separation from her son. The Vietnam War was raging and Ronnie felt it was only a matter of time before he was drafted so he decided to sign up. He had second thoughts after Jennings Barfield's death and his mother begged him to attempt to persuade the military that he needed to be allowed to stay with his sick mom. He made a sincere effort in that direction. Doctors wrote to the Army telling of Velma Barfield's precarious health and asking that Ronnie be permitted to honorably opt out of his contract. It did not work and he was ordered to report to Fort Jackson in South Carolina.

When it seemed like things could not get worse, they did. Velma's house once again caught fire! Velma went into hysterics. She was simply inconsolable. Why did such things keep happening to her?

She and her daughter once again moved back in with Murphy and Lillie Bullard. It was just in time— for Velma was fired from Belk's. She had been coming in late and unable to perform her duties when she was there. Unemployment led Velma's chronic depression to deepen. It got even blacker when she learned that Murphy Bullard had lung cancer. His death at 61 plunged her into a horrible grief. Life hardly seemed worth living. Her father was dead and her son could be sent to Vietnam and be killed.

It seemed that she would lose Ronnie even if he did not die because he told her he was planning to marry. She did not give her son and his prospective bride her blessing. Instead, she was crushed. She told her son, "I've always been the most important woman in your life and now you're going to have her and you won't even want me to come around at all!"

Ronnie tried to reassure her that his love for his future wife did not take away from his love for his mother. His earnest reassurance did nothing to ease her jealousy of the young woman who was to share his life. But neither did mom's jealousy dissuade Ronnie from going ahead with the plans for his wedding.

In March 1972, Velma Barfield was arrested for forging a prescription. She pleaded guilty in April and got off with a suspended sentence and a fine. Then, finally, she got some genuinely welcome news: Ronnie was discharged from the Army!



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