The Dangerous Son

Mark Barnes Sits in a New York Jail, Accused of Murdering His Mother. Friends Back Home Think Steroids Made Him Do It.

Reeking of urine and dressed in ragged clothes, Mark John Barnes pushed his way through an exit door onto the crowded West 4th Street subway platform. The 30-year-old drifter was broke and alone; for several weeks he'd been sleeping in the tunnels. To the three plainclothes cops watching him on the afternoon of May 4, he must have seemed just another bedraggled fare-jumper.

But Barnes was far from harmless. He had been in hiding since last year, when he slipped from his New England hometown in the still air of dawn, just hours before his mother's body was found. He had kept to the back roads and tunnels, discarding his possessions, growing his hair—anything to avoid being recognized as the accused killer profiled three times on America's Most Wanted.As the officers approached, Barnes hurried back through the metal gate. His brown eyes shifted behind a face that was bloated, unshaven, and smeared with black steel dust. Despite a haggard appearance, Barnes knew he could use his 300-pound frame to intimidate. He had been in this kind of situation before. "You can't do anything to me if I'm already back out," he protested.

He was wrong. As Officer Dominick Nugnes of the 2nd Transit Bureau slapped a pair of handcuffs on him, court records show, Barnes jerked backward and ran toward the stairs, cuffs dangling from his right wrist, closed but unlocked. He could have made it to the street, could have escaped, but instead turned back to confront the cops, who maced him. Eyes watering, he staggered toward a young blond woman at the token booth, wrapped a massive arm around her neck, and lifted her off the ground as a human shield.

Officers Nugnes and Gail Imhauser rushed in to pry Barnes away, but he grabbed Imhauser by the hair and pulled her down. With his immense weight pinning her against the concrete, he slowly worked his fingers over her face, digging into her eye sockets.

One officer rammed an elbow into Barnes's neck. A second jumped on his back. Imhauser squirmed out from under Barnes, then stood atop his ankles. Afraid to try cuffing him, she shouted into her radio, "10-13, 10-13"—the code for immediate police backup. With the help of two detectives, the cops arrested Barnes on kidnapping charges, four counts of assault, and a misdemeanor for entering the subway without paying.

Then they learned their captive was wanted for a much more serious crime. Four days before Christmas, on a frigid morning, police in Orono, Maine, discovered 59-year-old Barbara Barnes facedown in a pool of blood. On the chair beside her lifeless body, they reported, were the fingerprints of her youngest son, Mark. By then, Barnes had traveled 300 miles by taxi to Boston, escaping coordinated police efforts along the East Coast.

What Barnes could not escape, though, was his own erratic behavior and hair-trigger temper—traits that had tailed him almost from the moment he began taking steroids in his early teens.

"For a lot of us, weight lifting was about having pride in your physical stature," says Jon Cota, who went to school with Barnes and me. "But he took it too far. He got hooked on the juice, and just started throwing weight around. He gained about a hundred pounds of muscle, and realized people started to respect and even fear him. That's what he wanted. That's what he lived for. But something happened to his mind. He became another person."


Since his arrest, Barnes has passed his days in the Manhattan Detention Center, a holding facility better known as the Tombs. New York police have refused to extradite the accused murderer to Maine until his New York case, still creeping through the preliminary stages, is resolved. His court-appointed attorney, James Tatem, has entered a plea of not guilty on all charges. If convicted in New York, Barnes faces 25 years to life.

His best hope may be the seldom tried "steroid defense," in which Tatem would argue that not only had Barnes used anabolics, but that he'd been taking them in doses high enough to provoke hypomanic—and violent—behavior. Even that best hope appears weak.

"You're trying to prove something which hasn't even been accepted by doctors or scientists," says attorney Rick Collins, a Long Island bodybuilder who has handled dozens of steroid cases and offers advice to users of anabolics at www.steroidlaw.com. "You'd have to have a damn good expert, but even then your chances are small."

Collins also cautions that jurors balk at accepting illicit drug use as an excuse. "Because the drug is a controlled substance," he says, "there's a stigma surrounding it that predisposes people to react a certain way."

But when you're looking at life behind bars, you go with whatever you've got, and for Barnes, that may have to be a steroid defense. Tatem has had his client evaluated by a psychiatrist, and he has an investigator delving into his childhood, looking for clues about why Barnes fell apart. Tatem describes Barnes as courteous and agreeable, hardly the kind of monster police describe. "If the charges are correct up in Maine," Tatem says, "they are horrendous."

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