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.


Barnes grew up in Orono, a central Maine town settled in the early 19th century by lumberjacks who rode felled trees down the Penobscot River to paper mills in Bangor and Bucksport. In the 1860s, the University of Maine broke ground in Orono, introducing a different class of professional to the mix of 10,000 year-round residents. The town still draws its identity from its working-class roots—a character evinced by the pickup trucks parked outside colonial-style houses, and the logs that blanket the river bottom.

The Barnes family was never wealthy. They lived in a ramshackle two-story house on Penobscot Street where the road bends back from the river and recedes into town. Today, the house is run-down and cut into apartments, with holes in the screen windows and cracks in the paint. Tall grass grows crooked through the bars of a rusted jungle gym out back.

Twenty years ago the house reverberated with domesticity. Barnes's father, John A. Barnes, worked for the state, and with his two sons, John and Mark, was an avid baseball card collector. A third child, Wendy, lived in the house with her husband and their two children. When Barbara Barnes wasn't waitressing at Pat's Pizza, she always seemed to be cooking and cleaning, or leaning her head, with her plume of bushy brown hair, out the door to check on Mark.

Barnes liked smacking whiffle balls in a neighbor's backyard. He rode his Huffy bicycle through winding trails around the boarded-up warehouse across the street. He shot holes in the dirt-crusted windowpanes with a pellet gun, and explored the narrow beams of a railroad bridge behind the derelict building. And he played street hockey, lots of it, always choosing to be the goalie.

He coveted friendship from neighborhood boys such as Jon and Todd Savoy, whose mother, Pam, was a close friend of Barbara Barnes. He swam in the Savoys' pool, played baseball and basketball with the brothers, and came inside their kitchen for peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches or pizza from Pat's. But Barnes was never fully accepted by the other boys. As much as he hoped for popularity, it never came.

"I think he and I were a lot alike back then," says a childhood friend of ours. "We both wished we were more popular then we were. We were both into sports, both into girls, and not getting anywhere with either."

By his freshman year at Orono High School, Barnes was overweight and awkward. With his ruddy cheeks and narrow eyes, he was the perfect target for ridicule. Kids called him "Chinaman" because of his eyes, or "Gorilla" because he was large and slow and kept to himself. In study hall, Barnes laughed at his tormentors, occasionally told them to shut up, but never retaliated.

What most at school didn't realize was that the Barnes family was coming apart. In 1985, Barnes's 20-year-old sister, Wendy, was involved in a serious car accident and died nine days later. Before her death, Wendy pleaded to her mother that she take her children, because she no longer trusted her husband. Barbara Barnes fought a bitter custody battle, but lost. The man took his children from Orono and never returned. Then, in 1990, Barnes's father unexpectedly died of cancer.

"After that, Barbara went into a depression and never came out," says Pam Savoy. "She didn't want to live. Every day it was like she was in a stupor. That's when she stopped coddling Mark. The only person who gave him the attention he craved stopped. That's when he started taking those steroids."

Nobody knows exactly when Barnes first took steroids, in what doses, or for how long. Some believed he first took the drug early in high school and continued taking it well into his twenties. Classmates have attested to speaking with Barnes about the drug, and some report seeing steroids in his possession. "I would see Barnes in the gym and he's benching about 450 pounds," says Jon Cota. "I was like, 'What the hell?' He started lifting in high school with like 115 pounds, and all of a sudden he's doing that. It was crazy."


Steroids increase physical strength by stimulating protein production in the cells. Though routinely used to treat diseases like muscular dystrophy, steroids have been a controlled substance since 1991, and have been taken illegally by an estimated 3 million people. Users risk accelerated hair loss, deepening of the voice, shrinkage of the testicles, and sterility. The psychological effects, including aggression, fearlessness, and depression, are only starting to be examined.

In a study published this February in the Archives of General Psychiatry, Harvard professor Dr. Harrison Pope concluded that testosterone, the main component of steroids, increases symptoms of mania in normal men. During a six-week study in which he gave 600 milligrams of testosterone to 56 men, 12 percent became mildly hypomanic and 4 percent became markedly aggressive.

Back in 1994, Pope examined patterns of violent behavior among steroid users by interviewing bodybuilders at Boston-area gyms. All 23 users he interviewed admitted to verbally or physically abusing their girlfriends or wives. "We can't definitively say that steroids are the cause of violence, because we still don't understand how the drug affects the brain," says Pope. "What we can say is that people who were never violent, who had no background of psychotic behavior, became suddenly violent at the same time they started taking the drug."

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