The Dangerous Son


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 “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.”

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.”

In one of his studies, Pope recalls the tragic story of Jamie Fuller, a 16-year-old boy from Massachusetts who murdered his girlfriend in a steroid-fueled rage. Fuller had been a shy child with no serious behavioral or disciplinary problems, Pope says, until he began taking steroids at age 14. Over the next two years, he gained 50 pounds and increased his bench press from 120 to 265. Fuller also suffered from extreme bouts of depression and rage. On August 23, 1991, he lured his 14-year-old girlfriend, whom he suspected of flirting and possibly sleeping with other boys, into the woods. Fuller told her he loved her, then plunged a knife into her stomach, back, and throat. When she lay gurgling on the ground, Fuller silenced his victim by stomping on her throat.

Fuller’s attorneys told the jury the boy’s judgment had been clouded by steroids. His mood swings were so dramatic, they said, Fuller once attempted suicide by ingesting whiskey and aspirin after discovering a pimple on his face. Despite their arguments, he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

Barnes’s initial criminal acts were comparatively minor. In 1989, a then 19-year-old Barnes was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol. Between 1990 and 1995, Barnes was arrested nine times for a string of alleged offenses: violation of privacy, disorderly conduct, operating an unregistered vehicle, possession of marijuana, and assault. He was found guilty in five of the nine cases.

One court-appointed attorney remembers Barnes acting bizarrely. “He would sit there without saying a word and try to intimidate you,” says Lawrence Lunn. “He would squint his eyes, make bizarre faces, and laugh at inappropriate times. It was frightening, really. Here was this huge guy and you didn’t know what he was going to do. He was like a character out of a Stephen King book.”

For much of that period, Barnes worked sparingly, grossing between $200 and $900 per month. In court records, Barnes indicated he neither owned nor rented real estate property, had no vehicle registered to his name, and owned no personal property. He was living with his mother, and paying rent only when he could afford it. Most of his time was spent in the gym. “He would scream and holler when he lifted the weights,” remembers Jon Cota. “His legs were huge—I mean, tree trunks. When he put the weight on the rack you thought the rack was just going to fall. He was so into it I don’t know if he knew anyone was around. This kid was just a machine.”

While Barnes grew stronger, his mother’s health failed. After the death of her husband, Barbara Barnes had suffered a heart attack. She sold the house and moved into a trailer in neighboring Old Town. She saw a therapist and took antidepressants, muscle relaxers, and blood pressure pills. She still waitressed at Pat’s, but only as an excuse to get a break from her son.

During the three years he shared her trailer, Mark was often unemployed and seldom went out. He brooded and paced, wearing sunglasses and a sweatshirt inside and talking crazily of aliens. At night, he crept into his mother’s bedroom, waking her with obscenities and threats of violence. Barbara locked herself in her room for days. Her friends stopped visiting. She wanted her son to move out, but knew he had nowhere to go.

On the afternoon of March 5, 1998, Barnes was in a particularly foul mood. Without saying where he was headed, he stormed out of the trailer and disappeared. To protect herself, Barbara Barnes rose from a kitchen stool and locked the sliding glass door. But her son was already on his way back. He pulled angrily at the door, then darted out of sight. Barbara Barnes raced toward an open window in the bedroom. When she arrived, he had already climbed through. Barnes slammed his diminutive mother against the wall and pulled her by the hair when she ran for the phone.

She tried to flee the trailer, screaming that she was going to the police. She was through taking care of him, she said, and would finally have him thrown out. Inexplicably, Barnes let her go. Through tears, Barbara Barnes saw the face of her son pressed up against the window, mouthing, “I’m going to kill you, you bitch.”

Barnes was convicted of assault. He served 35 days of a one-year jail sentence and was forbidden from returning to his mother’s trailer, even to pick up his belongings. The remainder of his sentence was suspended on the condition that he undergo psychiatric evaluation and follow any treatment recommended. Barbara, who paid her son’s $800 bail, asked that Barnes receive psychiatric treatment for mental illness rather than serve time in jail. Barnes was indignant at the suggestion.

“She don’t want me around anymore,” Barnes told the court. “That’s good. But as far as the psych goes . . . I’ve never been to no counseling. So, you know, I think it’s a little—it looks stupid for her to tell—tell you that I need it and she’s going through it plenty, more than enough for all of us. It’s kind of stupid.”

Barnes rented a room at the $25-a-night Link View Motel with nothing but a duffel bag of dirty clothes. That summer, Jon Cota recalls spotting Barnes at a public pool, dressed in winter clothes. “He’s making faces at the kids and talking to himself. You could tell those last two years he just took a huge turn for the worse. I went up to the fence and said, ‘Man, will you just leave? You’re freaking kids out and my kids are here and I don’t appreciate it.’ He said, ‘I thought we were friends.’ I said, ‘Man, I don’t know you anymore.’ ”

That winter, Barnes stopped meeting with his probation officer. In June, residents complained to police about a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses staring at girls in the park through a pair of binoculars. Barnes was arrested, and again, his mother paid the bail. He was acquitted of violating his probation, because his psychologist hadn’t established a clear schedule.

Barnes continued to visit his mother, leaning on her for financial support. “He would come by whenever he needed money, and get mad at her if she ever said no,” says Pam Savoy. Less than a week before Christmas, coworkers at Pat’s witnessed Barbara warning her son not to visit her at work. The following day, a neighbor saw Barnes entering his mother’s apartment. When Barbara did not show up for her morning shift at the pizzeria, coworkers became worried and called Orono police.

At 7:40 a.m. officers arrived at her apartment; at that same moment Barnes sat uneasily in the back seat of a taxi heading south. The driver later told police Barnes peered again and again out the back window and instructed him to stay off the main roads. All her friends knew Barbara Barnes did not believe in using banks and kept large sums of money in her apartment. But when police searched her apartment, they found none. When Barnes’s taxi reached Waterville, roughly 70 miles south of Orono, the driver reported, Barnes paid the $116 fare with two $100 bills. He later paid a $270 taxi fare to Boston with two hundreds, a fifty, and a twenty, the driver said. Before police even knew who they were looking for, Barnes had escaped.

According to Tatem, Barnes’s attorney, his client has yet to discuss the events that preceded his arrival in New York, his alleged steroid use, or his shattered family. Two years ago, unwilling to leave her son alone in the world, Barbara had objected to a judge’s plan to forbid Mark from visiting.

“No,” she pleaded. “I don’t mind if he calls me. If he wants to call and have lunch somewhere or something . . . I don’t mind that. I’m here to help him, not to hurt him.”