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At a young age, Barbara Burns was asked to put her life on hold in order to look after her little sister Debbie. Her sacrifice would breed resentment that ultimately pushed her over the edge.
Barbara A. Burns was born in Washington D.C. in 1951. She grew up in a working-class family in Maryland, the third of five children and the oldest girl.
“She was very likable, very jolly. Has a wonderful personality,” former employer Linda Ware told “Snapped,” airing Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
In 1964, Barbara’s baby sister Debbie was born. When she was 2 years old, Debbie suffered extensive brain and nerve damage after coming down with scarlet fever. As a result, Debbie was physically and mentally disabled, with the cognitive level of a 6-year-old child.
When she was 15, Barbara’s father died and her mother, Margaret, went back to work to support the family. Barbara had to drop out of school to take care of little Debbie.
“I never got to be a teenager. I resent my mom for that, for making me in charge of her,” Barbara told the Tampa Bay Times newspaper in 2020. “My brothers and sister got to have a life I never had.”
In 1981, Margaret, Barbara, and Debbie moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, living in a small apartment. To help with the rent, Barbara got a job washing dishes at a local restaurant.
“Barbara was a hard worker. She was always on time. Always did what you asked her to, anything extra, she was a very good employee,” former employer William Kropp told “Snapped.”
When Margaret became too sick to work, Barbara became the family’s sole provider. She would work all day, then go home and cook dinner for her mother and sister.
Margaret developed Alzheimer’s and was died in 2000. Brother John Burns would die soon after, leaving behind a $350,000 inheritance in order to take care of Debbie.
Flush with cash for the first time in their lives, the girls went on lavish trips to California and Australia, splurged on toys and collectables for Debbie, and bought a double-wide trailer worth $80,000. But the bank foreclosed on the mobile home after mortgage payments mysteriously stopped in the summer of 2004.
On the morning of May 4, 2005, contractor Phillip McCain and his son Jason arrived to clean out the property. Upon entering, they were greeted by a foul odor.
“They just started going through the trailer. It was kind of odd because it looked like someone had just picked up and left,” former Pinellas County Sheriff’s Detective Misty Manning told "Snapped."
The smell got worse as they entered the bedroom. Two single beds had been placed in an L-shape. A lumpy pile of blankets sat atop one with potpourri strewn on top of it. The McCains pulled on the mound of blankets and they crashed to the floor. Sticking out of the dirty linens was a human foot and leg.
“I’m working over here in St. Pete on a clean out for a foreclosure and I’ve got a dead body in the house,” Jason McCain is heard telling the 911 dispatcher on a tape of the call, obtained by “Snapped.”
The body was so badly decomposed that its gender, age, or race could not be determined. Authorities didn’t know if they were looking at one of the Burns sisters or someone else.
“The body was basically mummified,” Pinellas County Sheriff’s Detective Edward Judy told “Snapped.”
The victim was wrapped in a “Star Wars” comforter and plastic bags. In the center of their forehead was a single gunshot wound, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Neighbors of the Burns said the sisters kept to themselves and hadn’t been seen in months. They said Debbie only had three teeth and walked with a limp.
“In observation of the body, we learned that the subject only had three teeth and a twisted spine,” explained Manning.
Detectives spoke with Linda Ware, who said when Barbara wasn’t at work, she was taking care of Debbie. According to Ware, Debbie wasn’t always easy to be around.
“She was bossy to Barbara and mean,” said Ware. “She was like a child. I don't think she understood things in life. She couldn’t understand that she couldn’t have what she wanted. She couldn’t understand that it wasn’t all about Debbie.”
Investigators also learned that after receiving their brother’s inheritance, Debbie demanded her own credit card. She then burned through the money, impulsively buying whatever she wanted. Debbie frequented Internet chat rooms and began messaging a man in Miami. Thinking he was going to marry her, she lavished him with expensive gifts.
Within three years, the sisters' $350,000 inheritance was gone and Barbara was working for $7 an hour as a cashier at Lowe’s. Even with Debbie’s social security check, it wasn’t enough to cover the household bills and Barbara eventually filed for bankruptcy.
Barbara drove a gray Dodge Caravan, and car payments had stopped several months back. It was found abandoned behind the St. Petersburg Greyhound station in January 2005.
But even though she had been dead for months, someone was still cashing Debbie’s disability checks in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Bank security footage showed it was Barbara Burns.
Detectives learned that Barbara was working at a 7-Eleven in Virginia Beach and living in a local homeless shelter. They traveled to Virginia and approached her when she got off work at 7 a.m. and asked her to come with them to a local police station to answer questions.
When asked about her trailer in St. Petersburg, Barbara claimed she didn’t own one. When asked if she had any relatives, she said no.
Detectives showed Barbara a photograph of Debbie. “Nice girl…but I don’t remember her. Honestly,” she is heard saying on a recording of her interrogation, which was obtained by “Snapped.”
As detectives kept pressing Barbara about her sister, the sad truth began to come out. Denials of knowing her turned to denials of knowing what happened. Eventually, she made a full confession.
“She was really mean to me. It’s just something that kept going and going and I just couldn’t take it,” Barbara is heard telling detectives through tears. “I thought, ‘Enough is enough.'"
Barbara said that despite going through her inheritance, Debbie still demanded more money, money they didn’t have. On Debbie’s 40th birthday, Aug. 14, 2004, the sisters went out to dinner but spent the entire time fighting. After returning home, the fight turned physical.
“Barbara explained to us that when she went to bed that night, laying in bed listening to her sister snoring, she knew that once her sister woke up that morning, it was going to start over again, and Barbara explained to us that she just was not ready to go through that again. She had had it,” Manning recalled.
Barbara pulled out a .38 revolver she had bought years earlier for protection, stood over her sister who was asleep in bed, and fired a single shot into her forehead.
Barbara wrapped Debbie’s dead body in her favorite “Star Wars” comforter. Living in the house for weeks afterward, she filled it with air fresheners and turned the air conditioning as low as it could go to cover the smell. Barbara stayed in the house for another six weeks before fleeing to Virginia Beach. Her family used to vacation there when she was a child.
On May 9, 2005, Barbara Burns was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, according to St. Petersburg CBS-affiliate WTSP.
Barbara Burns pleaded plead guilty to manslaughter and received a 15-year prison sentence. With time off for good behavior, she was released after 12 years and moved back to St. Petersburg in 2018.
Barbara says she regrets what happened and misses her sister Debbie to this day. Despite her full confession, she claims she can’t recall the night she put a bullet in her sister’s head.
“It hurts. It hurts really bad. I’m still really hurting. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know. To this day I still don’t know. I still can’t remember,” Barbara told “Snapped” in an exclusive interview.
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