Video: When marriage is a crime

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/16/2005 9:27:22 PM ET 2005-10-17T01:27:22

The first time Joyce Reynolds laid eyes on him, her heart leaped in her chest and she knew.   Here was destiny.  This man was her soul mate.

Keith Morrison, Dateline Correspondent: What was it about him?

Joyce Reynolds: The look. First it was the look. He had the look that I just loved.

Joyce was in her mid 40s then, alone, divorced with grown children when she saw his face on the Internet.  She had been spending some time in a chat room, a sort of virtual bar in which the regulars could, if they wished, communicate with their computer video cameras. That’s what did it of course. In print, he hadn’t seemed quite so special.

Reynolds: This man has been trying to talk to me for so long and I just ignored it.

Until she caught that glimpse of him. Her heart skipped its beat, and she looked at his soul through those beautiful eyes.

With his picture up there on the screen, he typed four words, “I think I can.” 

Joyce shot back: “I think I can” what?

Reynolds: He says, “I think I can take care of you.” And I was like, “Oh really?” Well now I was  interested in what he had to say. We talked for six hours.

And every day after that.  Kept their computers humming. They talked about everything.  And the more he talked, the deeper Joyce fell.

Should she have worried? Should some alarm bell have gone off in her head?   Maybe. After all, what could she really know about someone she happened to meet on the Internet?  And why was he pursuing her so aggressively?  Is there a kind of person who has a plan for lonely women?  But he was so good looking.  Joyce’s head wasn’t really engaged.  But her heart sure was.

Reynolds:  And no matter what you talked about, he knew a little about everything. He was a very, very smart man.

His name was James Michael Barber. He was a divorcee from St. Louis, Missouri, a pediatric surgeon who, for a heartbreaking reason, really, had decided to take a sabbatical.

Reynolds:  He had a problem with his hands. With cramping.

Morrison: Had that led to some problems?

Reynolds: There was a problem with surgery and a young child had passed away.  And that’s when he said that he had met with the other people in the hospital and he felt it best that he take a sabbatical.

So after a brief, intense long distance courtship, Joyce and the doctor made plans to meet in person— in Wharton, New Jersey, a small town where Joyce lived. 

Reynolds: When we got together we were not strangers. We were not strangers at all.

Morrison: It was like you had met your soul mate in a way?

Reynolds: That’s how I felt.

He quite obviously felt that way too.

He flew back to Missouri, but as he told Joyce, he’d already closed his medical practice, so he just packed up his bags and returned to move right in with her.  When he proposed marriage, she didn’t think twice. And within a few weeks, they were married.

Before long, Joyce’s new husband began looking for work. And what did this doctor on sabbatical decide to do?  

Reynolds: He started off as a car salesman. He wanted something that wasn’t going to be so stressful.

Morrison: Completely different.

Reynolds: I was like “Okay, well, you know what. He’s in a new state, he doesn’t know a lot of people. Let him do what he wants to do ‘till we really get settled.”

Never mind that he was used to performing complicated cardiovascular surgery.  Joyce thought it was a little unusual.  But she supported him. Why not?  She was deliriously happy.

Reynolds: Three months later he lost his job and got another one as a car salesman.

Rather than try to get work at a local hospital, the “good doctor” bounced around from one car dealership to another.  In fact, he worked a half dozen odd jobs until he decided to start his own business.

He would be, he decided, a private investigator.

He’d call his new company “Fugitive Recovery Task Force,” dedicated to locating and apprehending criminals who skipped bail.

And by the way, he told the new Mrs. Barber, he’d found a partner over the Internet, just as he had found her.

Bob Donnellan was Barber’s partner. He and his wife Luvonda were already in business in Arkansas. They pride themselves on being able to catch just about anyone.

Morrison: How do you find them if they wanna disappear?

Bob Donnellan, Barber's business partner: There’s lots of ways.

Morrison: The two of you get to read people pretty well.

Luvonda Donnellan: Yeah.

Bob Donnellan : That’s what this business is really about.

Luvonda Donnellan: A lot of intuition, lotta gut feelings.

And even though Bob hadn’t met his new partner in person, had only talked to him by computer, he had a good feeling about the guy from New Jersey who approached him about starting a business together.

Morrison: What did he seem like on the phone?

Bob Donnellan: Very good.

And he had a sterling resume. 

Bob Donnellan: He was 30 year retired military at the rank of chief warrant officer four. Thirty years from 1966-1996, and he was a prisoner of war. Spent 127 days as prisoner of war.

He told Bob he’d served in Vietnam, Somalia, Haiti, the first Gulf War, and even Panama.

Bob Donnellan: He claimed to be the one that physically put his hands on Manuel Noriega when we extracted him back to the United States.

And while he knew the stories were colorful and maybe even a bit exaggerated, Bob didn’t ask too many questions. This was a dream partner who, Bob was sure, would bring in lots of new business.  Besides, he also seemed to have important friends in high places.

Bob Donnellan: He claimed to be John Ashcroft’s best man at his wedding and godfather to John’s eldest son.

Morrison: Obviously, you were curious about his personal situation?

Donnellan: He’d been married to Joyce, his current wife for 39 years. they have seven children, five sons and two daughters. 

But by that time Dr. Barber had only been married to Joyce for about three years. Why would he pad the length of his marriage? Wouldn’t Bob hear the real number from Joyce?  Well, no.   At the time, Joyce was in bed recovering from a neck injury. She was heavily medicated to numb the pain and barely even aware of what was going on around her.

Reynolds: They had me on drugs. 

Morrison: What kind?

Reynolds: Morphine patches, Percodin, Vicodins. You name it, I had it.

Morrison: You were in a fog?

Reynolds: A deep, deep heavy fog. I spent most of my time in bed.

And then one fine spring morning the sound of sirens came cutting through the fog in Joyce’s head.  And two sheriff’s deputies were at the door to escort her loving husband, Dr. James Michael Barber to jail.

Joyce Reynolds Barber was in pain.  In her medicinal fog she was struggling to comprehend.  She was horribly confused.

For no reason she could fathom, her husband, Dr. James Michael Barber, had been arrested. And the sheriff’s deputies claimed he owed $50,000 in child support.

Joyce Reynolds: I was shocked, I was shocked.

Keith Morrison, correspondent: Did he claim it was a mistake?

Reynolds: Yes.

Joyce, numbed by medication and her own deep need to believe in the truth of the love she felt, believed him.

But, down in Arkansas, the arrest aroused the immediate suspicion of her husband’s business partner, Bob Donnellan. He thought his partner had been married for 39 years so the allegations didn’t make sense.

Bob Donnellan: That was the major red flag that started your investigation.

And he was beginning to get suspicious about other things too: There didn’t seem to be any cash flowing into their business even though his partner was supposedly bringing in new clients.

Luvonda Donnellan: I said, "Well, I’m gonna find out about this guy."

Morrison: But it required a little sleuthing?

Bob Donnellan: A lot.

So like any good investigators, Bob and Luvonda Donnellan started digging and what they uncovered shocked them:  Not only had their partner been married before, he had married over and over again…

Donna Foster, the first wife
Donna Foster was his very first wife.  She met Michael Barber— that’s what he called himself then— in high school in Missouri.

Donna Foster: He’s a charmer. He can tell you exactly what you want to hear. He was very good looking. He was the tall dark and handsome football player.

But for Donna, the first clue to who her husband really was, came on her wedding night.  It was supposed to be a small quiet affair— it was anything but.

Foster: And next thing you know they come knocking on. The police come knocking on the door.

Morrision: Police on your wedding night?

Foster: Yes. They came right after him. I’m sitting there dumbfounded. “We came to get mike.” “What did Mike do?”  “Mike’s not old enough to get married.”

Itturns out, 19-year-old Barber had lied on his marriage license,claiming he was actually 21, the legal age at the time in Missouri. So he spent his first night as a married man behind bars.

But as Foster says she would soon discover, that wasn’t the only thing Barber lied about. 

Morrison: What did he tell you about his ability to have kids?

Foster: He couldn’t have them. He was sterile. He had had mumps at a young age.

So, of course, she didn’t take precautions and soon was pregnant. Before she even gave birth, however she says her husband had already deserted her.  He was engaged to another woman in another state.

Foster:  I got mad. And I threw him out. And he came back, I  had a little 22 automatic and I shot at him.

Donna says he never met his son and never paid her a dime for the child he left behind.

Foster: He still owes me for 18 years of child support at $50 a month.

As the Donnellans quickly learned Donna wasn’t the only woman Barber married and ran out onwith a baby and a stack of bills to take care of. 

They became convinced he was aserial conman— his past was littered with damaged women, in a pattern that appeared colder and more calculated each time it happened.

Diana from St. Louis
Take for instance Diana in St. Louis, Missouri.

Diana:  He pretty much wined me and dined me and swept me off my feet real quick.

Twenty years ago, she became Mrs. Barber too.  Her husband told her his name was Chris Barber and he said he ran a trucking business.  And Diana trusted him, of course, with her money.  And the financial problems started when the newlyweds went to buy a home.

Diana: The check he wrote for the closing of our house had bounced.

Morrison: That was a big check?

Diana: $8,000 - 9,000.

Morrison: You must have been frantic.

Diana: And he said maybe I got some stuff messed up. I’ll take care of it tomorrow. And I believed him.

And he knew, says Diana, how to play with her emotions.  So even as the checks continued to bounce, she stayed. She says she even bailed him out of jail several times.  What could she do? By then she had a son too.

Diana: I kept hoping having a child would change him. I believed there was one soul mate, one marriage you work through the hard times.

How hard?  She had to sell the house and dodge the creditors. And then she couldn’t anymore. Not after the phone call from the bank.

Diana: They said the check I wrote for $18,000 had bounced. I said, I didn’t write a check for $18,000. I  went down there and looked at it and I said, That’s my husband’s handwriting."

Morrison: Forged?

Diana: Forged my name.

Diana filed for divorce and bankruptcy. That was after she says she discovered he had taken out a $100,000 loan in her name.

Diana: I thought “God, this guy is going to haunt me for the rest of my life with this financial crap.”

Soon the Donnellans were up to a half dozen jilted ex-wives scattered across the country. There were abandoned children and empty bank accounts. 

Donna Layne Roberts
Including his next target another Donna— Donna Layne Roberts.

Roberts has been hard of hearng since she was 3 years old. She married Barber in 1997. He told her he was a former POW,  a retired NFL player, and a cancer survivor. She said he was so sick sometimes, he threw up blood.

So she forgave his sometimes insensitive behavior and the times he didn’t seem to take into account her disability.

Donna Roberts: When he talked to other people he would say things under his breath and I wouldn’t catch it.

What was he hiding? She never knew until the day, after four years of marriage, when he simply walked out the front door. Gone.

Donna Roberts: I went to the bank to withdraw some money to go to the grocery store, there was no money. It was all gone.

She says he took — everything close to $400,000.  And she too went into bankruptcy.

Donna Roberts: I lost the house and became homeless. That was a very very hard time for me.

Broke and broken-hearted, Donna soon learned her husband had been seducing his next victim from their home computer.

Rember Joyce, in New Jersey? Barber married Joyce eight days after leaving Donna.

The Donnellans cracked their case. They learned their partner preyed on a certain type of woman.

Luvonda Donnellan: What he went for was women with credit.

Morrison: So if they had good credit, he would take advantage of their good credit?

Bob Donnellan: Their names were on the loan documents, their names were on the credit cards, their names were the president of the company. They took the fall financially for every dime he walked away with.

They were ready to turn in their business partner, though not without some embarrassment. After all, they’d bought his stories, too.

Morrison: Do you feel like kicking yourself about it?

Bob Donnellan: No. you don’t get mad.

Morrison: You get even.

Donnellan: That’s right.

For one thing, they called Joyce to warn her as much as anything. 

Morrison: What kind of stuff were you getting from them?

Reynolds: Just telling me he wasn’t the man who I thought he was.

But Joyce just wouldn’t, couldn’t believe it.

And then, one day, she got another call.  Not from a detective, or an ex-wife. But from a woman who says she knew “Dr. Barber” better than any of them— a woman who had decided the time had come to make sure he did not get away with it.

Chris? Michael? William? James?  This Barber was a man with almost as many identities as wives.

Keith Morrison, correspondent:  How many women has he married?

Luvonda Donnellan, business partner: So far we can find six or evidence of six. But there’s most likely possibly more.

After two months of snooping, Bob and Lavanda Donnellan found enough dirt to bury their business partner. Quite frankly, they were outraged by what they discovered. 

Bob Donnellan:  I was furious that someone like this with no conscience would just leave women in the wake and move on to the next one and not lose a minute’s sleep.

The Donnellans had tried to warn the woman they assumed to be his latest victim — his current wife, Joyce Reynolds Barber.  

Reynolds: I would not believe them. I just would not believe them.

Morrison: Did you find yourself defending him?

Reynolds: Yes.

And then, Joyce got a telephone call, one that would finally make her face reality.  The woman on the line said she was Barber’s sister: she had known this man all his life.  And he had loved and left a legion of unsuspecting women.

Pam, Barber's sister:  I believe there were 12 or 13 wives.

Pam (who didn’t want her last name used) told Joyce her brother wasn’t who he said he was—he wasn’t a talented pediatric surgeon on sabbatical, but a sweet-talking serial conman.

Joyce Reynolds, Barber's current wife: All through it she kept saying this just does not sound like the man I married. This just does not ring right. 

They spoke for two hours. Joyce wrote these detailed notes to keep track of her husband’s past. His ex’s included another Joyce, two Donnas, and a Diana.  He seemed to have a thing for particular names.

Reynolds:  It wasn’t until that conversation when I realized that everything everybody was telling me was true.

And the truth was, simply, unbearable.

So, to her, what she did then seemed like the only solution.

Reynolds: I was very tired. I was drained. And I went to bed.  But before I went to sleep I took 60 pills. All I wanted was to go to sleep. (Crying)

Joyce may have slept forever if her sister hadn’t found her and called 911.  And by the time she woke up in the hospital, her husband was behind bars. Thanks in part to the good detective work of this former business partner.

Bob Donnellan: He liked about who he was. He lied about this name, date of birth and social security on his marriage license. That’s how we got him arrested.

He was arrested by New Jersey police for using false information to get a marriage license.  He wasn’t “James Micheal Barber,” born in “1945” as he claimed to be on this application to marry Joyce. And he wasn’t even divorced from his last wife — Donna Layne Roberts as he wrote on this document.

So who was he?  He was 53-year-old William Michael Barber of Dexter, Missouri was the middle son of three. War hero?  No. He was an army deserter, a convicted criminal with a rap sheet dating back 35 years for forgery and fraud who did time in California, Louisiana and Missouri.   

What should happen to him? His first wife, Donna Foster.

Morrison: Supposing now that you’re the judge and you get to decide what happens.

Donna Foster: Michael would be underneath the jail. They’d never see daylight again.

Morrison: Is it possible for him to live an honest life?

Diana: That question doesn’t even need to be asked. The answer is no.

Diana Barber is still owed $50,000 in back child support.

Diana: He did take a lot of my pride. A lot of my trust in people. And it took me a few years to build that character back.  I still wouldn’t. This sounds funny: I have been asked, “Do I regret any of this?” I have my son. I’d go through every ounce of shame and hurt for my son.   (crying)

Donna Layne Roberts, the woman Barber deserted for Joyce, is still haunted by this message he left on her home answering machine.

Barber's message on machine:  Okay I’m tired of your game too.
Uh, you do whatever you think you need to do.
But I’ll guarantee you one thing
If you get too much involved in whatever I’m doing, you will be the one to regret it. Alright?

Donna Roberts: I’m still worried that he’s going to come after me. I don’t think that fear is ever going to be out of back of my mind.

Barber in court
It was September when William Barber finally appeared in a court of law, not to face his past or the long parade of broke and jilted wives, or the damage in his wake. Marriage laws, said a prosecutor, make those crimes— if there are any— hard to pursue.  No, he stood before the judge to answer for one particular lie.

And Joyce was there as he spoke to the judge.

Joyce fought down rising tides of anxiety for one last chance to look at him, to see if the love was still there... and he didn’t even make eye contact.

Instead, he looked straight ahead and pled guilty to giving false information on a marriage license.  Joyce sobbed when he admitted he lied to her about his identity.

And then, here in court, with a straight face, he revealed something new — something no one had heard: He told the judge he had a college education from the University of Missouri, graduating in 1972.

But until May of ‘72 he was behind bars.In fact, Barber never went to University of Missouri. "Dateline" checked with the school for a record of his matriculation.  Barber’s sister, Pam says he never went to college at all.

Pam: I guess i’ve always heard you get three strikes and you’re out. well, he’s had five or six strikes. And he always gets away with it.

Pam says he even stole from own family. She’s been a victim of his scams too. But even so, she told us, she felt compelled to apologize to his ex-wives.

Pam: I want people to know that we are very sorry.

Neither Barber, nor his attorney wanted to comment on all these allegations.  In court, he still wore his wedding ring and claims he lied to Joyce to get away from his past. 

Reynolds: It’s hard to believe that I lived four and a half years in nothing but lies. Nothing was real—the man I married wasn’t even real.

What’s real are the bills Joyce is busy sorting through. She estimates she’s $60,000 in the hole— which is nothing, of course, compared to the hole in her heart.

Reynolds: My head knows this stuff is real and what’s happening is really happening. It’s over— you know, my heart is so broken.

Earlier this week, William Barber was sentenced to three years in prison for using false information to obtain a marriage license. Joyce is seeking an annulment of their marriage.

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