Murder Times Two?
Police in the Atlanta suburb rushed to the two-story brick home of Jennifer Corbin, 33, on Dec. 4, 2004, and found her body; she had been shot once in the head while her sons were in the house. Despite Dalton's statement, though, police investigated her death as a possible suicide. After all, her husband, Barton, was a respected dentist with no criminal history of violence.
But then police began digging around—and what they found changed everything. Sixteen years ago, in Augusta, Ga., a young dental school student named Dolly Hearn died from a single gunshot to the head. Her death, too, was looked into as a suicide. At the time, however, Hearn had just broken up with a fellow dental student—Barton Corbin. Augusta police quickly reopened the investigation into Hearn's death, and Corbin was charged with both murders. Jury selection in his trial for killing his wife is set to start Sept. 11. "The facts of the two cases are startlingly similar," says Gwinnett County prosecutor Danny Porter, who will prosecute Corbin, 42. "One tends to prove the other."
Corbin pleaded not guilty to both crimes. "There is nothing forensically that rules either of them out as a suicide," insists his attorney L. David Wolfe, who will argue Jennifer killed herself because she was despondent that Corbin filed for divorce five days earlier—and threatened to expose an affair he claimed she was having, which could have cost her custody of her sons. But prosecutors say the similarities between the two deaths are impossible to ignore: Both women were ending a relationship with Barton; both were shot once in the head with a revolver found near the body; both had earlier called police to report harassment by Corbin. What's more, police say that Jennifer had no gun powder residue on her hands. "The motive is clear," Daniel Craig, the Augusta D.A. prosecuting the Hearn case, said during a hearing. "You don't break up with Barton Corbin. If you do ... you pay with your life."
As a student at the Medical College of Georgia in the late 1980s Barton Corbin was "a very smart guy but very intense," says former classmate Travis Hampton. According to police records, Hearn reported being harassed in the weeks before she died: Her mail was stolen and her car was vandalized. The night she died—June 6, 1990—neighbors heard arguing in her off-campus apartment; police found her body on a corner of her couch. "We thought it was murder," says Manuel Pantoja, part of the college's private investigative force. "I tried to convince the police, but nobody listened." Even so, "you can't imagine him doing it," says Travis Hampton's brother Derrick, a close friend of Barton's at the college. "If he did there's something wrong with him that switches him to a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing."
Jennifer Barber—sweet-natured and not prone to confrontation—met Corbin in 1995, when she was working in a seafood restaurant; they married in 1996. Barton "was fun to be around," says Jennifer's sister Heather Tierney. "I liked him." Barton even went on a big family trip to the Caribbean in 2003. "He fit in well," agrees her father, Max Barber. "But the one weakness that he had was his temper. It could turn on in a fraction of a second."
In the three months before her death, Jennifer's marriage began to crumble. Her family insists it was Jennifer who wanted out, partly because she suspected Corbin was having an affair (his attorney admitted to that in court). "She said, 'I love Bart because he's the father of my children, but I am no longer in love with him,'" says Tierney. "She was really happy about getting on with her life." Jennifer "was ready to move on," says her mother. "I asked her if she thought marriage counseling would be beneficial, and she said, 'Mom, I do not want to be married to Bart. I'm done.'" But Corbin's family says that it was Barton who gave up on the marriage after learning his wife exchanged dozens of intimate e-mails with someone named Chris. "Part of the grounds for divorce was going to be that she was involved with someone else," says Barton's brother Bob Corbin, 39, adding that Barton was a devoted father "who was always wrestling around with the kids and had a goofy relationship with them."
Jennifer's relatives say that things got especially tense at a Thanksgiving gathering 10 days before she died. On the way home that night, says Tierney, Barton punched his wife in the face. After that, Jennifer—who according to relatives was put on a $500 monthly allowance by Barton—went on a shopping spree. "A new vacuum cleaner, a new iron, new sheets, new bikes for the boys," says Tierney. "There was no sadness. It was time to move on."
On Nov. 29 Corbin filed for divorce; two days later police responded after Jennifer called 911 from her home, but made no arrest. On Dec. 4, according to Bob Corbin, Barton showed up at Bob's house in Auburn, 15 miles away, and said he had been out with friends. But prosecutors say cell phone records show Barton was somewhere near his home the night Jennifer died. The next morning, a call came in that Jennifer was dead. Barton "went into shock," says Bob. "If he was acting, he's the best actor I've ever seen."
Jennifer's sons, now in the care of her sister Heather, are "doing great," says Jennifer's mother, Narda Barber. "They are surrounded with the love and protection they need." As for Corbin's family, they hope his trial will settle once and for all whose depiction of Corbin is accurate: Was he the playful father and patient husband his relatives say he was, or the monster Jennifer's family makes him out to be? "One version is like Norman Rockwell," says Bob Corbin, "and the other is Norman Bates."