Grieving Husband—or Killer?

updated 07/03/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/03/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A young couple, a secluded beach, a warm summer's night. They kick off their shoes and stroll in the surf and seem, that night, like the only two people alive. "We walked holding hands," Justin Barber, now 34, will say of that romantic evening he spent with his wife, April, in 2002. "We walked and stopped a few times and we sat briefly in the sand."

Then—out of nowhere—comes a stranger waving a gun. He screams threats, demands their keys, points the gun at April. Justin steps in front of her and the gun goes off. One shot, another, and another—four or five in all. When Justin regains consciousness, he sees he's been shot several times. "Then I saw April in the water ... facedown," he says. "I ran into the water and turned her over. She had a hole in her cheek."

April Barber, 27, was dead, shot in the face at close range. Justin, shot in both shoulders, his side and in his hand, survived to tell his harrowing tale. The only problem, prosecutors say, is that it is entirely false. Police were quickly suspicious of his story, particularly when Barber returned to the beach to reenact the crime. He claimed he dragged April about 100 yards, seeking help, after she was shot. But April's face was only bloodied on one side, cops said, suggesting she was not moved after being shot. Further investigation led them to believe there was no stranger on the beach in Guana River State Park, near Jacksonville, Fla. Instead, they say Barber, a business analyst with mounting credit-card debts, shot his wife—and shot himself four times to make it look like an attack—all so he could collect on insurance policies worth more than $2 million. "He planned this; he shot April Barber on that beach," assistant state attorney Chris France told the jury in Barber's trial, under way in St. Augustine, Fla. "He murdered his wife."

Barber, facing the death penalty, has stuck to his story since being arrested in July 2004. "He is innocent," says his brother Charles Barber. "Justin wasn't the type of guy to get into trouble." Barber admitted to having sex with at least five women during his three-year marriage to April, a radiologist; the latest affair, with a rental car agent, was in full swing at the time of the murder. But his friends say Barber just isn't capable of murdering her, or anyone. "Sometimes he'd make comments about the ball-and-chain, but then he'd speak about April with affection," says his friend Ray Hernandez, a financial analyst. "He talked about her like she was something good in his life."

Raised in Hennessey, Okla., April Lott was her high school salutatorian and a popular sorority girl at Oklahoma State before earning a degree in radiation therapy from the University of Oklahoma. Justin, a native of Wetumka, Okla., and a star athlete in high school and college, got his masters in finance from the same university. His first wife, Dana, was granted a divorce in 1997. Not much later Barber met April while she was on a blind date with one of his friends. They married in the Bahamas in August 1999.

From the start they kept their finances, and much of their lives, separate. In 2001 Barber lost thousands day-trading; by 2002 he was more than $50,000 in debt. He took an analyst job with Rayonier, a wood-products supplier in Jacksonville, and lived in a condo there while April spent weekdays in their home in Covington, Ga., near the Archbold Medical Center, where she earned $140,000 a year. "Living apart was stressful," Barber told investigators. "We didn't see each other as much as we needed to."

In the summer of 2001, the Barbers both took out life insurance policies. "It was an up-and-up transaction," says Jay Jervey, the Florida broker who handled the policies. About a year later, in August 2002, the couple had dinner at Carrabba's Italian Grill in Jacksonville before playing pool at a nearby bar. To cap off the night they drove to Guana River State Park, a favorite spot.

What happened next is in dispute. "As I stepped in between the man and April, he fired the gun," Barber said. "It was loud ... I froze for a second then tried to grab the gun ... I fell to my knees and remember trying to get up. I think I blacked out." He claims that when he came to, he dragged April across the beach to a walkway, then got in his 1997 Toyota 4Runner by himself and drove 10 miles into town for help.

According to prosecutors, however, the flow of blood on April's cheek implied her head had never changed position. Investigators also discovered that in the weeks before April's death Barber Googled such phrases as "life insurance homicide," "death certificate Mexico," and "trauma cases gunshot right chest," indicating he planned her murder. The jury hearing the case is expected to render its verdict by next week. "You've got to be an awfully cold-blooded person to murder someone you love just for money, and Justin didn't impress me as the type," says Jay Jervey. "But then again, what is a killer's type?"

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