A Soldier Disappears, and His Family Launches a Nine-Year Investigation That Ends in Grief

updated 01/11/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

On Nov. 12, 1972 Norman Barnes was scheduled to work the late shift at the Ford plant near his home in Lorain, Ohio. At 10 p.m. the phone rang. On the line was Capt. Roger McConnell, his son Kenny's commanding officer at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga. Pvt. Kenneth Barnes was missing, the captain said. There was nothing unusual about soldiers going AWOL during the Vietnam War, but McConnell was not treating this as a routine disappearance. His wife had told him of a disquieting dream about a dead soldier, he explained, and he couldn't get it out of his mind. "Come down here right away," he told Norman Barnes.

Within an hour Barnes was on the road heading south. Neither he nor his wife, Lillian, believed their son would desert. An 18-year-old high school dropout, Kenny had been working at a dead-end job delivering greenhouse plants when his father persuaded him to join the Army five months earlier. He was learning a trade at Fort Gordon—electronic communications—and he had met a girl he wanted to marry. Although Norman Barnes had no way of knowing it then, his drive through the night to the sprawling Army base marked the beginning of a nine-year odyssey that would take him into 40 states and cost him almost every penny he had. During his travels he would speak with generals, file clerks, waitresses and a psychic. None of them knew what had happened to Kenny.

For Barnes, now 55, the fruitless search began with Frances Hardy, 20, who was a waitress and go-go dancer and Kenny's girlfriend. She worked at the Carousel, a cavernous Augusta strip joint so popular with youthful GIs that on Saturday nights the military police simply back trucks up to the door and load in the sodden recruits. Hardy was married to a convicted check forger who had just been released from prison, but Kenny had already bought her a $400 diamond engagement ring and wedding band. She said she had last seen the young soldier on Nov. 7, five days before Barnes had learned of his son's disappearance. They had spent the night together in her car. Barnes also spoke to Captain McConnell, who remembered seeing Kenny on Nov. 9, just after the private had checked out some art supplies to begin work on a mess hall mural. Kenny was reported missing the following morning when he didn't show up for roll call. After that, there was no information.

Returning to Ohio, Barnes tried to calm his wife. Five years earlier their youngest son, Ralph Lee, had died of cancer at the age of 10. A month later Ralph's 15-year-old brother, Norman Gale, had drowned on a fishing trip. (Two children survive: Frank, 25, and Karen, 30.) Though fearing the worst about Kenny, the Barneses wanted desperately to believe the FBI agent who called them soon after their son's disappearance. "Be optimistic," he said. "I don't think there's a soldier alive who hasn't spent the night out at least once."

Such assurances seemed less comforting later, when officials like Lieut. Col. David W. Stem, of the Army law enforcement branch, persisted in treating the case as routine. "I've examined the background concerning your son's absence from the U.S. Army, and the records at Fort Gordon fail to reveal any unusual circumstances," he wrote the Barneses in 1978. He pointed out that President Carter had granted amnesty to all AWOL soldiers only a month before, and that Kenny would not face prosecution if he returned.

Frustrated by the Army's inactivity, the Barneses pressed ahead on their own. Mrs. Barnes got in touch with a psychic named Kabrina Kincaid, who later wrote to her that Kenny had been murdered and that the killers were "on the run." Refusing to accept the idea of Kenny's death, Mrs. Barnes began dialing information operators all over the country, asking for phone listings in the name of Kenneth Barnes. "My imagination really started to take over," she recalls. "Once I actually talked to a Kenny Barnes, and for a minute I thought he was my son." Carrying photographs of Kenny in uniform, the couple traveled all over the U.S. asking people if they had seen him. Inevitably, there were anonymous callers who insisted they knew where he was. "Even though I knew in my heart he was dead," says Norman Barnes, "I had to check all these things out."

Ironically, it was the one clue that Barnes missed—and that Army and local investigators baldly neglected—that led finally to a break in the case. Three days after Kenny's disappearance, the charred remains of a body were found in a burned-out Cadillac beside a stone quarry in Augusta. The corpse was identified as that of John Henry Owens, then 37, a quarry worker who had taken out a $100,000 insurance policy only a week before. Incredibly, no autopsy was performed, the death was classified as an accident, and "Owens" was given an elaborate funeral. Three weeks later, after examining evidence from the scene, Larry Howard, head of the Georgia crime lab, wrote to Richmond County Coroner Nathan Widener. "My guess would be that this is either a covered homicide or suicide," Howard said. "I think it would be wise to ask for additional investigation." Instead, Widener buried the letter in his files.

In all probability, the secret of Kenny Barnes' fate would have been buried with it if not for a stroke of blind luck. Last February a young woman named Diane Owens called the Richmond County district attorney after an argument with her husband, John Henry Owens Jr. She said her father-in-law was actually alive and living in Deland, Fla. under another name and that he had faked his death for the insurance money. Owens' grave was opened and the body exhumed: Two bullet holes were found in the chest. After an autopsy and a check of Army records, the remains were identified as those of Kenny Barnes.

Diane Owens, meanwhile, wasn't through talking. She told investigators that her father-in-law's accomplice was a young man named Bobby Lee Jones. The name, borrowed from the late professional golfer who was the founder of Augusta's renowned Masters Tournament, was a favorite alias of a ne'er-do-well soldier named Robert McMahon, one of Kenny Barnes' pool-playing buddies. Authorities believe McMahon lured Kenny to the quarry and beat the young soldier unconscious with a tire iron before placing him in the Cadillac to die. Officials say that just as Owens was dousing the car with gasoline, Kenny came to. Owens shot him twice, police say, then lit a match.

After the murder Owens reportedly spent three weeks driving around the country. Then, in South Carolina, he met up with his longtime wife, Nellie, who was his insurance beneficiary. He subsequently remarried her using the name Joe Parks. Amazingly, the couple settled for a while in little Scranton, S.C., where Owens had grown up. "Hey, John Henry," old acquaintances would call to him on the street. "My name is Joe," he would reply grimly. Still, no one in town suspected anything and eventually the Owenses moved on. At the time of his arrest John Henry was operating a tree-trimming business in Deland. "We know who you are," police told him when they arrived at his home. "You're right," he said. "I'm not going to argue." Nellie, on the other hand, was disinclined to admit her role as accessory. As the officers led Owens away, she eyed him incredulously. "I thought he looked a lot like my first husband!" she exclaimed.

Robert McMahon by this time was working in Arizona as an Army recruiter. He was promised $10,000 for his part in the killing, officials say, but the insurance company delayed paying off the policy, suspecting foul play. Nellie eventually had to hire a lawyer for $33,000 to help her collect. McMahon gave up and left Augusta empty-handed. When he was finally arrested he tried to put the blame for the murder on Owens, and Owens reciprocated by incriminating McMahon. Last month, however, both men pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. McMahon was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Owens, who also pleaded guilty to theft by deception, was sentenced to 30 years. Nellie was sentenced to 10 years for theft by deception. Though pleased that the Barnes case had finally been closed, law enforcement officials found no reason to celebrate. Admitted Sam B. Sibley Jr., Richmond County's newly elected district attorney: "If this case had been properly investigated in 1972, it could have been solved right away."

Such hindsight is of little consolation to Norman and Lillian Barnes, who lost not only a son but much of their savings and nearly a decade out of their lives. "It broke me," says Kenny's father tearfully. His wife, who is seeing a psychologist regularly, says, "I don't think I'll ever know what happiness is again." Last month the Army paid its belated last respects to her son, burying him with full military honors. An honor guard of 15 soldiers was flown in from Fort Knox, Ky. and put up at the Penny Pincher Motel, just down the road from the Barneses' neat green-and-white mobile home. At the Hempel Funeral Home the men formed a solemn parenthesis around Kenny's flag-draped casket. Then, at Ridge Hill Memorial Park, a 21-gun salute ripped the air, and Kenny was lowered into the ground near his brothers.

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