Sunday, January 25, 2004

Barton case topic of town



By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jim Barton
Jim Barton
Vickie Barton
Vicki Barton
SPRINGBORO - Just days after Vickie Barton was laid to rest, Mike Schuster ran into her husband, police Lt. Jim Barton, at the city building here.

"When I offered him my condolences, I got no reaction - no reaction whatsoever," said Schuster, of Springboro. "Even though he didn't know me, I expected some kind of reaction, but I got no emotion - nothing. He didn't even say anything back."

Now Schuster, 49, said last week's revelation that Barton is suspected of involvement in the 1995 slaying - or at least in a cover-up - confirmed his long-held suspicions.

He and other residents of this growing Warren County city say they want to know what really happened to Vickie Barton, a 40-year-old nurse who was sexually assaulted and shot to death.

"I'd just like to see the real truth, and justice served," Schuster said as he and his wife, Jan, relaxed Friday night at the bar inside the Ohio 73 Applebee's.

During the past decade, Springboro's population has almost doubled, reaching about 15,000. Many recent transplants have never heard of Barton or his wife's unsolved killing in their Franklin Township farmhouse.

Schuster, who has lived here 14 years, thinks newcomers feel unconnected to local news.

Springboro plays dual roles: preserving historic homes and quaint shops while encouraging commercial developments near Interstate 75.

That blend of modern conveniences and old-fashioned charm appealed to Joanne Lenzo, 50, a software engineer who moved here in October.

Inside a local Dairy Mart last week, Lenzo said she was unaware of the Barton case. After being told Barton had been suspended amid allegations he had wiped the crime scene clean and was withholding information, Lenzo's eyes widened.

"My first question is: Where did the cover-up start?" she said. "And who else was involved?"

Other suspects

Warren County Cold Case Squad investigators say they believe Barton's friend, suspended Waynesville Officer Thomas Barber, knows more than he's telling. Investigators also say William Lee Phelps, 28, of Middletown, was at the crime scene - and at least two other suspects may have been involved. Phelps later committed suicide.

Lenzo, who lives around the corner from the police station, said she felt a bit uneasy to learn that Barton had continued to work as a police officer for the nine years that followed his wife's death.

"I hope he didn't kill his wife," Lenzo said. "If he did, then kept working here, that would look really bad for the (police) department."

Warren County Sheriff's Capt. John Newsom, who supervises the cold case squad, pledged that investigators will follow all leads until they're exhausted. He said the original investigation was thorough; technological advances and additional interviews provided new information to his squad.

One key: forensic enhancement of Barton's tape-recorded 911 call blocked out background noise and made some words clearer; investigators now believe Barton uttered Phelps' name - an allegation that his lawyer denies.

City Manager Christine Thompson on Friday said Barton's suspension and news media attention to the case made for a long, emotion-filled week in the cobbled-together complex that houses city departments, including police headquarters.

Acquainted with Barton for 15 of his 25 years on the Springboro force, Thompson described him as polite, conscientious, hard-working and well-respected. Because he was in charge of operations, Barton spent most of his workday in the office.

During the past nine years, Thompson would periodically hear residents ask: "Did that Barton case ever get solved?"

So Chief Jeffrey Kruithoff pushed to start the cold case squad - and to tackle the Barton homicide - with three goals in mind: "to get to the truth of what happened, to get a conviction and to exonerate Jim Barton from any more doubt," Thompson said.

For the investigation to connect Barton to possible wrongdoing "certainly was not the path we thought the cold case investigation would take," she said.

"I get the sense that the residents and the community aren't ready to make any snap decisions; they know the investigation isn't over," she said.

E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com




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