Questions About a Fathers Disappearance Led to Answers That Were Far Too Close to Home
John Henry Wolfe went to the Pembroke Pines police station every Wednesday evening for its Police Explorer program. He took courses and shadowed detectives on the job to prepare for a career in law enforcement. By July 9, 2003, when he was 19 years old, he had attained the highest rank of explorer major.
The young man — tall and thin with glasses and his father's loping gait — lived with his mother and grandmother in Hollywood and spoke little of his father. He had learned that asking questions about the man, whom he had not seen since he was 4, did not result in satisfying replies.
As he later recalled in a deposition, that night he went into the community affairs office to put away some documents. A few detectives kept their desks there. Before he got to the filing cabinet, he noticed a foldout display board covered with images of a missing person: David Churchill Jackson. From a photograph, a young man with a rough mullet and a wide smile stared back. Wolfe froze. He recognized "a tattoo and other stuff I remembered from the past."
An officer in the room noticed. "Hey, can you help me find that guy?" he joked.
"I can't help you find him, but I do know about him," said John.
"How do you know him?" asked the officer.
"He's my father."
"Get out of here."
"No," replied John. "I'm dead serious."
The officer, stunned, shooed away the other Explorers and began to question Wolfe. Later that night, he called Detective Donna Velazquez at home. "You're not going to believe this," he said when she picked up the phone.
Velazquez was a blond, motherly woman closing in on middle age. A few months earlier, she had been taken off a patrol unit and promoted. In addition to her everyday caseload, her supervisors made her the lead detective on the department's oldest unsolved missing-persons case, that of Jackson.
Determined to break open the cold case, Velazquez pored through files that had been compiled when Jackson went missing in 1988. She had created the display board to visually organize the information that would help her imagine Jackson's life.
"I was the lead detective," she says now, "so it was going to be up to me. I had to put something together, reconstructing it in a way I could understand."
At this point, she knew very little: that Jackson had been married and was involved in a custody dispute over his young son in the months before he disappeared forever on a summer night.
Velazquez never imagined that the son — who now had the last name of another man — was filing documents in her own office on Wednesday evenings: "I had been looking for John Henry Jackson, not John Henry Wolfe. He had never told anyone at the station about his father. It was a shock to me; it was a shock to everyone."
The unexpected meeting of a boy searching for his past and a detective on a quest for justice would ultimately lead to one murder conviction and, now, another trial on the horizon. For young John Wolfe, the cloud of doubt would shift from the father he had hardly known to the mother who had always kept him close.
Barbara Britton, John's mother, moved around as a child because of her father's career in the Army. She spent time in Germany and Oregon before her family moved to Hollywood, Florida, according to statements she gave to police. In 1982, when Britton was 17, she took a job at a Burger King in Pembroke Pines to earn money while attending McArthur High School.
She was pretty and petite, with wavy brown hair, dark features, and high cheekbones. People who knew her say she lived under the protective control of her father, who gave orders like a drill sergeant.
David Jackson, two years her senior, was her boss at the restaurant. Jackson's stepfather worked in the Burger King corporate offices and had gotten him a job as an assistant manager. Jackson graduated from Hollywood Hills High School but didn't have the money to pay for college. Instead, he worked for a wage and led a fun-loving life: hunting, fixing trucks, listening to country music on cassettes, and drinking whiskey straight. He had blond hair and sparkling eyes, his height occasionally accentuated by a pair of cowboy boots.
Jackson's close friend Bill Brown, now a union carpenter in Wisconsin, also worked at Burger King in those early days. He saw that Britton was eyeing Jackson during their shifts together.
"You know, Barbara's pretty into you," Brown remembers telling Jackson one day.
"Yeah, I know," Jackson replied. At first, Brown recalls, Jackson was nervous about flirting with a subordinate on the job. But Britton had set her sights on him, and soon they were together.
Barbara told police about her initial attraction to Jackson: "He was great. There was no other way to describe it. Someone that you like to be with."
They started talking about getting married once she graduated from high school. But by Christmas, she was pregnant. Plans accelerated: They married on April 2, 1983 — the day before Easter. The reception was a traditional affair featuring an elaborate multitiered cake and souvenir matchbooks.
But the relationship had fractured by the time the cake was cut. Britton had started to withdraw. She did not stay with Jackson on their wedding night, say Jackson's friends and family, and did not spend much time with him in the house he rented on Hood Street in Hollywood. Instead, she returned to the safe confines of her parents' house. She graduated from school that June.
"He started changing," Barbara said to police, "and things were going wrong with us."
The baby, John, was born into this uncertain family on August 25.
David was not at the birth, although now, 23 years after his disappearance, it is hard to ascertain why. David's mother, Judy Carlson, claims that Barbara was inexplicably distant from the beginning of the marriage and that Britton did not even notify Jackson when she went into labor.
Britton admitted that Jackson found out he had a son only when he received the hospital bill for the delivery. She contended that Jackson wasn't interested in her pregnancy.
Records show that the couple divorced on April 2, 1985, two years to the day after they married.
At first, the young parents shared custody of baby John, who was not yet 2. Although Jackson's friends and family maintain that he was a loving father, Britton's claims are much darker. In police interviews and depositions, she alleged that Jackson abused the boy (although, according to Velazquez, she never called authorities about her concerns). When Jackson had custody, she said, he would taunt her by putting the crying boy on the phone so she could hear him. He would "come back scraped and bruised," she said, or "with a knot on his head."
Britton said that her own father stepped in and guarded John. "Grandpa became dad," she told police, "and I was his little girl." When she told him that Jackson mistreated his grandson, Harry Britton became incensed. Said Barbara: "I was very close to my dad. He was like the strength for me."
In late 1986, when she was 21 and John was 3, Barbara met a married man named Michael Wolfe, who lived in Arizona. They were both working for Toys 'R' Us; he had come to Florida for a corporate training session. He was tall, with a strong jaw and thinning hair. Like her father, he was a military veteran who had served in Germany. Like her father, he was twice her age. She married him in Florida in June 1987.
Barbara and Wolfe moved immediately to Arizona, with John, two days after they were married. Court documents suggest they informed Jackson about the plan just hours before they were to leave. His mother, Carlson, remembers her son driving around with John during their last hours together, madly calling Britton from pay phones, pleading that she not take John away.
With time and 2,000 miles between them, their relationship eventually improved. Barbara told police that they matured and spoke on the phone. "We talked, [decided] that we could be friends," she said. "It'd be better for John."
David went to court to fight for visits with his son, and a judge awarded him extended visits with John every year. The first was set for the following summer, July 1988.
Barbara may have gone to Arizona, but her father remained in Florida. Jackson's lawyer, Steven Berzner, recalled seeing him show up at one of the custody hearings, waiting in the hall outside the courtroom. The elder Britton gave Jackson a wordless, hateful stare as he walked past.
The lawyer noticed the menacing expression and gave Jackson a word of advice: "You should cover your ass, because that guy has a problem."
After work on June 25, 1988 — the evening he disappeared — David Jackson sat on the couch with his roommate in their new apartment. By now, Jackson had left Burger King and had landed a job driving a delivery truck for Coca-Cola. His roommate worked as a cargo inspector.
Jackson had spent the afternoon moving a set of new Modernage furniture into the two-bedroom apartment: seating and a coffee table and a big, handsome wall unit. Costing thousands of dollars, the purchase was a deep hit on Jackson's credit cards, but he had just paid all of his bills and his share of the rent. His mother remembers that a big wooden bar was still on its way: a 24-year-old's totem to freedom and masculinity.
Friends and family say Jackson was preparing for Barbara to bring their son from Tucson. A friend who visited Jackson in the apartment remembered him joking about a new vacuum cleaner he had purchased, "to get the floors clean for [John]." Records from the Coca-Cola plant show that he had put in for 11 days of vacation time.
Jackson's roommate said that as they were relaxing, around 7 p.m., a woman called for Jackson. He took the call and headed into his room. Soon after, he showered and dressed, then emerged in a fresh T-shirt and shorts, smelling of Drakkar Noir cologne. He carried a gray comb to smooth down his blond mullet.
He asked to borrow some money for beer and cigarettes. His roommate reached for a few bills and handed them over. Jackson left. He may have taken the .22 caliber pistol he was known to carry.
Detective Velazquez believes that Jackson made a stop at a Mobil station for cigarettes and a six-pack of Heineken. Back in the driver's seat of his black 1976 Celica, he might have opened one of the beers to drink on the road, as he cruised past houses and farmland, headed eastward. Five unopened beers and a receipt from the gas station would later be found in his car.
Velazquez and prosecutors say that he then drove toward the beach, passing the jai-alai fronton on Dania Beach Boulevard, and turned into the parking lot of an isolated motel (now a Motel 6), where he expected to meet Britton.
The day after the Explorers' meeting, Velazquez met with John Wolfe in her office, beneath the images of his father. Now she and the boy were like two reunited friends, desperate to fill in the past.
"It was like a fact-finding mission for both of us," remembers Velazquez. "Face to face, we went back and forth."
According to her, John was happy to learn that police had reopened the case. "I've always wanted to know what happened to my father," she remembers him saying. His mom had never given him a straight answer. Sometimes she would say she hoped he was alive. Other times, when upset or angry, she would snap, saying that he was dead. Two years earlier, he had recruited a friend's father, who worked in law enforcement, to look for leads. Nothing surfaced.
John's recollections of his father were vague, and he couldn't tell if they had been poisoned by his mother's input. He struggled to sift out his independent memories from Britton's allegations of his father abusing him — forcing him to eat or burning him with a cigarette.
"I do remember happy memories [with my father]," he would later say in a deposition. "I had two [Cheez Doodles] in my mouth like a walrus... and I remember running around [a] glass table just making noise. And I remember falling... I remember crying."
But did his father then put him on the phone with Britton, as she claims, hitting him to make him cry louder so she could hear? In a deposition last year, John could not remember. "Honestly... my mom is very, very paranoid," he said.
Britton's new husband, Michael Wolfe, adopted the boy when he was 5 years old, and the couple changed the boy's last name to Wolfe. But Britton began to distance herself from this husband too, according to people who knew them.
By 1990, she and 7-year-old John were back in Florida living with Britton's parents. Michael Wolfe faded out of their lives.
Britton went to work at a new Walmart that was opening in Miramar, at Pembroke Road and University Avenue. It was just across the airport grounds from the Burger King where she and Jackson had met as teenagers.
It was also built almost directly on top of the scene of a grisly discovery.
A year earlier, a construction crew had been clearing land near the site of the new Walmart. An 18-year-old worker found a skeletal hand, wrapped around a vine, on the surface of the excavated dirt. Then he found more bones. He called police. The bones, enough to form a partial skeleton, were not identified. The medical examiner's staff stored them on a shelf, where they would sit for 15 years.
After Velazquez and John had exchanged all they could about family history, the detective set about her work with a renewed focus.
She dug up old police reports and found an instance of a call for service from the Brittons, claiming that Jackson had "kidnapped" John.
She checked the Florida Unidentified Decedent Database, a public repository that lists unidentified remains from around the state. She entered Jackson's basic characteristics and date of disappearance and got about 50 results. Methodically, she sorted through them one by one until she found a likely match: the bones from the Walmart site. She ordered a report from a forensic anthropologist and brought in David's mother, Judy Carlson, to see if her DNA matched the bones.
The results were positive. Velazquez reclassified Jackson's case from a disappearance to a homicide.
"At times, the case felt overwhelming," Velazquez recalls. "It kind of took on a life of its own, but I wasn't intimidated. I let it speak to me. I followed it."
She was motivated in part by sympathy for Jackson's mother. Velazquez and Carlson were becoming friends, and Velazquez related to "just needing to know where your child is."
And John proved a tremendous resource in her investigation. From the boy's description of his stepfather, Velazquez tracked down Michael Wolfe. He was living with a new wife in Kettering, Ohio. Velazquez found it odd that he had married Britton so quickly after meeting her, just a few months before Jackson disappeared.
Velazquez spent a year directing a flurry of phone calls, subpoenas, and interviews. In June 2004, detectives turned up the heat on Wolfe. Velazquez's partner met him in Ohio on June 17, and he began to talk.
That same day, in Florida, Velazquez went to visit John.
"What your mom has told you has not been the truth," she said, according to a transcript. "I didn't want to be the one to tell you. But as a man, you need to hear this... I wholeheartedly believe that your father was murdered. And I wholeheartedly believe that your mother has firsthand knowledge of it... Your father was murdered because of his love for you over child custody issues. Your mother never wanted to share you with him."
John's response was chillingly calm. "Oh, I do believe she's holding information," he said.
"I don't think your mom is a bad person," the detective continued. "I think [she] has some mental problems."
John didn't demur, but he doubted that his mother would provide any new information. "She thinks you're waiting for her to say something she didn't say 20 years ago," he told Velazquez. "I would hook her ass up to a polygraph."
"What will you do if your mother is arrested?" she asked.
"If she is an accessory," said John, "I'll put the cuffs on her myself."
The detective asked him to persuade his mother to meet with her that very night, after she got home. John agreed.
"She'll probably be in her nightgown... if you come to the door," he said drolly. "That'd be funny."
Before they parted, she encouraged the dogged Police Explorer.
"Work your voodoo, man," she told him. "Go do your cop thing. You are now the detective. You are empowered. Go get her."
He did. That night, Velazquez and a partner came back inside the house to talk with Britton. They had met before, six months earlier, and Britton had denied any knowledge of a crime. Velazquez pressed harder now, confident that she could use Wolfe as leverage.
She started with the facts. The bones.
"We found David's body," said Velazquez. "He's been murdered."
"Where was he at?" asked Britton.
"In a very isolated area not too far from here. I have DNA results."
"Are you sure?"
She continued. "My partner [is] out in Ohio where Mike Wolfe now lives," she told Britton, who was getting agitated. "Um, he said that... him and your dad were involved, and that you knew about it."
"I didn't know about it, no way."
"Mike is willing to take a polygraph. Are you willing to take a polygraph?"
Britton didn't answer. She was upset, focusing on the supposed role of her father, who had died in 1998. "My dad — I don't — I don't understand," she said, beginning to hyperventilate.
"The truth," said Velazquez. "That's the only thing that's important right now."
"Do you want me to make y'all some coffee or something?" interjected Britton.
"We're good, thanks." The detectives waited for an answer.
Britton broke down and was unable to speak. Still, she would maintain that she was in Tucson when David disappeared. "I was in another state. I don't know what happened," she told police. "I have to go on what the police tell me. I have to go on what the newspaper said."
The next day in Ohio, after hours of questioning and a lie-detector test, detectives asked Wolfe to put a statement in writing. Wolfe wrote that a few months before the disappearance, on a visit to Florida, he and Harry Britton had been watching John play at a park in Miramar — a park just across a lagoon from the new Walmart.
"Harry was very upset about hearing from Barbara that David had abused John during some of his visits with him," Wolfe wrote in shaky block letters. "Harry expressed that he 'should be gone,' or something to that effect, meaning to get rid of David... I wasn't sure he was serious, but I told him that the area we were in would be a likely spot to dispose of a body... I didn't know if he had listened or not."
Wolfe was pointing detectives toward a dead man.
In the following months, Velazquez pursued other leads. One led her to a woman whom Wolfe married after divorcing Barbara. The woman told Velazquez that on several evenings, after Wolfe had drunk himself into a near-stupor, he admitted to committing the murder himself. Later, another of Wolfe's ex-wives would tell a similar story.
In October 2004, Wolfe was arrested outside his Ohio home. As police took him to the curb, he summed up his predicament: "I'm fucked."
Michael Wolfe went on trial for first-degree murder in November 2007. His ex-wives' stories were convincing. After a week of testimony and less than an hour of deliberation, a jury convicted him and sentenced him to life in prison.
Two days later, Wolfe's public defenders requested a meeting with prosecutors. Wolfe had more information. Now that he had been convicted, he wanted to make sure justice reached everyone involved.
He confessed to killing Jackson. But he wasn't the only one responsible, he said. According to Wolfe, this is how David Jackson was murdered:
On the night of the killing, he said, Britton lured Jackson into the motel room with a phone call. When he arrived, she sat with him side by side at the foot of the bed. Wolfe hid in the bathroom, drunk near sickness on Jägermeister and White Horse scotch, attempting to gather courage for what he was about to do.
Britton made small talk while she summoned the nerve to pull out a large stun gun. Holding it close to Jackson, she shocked him and shocked him again. Jackson stood up, hurt and confused but still conscious.
Hearing the buzzes and sensing that the plan was going wrong, Wolfe wrapped a towel tightly around the pistol in his hand and stepped into the bedroom. David had pulled out his own pistol. But before he could use it, Wolfe raised the towel to Jackson's eye level and shot him in the left side of the head at a range of six or seven feet. Jackson stumbled crazily but did not fall.
Britton grabbed hold of his arm and guided him into a chair. Her father came through the door from the parking lot.
"He's still breathing," he barreled, looking down at the young man who his daughter said was a child abuser. "Shoot him again." Wolfe fired another shot to the head.
Once Jackson's corpse was wrapped in a heavy blanket and placed in the back of Harry Britton's bright-orange Volkswagen, Wolfe cleaned the room. "There wasn't a lot of blood," he told the prosecutor.
They drove to the empty lot. Harry had already dug a shallow hole, hidden by vegetation in the sand. They dragged Jackson from the car and dropped him into the ground. When they saw the headlights of a car, they crouched low to avoid detection.
Wolfe said that he and Britton flew back to Tucson under assumed names. Two days after the murder, Jackson's roommate reported him missing.
The whole plan had been Barbara and Harry Britton's idea, Wolfe claimed. "Harry and I actually never talked about it. It went through her."
After a year, he said, he got a call from Harry Britton, who heard that developers were planning to tear up the land where they had buried Jackson to build the Walmart. Harry had returned to the site and collected Jackson's skull so no matches could be made through dental records. He told Wolfe to come get the rest of the bones.
Wolfe said he obeyed his father-in-law. He flew back, drove to the site, ducked low in the dead of night, and tried to dig the bones up from the ground with the aid of a flashlight. He got whatever bones he could find and put them out with the trash in front of the Britton house.
Police believed Wolfe's version of events. Once Wolfe made his statement, a grand jury met and agreed that with this information from an alleged co-conspirator, there was sufficient reason to charge Britton with first-degree murder. Although no one alleges that she fired the fatal shots, Florida law allows the most serious murder charge for someone suspected of helping to orchestrate and perform a plot to kill.
In mid-December 2007, just six weeks after Wolfe made his statement, detectives arrested Barbara Britton as she left to go to work.
Velazquez drove to the police station to meet her quarry in an interrogation room, one last time, and read her the indictment aloud: "Barbara Britton... did kill and murder David Jackson, a human being... to the evil example of all others..."
Velazquez recalls that she said the word evil with particular relish.
Britton spent three years in jail awaiting trial. But in December 2010, with the case still winding through the State Attorney's Office at a glacial pace, she was released on $5,000 bond. A hearing is scheduled for September.
Britton's private attorney, Keith Seltzer, adamantly denies that his client is guilty.
"This case is based entirely on Michael Wolfe trying to get his life sentence shortened," Seltzer says. "I believe Barbara had nothing to do with this... There's no confession [from her] anywhere... There are no records from the motel room, not one single bit [of evidence] that implicates Barbara."
Today, Britton lives at the same home, with her aging mother, her boyfriend, and her daughter from a husband she met while working at the Walmart beside the burial site.
She awaits her trial on house arrest. She wears a GPS monitoring bracelet around her ankle and is allowed to leave the house twice a week for church services. She does not work.
Michael Wolfe, writing from prison in Northern Florida, declined to comment for this article.
John Wolfe, now 27, recently moved out of the family home. He is not a policeman, but he works as a mall security guard. He also declined to comment for this article, deferring to his mother's wishes.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.