This week's feature story tells the staggering, sprawling tale of a young father who was allegedly lured to a hotel and murdered in 1988 before his body was dumped in a shallow grave at the edge of Pembroke Pines.
We'd recommend you give it a read before continuing here if a mystery is what you're after -- you could call the rest of this post a "spoiler." But the case is real, and a suspect's freedom now hangs in the balance. Police have painted a vivid picture of what occurred despite a complete lack of physical evidence, and one of their most valuable assets -- a "confession" in which the defendant basically denies an alibi -- will likely be suppressed from the upcoming trial. Read on for more.
Police believe that in 1988, Barbara Britton wanted David Jackson, her ex-husband, dead so that she could be closer to their son, John. They say she lured Jackson to a motel, where her new husband, Michael Wolfe, shot him in the head, and then they went to bury the body off University Drive.
Michael Wolfe is already sitting in jail on a life sentence. He was convicted based on the testimony of two ex-wives, who said he confessed to them. Shortly after his conviction, he spilled his guts to prosecutors, focusing on Britton's role as a "drawing card" to get Jackson to the hotel.
Prosecutors were eager to go after Britton -- in fact, says the case's former prosecutor, they had wanted her all along but needed Wolfe's word as an alleged co-conspirator to "punch the ticket." In other words, to provide enough evidence to -- they hope -- eliminate all reasonable doubt in jurors' minds that Britton planned the whole thing.
Still: There's no physical evidence that she was involved. Only the word of a felon. Her defense's argument has relied heavily on phone bills, allegedly showing that she was at home in Tucson, nowhere near Florida, at the time of the murder.
In fact, when a judge released her on a $5,000 bond awaiting trial last year -- a paltry amount for first-degree murder charges -- one of the factors influencing his decision was a phone bill procured by her lawyer that supposedly showed her on the phone in Tucson on the day of the murder.
If the prosecution could prove that she made a phone call, in Florida, asking Jackson to come meet her at the hotel, their case would be much stronger. That's what Wolfe says happened. That's what police say happened. If she admitted to that phone call, it could be essential in her trial, which could start later this year.
It appears she did admit to making that phone call.
On June 29, 2004, she met with two male Pembroke Pines cops. She told them that she did make a call to Jackson on the night he was killed. Then, quickly, she drew back, saying she wasn't sure if she made the call from Florida or Tucson. But still, the confession was there...
We think. In all the boxes of statements and interviews we went through for this story, the pages containing this alleged confession are sealed off. Public records law allows prosecutors to hide a confession by a suspect before trial. Numerous sources close to the case say the confession is there.
But it may never see the light of day in court, because the defense argues that the police acted improperly when interrogating Britton. We won't get into their legal argument here, but a couple of things look unusual.
In the parts of the transcript we can see, Detective Darryl Curtis and Sgt. Tom Arnett imply that if Britton tells them something, she'll walk free.
There's -- there -- hon, I promise you, there's nothing to be afraid of today...
Barbara, look at me. Look. Stick your hand out. Look at me. Put your hand out. Put your hand out. Put your hand out. Give me your hand. Listen. I promise you you're going home today. I promise.
[Britton] For a day?
No, hon, you're going home with your kid. And your daughter at home. I promise. You're trembling. Why are you so scared?
They also told her, "We're not going to arrest you." Britton was not, in fact, arrested that day -- and she wouldn't be until 2007. But the cops were trying hard to get her to talk.
They also said she didn't need to have a lawyer.
[Britton] How do I get a lawyer through all this? You know, I'm trying to do this all without a lawyer but --
You don't need one.
The cop appeared to realize that he had gone too far and quickly corrected himself: "I -- I personally don't feel you need one."
Then Curtis told Britton what they wanted:
You can say right now... 'Okay, Darryl, listen. I called from the pay phone at boom, boom, boom. My dad and Mike were waiting over there. They took him and drove away. That's the end.'"
Then the transcript goes blank, hidden from public view because the state calls it a confession.
Britton's lawyer, Keith Seltzer, says he thinks "the state has agreed that that [interview] should be suppressed."
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A hearing is scheduled for September.