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5 years after Fort Worth murders, a mother keeps going through the pain

Posted Monday, Feb. 22, 2010  comments  Print Reprints
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FORT WORTH -- Sheila Underwood doesn't hide her fury.

She wants Stephen Barbee dead, and she hopes his soul rots in hell.

"I have absolute rage toward him," she said. "I would kill him. I would hurt him as badly as I could, and that is not a secret to anybody."

Five years ago, Barbee beat and smothered Underwood's pregnant daughter, Lisa, and her 7-year-old grandson, Jayden.

Barbee killed Lisa, 34, because he wrongly believed that she was seven months pregnant with his baby and feared that she would ruin his new marriage. After Jayden, clad in pajamas, walked in on the attack, Barbee killed him, too.

Barbee, 42, was convicted of capital murder and is on Death Row. He declined a request to be interviewed.

Sheila Underwood remains tormented by the thought that her only child and grandchild suffered horrifying and painful deaths.

"That eats on me," Underwood said. "That fuels my rage. ... No one can ever make this rage go away. Never."

Prosecutor Kevin Rousseau said he has never met anyone who has lost more than Underwood.

"Every murder victim's family suffers a terrible loss, but this was her entire family," he said. "She was utterly alone."

Sitting at a table in Boopa's Bagel Deli, the far north Fort Worth restaurant that her daughter co-owned with best friend Holly Pils, Underwood joked that she became Holly's "not-so-silent partner" after Lisa and Jayden were killed.

For the next few hours, Underwood alternated between tears and laughter as she shared stories about Lisa and Jayden and reflected on the five years since they were killed.

"People talk about this closure business," said Underwood, 57, a senior administrator at Huguley Memorial Medical Center in south Fort Worth. "I don't understand what that is. I don't think there is such a thing as closure. It is acceptance. You have to finally accept."

'Something is wrong'

On the morning of Feb. 19, 2005, Underwood sensed that something was wrong.

Her daughter wasn't answering her phone, which was odd since they talked daily.

The silence was particularly unnerving because Lisa's baby shower was at 4 p.m. on that Saturday at Boopa's, which had been decorated in pink to celebrate the arrival of Lisa's daughter, Marleigh.

"I had called Lisa and called her to say, 'Are you excited?'" said Underwood, who lives in Dallas. "She would have called me right back. It was very unusual."

By the time Underwood arrived at Boopa's later that day, she was frantic.

"Everybody was like, 'What is wrong with you?'" she recalled. "I said, 'Something is wrong. Something is wrong.'"

When Lisa didn't show up by 4 p.m., Underwood drove to her daughter's house in the 3700 block of Chaddybrook Lane in far north Fort Worth.

She used her key to go inside.

"I didn't see anything," Underwood said. "It looked like Lisa had just vacuumed."

She returned to Boopa's, now crowded with guests. Someone mentioned that Lisa and Jayden hadn't shown up at Jayden's friend's birthday party that morning, either.

"I was like, 'Whoa! What?'" Pils recalled. "The night before, Lisa had told me she was going to the birthday party."

Underwood called the police, who met her at Lisa's house.

Shortly after going inside, officers found blood in the living room and discovered that Lisa's 2002 Dodge Durango was gone. They issued an Amber Alert, asking for the public's help in finding the pregnant mother and son.

Stunned and helpless, Underwood eventually went home. And waited.

"I just sat there," she said. "I didn't cry. I prayed a lot. I begged."

A brutal crime

Fort Worth police were working every angle.

Underwood and Pils gave them the names of two men whom Lisa had been involved with in the past year but was no longer seeing. One, Stephen Barbee, was likely the father of her baby, although Lisa had not ruled out the other man.

Underwood remembered well the day Lisa called her and told her she was pregnant.

"I was furious. I'll be honest about that," she said. "And then, I was like, 'It's a baby, and there is nothing I can do but join on this bandwagon.' ... Lisa knew I was going to be angry, but she also knew I was going to be on her side."

Underwood said her daughter, independent and headstrong, had every intention of raising Marleigh by herself, just as she had Jayden.

Underwood never met Barbee, she said, but after Lisa and Jayden didn't show up at the shower, she remembered a disturbing story Lisa had told her about him a month earlier.

"She told me Steve had come by to talk to her and that she had fainted," Underwood said. "I said, 'What do you mean you fainted?' She said, 'Well I woke up and there he was, saying 'Are you OK? I would never hurt you.'"

On the night of Feb. 19, police went to the house that Barbee shared with his wife, Trish, whom he had married about two months earlier.

Barbee told police that he was at the home of his ex-wife and business partner, Theresa Barbee, and her boyfriend, Ron Dodd, at the time of Lisa and Jayden's disappearance. He told police that he would be in Tyler the next day, doing tree-trimming work with Dodd, if they needed to talk with him further.

The next day, a Sunday, came and went with no news of Jayden and Lisa's whereabouts. But on Monday, a farmer found Lisa's vehicle in a creek bed on Farm Road 2449, east of Interstate 35W in Denton.

Police went to Tyler to talk to Barbee again. This time, Barbee broke down and confessed -- and not just to the detective. He also admitted to his wife that he had killed a pregnant woman and dumped her body, a conversation captured on video at the Tyler Police Department.

According to police and prosecutors, Barbee, believing Lisa was a threat to his marriage, had asked Dodd to drop him off at Lisa's home in the early morning of Feb. 19. There, he fought with Lisa before holding her facedown on the floor and smothering her. The struggle awakened Jayden, who ran crying into the living room, leaving his glasses on his nightstand. Barbee turned his rage on the boy and smothered him, too.

Afterward, Barbee loaded the bodies in the back of Lisa's vehicle and drove them to a remote area near Justin. He dragged them across two barbed-wire fences before burying them together in a shallow grave. Dodd had brought him the shovel.

Rousseau, the lead prosecutor on the case, calls it the most shocking murder he has ever handled.

"The fact that a 7-year-old boy, who couldn't even see across the room, was awakened in the middle of the night to find a man killing his mother ... and then you factor in that his mother was about to give birth and completely defenseless. It puts it beyond the pale of any case I've ever worked," Rousseau said.

A mother's anger

Underwood remembers sitting on her living room couch when investigators knocked on her door to deliver the news. It was about 4 a.m.

She said she just sat there in "stunned silence" before lying down in her bed.

"My sister was there, but I did not want anybody around me or anyone to talk to me," Underwood said.

In the following days, she said, she had her phone disconnected to avoid talking to anyone, especially reporters. At one point, she slammed her door in the face of a Huguley hospital chaplain who had come to console her. "At that time, I didn't care," Underwood said. "It's hard to explain that kind of pain."

Underwood said she wanted to die and, many times, considered killing herself.

But she also knew that she needed to stay around long enough to see justice done.

"I told Kevin Rousseau that if Barbee walks out those doors, if he somehow gets bailed out, he is a dead man. I will kill him," Underwood said. "And I meant it."

Exacerbating her grief was the fact that she had been building a bigger house to prepare for Marleigh's arrival. Jayden, who called her "Tita," spent nearly every Friday night with her, and she assumed that her granddaughter would do the same.

After the murders, Underwood scrapped those plans.

"I was losing it," she said. "I could not keep myself together. My emotions were insane. My anger was everywhere."

She eventually reached out to a psychiatrist at Huguley, who helped her work through her emotions.

"I could tell her every crazy thing I was thinking."

Keeping going

In February 2006, Barbee went on trial for capital murder. During the trial, it was revealed that DNA tests showed he wasn't the baby's father.

"The crime shouldn't have happened under any circumstances, but the facts in which Barbee had justified it in his own mind turned out not to be true," Rousseau said.

The jury delivered a quick guilty verdict and sentenced him to death by lethal injection.

Nine months later, Dodd struck a deal with prosecutors and was sentenced to 10 years in prison on two counts of tampering with physical evidence. Dodd, 38, becomes eligible for parole in 2013.

In 2007, Underwood filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Barbee, Dodd and Barbee's two ex-wives, a case that is still pending.

Theresa Barbee declined to comment for this article, and Trish Barbee, who divorced Barbee before his trial, did not return calls. Barbee's mother, Jackie, also declined to comment.

Rousseau, a prosecutor for 17 years, said Underwood's strength is inspiring.

"I was impressed by the fact that she was able to keep living day after day," he said. "I don't know how good her life is now, but she is living. She is surviving."

Underwood said she clings to her privacy, partly to avoid the stares and sympathy of strangers. And she leans on her faith and her memories.

She regularly visits Skyview Memorial Gardens in Mansfield, where Lisa, Jayden and Marleigh are buried together in a single grave. She drops by the bagel shop, which was named "Boopa's" after the nickname she gave Jayden as a baby. Sometimes, two of Jayden's friends from his first-grade class at North Riverside Elementary School, Jacob and Dominick, now 12, spend the night with her.

"I'm kind of like an extra grandmother to them," she said. "They are precious to me."

Even though it's been five years, Underwood said, she still finds herself picking up the phone to call her daughter.

"She was my love, my absolute love," she said, crying. "I adored her, but I would be on her butt like crazy. She had no doubt that I was there for her always, that I loved her more than anything -- her and Jayden both."

One day, likely years from now, Underwood will receive notice of the time and date of Barbee's execution. She doesn't know whether she will travel to Huntsville to witness it. Seeing him die, she said, won't change anything.

"I want him dead. I want him in hell," she said. "But just to know he is gone should be good enough for me. He's done all the damage he can possibly do."

MELODY McDONALD, 817-390-7386

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