Thirty-five years ago, a Durham woman called 911 in the pre-dawn hours to report that she’d accidentally shot her husband with a gun he was keeping underneath his pillow. While police thought it was strange that someone was sleeping with a loaded weapon, the wife’s explanation seemed plausible. After all, she was a gainfully employed woman who attended church regularly with her husband and two sons. It wasn’t until they learned that the woman’s first husband died in a similar manner almost ten years earlier that they realized they might have a take a closer look at the man’s death.
When I was in high school, I read the book about this North Carolina true crime story titled “Before He Wakes,” written by North Carolina author Jerry Bledsoe. I reread it again recently and wanted to share the details in today’s episode. I think you’ll find the details fascinating if you aren’t already familiar with it. Most of what is shared in the media about Barbara Stager revolves around the death of her husband Russ, because that is the only one she was convicted of. But since Bledsoe’s book shared a lot of the details about her first marriage and death of a man named Larry Ford, I wanted to start with one.
When Barbara Met Larry
Barbara Terry was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. She met Larry Ford in 1967, when she accepted a partial scholarship to Appalachian State University, known then as Appalachian State Teachers College, in Boone, North Carolina. She had been raised in a strict Southern household with social mores dictated by the Baptist Church. While Barbara was described as a shy and studious girl during her high school years, friends and acquaintances could tell she was eager to experience a bit of independence and freedom during her time at college.
The following are details shared in Jerry Bledsoe’s book. During her freshman year, Barbara was rooming with a young woman named Laura, from the mountains of Western North Carolina, and Larry, a sophomore who hailed from Colfax outside of Greensboro, was the roommate of Laura’s boyfriend Steve. They soon began dating. Larry had never had a serious girlfriend before and was known as a dependable and responsible young man who had also achieved the rank of Eagle Scout while in high school. His parents worked hard to be able to help save the money to send him to college, and friends felt like he was uncomfortable with the intensity of his relationship with Barbara. He tried to cool things off between them at one point, but Barbara had a depressive episode that landed her in the hospital, and she and Larry got back together shortly after she was released. Barbara became pregnant a few months later and after discussing the situation with his mother, Doris, Larry said he wanted to do the right thing and marry Barbara before the baby was born. They were married in a small, intimate ceremony in Boone in May of 1968.
They both got jobs that summer in the Greensboro area, purchased a small mobile home that they moved to a lot next to where Larry’s parents lived, and bought a car. They saved what money they could so that Larry could return to college in the fall and live in the dorms. Barbara stayed behind so she could continue working a job filing insurance forms at Wesley Long Hospital in Greensboro until the baby was born. She ended up quitting her job later that fall, seeming unhappy with her situation while Larry was still living college life during the week and returning home on the weekends for visits. Their son Bryan was born on December 2, 1968. Following his birth, Larry was able to take a job as a caretaker for a men’s dorm at App State, and the job also provided a three-room apartment so Barbara and the baby could live there with him. They did have to share a bathroom with the other students on the hall. Barbara took a part-time job as a sales clerk at a local department store to help ends meet, but managing family life, a job, and classes took a toll on Larry. His grades began to slip, and he decided to attend summer school as a way to alleviate some of the pressure. Barbara continued working, later taking a job as a teller at a bank in Boone.
What Larry came to realize after the marriage was that Barbara’s sexual appetite surpassed his, and he was often embarrassed by her brazen and provocative behavior towards him in front of his parents and younger sister. She also seemed to have a flair for the dramatic, telling Larry about the men who flirted with her at the bank as well as a boss who often made inappropriate comments to her. He began to question whether these stories were real or embellished. Larry finished up his coursework and the family moved back to Greensboro to live with his parents while they both worked, and Larry found a school that would allow him to complete his student teaching requirements. This was during the time period where the draft still existed, though, and Larry worried he would be drafted. He decided to join the Marine Reserves, leaving Barbara and their son with his parents while he completed basic training out in San Diego, California. During that time, Barbara would often leave Bryan in the care of her in-laws go out at night, returning relaxed and happy. At one point she said she had secured a job at new bank, and showed off a $300 cash advance and new sheets and pillowcases she said she had received as part of her incentive package.
Addicted to Spending
The Fords were skeptical, but they were happy when she said they would have to move to an apartment in High Point so she could start her new job. When Larry returned from his reserves training, it was too late to begin his student teaching, so he took a retail job to help pay the bills. They settled into a quiet life in their apartment complex, but mutual friends always felt like Barbara was dissatisfied with her status in life and wanted more. She enjoyed spending money so much that his family worried that they wouldn’t be able to live within their means. Larry took up karate in his downtime and enjoyed it. They eventually purchased a new three-bedroom house in Randolph County, and again, Larry’s parents worried that the two were spending too much money furnishing the house, and upgrading the appliances for newer more expensive models that Barbara wanted. Larry began working on his student teaching at a local elementary school, but grew drawn and subdued. He’d been hearing rumors for years about Barbara possibly having extramarital affairs with customers from her bank, and at only 25, his parents said his hair had begun to turn grey.
They were surprised when Barbara and Larry announced she was pregnant in 1973, and assumed the two had worked out their problems. Though Larry had finished up his student teaching and received his degree, he ended up taking a job at an electrical insulation company in High Point, which provided him with a more lucrative salary and good benefits. Their second son, Jason, was born in July of 1974. Things between Larry and Barbara did not improve, however, and he took up taekwondo lessons in his spare time. Rumors about Barbara’s affairs with customers at her job continued, and she unexpectedly took both boys and left Larry in late 1974, moving into her own apartment.
An Unhappy Marriage
Bledsoe shared in “Before He Wakes” that Barbara had begun an affair with a younger co-worker that she hoped to marry. Larry filed for a legal separation, and it was only then that he realized how far in debt the couple was. Barbara received full custody of the children, her car, and child support from Larry. He could only see the children one weekend each month, one week for Christmas vacation, and one week during the summer. He also got the bills, the house, and the unpaid mortgage. Barbara’s affair fizzled out, and she left her job at the bank and moved back to Durham to be closer to her parents. According to his parents, Larry was distraught. Even with all the problems he’d had with Barbara, he wanted his family back together. He believed their children needed both a mother and a father. He traveled to Durham to try and reconcile with Barbara, but by then she’d taken a new job at Duke University Medical Center and had no interested in returning to Randolph County. He kept trying, though, and a few months later, she agreed to move back in with him and bring the children.
Though the couple stayed together for the next few years, Barbara’s erratic behavior and spending did not change. She took a job with a couple of different manufacturing companies in High Point, where more allegations of affairs took place, and then she took classes to get her real estate broker’s license. She spent her first few months of work in and out of the office, talking about being close to making sales but never actually doing it. She earned no paychecks. Meanwhile, Larry struggled to pay the bills, proudly earned his black belt in taekwando, and became increasingly unhappy with the state of his marriage.
An Accidental Death?
At almost 1 a.m. on March 22, 1978, Barbara telephoned 911 and said her husband had been shot. Upstairs, first responders found 29-year-old Larry Ford lying on the bed in the master bedroom, face-up, dressed in pajamas. The covers were pulled up over him. There was dried blood on his pajama top. He was deceased. There was a small bullet hole in his chest, and very little blood. Under the covers, near his left hip, was a loaded clip for a semiautomatic pistol. A .25 caliber pistol was on the carpeted floor beside the bed. Barbara told the first deputy on the scene that Larry had been tossing and turning in the bed due to a taekwando injury he had received earlier that evening. She offered to go sleep on the couch downstairs to give him more room in the bed. Not long after, she was awakened by a loud noise that she thought was a picture falling off a wall, but when she checked on it, that wasn’t the source of the noise. She said she went upstairs and found Larry lying on the bed, gasping for breath. She assumed he had picked up the gun to examine it and accidentally shot himself.
Barbara had bought the gun the day before the shooting because she told co-workers and Larry that she thought someone had been following her home. She asked her pastor to be a character witness for her application and a friend and co-worker had showed her how to load and fire the gun.
At the time of Larry’s death, Randolph County did not have a lot of resources to investigate suspicious deaths. The responding deputy should have called in a detective from The Randolph County Sheriff’s Department in Asheboro but he hadn’t done that. Based on Barbara’s story, no one on the scene believed Larry had intentionally taken his own life and instead, the shooting was accidental. The medical examiner said he would look at the body at the hospital rather than on the scene. The county’s emergency services director wrapped Larry’s hands in clean plastic bags to preserve evidence before he was taken to the morgue. The county medical examiner decided not to perform an autopsy and ruled it an accidental death. But two weeks later, results of a powder residue test performed in a state lab determined Larry had not fired a gun. In May of 1978, his body was exhumed for an autopsy, but by then it was too late. Mold had already begun growing on the body and there wasn’t any gun powder residue near the wound that could be analyzed. Larry Ford was reburied. The district attorney at the time didn’t believe there was enough evidence to charge Barbara with the crime.
Barbara received more than $100,00 from Larry’s life insurance policy, which included a double indemnity clause for accidental death. She would also receive more than $800 a month in Social Security payments from Larry’s account.
I wanted to share the story of Larry’s Ford’s unresolved death because it shows a pattern of behavior from Barbara Terry Ford. In her second marriage to a man named Allison Russell Stager III, or Russ as his friends and family called him, but she would go on to repeat the excessive spending, the living beyond her means, the telling of tall tales, except this time, she took it up a notch by also simultaneously cultivating an image of a devoted Christian southern woman. Russ Stager also died in what his wife called an accidental shooting, except in Russ’s case, she admitted to pulling the trigger. I believe if law enforcement hadn’t been made aware of the suspicious death of Barbara’s first husband, Larry Ford, they might not have known to dig as deep into Barbara’s background during the course of the investigation.
Meeting Russell Stager
Barbara made the decision to move the boys back to Durham after Larry’s death. She met Russ Stager, a local high school P.E. teacher and baseball coach, when she went to look at a house he was putting on the market after his divorce from his first wife, Jo Lynn Snow. Instead of purchasing his house, she moved into another home in Russ’s neighborhood, and they began a serious relationship almost immediately. Russ wanted to be a father to Barbara’s two young sons, and they were married on March 17, 1979. It was just a few days before the anniversary of Larry’s death.
While they seemed perfectly happy at first, Russ’s parents were concerned about both Barbara and Russell’s love of spending money. It seemed Barbara had met her match—Russ wasn’t like Larry, who constantly worried about money and living within their monthly budget. Barbara and Russ soon bought a new house together and set about remodeling it. They both purchased new cars and expressed interest in buying a beach house. They loved going shopping for clothes together and even bought matching Rolex watches at one point. With Barbara working as a secretary and Russ as a high school teacher and coach, it was easy for people to wonder how they could afford all the extravagances.
Russ officially adopted Bryan and Jason, and Barbara applied to legally change the last name of both boys. Larry’s parents tried to maintain contact with them, but Barbara worked hard to prevent the lines of communication from remaining open. Barbara and Russ became regular members of Russ’s church. At one point Barbara went to work for one of their friends they knew from church, a man named Harry Welch, who worked as the general manager for a local country music station. Russ had mentioned to Harry that Barbara had worked as a real estate agent in the past, and Harry offered to let Barbara work as a sales rep at the radio station. She would draw a small weekly salary as an advance against commissions until she could get clientele established. She quickly turned in notice at her part-time secretarial job.
Book Deal or No Book Deal?
As with her real estate job, she often talked about accounts she was getting ready to land that never materialized. She soon put their friend in an awkward position because he regretted having to pay her a salary while she wasn’t producing any new prospects for the station. She also told people she was writing a book about her first husband’s untimely death. In early 1982, Russ and Barbara told Harry Welch and his wife Terri that she had sold her book to Doubleday and would be receiving an advance of $400,000. The book would be called “Untimely Death,” but Barbara wouldn’t show anyone even part of the manuscript. Russ hadn’t seen it either. Harry was relieved though, when Barbara told him she would have to quit her job at the radio station to focus on promotion for the book. She hadn’t made a single sale in her entire time there, and he would have had to fire her if she hadn’t left on her own.
Barbara presented a letter bearing the letterhead of Doubleday and Company citing the details of her contract to the couple’s bank seeking a substantial loan. But when months passed and no other news about the book came up, Russ and Barbara’s friends called the publishing house to find out the projected date of the book so they could plan a party for her at their country club. They discovered that the editor listed on the Doubleday letter Barbara showed everyone did not exist. She had forged the letter and there was no book deal. Russ was floored when his friends told him about it. He also hadn’t known Barbara had quit the radio station. She’d been telling him she was going to work every morning. He was so embarrassed, he and Barbara left their church to begin attending Barbara’s childhood church.
The Cycle Repeats Itself
While Russ was beginning to become aware that Barbara had a habit of lying about their finances, writing bad checks, and taking out loans to cover other loans, he loved her and wanted to keep their family together. Mutual friends believed Barbara had lied to Russ about how much money she had received from Larry’s life insurance policies. Things came to a head when they had a family meeting with both of their parents and Russ insisted on taking over the bill-paying himself. They quit their pricey country club and moved to a smaller house. They put their beach cottage at Long Beach on the market. Russ’s parents helped them pay off some of their larger bills to staunch the financial bleeding. They also paid for a post office box where the bills could be sent for Russ to easily access. He was the only one who had the key.
Another 911 Call
But on February 1, 1988, Barbara made an early-morning phone call to 911 very much like the one from March 22, 1978. There’d been an accidental shooting. Forty-year-old Russell Stager had been shot and needed an ambulance immediately. When police arrived, Barbara told them Russ slept with a loaded gun under his pillow for protection. Early that morning, she heard her son get up to get ready for school and was afraid Russ would think it was an intruder. She went to move the gun from underneath the pillow and it went off, shooting him in the back of the head. Russ was still alive and taken to a nearby hospital, but died a few hours later from his injury. At first police believed her story, but his family and close friends were suspicious. Russ was in the army reserves and knew better than to sleep with a loaded gun underneath his pillow. He wasn’t in the habit of keeping his guns loaded, either.
Russ’s first wife, Jo Lynn Snow, went to the police and told them Russ had been confiding in her about the state of his marriage. He was unhappy with their financial troubles, had caught Barbara cheating on him, and was worried she might try to harm him. He was staying with her because of their sons while he tried to figure things out. When she mentioned Barbara’s first husband had also died in an accidental shooting, that made Seargeant Rick Buchanan sit up and take note. Jo Lynn added that a few months before Russ died, he told her not be fooled if anything ever happened to him. He said his wife was clever and could make it look like an accident. From there, Rick Buchanan, sprung into action, sending Russ’s body to the university hospital in nearby Chapel Hill for an autopsy and reading what he could about the investigation of Larry Ford’s death. He was stunned to discover Russ had also died as a result of a gunshot from a .25-caliber gun. He discovered the Stagers did not have record of a .25-caliber gun registered. He wondered if it was the same gun that had killed Larry Ford. A few days after the shooting, Buchanan asked Barbara if she would mind re-enacting what happened so they could videotape it. She agreed.
The autopsy showed that the trajectory of the bullet had been downward. This contracted Barbara’s account that she had accidentally fired the gun while lying next to Russ in the bed.
Ballistic tests showed that pulling the trigger on that particular .25-caliber model would require 4 pounds of pressure — way too much to have occurred accidentally as Barbara contended.
On April 18, 1988, 39-year-old Barbara Stager was charged with first-degree murder and had her bail set at $250,000. Her defense attorneys asked that her bail be reduced to $50,000, but a superior court judge refused the request.
Court TV Comes to Town
After excessive coverage in the local news, the trial venue was moved from Durham to Lee County in Sanford after Barbara’s defense team argued that publicity had made finding impartial jurors in Durham County impossible. During the trial, a handwriting expert with the State Bureau of Investigation testified that Barbara appeared to have forged Russ’s signature on checks to herself in the days before he died. The expert testified that a $1,500 check made out to Barbara Stager from Russ’s account on Jan. 29, 1988, showed enough similarities with her known handwriting to warrant a high degree of belief that it could have been written by her.” He also found another $500 check from Russ’s state credit union account that also appeared to have been forged by Barbara. It also looked like she forged Russ’s signature in order to endorse a U.S. Treasury Check for $179. She deposited all these checks at Wachovia Bank and Trust Co. on Feb. 2 and 3. He was shot to death on Feb. 1, 1988. A Wachovia Bank employee testified that Barbara had applied for a loan in October of 1987 and had missed a few payments. When the employee called Barbara about the status of the loan, Barbara shared she and her husband were having some problems related to another female. Jurors also learned Barbara had requested another loan renewal in January of 1987, and asked that payment requests be sent to her parents’ home because she didn’t want someone at her home to know about the loan. Barbara stood to collect more than $170,000 in Russell Stager’s life insurance.
And in perhaps the most strange turn of events, one of Russ Stager’s former students found a small microcassette recorder in one of the school’s locker rooms about 10 months after Russ died. On the tape, a voice reportedly belonging to Russ said the date was three days before his death. He discussed his wife’s infidelity, and how he was growing suspicious that her first husband’s death hadn’t been an accident. He also stated that Barbara had been trying to wake him up in the middle of the night to take sleeping pills. He didn’t understand that, because he wasn’t having trouble sleeping. He wanted this information on record in case anything happened to him.
Barbara’s trial began in May of 1989. Details of Larry Ford’s death were admitted as part of the prosecution, although Barbara has never been officially charged with the crime. The voice recording was also admitted, with Russ’s friends and family telling the court they believed it was his voice. Barbara’s defense attorney tried to cast doubt on the authenticity of the tape, saying where and when it was found to appeared to be suspicious and a little too convenient.
The Ford Family Wonders No Longer
When the jury went into deliberations, they returned with a verdict in less than hour. After Barbara Stager was convicted in the murder of her husband, Larry Ford’s mother said, “The thing we want you to know is that we have now found the answers to 11 years of wondering.”
A few days later, the same jury deliberated her fate. Her defense attorney addressed them by saying, “There’s no useful purpose to kill her. She’s not an aggressive person who wants to pick a fight with someone. She’s a trembling, 40-year-old woman who has a serious personality flaw.” The jury sentenced her to death sentence and the presiding judge set the date for a mere two months later. The death sentence ended up being overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court on a technicality, and Barbara received life in prison with the possibility for parole. Barbara is currently at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh. She was last denied parole in 2018. However, in 2017 The News and Observer in Raleigh reported that Barbara is allowed off-site visits as long as she is with a prison-approved sponsor. Seventy-four-year-old Barbara has been spotted having lunch in a sit-down restaurant in the area. Her outings are part of a Community Leave Program that is designed to give North Carolina prison inmates a sense of the world they’ve been locked away from during their incarceration.
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Before He Wakes by Jerry Bledsoe
The Herald Sun
May 4, 2003
Peterson Case Invokes Memories of 1989 Trial
The Charlotte Observer
May 11, 1989
Barbara Stager Signed Husband’s Name on Checks to Herself, Expert Says
The Charlotte Observer
May 10, 1989
Expert rebuts Story of Victim’s Wife
May 1, 1988
2nd Death Raises Questions
Wife is Charged in One Shooting
July 22, 1994
The News and Observer
Durham Slaying Topic of True Crime Book
August 24, 1993
The News and Observer
Jurors Watch Re-Enactment of Stager Killing on Videotape
May 24, 1989
The News and Observer
Quest for Prosperity Marks Lives
May 24, 1989
Barbara Stager Reached Day of Reckoning