What Was Serial Killer Velma Barfield's Motive For Murder?

In December 1977, 56-year-old Rowland Stewart Taylor began experiencing signs of illness that included severe stomach pains. Taylor and his girlfriend, Velma Barfield, were attending a gospel revival hosted by televangelist Rex Humbard when he began having symptoms, according to Radford University's Department of Psychology. When they returned home, Barfield contacted Taylor's family to let them know he was sick. Three days later, Taylor was taken to a Lumberton, North Carolina, hospital by ambulance. He never recovered from the sudden illness.

On February 2, 1978, Taylor was pronounced dead. Upon hearing news about Taylor's death, Barfield's sister contacted authorities because she believed her sister was responsible for Taylor's death, according to the University of North Carolina. She also told authorities she suspected Barfield was responsible for several other deaths by poisoning.

According to Radford University, an autopsy confirmed Taylor died of arsenic poisoning. The call from Barfield's sister, along with the coroner's report, prompted authorities to call Barfield in for questioning. Although she initially denied any involvement, she eventually confessed to poisoning and ultimately causing the death of her boyfriend.

Barfield also confessed to poisoning and killing a total of four people in addition to Taylor, according to UNC. Although authorities suspected Barfield in two other poisoning deaths, she denied any involvement in those cases.

Velma Barfield had a difficult childhood

Velma Barfield had a difficult childhood and dealt with a number of tragedies throughout her lifetime. While her past does not excuse her crimes, it does provide some insight into the person she became. According to Radford University, Barfield was born on October 29, 1932. She was the second oldest of nine children. Her family lived on a tobacco farm without electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing. The family also did not have an outhouse, so they had to use chamber pots or go in the woods.

Although she enjoyed school, Barfield took on a lot of the responsibilities for running the household and was often forced to leave school early or not attend at all. In addition to keeping the home clean, she was responsible for hand washing and mending the family's clothing. Barfield was also prohibited from participating in after-school activities, as it would not allow her enough time to complete her chores.

Throughout her childhood, Barfield witnessed her father abusing her mother. However, when she was 13, he began abusing her as well. According to Radford University, Barfield's father sexually abused her at least one time during her teenage years. In 1949, at the age of 17, Barfield married Thomas Burke. Two years later, she gave birth to the first of her two children. She had a hysterectomy at the age of 30 due to medical issues that caused heavy bleeding.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

She developed an addiction to tranquilizers

When Velma Barfield was 35 years old, she was forced to begin working two jobs as her husband, Thomas Burke, had lost his job due to ongoing issues with alcoholism. He also became increasingly abusive toward Barfield and their children, according to Radford University. Under a tremendous amount of stress, Barfield was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.

At the age of 37, Barfield was prescribed tranquilizers to treat her anxiety. However, she often took more of the medication than she was prescribed. She ultimately developed an addiction to the medication and visited several doctors to obtain a steady supply. Barfield was hospitalized on numerous occasions for overdosing on the tranquilizers. She never overcame her addiction.

Amid Barfield's excessive use of prescription drugs and her husband's alcoholism, tensions were high in the household. One afternoon, while Barfield was running errands with the children, their house caught on fire with her husband inside, according to UNC. Burke could not escape and was killed in the blaze. According to Radford University, authorities concluded the fire was caused by Burke dropping a lit cigarette, and he died as a result of smoke inhalation. After her husband's death, Barfield was prescribed even more tranquilizers.

Shortly after her husband's death, she began dating a widower named Jennings Barfield.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Barfield lost her job as a result of her addiction

Velma and Jennings Barfield married soon after they met, according to Radford University. Jennings Barfield had several health issues, including emphysema and diabetes, so Velma also became his primary caretaker. Less than one year after they were married, Jennings began having difficulty breathing and experiencing gastrointestinal distress. He died of the sudden illness, which doctors were unable to diagnose.

As Barfield was still heavily using prescription drugs, she overdosed several times, and nearly died on at least one occasion. She eventually lost her job and her home because she was unable to work or pay the mortgage. Following her father's death from lung cancer, she and her children moved in with her mother.

After moving into her mother's home, Barfield took out two loans in her mother's name without her consent, and wrote five bad checks on a bank account that was closed following Jennings' death. When she began receiving bills for the loans, Barfield panicked. Weeks later, Radford University reports her mother came down with a sudden and mysterious illness, which included diarrhea, severe cramping, and vomiting. Although she was admitted to the hospital, Barfield's mother did not survive. Her cause of death was determined to be a heart attack.

She went to prison for writing bad checks

In the months following her mother's death, Velma Barfield was arrested and charged with writing checks on her late husband's closed account. Although she was sentenced to six months in prison, she was released after four months for good behavior.

Following her release from prison, Barfield was hired as a home health aide for an elderly couple. According to UNC, 94-year-old Montgomery Edwards and 84-year-old Dollie Edwards both fell ill approximately two years after Barfield began working in their home. Both Montgomery, who died in January 1977, and Dollie, who died in February 1977, experienced a sudden illness assumed to be a stomach virus.

Although the number of people dying of sudden and mysterious stomach and intestinal illnesses was indeed unusual, authorities did not make the connection to Barfield or suspect any foul play. Barfield went on to provide home health care to another elderly couple named John Henry and Record Lee, according to UNC. Within months of the Edwards' deaths, Henry Lee also died of a sudden illness, which was determined to be "a severe stomach virus." It was later that same year that Barfield met Stuart Taylor — who would become her last victim.

Velma Barfield was sentenced to death

Although Velma Barfield denied having anything to do with the deaths of her first husband Thomas Burke and second husband Jennings Barfield, she confessed to killing her boyfriend Stuart Taylor, her mother Lillian Burke, Montgomery and Dollie Edwards, and John Henry Lee — by poisoning them with arsenic.

Barfield admitted to stealing money from all of her victims to support her addiction to prescription drugs and killing them to hide the fact that she had stolen the money, according to UNC.

Barfield was only tried in the murder of Stuart Taylor. She was convicted of first-degree murder in December 1978 and sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, Barfield became a born-again Christian. As she ministered to her fellow inmates, and even prison guards, she gained the support of several prominent religious leaders, including Billy Graham — who would go on to plea for her sentence to be reduced to life in prison. She also filed a number of legal appeals, which were all ultimately denied.

Barfield died by lethal injection on November 2, 1984, at 52 years old, according to UNC, making her the first woman to die by lethal injection in the United States.