Bart Corbin: Double Deception

A dentist's wife is dead. It looks like suicide. But the case turns out to be far more sinister.

By Ann Rule from Too Late to Say Goodbye (Pocket Books)
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine June 2007

Arriving at his dead daughter’s house, Max Barber parked in the driveway for a very long time, waiting to talk to his son-in-law. Heather, who was still at her mother’s house, called 911. She was urgently hoping someone could help get Bart to the scene. She had her suspicions.

“The woman who answered at 911 was already convinced that Jenn had killed herself,” Heather recalled. “I kept trying to tell her that Bart did it, and she kept saying, ‘But, ma’am, you don’t understand what happened.’

“And I knew I did understand and she didn’t,” said Heather. Jenn had confided that she was beginning to be afraid of her husband.

Heather recalled that while having coffee together once, the two couples had discussed the TV coverage of the Scott Peterson trial. They had been transfixed by the seeming smugness of Peterson during the trial for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn child.

“We all talked about it,” Heather remembered. “I said something about Scott Peterson and how awful it was. And Bart replied, ‘Scott Peterson only got caught because he didn’t keep his mouth shut.’ That conversation stuck with me.”

Though Jenn tried hard over the years to make her deteriorating marriage work, in 2004 she made little pretense about how empty it was. Bart was emotionally abusive, and she wanted to be free of him, if only she could figure out a way that wouldn’t hurt the boys. Her best friend, Juliet Styles, knew of her struggles, as did her neighbor and friend Kelly Comeau and, of course, Heather. They were all pulling for Jenn to find some happiness.

Bart himself acknowledged that the marriage was unraveling. Jenn would not sleep with him, which distressed him. He’d always prided himself on being a good lover. He made pathetic, sometimes desperate, calls about the problem to others, including Heather and Doug, and his wife’s parents.

Sometimes Jenn talked to her mother about the issues with Bart. One day she told Narda forcefully, “Mom, he gives me the creeps. He makes my skin crawl. I cannot bear to have him touch me.”

No longer the self-assured husband who had spent years cheating on her with other women, Bart now clung tightly to Jenn. He would not allow a woman to leave him. When Jenn brought up the subject of divorce in early October 2004, he seemed to have expected it. But he begged her to stay in the house through Christmas. Couldn’t they have one more Christmas as a family, something to remember? For the first time, Bart apologized to Jenn, saying he was sorry if he’d hurt her. She agreed to stay over the holidays. That would mean two more months. She didn’t know how she was going to manage.

Only one thing gave her a bit of joy. Desperately lonely, she’d begun exchanging e-mails with someone named Chris Hearn, whom she’d met over the Internet on a game site. When she told Heather about this virtual friendship, her sister warned her, “You have no idea who this really is!”

But Jenn seemed to find comfort in it and exchanged literally hundreds of e-mails with “Chris.” The last name of this person — Hearn — meant nothing to Jenn, because she’d never known about Dolly Hearn, Bart’s earlier girlfriend. But when Bart found the e-mails and started reading them, he assumed Jenn had stumbled on Dolly’s suspicious death. He became enraged. After Thanksgiving dinner at Heather and Doug’s house, when he barely said a word to anyone, Bart unleashed his anger at Jenn during the car ride home. He hauled off and hit her in the face.

Their seven-year-old, Dalton, cried hysterically. But Dillon somehow managed to sleep through the whole thing.

Jenn fled to her sister’s house and went ahead with divorce plans, but on December 3 she told Heather, “I have to go home or I’ll lose our house.” Bart filed his own divorce papers. He was behaving erratically, according to his brother and his friends. He’d tear off in the night in his car. Evidence would also show that he made a secret drive to Alabama — returning with a gun.

As Jenn’s family braced for her funeral, the probe into her death widened. Investigators had been learning about the terrible dissension that marked the last weeks of her life. They spoke with many people close to Jenn and Bart. Friends, family and neighbors told stories of fear, upset and a marriage going downhill fast.

While the Gwinnett County detectives worked to determine how and why Jennifer Corbin died, Richmond County sheriff’s detectives Scott Peebles and DeWayne Piper carried out a parallel probe into Dolly Hearn’s death, now 14 years in the past. Atlanta-area media that were keeping abreast of the Jenn Corbin case had quickly reported information about the Hearn case. Detectives in both jurisdictions noted similarities and started connecting the dots. The public also knew that young Dalton Corbin had blurted out that his father had shot his mother, though District Attorney Danny Porter of Gwinnett County didn’t feel that the seven-year-old’s certainty would be enough yet to order an affidavit for an arrest warrant.

Despite the circumstantial evidence in Jenn’s death, there was still no proof of murder. The gun found in her bed had been wiped clean of any fingerprints, as had the murder weapon in Dolly Hearn’s case.

Two days before Jenn’s funeral, Kevin Vincent, an investigator with the DA, drove to Bart Corbin’s dental office in Dacula to search for information. The office was closed. A sign said there had been a death in the family.

An attorney whose office was next to Bart Corbin’s told Vincent that he’d last spoken to Bart on Friday, December 3. The lawyer said that Bart occasionally bartered dental work for legal advice. The lawyer knew from personal experience that Corbin had a volatile temperament, and he often heard Bart shouting at his staff right through the walls.

The attorney said that Bart had asked him “nervously” on the afternoon before his wife was shot about which of them would be legally responsible for paying the mortgage on their house if he and his wife divorced. “I told him that it would be the one of you who could most afford to pay.” That would be Bart, who earned more as a dentist than Jenn did as a teacher.

The lawyer observed that Bart had been acting strangely that afternoon. “He said to me, ‘Everyone told me not to marry her. I should have listened, but it will all be over soon.’ ” At the time, the lawyer thought that Bart was speaking about the upcoming divorce.

Investigators made a door-to-door sweep of the Corbins’ closest neighbors. Bart’s explosions of temper were well known. A nearby neighbor said that on one occasion he had even felt it necessary to step in to protect Dalton from Bart’s anger. Investigators also learned that even though he’d filed for divorce, Bart seemed consumed with pain and rage in the days before his wife died. If they needed to find someone with a motive for murder, Bart was a likely candidate. He’d been obsessed with getting Jenn back.