True Crime: Two Million Reasons for Murder

Justin Barber said his wife was killed during a late-night robbery—but the details didn't add up. Seek the truth in this harrowing true crime story.

By Kenneth Miller from Reader's Digest Magazine

True Crime: Two Million Reasons for Murder Our new e-book is on sale now on,,, and the iTunes store
The man in the hospital bed was personable and seemed eager to help catch his wife’s killer. But something about him made Detective Howard “Skip” Cole uneasy. “His body language and demeanor didn’t seem appropriate,” says Cole, 35, who’d been assigned to lead the investigation.

In the days that followed, Cole’s suspicions grew. Justin’s story was frustratingly vague, and the details kept changing. The case raised a slew of questions. How did Justin escape with minor wounds, while his wife was killed with a single shot? Why did he claim she’d been drinking, when her blood-alcohol level measured .000? Why had he left his cell phone at home that night, and why didn’t he use April’s? What made him drive so far in search of help, when there were mansions and gas stations along his route?

Meanwhile, April’s Aunt Patti remembered that in the summer of 2001, April had told her Justin wanted them to take out $2 million insurance policies on each other’s lives. “She asked if I didn’t think it weird,” Patti says. “I told her yeah but said I didn’t think they would qualify. She called back the next day and said, ‘You can’t say anything to Justin. He’ll be furious if he finds out I told you.’”

Justin found a company that would cover them. Not long afterward, April began to suspect he was having an affair. She told Amber she’d found an earring in his bedroom, and in July 2002, she discovered he was playing tennis regularly with a rental-car agent named Shannon Kennedy. April e-mailed him at work, asking him to tell her when he was socializing with other women. Justin responded with a sarcastic message listing every female he’d glimpsed that day.

April told her boss, Ramesh Nair, that she was going to confront Justin on their anniversary—August 4. She visited Justin that weekend; when she returned, she told Nair that she’d threatened to end the marriage. On Friday the 16th, she drove back to Jacksonville. The next night, she was dead.

Amber and Patti’s first thought was, Justin did it. And Nair was struck by a memory from a few months earlier: “One day, out of the blue, April said, ‘If anything happens to me, suspect foul play.’ I answered with a joke, and she looked hurt, like, You’re not taking me seriously. Don’t forget.”

Justin asked Patti if she would front for April’s burial expenses. “What about the $2 million?” she responded. Startled, he said, “Did April tell you?” He told her he thought the policy had lapsed. Patti did some digging and learned that it hadn’t.

At the funeral, in Hennessey’s First Baptist Church, a crowd of 300 overflowed the pews. Several attendees were struck by Justin’s failure to cry, though he appeared to be trying. The next day, Patti called Detective Cole. She told him what she knew and put him in touch with Amber.

During a search of Justin’s condo, Cole found the insurance policy. Brought in for questioning, Justin denied his affair with Shannon Kennedy until he was told she was in the next room; then he insisted that his marriage had been generally placid.

Cole knew he was dealing with a liar, but arresting Justin for murder was another matter. There were no witnesses; no weapon had been found. Even the motive remained fuzzy. Justin had a base salary in the $70,000s; his wife earned nearly as much. Living apart from her, he could cheat with relative impunity. Did he kill her—and shoot himself—simply to upgrade his lifestyle a few notches?

Cole and his team probed the couple’s financial records and Justin’s computer files. They analyzed bloodstains, ballistics, and the abrasions on April’s body. By July 2004, they had enough evidence to take Justin into custody, but it took another two years of spadework—and advancements in computer forensics—before they were ready to go to trial.

The proceedings began on June 12, 2006, in a courthouse in St. Augustine, Florida. Much of what the sleuths had dug up was inadmissible: April’s conversations with Nair, for example, and Justin’s purchase of a bulletproof chest plate before the killing. Instead, the case turned on a few stark facts.

First, there were the trysts: Justin, it emerged, had carried on at least five during his three-year marriage. Shortly before the killing, he asked Shannon Kennedy to travel with him to California; two days afterward, he stopped by her office and demanded to see her. He pursued her for several more weeks before transferring to Portland, Oregon.

Then there was money: Justin had $58,000 in credit card debt. “The adage is true, even if it’s corny,” Assistant District Attorney Matt Foxman told the jury. “The defendant has two million reasons to commit this crime.”

That took care of motive. As to method, prosecutors argued that Justin had spent a year planning the crime. The most damning evidence came from his laptop. On February 9, 2002, Justin Googled “medical trauma right chest.” On Valentine’s Day, he tried “gunshot wound right chest.” The prosecutor asked, “What are the odds of somebody researching ‘gunshot wound to the right chest’ and getting a gunshot wound to the right chest six months later?”

On July 19, Justin Googled “Florida divorce” and doubtless discovered that if April dumped him, he could no longer be her beneficiary. And on August 17, an hour before the fatal outing, he downloaded the Guns N’ Roses song “Used to Love Her (But I Had to Kill Her).” Foxman played the track in court. Justin, he said, had been psyching himself up for murder.
Finally, there was the crime-scene evidence. Justin claimed he hauled April from the water after she was shot, carrying her in at least nine different positions. Yet the blood on her face all flowed in one direction, suggesting she had been shot on the walkway and left there to die. Foam at her nose and mouth indicated that she’d suffered a “near-drowning episode” before the shooting.

Foxman laid out his theory: Justin intended to shoot April, load her corpse in the car, and drive off in search of “help.” The scheme went awry when she tried to run. He held her underwater until she stopped struggling, then dragged her to the walkway, where he shot her and himself. The plan derailed again when his pain kept him from carrying her farther. Justin had to modify his tactics, Foxman said, but his strategy never changed: “He wanted the $2 million, he wanted sympathy for being shot, and he wanted to look like a hero who’d tried to save his wife. He wanted it all.”

Justin’s attorney, Robert Willis, gamely offered alternative interpretations for each scrap of evidence. But Justin’s behavior in a different courtroom three years earlier may ultimately have swayed the jury.

Midway through the first-degree premeditated murder trial, prosecutors played a video deposition Justin gave in 2003 as part of a civil case concerning insurance proceeds. On the tape, the plaintiffs’ attorney grills Justin on the attack, his affairs, his sex life with April. He claims not to remember some key details but answers even the most disturbing questions with uncanny calm. His mouth is set in a downward curve, and he dabs his eyes once. Otherwise, he shows little emotion. When the lawyer asks him to recall the high points of his marriage, Justin says tersely, “We were in love.” Pressed for details, he says, “I don’t recall specifically.”

He seemed equally unmoved when the jurors of the criminal trial, after 33 hours of deliberation, announced their verdict: guilty. His supporters wept, as did April’s mourners. Justin barely blinked, even when the jury recommended the death penalty a week later. (Judge Edward Hedstrom later sentenced him to life without parole.) Such detachment is a classic symptom of sociopathy, says University of Texas psychologist Shari Julian, an expert on the disorder.

“The true mark of a sociopath is that he always wears a mask,” Julian says. They tend to be intelligent, charismatic, and monstrously manipulative.

“He’s a very gentle person,” says Justin’s mother, Linda, who still believes in his innocence. “A good guy.”

But Amber Mitchell rejoices that the mask is off at last. “This has been a long, horrible chapter in our lives,” she says. “I want the jury to know they got it right.”

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