COVER- Little girl lost: Remembering Katie Worsky after 25 years
Polly Klaas. Samantha Runnion. Jessica Lunsford. Their names and faces are familiar– exhaustive national news coverage of their abduction and death has burned them into the national consciousness.
The contrast between photos of their shining eyes, wide grins, and dimpled cheeks and the incessantly replayed videos of their anguished parents begging futilely for their children's safe return has made the missing child– especially a missing girl– almost a symbol of society's dark side in the last decade. But before Amber Alerts and 24-hour cable news cycles etched the faces of the lost children and the plight of their parents in the national psyche, a little Charlottesville girl went on a sleep-over and never came home.
At a time when children rode their bikes alone and residents left their doors unlocked, the disappearance of Katie Worsky on July 12, 1982 rocked this sleepy college town and launched an investigation that seasoned law enforcement officers called "once in a lifetime" for its poignancy and complexity.
For weeks, dogs, search crews, helicopters, and even psychics scoured Charlottesville and Albemarle County for Katie. And although her body was never found, a year later, a Charlottesville jury convicted 24-year-old Glenn Haslam Barker of second degree murder based on what prosecutors called a "rope" of circumstantial evidence tying him to Katie.
It was just the second murder conviction in Virginia without a body, but if the parents felt any satisfaction in the conviction, it faded less than a decade later when the convicted killer went free.
Earlier this month, Katie's parents, Robin and Alan Worsky– who divorced the year after Barker's conviction– meet outside a coffeeshop on Pantops Mountain. On a breezy summer afternoon, they remember Katie as a tomboy who loved fishing and playing sports, a child who remained cheerful despite daily insulin injections for Type I diabetes which she'd had since she was five.
So many years later, Robin Worsky's pain is still fresh. Talking about her middle daughter brings quick tears, for which she apologizes.
"It doesn't get any easier," she says, shaking her head and covering her eyes.
On this day at least, Alan keeps his pain closer. A salesman by trade, he has a personable demeanor, a firm handshake, and a steady gaze. He smiles frequently, a broad toothy grin that invites others to smile with him– and is a reminder of Katie, who favored him.
"She was my little buddy," he says, recalling his daughter, blond and small for her age, begging to come with him on Chesapeake Bay fishing expeditions. Robin agrees that Katie was closer to Alan, though both parents adored all three children– Katie, their older daughter, Jamie, who was 15 at the time of the disappearance, and John, who was five.
At the time, Alan Worsky was a car salesman, and the family lived in an apartment in the Four Seasons subdivision off Rio Road. In that summer of 1982, E.T. and Poltergeist were big hits at the movie theater, and the shopping centers of Route 29 ended at Fashion Square. For the Fourth of July, a Sunday, the Worskys and the children traveled to a family reunion in Staunton, Robin's hometown, where the couple had met soon after Alan graduated from Staunton Military Academy in 1965.
The following weekend, however, the five Worskys were home together until Sunday, July 11, after Katie asked to spend the night at a friend's house. Initially, Robin and Alan say, they said no, though neither can recall their reason. But they remember that Katie was persistent.
"She begged and begged, 'Please, please!'" says Robin. "She won the battle and got to go, but it's ironic that we tried to stop her– for whatever reason."
In late afternoon, Alan drove Katie to 2745 McElroy Drive, a modest brick rancher at the end of a wooded cul-de-sac just off Old Lynchburg Road near Fry's Spring Beach Club. Katie was to spend the night with a former neighbor, a single mother of two named Carrie Gates, whose 13-year-old daughter, Tammy Thomas, was one of Katie's close friends. Though Gates had moved from the county to the city and the girls attended different schools– Katie was a rising seventh grader at Burley while Tammy was entering eighth grade at Buford– they'd had sleep-overs before at each other's houses without incident, and the Worskys say they had no reason to worry.
They never saw Katie again.
Like so many horror stories, the Worskys' nightmare started with a call. At approximately 5:30am on July 12, a groggy Robin Worsky answered the insistent ringing of the phone. On the other end, a woman asked: "Is Katie there?" It was Carrie Gates.
"I said, 'What do you mean is Katie here?' Robin recalls. "She's at your house."
The Worskys raced across town. When they first arrived at McElroy Drive, they say, Katie's disappearance didn't seem possible.
"We were frantically searching the whole house," says Robin, "thinking she's hiding, playing a game with us." Gates had not yet called the police, but the Worskys swiftly insisted upon it, and, they say, by approximately 7am the property was secured as a crime scene.
Before the police arrived, however, another person showed up to help in the search: a 23-year-old convenience store clerk named Glenn Haslam Barker.
Robin says she had never seen Barker, a hulking 6'5" former high-school football standout, but for Alan, Barker was familiar: he'd worked at a gas station on Pantops where Alan frequently purchased coffee and cigarettes.
"When he saw me, his eyes got big as silver dollars," says Alan. "I knew right then and there that something was wrong."
The police also had immediate suspicions. Barker had dated Gates, but by this time any romantic relationship was over. Barker readily admitted he'd been the last to see Katie the previous night, when the two girls and Tammy's younger brother, Eddie Thomas, had gone to bed. Details of Barker's story would have been troubling to many parents.
He admitted he'd brought a six pack of beer over and had given Katie and Tammy at least one each, though Tammy later testified they'd had more. Barker said he'd left the house around 12:30am, having tucked eight-year-old Eddie into bed, and after checking on Katie and Tammy, who he said were sleeping peacefully on the ground floor.
But police weren't buying his story.
In the days that followed Katie's disappearance, the Charlottesville community searched together, hoping for a miracle, wondering how long the 12-year-old– if she was still alive– could survive without her insulin, which had been found with her shoes and other belongings at her friend's house.
As days turned to weeks, the search turned grimmer. Circling vultures anywhere in the area prompted search groups to investigate, hoping to at least bring closure to the nightmare. Divers and canoers searched the Rivanna River, dogs scoured the woods around McElroy Drive, and helicopters hovered overhead.
Rumors flew that Katie's body was under the new Hardee's at Pantops. The Charlottesville police chief wanted to dig through tons of refuse at the Ivy Landfill, although concerns about biohazards and lack of a solid lead to the site derailed that suggestion. Desperate, police even agreed to consult with psychic Noreen Renier, who predicted Katie's body was near a shed on a hillside somewhere in Albemarle County.
Katie's classmates at Burley, including one 12-year-old named Rosemary Beard, joined in the search. Today, the memory of the events is still strong for Rosemary Beard Heflin, now 37.
"It really rocked our world," she says. "We always thought of Charlottesville as a very safe place. Parents didn't think twice about dropping their kids off to go to the mall.
"I felt very helpless, very frightened," Heflin says, recalling a day in a canoe with her father looking for Katie on the Rivanna River.
Heflin says that after Katie's disappearance, many parents became more cautious. "And yet it was such a benign thing," she says, "letting her spend the night at her girlfriend's house."
Katie's parents were among the searchers. In one of many July Daily Progress articles, Alan described driving the roads of Albemarle County, "just looking to see if I can see a little girl with blond hair wandering around in a pink t-shirt."
On July 15, Police Chief John "Dek" Bowen held a press conference to announce agonizing news: police were calling off the full-scale search, although smaller search operations continued, as officers followed up on dozens of tips.
Bowen, who retired in 1994, recalls the time as "frustrating."
"All of us were out searching, walking areas where we thought there was a chance she might be," says Bowen, now 73. "It was a very personal case to the police department. It still is."
While police had had no luck finding the missing girl, they were more successful unearthing clues.
Hours after Katie's disappearance, they made some discoveries when, with Barker's permission, they searched his apartment in the Hessian Hills Apartments on Georgetown Road. They discovered wet, blood-stained men's clothing and towels between the mattress and box spring of Barker's bed and in a cooler. Barker, who was present for the search, appeared shocked at the discovery.
"There was a surprised look on Barker's face," said Detective Bill Davis on an NBC29 video. "You know how you look at somebody and they think, well you found their secret?" Davis, who died last year, said on the tape that Barker claimed he didn't know how the clothing had gotten there– a statement Barker would maintain long after his conviction.
In the years before DNA testing, matching blood stains by blood type was the best way to determine who blood might have come from. The stains on the wet clothes matched Barker's Type A, but they also showed blood of Type B. Unfortunately, despite Katie's diabetes, her blood had never been typed, and investigators could not connect the clothing to the crime– yet.
Convinced that they might have missed something, investigators got a warrant to search Barker's apartment a second time the following week, this time without giving him notice. They had nearly given up the search when lead investigator Jim Haden checked Barker's dresser drawers. Inside a pair of rolled-up socks, there was a balled-up pair of girls' panties. On the back of the panties was what appeared to be a tiny blood stain that could be consistent with the location where Katie injected her insulin.
Still, investigators didn't know Katie's blood type. It wasn't until January 1983, after investigators had spent months looking for a way to match the blood, that Katie's parents discovered a solution. There were several stains on Katie's mattress. Katie, they revealed, had recently begun menstruating, and the only other person to have slept in the bed was her menopausal grandmother, they said. Excited, police tested the mattress and discovered that five of the stains were blood. And more significantly, it was Type B. The rope was tightening.
Though investigators suspected Barker from the beginning, then-Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dick Barrick didn't want to rush to press charges for fear that a jury wouldn't convict without a body.
"She could have wandered off and died from shock or something from not taking her insulin," says Barrick, who retired to private practice in 1989. "She could have been kidnapped."
Barrick, 78, explains his decision to wait more than six months before having Barker arrested. "I wanted to make sure I had every bit of circumstantial evidence, and we were hoping in the meantime that we could either find Katie alive somewhere, or at worst, discover her body."
The arrest came on January 29, 1983 and the trial nearly six months later. It was unlike any other trial Barrick can recall. The normally sparsely filled courtroom was packed with spectators as forensic experts and witnesses testified. Officers and even the Worskys themselves were barred from the trial because they would be witnesses in the largely circumstantial case.
The jury of eight women and four men listened to days of testimony from Katie's family, Carrie Gates, and Tammy Thomas, and from hosts of officers and forensic experts. Several of the jurors still recall the experience in remarkable detail.
"It was hard, depressing," says Tanner Y. Carver, a retired Comdial employee, now 76. He and the others agree it was the forensic testimony that the blood stains from Katie's mattress matched the type of blood on the wet clothes and panties found in Barker's sock drawer that sealed their decision.
Another juror, a nurse who is now 69, spoke on the condition that her name not be used, citing fear of Barker, who, she says, was an intimidating presence in the courtroom. She says his 6'5" height was boosted by cowboy boots, and he showed no emotion in the courtroom.
Images from news reports at the time show Barker smoking a cigarette and leaving court neatly groomed in a powder blue suit and tie, accompanied by his attorneys, Larry McElwain and Paul Peatross, who later became a Charlottesville District and Albemarle Circuit Court judge.
McElwain says the week of the trial was "intense," so much so that Judge Herbert C. Pickford, who presided over the case, held court on a Saturday.
"The judge wanted to get this done," he recalls. (Peatross, who retired from the bench this year, did not return the Hook's calls for comment, nor did the now-retired Pickford.)
The prosecution's description of Barker's behavior the fateful night may have disturbed jurors.
"It was chilling when they presented the case and how clever and cunning Barker was in manipulating the children," says the nurse. "He could walk up the driveway and look in the window, see the kids there."
Uncontested facts emerged in testimony: Barker had given Katie and her friend Tammy beer. Tammy testified that both girls had gotten sick after drinking them, and she said when she went to bed, she'd last seen Barker reading her eight-year-old brother, Eddie, a bedtime story– news reports from the time say it was a chapter from a book on Civil War ships. Tammy testified that she awoke from a bad dream at approximately 5:30am and discovered Katie's bed empty, her friend gone.
Barrick theorized at trial that after the two girls became intoxicated, Barker carried Katie to the ground floor rec room and attempted to molest her. Drops of blood matching Katie's type were found on the rug and around the room's coffee table.
"Something violent went on in the [rec] room involving Katie," says Barrick. "One would have to also assume that it involved Barker. What it was or why it happened, we had no evidence on that at all. You could argue from Barker's standpoint that she had fallen."
Indeed, Barker has always maintained that he had nothing to do with Katie's disappearance and that he left the house sometime after midnight, with all three children safe.
Forensic experts testified that a hair found in Barker's car was consistent with Katie's hair, and sniffer dogs identified her scent in his car. Other testimony that supported the prosecution: Charlottesville Police detective Chip Harding testified that an "angry" Barker had called the police department eight days after Katie's disappearance to personally threaten Harding and act hazy on Worsky.
"Why should I tell?" Harding testified that Barker said. "I'll wait for the facts, and then I'll remember them." Harding also testified that when police showed Barker the mounting evidence against him and asked if he'd harmed Katie, he responded, "I probably did, but I don't remember."
Harding told the court that Barker was angry with him because Harding had warned an 18-year-old woman Barker had been dating that Barker was dangerous. (Harding, now a police captain running for election for Albemarle County Sheriff, declined comment for this story.)
Following more than a week of testimony and jury deliberations, the web of circumstantial evidence between Barker and Katie Worsky held fast. On July 28, 1983, the jury convicted Barker of second degree murder and recommended a sentence of 18 years, two years short of the 20-year maximum. They could, however, have convicted Barker of first degree murder if they'd been convinced the act had been premeditated. Barrick had described the difference between the two charges in his closing argument, but he says now that despite failing to win a first-degree conviction, he was pleased with the verdict.
"I doubted we had enough to get him on premeditation," he says. Although McElwain and Peatross eventually appealed the case to the Virginia Supreme Court, the guilty verdict remained.
The jurors praise Barrick for putting together such a tight case, but one of them says she has a regret.
"I was sorry that we didn't understand what Dick Barrick was trying to say to us, that premeditated could mean only five minutes. If we had understood that, it would have been first degree," says Alice Wallenborn, a retired nursing professor who is now 89.
Jurors say that they quickly agreed on the verdict, but coming up with a sentence was harder. Eventually, they agreed on 18 years. Virginia law, held a surprise, however.
"We didn't realize at that time that parole came in any time after nine years," says Carver, who learned that Barker would be paroled from watching news reports.
"That was very galling to me," agrees the anonymous juror.
It was galling to someone else as well– someone with the power to do something.
Ten years after the conviction, George Allen ran for for governor on a platform with a bold and controversial plan to eliminate parole. In 1995, a year after he took office, Allen followed through on his campaign promise by eliminating mandatory parole, increasing sentences for violent offenders, and establishing "truth-in-sentencing," a law that requires that juries be told exactly how much time someone they convict will serve.
Writing by Blackberry mobile device from a family vacation in Italy last week, Allen– an Albemarle County resident at the time of Katie Worsky's disappearance– says he thought about Katie when he pushed those changes through the Virginia General Assembly.
"The early release of her convicted murderer was another of many aggravating examples of why I wanted to abolish the lenient, dishonest parole system," writes Allen, adding, "our hearts ache for the Worsky family."
Had the changes been in place in 1982, Barker would have served the entire 18 years, Allen notes. In addition to abolishing parole, Allen did away with "bifurcated jury trials," which in the past prevented juries from learning about defendant's prior records when they were determining a sentence.
Indeed, the Worsky jury had not heard about Barker's prior record.
In 1981, Barker was charged in Harnett County, North Carolina with kidnapping an 18-year-old female, tying her to a bed, and holding her at knifepoint. While his victim was restrained, Barker went outside to move her car, and she escaped. Barker pled guilty to assault.
"It was hard to see that after the fact," says the anonymous juror, who says the information made her feel better about convicting and sentencing in the absence of a body. "Thank God," she says, "we did as much as we did."
The police and prosecutors who fought for and won the conviction against Barker have no doubt they got the right man. But Barker himself has always maintained his innocence. Speaking by telephone from his home in South River, New Jersey 25 years after Katie's disappearance and 15 years after he completed his sentence, Barker, now 48, maintains his innocence and claims he was set up.
He says he and Carrie Gates had known each other for several years. "We started out having a romantic relationship," he says, "but that didn't work out, so we remained friends." (Neither Gates nor her daughter, Tammy Thomas, could be reached for comment.)
The night of Katie's disappearance, Barker says, he had come over to visit with Gates, but when she told him she was too tired to drink the beer he'd brought and that she was going to bed, he planned to leave. Instead, he says, he was beckoned into the ground floor rec room by the kids.
Tammy and Eddie "were crazy about me," he says. "We hung out all the time," and he'd "take them to Chuck E. Cheese or places like that."
Barker says it was the girls who asked him to share his beer.
"I know it was wrong, but I was young, too, and I wasn't going to be the bad guy," he says. He also believed that Tammy had had alcohol before. "I didn't see the big deal," he says. He says that he never saw Katie become ill from the alcohol, but agrees with trial testimony that Tammy did throw up.
"I was holding her hair when she was throwing up in the toilet," he says. He read Eddie a bedtime story, and then, when the child fell asleep, "I put my beer bottles back in the bag. Five minutes after Eddie fell asleep, I was gone."
Barker, who says he is diabetic and has suffered two strokes and three heart attacks, now says he even remembers the drive from McElroy Drive back to Georgetown Road. He took the long route, around "the circle"– JPA and Emmet Street around the University– so he could gaze at coeds. The idea that he would be sexually interested in a child, he says, doesn't make sense.
"I was dating two other girls when this happened," he says. "Everyone said I was looking to have sex. There were two other places I could have went. Why would I want a child? Especially if I had to use force. I could go get it free with no problems. I don't understand why people are not thinking."
Barker says the investigation and the trial were riddled with errors and inconsistencies, starting with the searches of his apartment. He maintains he doesn't know how the wet, blood-stained clothing got under his mattress and points out that he allowed police to come in for the first search– something he says he wouldn't have done if he'd had something to hide. He also wonders why they didn't find the panties on the first search, and why they got a warrant when he'd already agreed to let them come in. He suspects police planted the evidence, a charge they deny.
He questions the validity of the blood on Katie's mattress, and says blood stains were "used up" by prosecution tests, so the defense was forced to rely on those results rather than getting independent tests. He also says the use of dogs to match Katie's scent to his car and to establish his path out of the house with her was flawed and that the dogs seemed to identify several different locations and vehicles.
Though Barker strongly denies any wrongdoing in the Worsky case, he does take responsibility for the 1981 assault in North Carolina, which he believes has been the source of all his problems.
"I tied her hands behind her back," he admits. "It was at knifepoint. But I never did anything or said anything.
"It was wrong what I did there," he says. "I'm not trying to simplify it. It was very traumatic for her."
He says drugs and alcohol had affected his behavior, and his wife at the time, Lynn, with whom he had a son, had just left him. "All I wanted," he explains, "was the company."
Robin Worsky visited Barker twice in prison and begged him to reveal the location of her daughter's body. "I told him, 'I'll do whatever it takes to help you, if you help me.' I was just desperate."
Barker maintained his innocence so convincingly that she began to harbor doubts.
"I'm not saying I think he's innocent," she says. "I don't know where the guilt lies. I think, maybe, had he gotten her drunk, had she fallen and hit her head, that he would have freaked out. He may have taken care of the problem."
Following those visits, Robin says, Barker began writing her letters asking her to come back and hoping she'd befriend his own mother.
"He thought I was the solution to his problem," says Robin. "I wasn't. I needed a solution to mine."
Asked now about the plight of the Worskys, who have spent every day of the last 25 years yearning for answers, Barker says he is sympathetic. "I grieve for their loss," he says.
And as he told Robin Worsky during her visits to him, if he knew where Katie was, he insists he would tell. "I did the time," he explains. "I might as well."
It's no secret that the stress of parenting can strain a marriage, but the death of a child can be a fatal blow. Such was the case for the Worskys.
"It contributed to the end of the marriage," says Robin, as Alan nods. "We just knew we didn't want to fight, didn't want to argue," she adds. Apart, they have been able to remain "good friends" even as they dealt with their grief in different ways.
"He wanted to move away from Charlottesville, to get away from it," says Robin. "I didn't want to leave because I was still expecting her to come back."
They weren't the only ones struggling. Katie's older sister, Jamie, says the days, weeks, and years after Katie's disappearance were brutal– beginning the morning of Katie's disappearance, when she heard her parents screaming, "Katie's gone!"
In her sleepy teenage haze, she didn't understand. "They were trying to get me out of bed; then they were gone," she says. "They stayed gone for three days, only came home at night."
During the search and investigation, Jamie says, she wanted to get away from the chaos and pain, but her parents pulled her closer.
"I was pissed when I had to be home at a certain time and everybody else could be home much later," she says. On one particular occasion, she had gone to Barnaby's Pizza on Greenbrier Drive when the phone rang at the bustling restaurant. It was her parents telling her that Glenn Barker had gotten out on bond. "They were coming to pick me up right then," she remembers.
Even though the disappearance occurred at the sleep-over, Jamie found that some of her friends were forbidden by their parents to visit the Worsky house. She rebelled– drinking, staying out– though she won't blame all of it on Katie's disappearance. "It was what everyone was doing," she says.
When her parents separated the year after the trial, Jamie says, her relationship with her father was further strained, in part because he'd become so protective.
"My memory of him is that he was with me all the time," she says. "I understand that now, being a parent, but I hated it then. I hated high school. I was miserable."
After the divorce, Jamie stayed with her mother in Charlottesville, while Alan moved to Roanoke and then New Jersey with John, the youngest. They returned to Charlottesville several years later. Jamie married and had children– at 39, she has a 19-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son– though she has since also divorced. John is now the father of two boys, 7 and 6 years old.
Today, Jamie says, her relationship with her father has been mended. "Being an adult, I have a much better relationship with my dad." While she doesn't see him as frequently as she does her mother– she and Robin live across the street from each other– they are now close, she says, and talk on the phone "all the time."
"I can never imagine losing a child, ever," says Jamie, who adds that her mother's strength in continuing with her life despite the hole at its center gave her new respect.
"My mom," she says, "is the strongest person I know."
The pain, however, never completely fades for any of them. "Things are still the same," says Jamie. "Katie's not here; she hasn't been found."
For the living, a lot happens in 25 years. "We've changed," says Jamie. "We've had to. My parents have gotten older, my brother and I grew up." Katie, however, is still– and will always be– 12. A day doesn't go by that Jamie Worsky doesn't think about her sister. But she says time has robbed her of some memories.
"I don't remember her voice," she says, choking up. "I try and I try." She looks for signs of Katie in her own children. "I kind of see her, especially in my son," she says.
Still, if she can't remember all the details, she can remember Katie's essence: a mischievous, fun-loving– if sometimes bratty– little sister.
"She shot me in the rear end with a BB gun once," Jamie laughs. "She said it wasn't on purpose, but it was. She aimed right at my ass and got me good." Despite such sibling rivalry, Jamie says she and Katie– who shared a room– had just started to establish a closer relationship when Katie disappeared.
"I remember the day that she went to Tammy Thomas' house, I asked her not to go," Jamie says, "to stay and go to the mall with me and my girlfriends."
Katie is in their thoughts constantly, but Alan and Robin Worsky say they do not have any family traditions in which they formally remember her. In fact, there has never been a memorial service– private or public. Twenty-five years later, Robin Worsky's fear that she'd never know exactly what happened has been realized.
"I don't have a death certificate," says Robin. "I don't have a place to go to visit her." Her grief wells once more. "I can't have a memorial for her. I think about it, but I can't do it," she says, weeping at the Pantops coffeeshop. "I know I need to close it, but I don't know how."
Standing, she enters the coffeeshop for a glass of water. Alan touches her arm and watches her go, then turns and gazes out past the table at the sky and the horizon to the west.
"I look at it differently than Robin," he says, this time with no hint of his trademark smile as he thinks about the daughter he has grieved for so long, the little blond girl he took fishing.
"Her resting place is wherever the Lord wants her to be," he says, pausing, and gesturing to the mountains and the clouds drifting across the blue sky.
"In time we'll know," he says, "but not on this earth."
Next week: A brutal double murder in Richmond is connected to Barker, and Virginia and New Jersey residents protest his presence in their neighborhoods. Is Glenn Haslam Barker a serial killer, or is he a convenient target for law enforcement looking for easy solutions to tough cases?
Detective Bill Davis' name was misstated in the print version of this article. It has been corrected online.–ed