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A Script of Fear : Repeated Threats by Father of Child Actress Carried to Tragic End

August 07, 1988|JOHN JOHNSON and GABE FUENTES | Times Staff Writers

When Judith Barsi prepared to leave Los Angeles for the Bahamas to film "Jaws The Revenge" last year, her father pulled a knife and bade her goodby. "If you decide not to come back, I will cut your throat," he said, according to a relative.

The 10-year-old actress returned two months later, but the rage boiling inside the family's stucco house in the San Fernando Valley did not diminish, and the child plucked out her eyelashes and her cat's whiskers as her distress mounted, according to her agent.

A friend and fellow plumber said "Arizona Joe" Barsi "told me 500 times he was going to kill his wife."

"I'd try to calm him down. I'd tell him, 'If you kill her, what will happen to your little one?' " said Peter Kivlen. "Little one" was Barsi's pet name for Judith.

"I gotta kill her too," he said.

Consumed by anger toward his wife, he did just that. Some time during a mysterious 4-day period ending on Wednesday, July 27, according to police, Barsi carried out threats he had been making for at least five years and shot and killed his wife and daughter, then turned the gun on himself. Judith's body was found in her canopy bed, near the pink television her father had given her, according to a neighbor, to apologize for yanking her hair in a fit of anger.

Death left a bitter debt. Not only had a father killed the person he professed to love most, but what troubles officials who deal with child abuse, the social service system had failed to prevent a calamity it had been warned about. Maria Barsi, 48, who had shaped Judith's career, went to the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services for help in May, but the case was closed a month later.

"It is frightening because it appears that people on the outside took the right steps and we didn't manage it," said Helen Kleinberg, a member of the watchdog Commission for Children's Services. The commission is an advisory body on children's issues to the Board of Supervisors.

For the first time in its four-year history, the commission has asked to review a client file from the Children's Services agency to review the way a case was handled. Kleinberg said the commission was "not pleased" by the department's account of the case when first questioned about it.

"We can't save every child," Kleinberg added. But she said she was upset by reports that the Children's Services Department had closed the case at the mother's request. "From my point of view, the child was the client," not the mother.

To one person knowledgeable about child abuse, one of the problems is that the social welfare system has more trouble dealing with emotional than physical abuse. "How do we protect someone from threats? We really, honestly can't," said Los Angeles Police Detective Sandra Palmer, who investigated the killings. "I could say 'I'm going to kill you.' I have the right because we have a free society to say that. I don't have the right to carry it out."

The brooding enigma in the tragedy is Jozsef Barsi, 55, a plumber who was ashamed of his Hungarian accent, and who valued family so highly he told his brother-in-law, "If the family life is gone, then life is not worth living." Yet by all accounts, he ruled his family forcefully, bludgeoning them not with fists, but with words.

His marriage was disintegrating, apparently after years of bitterness tied to his drinking and to his wife's refusal to forgive him when he stopped, said Joseph Weldon, her brother. So why did he kill his child, whom he is said to have treasured? A final act of possession? "I guess maybe he felt that possessiveness," said Palmer. 'If I can't have her, nobody's going to have her.' " More sympathetic friends speculated that he may not have wanted to leave his child alone in the world after he and his wife were gone.

Maria Virovacz and Jozsef Barsi separately fled the 1956 Soviet occupation of Hungary. She was from a rural, southern university town, he from a rougher industrial area, where he had a "miserable" childhood, according to Weldon, a systems analyst with Lepel Corp. on Long Island. Barsi told friends he had no mother or father, a much more stigmatizing defect in Hungary, where families stay together, than in this country. When they fought, she would use it against him, calling him a bastard, according to friends of both.

Hungarian friends of the couple said they met at a Los Angeles restaurant that was a well-known gathering place for emigres, and where the future wife worked as a waitress. Dark and husky, Joe Barsi would sit at the bar, head down over his drinks, for which he paid with $100 bills. Maria was impressed, seeing in the brooding man, dubbed "Arizona Joe" because he had once lived there, someone who could give her security.

Continued to Work

He was a plumbing contractor, and continued working even after his daughter's income began to rise in recent years.

In the early years of their marriage--both had been married before--they were a happy couple. "He could be quite charming," said Weldon.

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