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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

But Joe Barsi had a temper, which could be set off at any time, especially when he'd had too much to drink. If he suspected someone was snickering at him over his accent, he would "go off," said Peter Kivlen, a friend and fellow plumber.

"He'd grab a two by four," Kivlen said. "Not that he'd go after anybody who didn't deserve it." Barsi apparently liked to puff himself up in front of his friends. He told Kivlen he lost the vision in one eye in a fight, and also confided that he had served time in New York for killing a man in a brawl. There is no record of him ever being arrested on such a crime. His criminal record consisted of being arrested three times for drunk driving.

Judith Barsi was born on June 6, 1978, and would be the couple's only child. Her mother immediately began training her for a Hollywood career. "I said I wouldn't waste my time. I told her the chances are one in 10,000 that she would succeed," said Weldon.

But Maria Barsi, knowing nothing of the odds against her, proved her brother wrong. Her maternal lessons in posture and poise and voice all paid off in an accidental way, when members of a crew shooting a commercial at an ice skating rink noticed the pixieish 5-year-old girl skating artfully across the ice and hired her.

Successful Career

She became successful as a commercial actress, according to her agent, Ruth Hansen, partly because she looked much younger than she was. "When she was 10, she was still playing 7, 8," she said. This was because she was short for her age, standing only 3 feet, 8 inches when she turned 10. She was receiving injections at UCLA to spur her growth.

The girl appeared in 72 commercials and in recent years had grown into substantial roles, both on television and in the film, "Jaws The Revenge." She had parts on television shows such as "Growing Pains," "Cheers," "Remington Steele" and the television feature, "Fatal Vision," in which she plays a child murdered by her father.

She was not a star, but her estimated $100,000-a-year income helped buy a modest, 3-bedroom house in the West Hills area in 1985. Her attendance at a public school was often interrupted by her work schedule.

Hansen, an agent for 25 years, who specializes in child performers, called her client a "bubbly, happy little girl" when she was working. But her mood began to change in the last year, after the filming of "Jaws The Revenge."

Her father was upset by his daughter's departure, Hansen said, but refused an airline ticket to visit her. When the filming was over, the mother and daughter visited Weldon in Flushing, New York, where Judith talked to her father on the phone.

"Remember what I told you before you left," he said, referring to the knife incident, according to Weldon. The girl "was terrified. She cried" and dashed off to the bedroom. The mother and daughter cut short their visit and returned to California.

Variety of Threats

He seemed perpetually angry at his wife. Several sources said Barsi would alternate his threats, sometimes saying he would kill his wife, other times saying he would kill himself and Judith and leave Maria alive "to suffer."

Kivlen said Barsi's world revolved around Judith, but he also tried to maintain tight control over the daughter, who was becoming successful in a world he barely knew. Once Maria bought Judith a special kite, and her father grabbed it. "Judith went hysterical and said, 'You're going to break it,' " said a neighbor who asked not to be identified.

"Look at her," he said derisively, according to this version, given the neighbor by Maria Barsi. "She's just a spoiled brat and doesn't share her new toy." He "broke it into as many pieces as he could," the neighbor said Maria reported.

Though most of the abuse in the house was verbal, Maria Barsi filed a police report against her husband in December, 1986, accusing him of threatening over the last five years to kill her and of choking her and hitting her in the face. Police found no visible injuries and the wife eventually declined to prosecute.

Failed Reconciliation

Weldon, the wife's brother, said Joe Barsi gave up drinking two years ago, but was unable to work himself back into the good graces of his wife. "Maria wouldn't make up, so he was moping around," he said. He also complained bitterly about her housekeeping, conducting tours of the house for friends to show them mounds of toys and clothes.

Kivlen said Barsi turned to another woman in recent months, showering her with expensive gifts, including a necklace and ring.

Family friends, who served Judith home-made Hungarian sausage when she came to visit, said the girl spoke darkly of her home life. "I'm afraid to go home. My daddy is miserable. My daddy is drunk every day, and I know he wants to kill my mother," she told the couple, who asked not to be named but who were friends of both Barsis.

The girl's distress increased in recent months, provoking her to pull out all of her eyelashes, according to Hansen.

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