Murder, arson rocks cruising community
In a case that reads like a psychological thriller, the owner of a Great Harbour trawler lost his wife and boat in a divorce. Then he lost his mind.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 13, police suspect David Trauger donned black clothing and took a skiff to the anchorage on the St. Marys River in southeast Georgia where his ex-wife was living aboard the boat he once owned. He crept aboard and murdered his ex and a male friend, police believe, although the official report on the deaths has yet to be issued. Officials are trying to determine whether Trauger used gasoline or some other accelerant to torch the vessel, lighting the night “like rocket motors.” The bodies inside were effectively cremated.
Responders prodded the trawler closer to docks at the nearby St. Marys Boat Yard, where firefighters were able to douse the flames, which had consumed the boat down to the rubrail. Police had the boat hauled and sifted through the ashes, finding pieces of two skeletons.
Two days later, Trauger himself was dead after having fired a pistol at police coming to arrest him ù an act widely viewed as “suicide by cop,” according to reports.
The account that follows is based on interviews with a dozen witnesses and people who knew Trauger and his wife and on local news stories, which the Georgia Bureau of Investigation supervisor says are accurate. All direct quotations were culled from interviews with Soundings. The fire and murders are still under investigation, and a final report was five to six weeks away in mid-August, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
New love after a divorce
Trauger, 67, had a successful career in insurance, so he named his 2007 Great Harbour 37 Premium Time. By then he was divorced from his wife of 22 years and was looking for a new love. He met Karen Barnes, 55 at the time of her death aboard his trawler, through an online dating service. Barnes was the banquet manager for a restaurant in Savannah and Trauger swept her off her feet with the promise of travel and an exciting new lifestyle. They married on New Year’s Eve in 2009.
By the time it was over, the saga of David and Karen had touched hundreds of people in the cruising community, including the close-knit ranks of the Great Harbour Trawler Association, the expats of the Royal Marsh Harbour Yacht Club in the Bahamas, and boaters at the marinas in Georgia where Premium Time had been docked.
In the fall of 2010, the newlyweds took Premium Time to the Bahamas, buddy-boating with Paul and Sue Graham aboard the GH37 Odyssey and eventually wintering at Boat Harbour Marina in the Abacos with several other couples from the Great Harbour clan. David returned to the United States to help his friend Neil Ingram bring Ingram’s Great Harbour N37, Silver Queen, to the Abacos.
David Trauger, according to fellow cruisers, was subject to mood swings, exhibited “volatile jealousy,” drank to excess and wasn’t well-liked. His relationship with his cheerful, friendly wife began to unravel on the Abacos docks, culminating in a drunken late-night domestic violence incident that left Karen with a broken arm, according to Sue Graham, who had become a close friend of Karen. Neighbors on the dock rushed aboard Premium Time to subdue David. “She didn’t know David was an alcoholic. He didn’t demonstrate that when she met him,” Graham says.
Karen returned to Georgia and David followed her aboard Premium Time. By April 2011, she was back living on the boat and he was going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
They moved the boat from Brunswick Landing to nearby Jekyll Harbor marina because the latter has a swimming pool.
Wife gets boat, then a divorce
In March, David Trauger transferred Premium Time’s federal documentation to Karen, a decision he would come to regret. After vacationing in Hawaii that same month, the Traugers were divorced and she went back to being Karen Barnes.
According to his lawyer, Trauger owed his first wife of 22 years $235,000 from their divorce, and he and Karen feared that she would try to recover the money by executing a lien on the boat, which Trauger had purchased for $558,000. The divorce from Karen, according to Trauger’s lawyer Crystal Ferrier of Brunswick, was a sham, an ill-conceived scheme to put Premium Time beyond the other ex-wife’s reach. Trauger and Barnes would continue living together and then remarry sometime in the future, or so Trauger thought, according to Ferrier.
In June Trauger traveled to Pennsylvania, where he had an insurance office, to take care of some business. “He came back to the boat on Jekyll Island on the 22nd of June with wine and flowers in hand and he found that the locks had been changed,” Ferrier says.
A state trooper told Trauger that he was not to go on the boat again and handed him a key to a storage locker where his personal possessions had been taken. That’s when Trauger came to Ferrier’s law office in an effort to get his divorce set aside and regain possession of his boat. A judge was scheduled to hear the case Aug. 14, the day after Trauger’s suspected raid at St. Marys.
Barnes had moved Premium Time to St. Marys to hide from Trauger, according to reports. A neighbor at the Jekyll Island marina helped her move the boat. He was a local marine technician named Larry Ford and authorities suspect he died with Barnes on Premium Time. Ford, 71, was an employee of West Marine in Brunswick at the time and well-liked.
Graham says Barnes was simply fed up with Trauger’s abusive and crazy behavior. Barnes had filed a police report saying Trauger was bipolar, off his medication and stalking her.
Ferrier, a 9-year veteran of divorce court, says that although events have proved her client was unstable in the extreme, she nonetheless believes Barnes had “conned” Trauger out of his boat. “Even in hindsight, I believe this was just an old man who had some money and was duped. If she had divorced him the old-fashioned way and said ‘I’m divorcing you because you’re a mean old man,’ she never would have gotten the boat,” Ferrier says, referring to Trauger’s voluntary transfer of ownership.
Acquaintances say Ford was a nice guy helping out a woman in trouble, a woman who lacked the experience to operate and maintain a full-displacement trawler.
“I never saw this coming, but in hindsight [Trauger] didn’t have many friends or family,” Ferrier says. “My speculation was that in his mind he saw her and Larry sleeping together on his boat and he snapped. How far can you push a man before he has nothing else to live for?”
Trauger reportedly stayed in the area, living at motels and then renting an apartment. Toward the end, he reconnected with Ingram, who says he received a phone call from his old friend a week before the murders. “The gist of our conversation was basically the same as comments from his attorney, Crystal Ferrier, as published in The Brunswick News,” Ingram says.
In the article, Ferrier offered her opinion, as she has with Soundings, that Barnes saw ownership of Premium Time as a financial windfall.
At press time, Georgia investigators were still trying to piece together, from ashes and witness statements, just what happened at 3:20 a.m. Aug. 13. They reached out to Ken Fickett, the owner of Mirage Manufacturing in Gainesville, Fla., builder of the Great Harbour line.
One of the unanswered questions was whether Trauger allegedly went inside the boat, shot Barnes and Ford and then started the fire, or whether he lit the boat on fire by dousing the exterior and let the two burn to death. Fickett says he told police it would be very difficult to burn the boat from the outside, even using gasoline, and that the boat had a fire-suppression system that could only be disabled from within.
Fickett had seen a video that people at St. Marys Boat Yard took of Premium Time as it burned. Based on what he saw, the wooden interior of the boat had to have been soaked with gasoline or the like. “I would challenge anybody to try to set one of those boats on fire with what’s on board there,” he says. “If you look at the video, the opening ports look like rocket motors.”
Police say the fire burned as hot as 2,000 to 3,000 F. Fickett’s observation that the fire required entry to the vessel, combined with a police report that says investigators found brass shells in the ashes, suggests that Trauger could have shot his victims before he burned Premium Time.
The recorded 911 call from Barnes’ cell phone to local authorities is just an open line. No one speaks to the operator; there are just sounds like someone is moaning.
October 2012 issue.