Love and murder on the waterway

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“The monstrous act by definition demands a monster.”

Rick Yancey, American novelist

“Murder is not about lust, and it's not about violence. It's about possession. When you feel the last breath of life coming out of the woman, you look into her eyes. At that point, it's being God.”

― Ted Bundy, mass murderer

“Try to avoid getting involved with somebody who's gonna need killing before it's over. It may seem to you that that narrows the field somewhat but be diligent.”

Jill Conner Browne, author, “The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love

All three quotations apply to a story I’ve been covering for Soundings and PassageMaker magazines. The killer was a trawler owner named David Trauger, a monster driven by demons in his head. The killings were about possession, not just possession of a woman, though a woman was killed, but also about possession of a boat (here also defined as a vessel that houses many a man’s ego and self-image). And lastly, Jill Conner’s advice, heeded, would have saved that poor woman’s life. Trauger, 67, would indeed need killing — a service fulfilled by the Georgia police sent to arrest him.

The events happened last August around Brunswick, Jekyll Island and St. Marys, Ga. Summarizing the case for Soundings, I wrote the following description: “The owner of a Great Harbour trawler lost his wife and boat in a divorce. Then he lost his mind.”

Later someone pointed out that I seemed to have been channeling Barry Manilow in “Copacabana”:

“She lost her youth and she lost her Tony

Now she's lost her mind!”

My original story appeared in the October 2012 issue of Soundings. A more complete version, thanks to the release of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s case files to me, will appear in the May issue of PassageMaker. PassageMaker is the magazine of the trawler community, and the story of David Trauger and Karen Barnes touched that community in the Southeast and the cruising community at large.

David Trauger and Karen Barnes

David Trauger and Karen Barnes

Trauger had ditched his wife of 22 years and went on to find Karen through an online dating service, which one I do not know. A few years later and newly divorced from “my captain,” she would die with a new male friend aboard Trauger’s erstwhile boat Premium Time (Trauger having made some money in the insurance business).

Believe it or not, I see this story as of interest to women. Not the outcome, of course, but as a compelling read — a story about relationships. PassageMaker is very strong on the mechanics of keeping a boat running well and keeping the crew safe. I saw the double murder and subsequent police shooting of the killer as a study in human dynamics gone terribly awry.

The mentors in my former newspaper career taught that women are hard-wired to read crime stories because they are seeking clues on how to stay safe in their own lives, whether it’s in a mall parking lot or with a man who wants to whisk them away on a boat.

There was overwhelming evidence that Trauger was mentally unstable, alcoholic and physically abusive, but Karen continued to see some good in him long past it being good for her. Or did she? In a major twist to the story, Trauger’s divorce lawyer (actually his undivorce lawyer, as you will see) blames the victim for effectively poking a monster with a stick.

Here’s what I wrote for Soundings:

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.

Trauger had turned to Ferrier, a nine-year-veteran of divorce court, to try to get a judge to undo his “fake” divorce so he could recover Premium Time. Ferrier confided to me that it would have been a longshot having to argue bad behavior (the sham divorce) against worse behavior (Karen’s alleged betrayal). Based on their short time together, Ferrier noted that Karen never would have been awarded Premium Time without Trauger giving it away beforehand. Ferrier said Trauger had been “conned.”

In the days leading up to their deaths, Karen Barnes and a new male friend, Larry Ford, moved the boat to St. Marys from Jekyll Island to get away from Trauger, who was stalking and menacing the two.

The Great Harbour 37 Premium Time was set ablaze on the St. Marys River last August.

The Great Harbour 37 Premium Time was set ablaze on the St. Marys River last August.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 13, Trauger snuck aboard Premium Time — anchored in the St. Marys River — and killed Barnes and Ford. Whether he shot or killed them in some other manner or whether they were still alive when Trauger doused the interior of the vessel with gasoline and lit it ablaze, no one seems to know. The fire roared so hot that evidence was incinerated and the bodies effectively cremated.

Two days later, Trauger was dead. He fired a handgun at Georgia police when they came to arrest him, and they responded with a hail of return fire — one bullet in the leg, one in the wrist and one in the chest. The evidence photos of Trauger are disturbing, as is the fact that he had been handcuffed as he lay there dead or dying, reminding me of horror films when the monster somehow rises one more time and has to be killed all over again.

As proof of Trauger’s irrationality, Trauger’s lawyer cited the fact that he committed the murders before, not after, the hearing to undo his divorce. “Maybe we would have won,” she said, later adding, “I never saw this coming, but in hindsight, he didn’t have many friends or family. 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?”