Murder, I wrote some years back. Recently, I found myself recalling the horror of the events under the glaring lights of the TV studio The television show is called Dark Waters: Murder in the Deep, with episodes basically about people killing each other on boats. The show is one of the Discovery Channel’s stable of true crime titles.
Producer Michelle Bridgman phoned me a few months ago because back in 2012-13 I had written stories for Soundings and PassageMaker magazines about a double murder aboard a trawler in St. Mary’s, Georgia. Bridgman had read the stories and wanted to build a Dark Waters episode around the events described.
The bones of my magazine stories were this: Boy meets girl. They fall in love and marry. They have a falling out. Boy kills girl and her new friend, too, on a boat. Police kill boy. You can view the story of murderer David Trauger and victim Karen Barnes two ways: Either as a real-life psychological thriller that ends in fire and death, or as a cautionary tale about how not to choose a liveaboard partner.
Hardwired to be skeptical of anything on TV short of “60 Minutes,” I was nonetheless impressed by how thoroughly Bridgman had researched the story. She owned it. She had harvested far more investigatory documents than I was able to lay hands on for my stories, including an eye-opening 72-page protective order against Trauger. Bridgman had thought long and hard about the motivations of killer and victims. She knew, for example, that Trauger was initially known to others as a charming, affable, intelligent guy—except that he could also become a monster with the flip of a switch in his brain. She also knew that Barnes and her new friend, Larry Ford, had purchased his-and-her pistols for protection against Trauger, for all the good it did them.
Next time you watch a talking head on a true crime show, which is what I will be, please realize that you are only hearing one side of a two-way conversation. The side you don’t hear is the that of the producer, whose questions to the interviewee are crafted to elicit answers that advance the producer’s narrative. I found myself in the uncomfortable position, for example, of being asked to speculate about what was going on inside the mind of Karen Barnes, which I felt unqualified to do. The people who could have better answered that question were cruising friends of her who had declined to be interviewed. I made a poor substitute.
However, when Bridgman asked whether Trauger had intended to kill Barnes and Ford, I had no problem answering. To begin with he did kill them. And to do so, police said, he dressed in black like a 1940s British commando, navigated for 10 miles through backwater creeks in south Georgia in a camouflaged Jon boat with a camouflaged outboard, then silently paddled up to the anchored Great Harbour 37, boarded and broke in, shot Barnes and Ford, doused the interior with gasoline and set the murder scene ablaze “like a rocket engine.” Yeah, I think maybe he intended to kill them.
Why did he do it? I’m a little better at thinking like a guy, so I was willing to offer an opinion: Feelings of betrayal had flipped Trauger’s monster switch. And by the way, the sequence of events I now describe are what makes this story really interesting.
The charming, affable, intelligent, affluent fellow that Barnes met online turned out to be a jealous, abusive alcoholic. A winter cruise to the Abacos ended for Barnes when Trauger broke her arm at the marina. She fled back to the states, but Trauger pursued, they got back together, and the relationship teetered along. Then, Trauger conceived an astonishing plan. He was terrified that his first ex-wife, to whom he owed money, would get his half-million-dollar trawler.
The talking heads are just one facet of the Dark Waters format. Another big part of the show are reenactments of significant events by actors. Here’s some dialogue. Don’t blame the show. I made it up.
Trauger: Karen, I have a clever plan.
Barnes: (Suspiciously) What would that be, David?
Trauger: Let’s get divorced.
Barnes: When we got back together, you said you’d love me forever. Why would you want a divorce?
Trauger: It won’t be a real divorce, just temporary. I’m worried about my ex getting a lien on Premium Time. She’s done things like that before.
Barnes: What do you mean by temporary? And what’s a divorce got to do with the boat?
Trauger: We’ll get a divorce and put Premium Time in your name. We’ll keep living aboard. Be together, and after 29 months, when the coast is clear, we’ll remarry and live happily ever after.
Barnes: (Nods her head.)
Really, I have no idea how Barnes actually responded, but I’m confident that just nodding her head would have constituted agreement as far as Trauger was concerned: they were to be an outlaw couple like Bonny and Clyde.
Barnes had other ideas, and in spring 2012, Trauger made a mistake. He went away to Pennsylvania to tend to his insurance business.
Trauger returned on June 22 “with wine and flowers in hand” to find he was persona non grata. The locks on the boat had been changed. His possessions were in a storage locker, and a state trooper was quickly summoned to escort him off the marina property. Barnes apparently had not seen the divorce as temporary, and Premium Time was now legally hers. At some point she began spending time with a marine technician, Larry Ford, whom she may (or may not) have been in a relationship with. He died with her, though.
Trauger had hired a local lawyer to rescind the divorce, but she wasn’t optimistic since Trauger’s best argument for the court was tantamount to an admission of fraud, a fraud which Barnes would be credited for refusing to partake in. A judge was scheduled to hear the case on August 14, the day after Trauger’s commando raid at St. Marys. Trauger was a no-show.
When they came to arrest him at the apartment, Trauger fired a shot toward the police and was killed by return fire. Suicide by cop, they called it
Trauger’s suicide note, which I was asked to read in front of the cameras, brimmed with self-pity. “She lied to me right up to the day I walked down the dock,” he wrote, referring to his ignominious return to Georgia. “Now everyone will know how dumb I was to be taken in by her. She can brag to everyone how after only two years, she got a boat worth $500,000.” He was delusional and completely heedless right up to the end.
The note, addressed to friends, make a final request: “I want to be buried wearing blue jeans and a flowered shirt, and thick socks, no shoes (I will not be walking anywhere.) also please have the stone guy engrave a tombstone like the photo on the wall, Soloist in the Sky. Just my name under that, David J. Trauger, no date of birth or death.”
The episode, which I suggest should be named “Rage, Fire & Death,” is scheduled for release this summer. This could be my big break.