A True Story of Money,

Marriage, Sex and Murder

By Jerry Bledsoe

Dutton. 368 pp. $22.95

OH, OH, Barbara's been a bad girl. Again. Late thirties, bottle-blond attractive, newly slim, born Barbara Terry, then Mrs. Barbara Ford, and now, in 1988, Mrs. Barbara Stager, she's in a peck of trouble. She was plagued throughout her first marriage by an inability to keep her clothes on and her checkbook shut, and, despite counseling and churchgoing, the same vices have led her to the brink of despair. What to do? Woe is she. Then 40-year-old high-school coach nice guy second husband Russ Stager, conveniently overinsured, dies of an accidental gunshot wound to the head. The accidental shooter? Barbara Terry Ford Stager.

While the police are surprised at Barbara's lack of emotion, they take her word for what happened and rule the death an accident. Days later, Barbara puts in for Russ's life insurance, part of which is freshly purchased. It appears she'll get the money and life will go on for her and her two sons. But wait: Popular, well-liked Barbara has a few detractors who remember what happened to Larry Ford, her first husband. It seems that he, too, died of an accidental gunshot wound to the head from a loaded handgun that he, too, was fool enough to keep under his pillow. The accidental shooter? You're there ahead of me, aren't you? Yes, it was Barbara Terry Ford.

Durham County (N.C.) Sheriff's Department Sergeant Rick Buchanan stayed with the case until the puzzle pieces fit. In May of 1989, Barbara Stager was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. The state supreme court affirmed the conviction but overturned the death sentence, and Barbara got life in prison. She will be eligible for parole in 2001.

Before He Wakes, Jerry Bledsoe's third true crime book, is a heavily detailed -- a very heavily detailed -- attempt to find the human faces within this tapestry of horror. He certainly chose an apt Biblical epigraph (Jeremiah, 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?") By his account, Barbara Stager sure was deceitful, and she sure could spend.

Sex had always been way up there on Barbara's list of priorities. Bledsoe says that her first college roommate could not believe that Barbara and Larry Ford were having sex. "Baptist girls just didn't do that," he writes. "But years later Barbara would tell a friend that she had wasted little time with Larry, having sex with him the first time they were alone together -- in the instruments closet of the campus band room."

Unfortunately, marital sex was not enough for Barbara, and both of her marriages were marred by frequent affairs.

As for spending, at the trial one of her sons testified that in nine years of marriage Barbara and Russ had "approximately 20 cars: Cadillac. Mercedes. Mazda RX7. 280Z," not to mention two power boats.

In addition to cars and boats, their shopping sprees also garnered houses, furniture, clothes, jewelry (at one point they had his and hers Rolex watches) and country club memberships, none of which they could afford on their combined-and-still-modest income. Barbara kited her own checks and forged Russ's name to his, as well as to other documents. As the noose of financing and refinancing, borrowing and reborrowing grew ever tighter, it became clear that Russ, who thought Barbara had reformed, was in jeopardy. The week before his death, Barbara had begun giving him pills to help him sleep more soundly.

While Bledsoe has done a good job of handling a fairly large cast of characters, one wishes the book were better (or at least differently) organized and more compellingly written. The major flaw here is that the author cannot resist telegraphing his punches. Chapter after chapter ends with sentences like these: "Money problems. An affair. Bizarre behavior. Insurance. Nobody had to tell Buchanan that all of that could lead to murder. Nor did anybody have to tell him that murder could be hard to prove." Or "Never again would she tell a man who wanted children of his own that she could no longer have any. Even if she had to lie, she would get what she wanted. And she already had her eye on the man she wanted, her across-the-street neighbor, Russ Stager." Cue background music: "Dum, da, dum, dum."

Come on, Jer, let us figure a few things out for ourselves. It's much more dramatic that way -- and more fun.

My verdict on the book? May it please the court, it's a good read, but not a great one.

John Greenya writes frequently about crime and the law.