This is about love and death and a girl from Falls Church who married a bold, passionate, dashing man in an effort to find herself.

"Talk about being on a high," says Joanne Bario, 38. "I mean, we would walk into a room and people would turn and stare at us. We had it: that energy, that intensity, what romance is all about. I wanted that . . . I didn't want to live in quiet desperation."

But her "fantasy of a romantic dream" became, she says, "the hardest kind of reality." Her 1975 marriage to a highly decorated U.S. narcotics agent, Sante A. Bario, plunged her directly into what is romantic and violent in 20th-century America.

"Women want adventure," she says, "and the way they traditionally get it is through men . . . Because who was I, really? A sort of Jane Doe. I was this sort of pretty, intense, passionate girl who wanted to have something happen in my life."

"Fatal Dreams," the book in which she tells her story, is billed by Dial Press as a true story of undercover narcotics work in Mexico. Its publication comes as U.S.-backed Mexican officials are waging bloody warfare against drug traffickers; a U.S. agent abducted in Guadalajara last Thursday is presumed dead.

The book recounts the odyssey of another U.S. agent, Sante Bario, a man from Italy who married two American women, won success in the drug wars and died in a Texas prison.

In fact, "Fatal Dreams" is a love story.

Joanne Bario says, "It's about fame and women and the failure of love . . . What it's like to be a woman unfolding. I think I sort of grew up buying this whole story -- I wanted to meet a man who would change my life, and I did! I met a man who permanently and irrevocably changed my life. And I went off with him, and it was a big risk, and I took it.

"And it wasn't like it was supposed to be."

Their life together ended in horror and death. Pregnant and living in Mexico City, Joanne watched her man disintegrate under the pressure of cracking big international drug cases. In 1978 Sante Bario was arrested for allegedly taking a bribe. One night, he went into convulsions; some suspect he'd been poisoned, though the autopsy said otherwise. Before he died, he spent four months plugged into machines, brain-dead, nurses flipping him like a flapjack every half hour to prevent bed sores.

The last time she saw him in a San Antonio hospital, Joanne Bario writes, "He was old and white and frail. He had, my mother said, rushed through our lives like a powerful wind in a summer storm. He'd carried me away completely. On his arm on our wedding day, I was sure I had been rescued and lifted out of dailiness, that I was where I wanted to be, part of Sandy's living theater."

She has dark hair, deep brown eyes, a low-key manner. Grew up middle-class, wanted to be a writer. Needed material, a life, an identity.

Sante Bario, a policeman, had come to America in the early '60s. His first wife, Patricia Bario, speaks with restraint and dignity of a difficult time: "He was trying very hard to establish his identity in an adopted country. When he and I met in 1960 in Rome , he didn't speak English and I didn't speak Italian. We used to write notes to each other and then translate them with our little dictionaries . . ."

When Pat and Sante Bario married, she was a Detroit newspaper reporter (she was later to join Burson-Marsteller, the public relations firm, and to serve briefly as Geraldine Ferraro's press secretary during the presidential campaign). Sante Bario became an undercover IRS man. His climb began: 23 racketeers arrested in Boston, 28 mobsters jailed in New Orleans. By the early '70s, Bario was an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, making a name for himself. He sometimes had so many undercover identities, his widow says, that he would wake up in a cold sweat wondering where, and who, he was.

Bario was charming, loving, felt I was going to come to terms with him if it killed me. And I did. I feel closure now. Regardless of what happens with this book, I'd like somebody to look at DEA. Also, I feel I'm ending this part of my life. I own it. I've owned up to it. It was humiliating. I was ashamed, I guess. My husband died in jail. It was not something to be proud of. I had to learn to accept it."

She thinks that her husband broke the law in overlooking Picault's alleged drug-dealing, but that Picault's -- and DEA's -- charges against him were in all probability false.

This view is shared by a lawyer friend she retained to sue DEA after her husband's death, former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste. He obtained a post mortem job reinstatement for Bario which entitled the agent's widow and children to insurance and other benefits. Through the discovery process, he learned facts that convinced him Bario was innocent and raised questions about the behavior of agency officials:

DEA paid Picault $50,000 to make the case against Bario.

After Bario's arrest, the agency learned that Picault had run a smuggling operation involving the same cocaine that Picault had claimed earlier he had sold together with Bario.

The agency also learned that Picault had asked an individual to falsely testify against Bario in the impending trial.

Knowing these things, DEA declined to prosecute Picault.

Bario was dead before the case could come to trial. Some say he was poisoned by any one of dozens of drug traffickers or others who had it in for him; an autopsy found that he had choked on a peanut butter sandwich.

"DEA is a real dangerous organization as far as I'm concerned," says Joanne Bario.

"Conduct far below what we would expect of a government agency," says Ben-Veniste.

Asked to comment on Ben-Veniste's list, a DEA spokesman said this week, "We are going to decline getting into any kind of rebuttal, at least until we've read the book."

Now Joanne Bario, the writer, the pretty woman dressed in black, sits in her red-brick rambler in suburban Kensington.

With her two children -- an 8-year-old son by Sandy, a 2-year-old daughter by a second husband she married on the rebound, then divorced.

With her new novel, about love, in progress.

In downtown Washington, Patricia Bario is reached by phone at Burson-Marsteller. Says, "Obviously, no one as close as I was to him could have read that book without crying through every page of it."

The book paints a bleak picture of the first marriage. Bario -- not yet successful and famous -- "couldn't compete with his wife. She was four years older and rooted in her Senate PR job. She outearned him, outclouted him, and outspoke him in her mother tongue." On trips home, "He would visit, argue with his wife, and leave again . . . He admitted he had chosen his work to escape his marriage."

The writer, Joanne Bario, says, "I tried to be really discreet in the book."

Patricia Bario says, "When I fell in love with him he wasn't a distinguished international undercover agent. He was just a very special person. Of course, there were hundreds of people who fell in love with him once he was here and established."

The two women agree on one thing: that Sante Bario told his second wife that his first marriage was unhappy.

"Judging from what I know of Patricia now, I think that's what he needed to believe," says Joanne.

"I'm sure he told it that way," says Patricia. "It's easiest to tell it that way when the marriage is over. But if he was leaving in '64 to escape our marriage, then where did this child come from that was born in '69?"

Patricia had two children with Sandy Bario. The first, Franco, 23, is an aspiring independent television producer here.

"To me," says Franco, "I see Joanne as a woman who discovered a man who was larger than life, and she saw the relationship as a way to be married and swept away from the real world and be brought into this other world, this more exciting, more intense world. But it wasn't real."

Franco remembers his father well.

"One time in the car, driving back to my mother's house, he was distraught about the pressures. Sometimes he would be just a little kid ready to play kickball on the lawn. You can imagine what was going on in his mind: he's got three or four other lives going that don't involve his children or wife. He told me how much he loved me and he hoped I wouldn't get into his line of work because there are a lot of other ways to make a living.

"But he was scared and didn't know any other way. He actually did say, 'It will kill you.' "

Her novel-in-progress:

"The thing about romantic fantasy," says Joanne Bario, "it's like catching that gold ring. It's the part of you that allows yourself to not be reasonable, to . . . believe that there's more out there, how, 'If I just dare, I can have it all.' And that's what Americans want. I think it's part of our culture."

The Romantic Fantasy.

"The boy-girl thing is the only part of our lives where we allow our emotions any free play. The rest of our lives are so tight. We don't take risks . . . This is sort of what my second book is about: failures of love, what would happen if we let go."

Her mother used to tell her, "When you can accept that your life isn't going to be normal, accept it and you'll be a lot happier. Stop feeling that a part of you has got to fit in."

She remarried in 1980. It lasted two years.

"After Sandy died I felt real desperate about men . . . I was 32 years old and I was just enveloped by death. I married a city planner. He was the first man I went out with after Sandy died, and I felt alive. And I misconstrued that for love . . .

"He left. I made him feel inadequate . . . He wanted a routine, a sense of stability. I was always flying off and saying, 'Well, what can we do now that will be exciting and fun?' . . . It was hard for him to imagine this book coming out and him being married to me. And now I have this book, and a beautiful 2-year-old daughter and a checkered past which I never imagined I would have."

She laughs.

Says she has no boyfriend.

"I'm not going looking for him."


"That is an enormous feeling of freedom for me, by the way. I don't feel desperate to find somebody tomorrow."

Would she do it again?

"Yes, I would . . . I've gone through this whole thing and learned nothing! Sandy was a one-and-only . . . who wanted to make more of life, to be connected with life."


"Is there supposed to be an answer? There's no answer in my book. Did he take a bribe? Was he murdered? So what? What it's about is a unique person. I never expect to meet someone like Sandy again. And I didn't want him to die with this false image of 'Narc Murdered in Cell.' He's what we all are, only more theatrically. He had what we all have, a hundred different parts of him! He was compelling, very human, he was moral . . .

"I wanted to lift his death up and make it count. That's all."