There are times, the pastor said, when the angels hold their breath. The moment when a man goes to his car and gets a gun to take back his child. The instant when, 20 hours later, a police officer draws a bead on someone and pulls a trigger.

Lewis Barber was a churchgoing man. His minister, the Rev. Stephen Wade, always said there is that tension between a man's free choice and his destiny. People yearn for one and are bound by the other. That's the tragedy of life. So for Lew Barber, a 48-year-old carpenter, which was it that moved him that day?

Barber was shot three times by Alexandria City Police on Wednesday, April 27, about 4:30 p.m. -- in the head, neck and abdomen. He collapsed, face-forward, on the front porch steps of his bungalow on Wyatt Avenue in the Del Ray neighborhood. The bullet through the neck severed a carotid artery and he bled to death.

He had held off police for nearly a day, holed up in his house with his 9-year-old son, Philip. And whenever Barber appeared on his front porch, he held in his hand a long-barreled Colt Navy black powder revolver, circa 1860, like the ones seen in old Westerns. He never fired it. But the last time he appeared, police officers said, he was waving it and pointing it at them.

Authorities are continuing to investigate the circumstances of Barber's death, and in coming weeks, Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel will rule on whether the shooting was justified. The police also will wrap up an internal review of their procedures in the case.

Perhaps police will decide how Barber died. But not why. Angry family members and friends have called for an independent investigation.

Through more than a dozen interviews with friends, relatives, neighbors and officials and a review of public records, a clearer picture of Barber's last days has emerged. Five days before he died, it was a Friday like any other. He got up before dawn and rode his bike into the District to his union carpentry job, setting up for a National Gallery of Art exhibit. He got home about 3:30 p.m., as usual, and for dinner began defrosting steaks -- venison from a hunting trip that season.

He took Philip and a family friend swimming at the YMCA, as he often did, Barber's long ponytail flying as he plunged into the deep end in a lanky cannonball. His wife, Robin, did not come home for dinner that night, Barber later told friends.

In a brief phone conversation, Robin Barber said she would not comment for this story or respond to written questions left at her apartment complex.

On April 23, when he saw that Robin had gotten up earlier than usual, he called her back to bed. It was Saturday, and they didn't need to go to work. They had nothing else to do. Let's sleep in, a friend recalled him saying later. She said she had errands to run.

Instead, about 9 a.m., two Alexandria patrol cars pulled up, got him out of bed and served him with a Temporary Protective Order that Robin had filed in court the day before, saying that he was unpredictable and that she feared for her life and the life of her son. As the police took Lew Barber outside, Robin Barber moved out.

Neighbors watched police cart off about a dozen antique Revolutionary and Civil War-era firearms. "He seemed calm," one neighbor recalled. "Like he always did." Police left the musket over the door and left the Colt Navy revolver, figuring it was broken, Barber later told several friends.

"I fixed it," he later said to his best friend.

The stage was set for a life to unravel. "Lew felt trapped," Wade said soon after in his sermon at Immanuel Church on the Hill, an Episcopalian church where Barber had been elected vestryman in January. "Options narrow and life shrinks when we box ourselves in."

Barber was no angel, his friends said, but he was an honorable man.

He was born in Macon, Ga., and raised in Alexandria and New Orleans, as his father, John, a forester for the U.S. Forestry Service, was transferred for work. Whenever it could, the family returned to Riverdale Farm, just outside Warsaw, Va.

Barbers go back 200 years in that area off the Rappahannock River that locals call the Northern Neck. Barber grew up steeped in history, and soon joined Civil War reenactment troops, on the Union side.

Early on, Barber discovered a love of carpentry. He joined the Army at 18, received a parachute badge at Fort Bragg in Northern California and was training as a reconnaissance driver.

At 16, he had his first drink of alcohol, court records show. Don't poison your life the same way, he later would warn his son Carlton.

Three DWIs in the early 1980s resulted in a suspended license for 10 years, records show. Later, as he sought to have his license reinstated, an alcohol counselor with Alexandria Alcohol Safety Action Program recommended against that. In papers filed with the Alexandria Circuit Court, he was called a "dry drunk" who acted as if he had "two different personalities."

"My dad had just two real weaknesses: alcohol and wives," Carlton Barber, 23, a Marine stationed in Okinawa, Japan, wrote in an e-mail. "He said you'd never be able to understand women, even when you think you do, and so far, he was definitely right about that."

Barber's first marriage ruptured quickly in 1985.

Barber's parents, John and Francene, ended up raising his two sons on Riverdale Farm. His ex-wife, Paulette, left for Texas; she never came to see them again, Carlton Barber said. Lew visited as often as he could, Carlton remembers, taking his sons fishing and camping and giving them lessons on what it means to be a good man. "Respect elders, appreciate nature, patience is a virtue," Carlton wrote in an e-mail, recalling his dad's words.

"He knew he wasn't a perfect person, nobody is," Carlton said. "But he sure did try, and as a father, he came pretty close."

In 1990, Lew Barber's eldest son, Luke, then barely 8, died of brain cancer. Barber was devastated.

In 1993, he married Robin Forsberg, a waitress at the Snuggery, a bar in Del Ray where he drank.

They had a son, Philip. Once the parents learned that Philip had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, they worked with child development teachers and learned how to reach him.

Barber was with the child constantly. Wednesday night was train night, when they played with the elaborate set Barber had set up in the basement for him. Friday was swimming. Barber coached Little League because, friends said, he knew others would not have the patience to give Philip a chance at bat.

"That boy meant the world to him," said Barber's friend and neighbor, Tom Bijak.

And Barber loved his wife. "My father loved Robin with all his heart," Carlton Barber wrote. "He wouldn't even say anything halfway not-so-nice about her."

Things were fine -- crab feasts in the summer, barbecues on Fridays, and Tuesday-night half-price burgers at the Rock It Grill in Old Town, where Robin tended bar. He had been dry since Philip was a baby. Then, in 2003, one of Barber's friends hanged himself. Friends said that Barber began to drink again and that his wife made no secret she was unhappy.

Last October, family friends said, Robin Barber stopped wearing her wedding ring and started sleeping on the couch.

Days before she moved out, Lew Barber spent hours laying a stone walkway in front of the house, only to rip it up and start again with a different stone because his wife didn't like it.

"If she was going to leave," Barber asked friends on the weekend she did, "why did she make me do all that work?"

All through his last weekend, Lew Barber read the Bible. He read about justice.

Friends counseled him to hire a private investigator, to fight for Philip's custody in court.

"You've got to play the game," Bijak recalled telling him.

"This isn't a game; this is my life," Bijak remembered Barber answering.

Some were confused that, in filing for her protective order, Robin Barber said her husband fired two shots into the attic in 1998 when she wanted to leave. "If she was scared, I would have heard about it then," said Donna Hanbak, a longtime friend of hers. "We told each other everything."

Early Monday morning, Barber moved his carpentry tools to a new job. He went to court to file a response to his wife's charges, but demanded to talk to the judge. Clerks threatened to have sheriff's deputies remove him.

That night, he was despondent, Bijak recalled. Bijak remembered him saying: "I screwed up. I'm not a man of words and letters. I work with my hands. But I know what justice is. And this is not justice."

On Tuesday, Barber went to court again and filed a response. But at noon, he told Bijak dejectedly, "I don't think it's going to do any good."

At 6:30 p.m., he spoke with Wade, his pastor. Barber told friends he had to get ready for work the next day, they recalled.

But two hours later, he was waiting at the back entrance of the Rock It Grill for Robin and Philip to leave the restaurant. The husband and wife began shouting. Robin called for help. Barber went to his glove compartment and got his antique gun.

He got into Robin's white SUV and drove away with Philip.

By 10:30 p.m., Alexandria police had cordoned off several blocks around Barber's home, evacuated many neighbors, set up a mobile command center and begun sending an armored personnel carrier up and down the street, broadcasting over the public address system: "Lew, pick up the phone. . . . Lew, if you can hear us, turn on the lights."

All night long, the messages continued. All night long, Barber never responded.

Little changed through the next morning and early afternoon. Neighbors who were stuck in their homes said they saw Barber walk onto the porch several times and wrangle with police about getting Philip to school. They said at one point, he shouted, "Just leave us alone."

Barber's parents had been on the scene since midnight. They were briefed twice on the non-lethal-force options the Alexandria police could use. The parents were told that time was on their side.

At 1 p.m., Barber used his cell phone to call Wade, who came to the command center on Commonwealth Avenue.

About an hour later, Francene Barber remembers watching a load of portable toilets being delivered -- a sign she thought meant that negotiations would continue. She remembered an officer stopping by to assure her things seemed to be going well.

But about 2:30, she said, things changed. The air seemed to become charged, she said. "It was almost like someone had said, 'Hurry up and get this over with, I have a dinner date,' " she said.

About the same time, neighbors across the street watched the SWAT team close in near Barber's front porch.

Not long after, Wade walked past, on his way to get into the armored personnel carrier, Francene Barber remembered.

Since the 1970s, standard operating procedure for hostage negotiations is to first get the subject talking on the phone to someone that person trusts, then to talk as long as it takes to calm emotions. "Face-to-face negotiation is the last resort," said Bob Beach, a retired hostage negotiator for Fairfax County who has 22 years of experience.

About 4:15 p.m., Wade, wearing a bulletproof vest, stood behind the armored car. Barber, who was hard of hearing, kept shouting over the thrum of the tank, "I can't hear you."

Soon after, neighbors said, a small robot rolled up and dropped a megaphone off on his walkway. They saw him chuck it in the street, begin to laugh and point the gun at the robot.

What happened next, no one knows for sure.

But in a flash, two percussion grenades and a volley of shots went off. Barber was dead.

The next day, when his parents were able to enter his house, they found a can of black powder and a box of mini-balls on his desk, and a book of love poems open on the table. "But let me live by the side of the road, and be a friend to man," one poem read.

Was it Lew Barber's fate to die? Was it his choice? Stephen Wade found no comfort in the question. "We were all of us, every last one," he said during his sermon that next Sunday, "absolutely powerless to outrun the avalanche of circumstances that killed Lew Barber."

Lewis Barber's body was taken home to Warsaw. He was buried under an old oak tree, next to his eldest son, Luke, whose headstone is inscribed: "And a child shall lead them."

Lew Barber was shot by Alexandria City Police in April, days after his wife sought a protective order.