Originally published Feb. 8, 2002, in the Metro section.

Owen Merton Barber IV pleaded guilty to first-degree murder yesterday in Prince William County Circuit Court, admitting that he gunned down a local drug distributor at the behest of a high school friend.

Barber, 22, had previously testified that he shot Daniel Robert Petrole Jr., 21, nine times as part of a murder-for-hire scheme orchestrated by Justin Michael Wolfe, a drug dealer who was buying large amounts of high-grade marijuana from Petrole. Barber testified last month that Wolfe was strapped for cash and wanted to kill Petrole to escape an $80,000 debt and to make off with several pounds of the drug.

According to prosecutors and his own testimony, Barber followed Petrole through Fairfax County and into Prince William after Petrole made a large drug delivery to Wolfe on March 15. Barber shot Petrole outside his new town house in Bristow and then discarded the gun and a pair of black gloves, which police later used to tie him to the crime.

Prince William police found almost 50 pounds of marijuana and more than $100,000 in Petrole’s town house.

Petrole’s slaying exposed a significant network of young men and teenagers who were selling millions of dollars of high-grade marijuana throughout the region and spawned local, state and federal investigations into the drug sales. Petrole allegedly was at the top of the local distribution network, and Wolfe was one of his top earners.

In the days after the slaying, Wolfe, 20, refused to help Barber, who ultimately left for San Diego. Federal authorities later arrested him at a hotel in Ocean Beach, Calif.

Barber’s friends and family members said Wolfe went to Barber -- a friend from Chantilly High School -- to carry out the killing because Barber was a loose cannon on the edge of mental breakdown. At the time of the slaying, Barber’s mother had recently died after a long struggle with cancer, he had been kicked out of his house, his girlfriend had broken up with him, and he was drinking large amounts of alcohol and taking drugs, according to court testimony.

Wolfe also told police that he was aware that Barber had a 9mm semiautomatic pistol. According to evidence in Wolfe’s trial, Barber had tried to buy a bigger weapon -- a .40-caliber handgun -- about a week before he killed Petrole.

Barber said he was expecting to receive about $10,000 in cash and some drugs in exchange for the killing. Barber testified that Wolfe never paid him.

Yesterday’s plea was part of an agreement with prosecutors that included Barber’s testimony against Wolfe, who was convicted last month of masterminding the plot and hiring Barber to carry it out. By pleading guilty to first-degree murder, Barber escaped a possible death sentence and arranged for charges against his girlfriend -- who hid with him in California after the murder -- to be dropped. She attended the hearing yesterday and shook nervously during Barber’s appearance.

Shackled and sullen, Barber stood quietly in court yesterday, wearing a loose white T-shirt and baggy blue jeans, a rosary hanging around his neck. He answered a few brief questions from Chief Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. and said he understood that he could be sentenced to life in prison when he is scheduled to appear in court May 8.

As part of the agreement, prosecutors are not recommending a sentence for Barber.

Whisenant also presided over Wolfe’s trial. A jury recommended that Wolfe, who was convicted of capital murder and conspiracy to distribute drugs, be sentenced to death. Whisenant will decide in April whether to uphold that recommendation or reduce the sentence to life in prison.

Terri Steinberg, Wolfe’s mother, was in court yesterday and said afterward that she is baffled by the severity of the potential punishments for both Wolfe and Barber.

“I just don’t understand it, when you look at all the different murders out there,” Steinberg said. “It doesn’t seem to me that justice is out there or that there’s a real search for the truth. We haven’t given up on Justin.”