On Aug. 24, 1998, Better had been just days away from retiring from her job at a consignment shop. That day, two teenagers noticed that the store was still open about half an hour after the usual closing time. When they stepped inside, they found the 68-year-old dead on the floor. She had been stabbed and bludgeoned to death, and the wounds on her hands suggested that she had tried to fight off her attacker.
Better, who had been the only person working that day, hadn’t needed the money she earned at the consignment store. More than a decade earlier, her husband had given up his electrical supply business, and the two had relocated to Highland Beach, a tiny waterfront community where streets have names like Tranquility Drive, and almost every house comes with a private boat slip and crystalline swimming pool. But the petite brunette, whose three daughters had all grown up and left home, quickly became bored. When a friend pointed her to the job at Lu Shay’s Consignment Boutique, she jumped at the opportunity.
For the next eight years, she spent her days surrounded by vintage furniture and collectible trinkets, on a strip of highway famed for thrift shopping. The work added structure to her life, and gave her something to look forward to.
“She enjoyed getting perked up and pretty,” her husband, Zeke Better, recalled in a 2000 interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
The couple had met in Brooklyn in the 1940s, when they were set up on a blind date. “She was just out of high school and I was fresh out of World War II,” Zeke told the paper. “I saw her once and I never stopped seeing her.” They married in 1948, and were planning to travel back to New York to renew their vows and celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary right after she worked her last shift at Lu Shay’s. But that day never came.
Instead, police set to work untangling the crime scene. According to court records, there was plenty of evidence for them to examine. A trail of the killer’s blood led from the sales clerk’s body to the cash register and out the store’s front door. Two heavy decorative marble balls lay next to her body and were covered with her blood. A third ball, part of the same set, was sitting on a wooden tray on top of a glass table in the store. Detectives dusted it and found fingerprints.
Police had a potential motive: The cash register had been emptied, leading detectives to believe that they were dealing with a robbery, though strangely, they noted, Better’s assailant had left her Rolex watch and diamond ring untouched. They had a working theory about the weapon that had been used to slit her throat: A cake knife had gone missing from the store that same day.
They also had a possible suspect. About a half-hour before Better was found dead, a shopper had seen her talking to a tall, slender white man, who was haggling over the price of a couch.
But what they didn’t have was a name. The fingerprints from the marble ball and a DNA sample from the trail of blood were entered into a nationwide database, but no matches popped up.
By the second anniversary of Better’s death, the trail had gone cold. The Sun-Sentinel reported in 2000 that police had investigated 37 suspects, including a man who went to the hospital for a cut on his hand the night of the slaying, a furniture mover who left town and relocated to the Midwest immediately after Better was found dead, and another man who kept visiting the store and asking about her killing. But none of them showed up as a match for the killer’s DNA.
In 2015, Zeke Better died. Hoping for an answer right up until his death, he had funded a scholarship for criminal justice students at Florida Atlantic University, and spent 15 years volunteering for the Delray Beach Police Department, according to the Palm Beach Post. “It has been very, very hard,” he told the paper in 2002. “I will always miss her no matter where my life takes me. I will never ever stop missing her.”
Then, in December 2018, Barket applied for a job as a certified nursing assistant, which required submitting a set of fingerprints for a background check. Soon, police in Delray Beach got a phone call: His fingerprints had matched the ones that had they found on the marble ball more than 20 years earlier.
The 51-year-old was living in Brandon, Fla., more than 200 miles away on the opposite site of the state. But detectives learned that he had lived in a mobile home near Lantana, roughly 10 miles from Delray Beach, at the time of the killing. Other details checked out, according to a police affidavit, including descriptions of a 6-foot suspect with light-colored hair. Barket clocked in at 6-2 and has blond hair. He had never come up as a suspect.
“He has had no contact with law enforcement, getting arrested or anything,” Delray Beach Police Capt. John Crane-Baker said at a March news conference, according to the Sun-Sentinel. “He had a minimal criminal history, mostly traffic citations. So he flew under the radar, even for 26 years before this occurred. It was quite surprising.”
But Barket himself didn’t seem that surprised, Crane-Baker said. When police showed up at his door in March and told him they were there about a 1998 homicide in Delray Beach, he shrugged and responded, “Okay.” Detectives collected a sample of his DNA and, within a matter of days, had confirmed that it matched the droplets of blood that had been found at the crime scene.
Barket pleaded not guilty, and his trial began Monday in Palm Beach County. But by then, a key piece of evidence — the third marble ball — had disappeared.
“You’ll never see the very ball Mr. Barket is alleged to have touched in that store,” his attorney, assistant public defender Joseph Walsh, told the jury, according to the Palm Beach Post. “There was a failure in how the processing of the crime scene was conducted.”
Prosecutors, for their part, argued that it didn’t matter. Though the marble ball had led them to Barket, it was the trail of blood on the consignment shop floor that proved he had killed Sondra Better more than 20 years earlier.
“There is no other explanation for his blood being everywhere the killer’s blood and robber’s blood would be,” assistant state attorney Richard Clausi said, according to the Sun-Sentinel. “He’s the one that did it.”