Murder case sent to grand jury

Published 12:24 am Thursday, September 3, 2009

Covington County District Judge Frank “Trippy” McGuire bound the state’s capital murder case against Michael D. Barbaree over to the grand jury Wednesday after a day of testimony in a preliminary hearing.

Barbaree, 28, is charged with the capital murder of Travis Sasser, the attempted murder of Sasser’s bedridden wife, Merita Sasser, and arson. He is accused of beating Sasser, leaving him to die, and setting the house on fire with Mrs. Sasser trapped inside. He also is charged with two counts of theft in a separate case.

On the morning of May 14, 2009, a caregiver arrived at the Sasser home for work, found the fire and knew the Sassers were inside.

Sheriff Dennis Meeks, called to the witness stand by court-appointed defense attorneys Walt Merrell and Chris Sledge, said that he went to the Sasser home when the fire was reported.

Meeks recalled that he and deputies had to break the door to the locked bedroom in which Sasser’s body was found.

He said Sasser was “obviously dead,” so he and others moved on in search of Mrs. Sasser. Meeks said he donned the breathing apparatus normally worn by firemen at the scene as he searched. A member of the Gantt rescue squad found Mrs. Sasser, he said, and he helped the man get Mrs. Sasser to safety.

“What had helped her out was she was actually on oxygen,” Meeks said.

Life flight was on standby, he said, and Mrs. Sasser was immediately transported to a Dothan hospital.

Jeff Lowery, deputy state fire marshal, testified that on the morning of the fire, he found a flammable accelerant had been poured inside the Sassers’ home, and the accelerant was later determined to be a mixture of gas and diesel.

Teddy Ray Motley, an investigator with the sheriff’s department, testified that he found the victim in a chair, “slumped over” and with complete holes in his head. His left nostril was torn off, the investigator said. Motley said he found a hammer nearby, with blood all over it.

Barbaree was an early suspect, Motley testified, because he lived in the Sassers’ home. He eventually admitted to Motley that he had killed Sasser, and that he had stolen a pistol and taken money out of his wallet. Previously, he had borrowed $1,500 from Sasser.

During the investigation, Barbaree told investigators that he had had sex on two occasions with his victim, and that he had beaten the victim “because he couldn’t take it anymore,” Motley testified.

But after he was arrested, Barbaree told his cellmate that he was going to “string out the investigation as long as he could” to get cigarettes from the investigators, and that he planned to tell investigators “that he sexually molested me” to avoid the death penalty, the investigator said.

Wesley Snodgrass of the sheriff’s department also testified.

In the months since his arrest for murder, the sheriff’s department has foiled an attempt by Barbaree to escape, when officers found a weapon Barbaree had fashioned from a light fixture inside his cell. He was charged with first-degree escape and promoting prison contraband.

In November 2002, Barbaree, along with Oscar Roy Doster, Bobby O’Lee Phillips and Charles Meeks, escaped from the Covington County Jail through a ventilation system. Since then, he has served his time on the escape conviction and been released.

District Attorney Greg Gambril, who represented the state at the preliminary hearing, has previously said he expects the case to be presented to the grand jury this month. The grand jury can then decide to indict Barbaree, or to dismiss the charges.

If convicted, Barbaree could face the death penalty or receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.