Victim’s daughter: Awful experience, amazing experience

Published 12:04 am Thursday, January 24, 2013

Three years, eight months, and nine days. That’s how long Debra Sasser Gamble waited for yesterday’s hearing in which a man plead guilty in court to her father’s death, and was sent away for the rest of his life.

Her father, Travis Sasser, was born in Dozier, grew up in Georgia, and had moved home to spend his golden years “piddling” on land that had been in his family for decades, his daughter said. It is a place he visited often throughout his life, and a place to which he was very connected.

A printer by trade, he was a man who easily understood how things worked. He got interested in CB radios when they became popular in the 1970s, and that led to an interest in ham radios.

“Over the years, he collected all of this equipment,” Gamble said. “He had a set-up in his bedroom, and I think there were four or five antennas on the roof this house.

“He was one of these people you could show something, or he could look at it, and figure out how it worked.”

The understanding wasn’t just mechanical. She recalled showing her father an Excel spreadsheet once. The next thing she knew, he had mastered the program and created a detailed and intricate spreadsheet with which to track investments.

“I couldn’t have recreated the spreadsheet,” she said.

“He was truly a very smart man.”

He turned 75 on April 19, 2009, almost a month before his life was abruptly ended. And it was a very special birthday.

“After Mama became disabled, they stopped traveling,” Gamble said. He missed a grandson’s wedding in 2007. He missed the births of two great-granddaughters in 2008.

“So for his 75th birthday, I convinced the two boys to come to Alabama, which was the first time they had been here,” she said. “We had a weekend together for his 75th birthday.”

Gamble and her husband, Blaine, lived in the Atlanta metro area at the time.

“They all came, and Daddy got to meet the two granddaughters he’d never seen,” she said. “It was not a big production, but Daddy was ecstatic. He was so excited that we were all coming.”

At the time, there was no reason to worry it might be his last birthday, but Gamble said she intuitively knew that celebrating this birthday was important.

She had a deal with her daddy. There was a caregiver to help with her mama, but she needed to know that her father was OK, too. So he had agreed to email her at work daily, and she called him every Saturday and Sunday.

Thinking back to Thurs., May 14, 2009, she wasn’t alarmed when she didn’t get an email.

“Daddy had an appointment with Dr. Butler that day, so I thought he was just late in emailing me,” she said. She was taking the afternoon and the next day off.

It was a beautiful spring day, she recalled. She was headed to the bank to make a deposit for her boss when a co-worker called and said a Rockdale County, Ga., sheriff’s deputy was looking for her. She couldn’t imagine why.

“I kept thinking, ‘What have I done,’ ” she said.

She agreed to meet the deputy at the bank. He was, of course, the official contact person, notifying her that her father had died in a fire and that her mother, Merita Sasser, had been rescued and Lifeflighted from the scene to be treated for smoke inhalation. It was hours later before she knew that her daddy had been murdered before the fire was set. She spent the day, numb, and answering questions about law enforcement’s initial suspects.

Eventually, the investigation closed in on Michael Barbaree, who lived in a garage apartment on the Sassers’ property. His mother was Mrs. Sasser’s caregiver. Law enforcement officers said in 2009 that Barbaree confessed to the murder, according to Star-News archives.

The wheels of justice often seem to turn slowly, and it was so in this case. In 2009, Covington County’s current DA, Walt Merrell, was an attorney in private practice who was appointed to represent Barbaree. When Merrell took office in January of 2011, he recused himself and asked the attorney general’s office to handle the murder trial.

Meanwhile, Blaine Gamble spent weeks in Alabama repairing the Sassers’ home near Dozier. Eventually, the couple moved here. And Debra Sasser Gamble waited, feeling as if she needed to get the murder trial behind her before she could move on.

She didn’t want the state to seek the death penalty, although Tina Coker Hammonds of the AG’s office said the state was prepared to do so.

“What good would it do,” Gamble pondered. She didn’t want to spend the rest of her life attending appeals hearings if Barbaree got the death penalty.

Many times, it appeared that resolution was near, and then something would happen. Barbaree was scheduld to plead guilty Tuesday morning. When the Gambles and the attorneys in the case arrived at the Covington County Courthouse, they learned Barbaree had not been transported from Montgomery. The hearing was rescheduled for Wednesday morning. And just when it was about to begin, word came that Barbaree had changed his mind about the plea agreement.

Eventually, he accepted the agreement, in which he plead guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole rather than face the possibility of a death penalty conviction by a jury.

Asked if she felt a sense of closure when it was over, she said no.

“I think there’s no such thing as closure,” she said. “There is a sense of knowing that business has been taken care of, so that you can move forward, knowing that part of this process is over.

“But for me, there is always going to be this huge hole for the unnatural way in which (Daddy) had to go,” she said. “At least now, I don’t have to think about that any more. That’s the best part.”

Instead of worrying about a trial, she said, she wants to think about all of the good things to come.

“Because we have this place that Blaine put his heart and soul into refurbishing and making in to our home,” she said. “This land that my grandmother and my great-grandfather had, we are trying to make this our home.”

For a city girl, she’s taken well to the country, and wouldn’t dream of dealing with big-city traffic on a daily basis.

“I have taken to the country,” she said. “And I think that would make Daddy very proud.

After Travis Sasser’s death, her husband spent weeks rebuilding the home that had been heavily damaged by fire.

“He told me, ‘I have to stay here and I have to make this right for you.’ He did all of this work, for me and the kids,” she said. “For us, right now, it’s all worked out.”

Even in the midst of a horrible nightmare, she said, good things happened.

“I cannot say enough how wonderful everyone has been, from Norman Hobson to Judge (Ben) Bowden, Nan Brewer, Nancy Cole – everybody that came into our path through this whole process. They were very gracious and kind and understanding and doing whatever they could to help us.

“It’s been an awful experience. But it’s also an amazing experience.”

The journey, she said, focuses in on how good God is.

“In the midst of trying to understand the horror, you see the hand of God helping you find your way through it.”