"God is my attorney"

From the Mesa Tribune, Thursday, May 14, 1998, Page 1
"God is my attorney"

A.J. mom's motives disputed in 7-year-old girl's slaying

By Kevin Sheh, Cristina de Isasi and Kirk Mitchell The Tribune

Barbara Downey claimed she was commanded by God to kill her 7-year-old daughter.

Now the 25-year-old Apache Junction woman will answer to a mortal's court.

The woman was arrested Tuesday after she confessed to shooting her daughter "because it was God's will." Wednesday morning, Downey led police to a desert area east of Apache Junction, where they found the body of 7-year-old Jessica Helms.

"God is my attorney," Downey said to a judge during her initial appearance Wednesday. She claimed God told her to kill her daughter because the girl was born out of wedlock, police said.

But some relatives of the girl's father, Steven Helms, don't believe her. They said they think Downey killed her daughter to get back at Helms because he had a new girlfriend.

"Every time Steven would go with a girl, Barbara would get jealous and stop Steven from seeing the girl," said an uncle who Helms recently lived with. He would identify himself only as Glen. Once Downey denied the father visitation for two months, Glen said.

Still, she had a reputation for being a good mother, and friends and neighbors said that she was never religious, until last week.

Downey's live-in boyfriend, James David Ladd, told police Downey started acting odd a week ago.

"He said she was reading a certain passage in the Bible talking about children born out of wedlock," said Apache Junction police Lt. Brian Duncan. "She said it wasn't right -- and the Lord spoke to her as she read the passage."

So when Ladd discovered Downey picked up her daughter from Four Peaks Elementary School at 1:15 p.m. Tuesday -- about two hours early -- he was suspicious.

"Once he discovered his gun also was missing, he called police," about 2:50 p.m., Duncan said.

Jessica was last seen alive about 3:10 p.m., when a family friend spotted Downey driving her boyfriend's Toyota truck east on Superstition Boulevard at Geronimo Road. The friend, who was watching Downey's 4-year-old son, said Jessica was a passenger and appeared to be in good health.

Police searched for the girl in vain. About 5:30 p.m., Downey returned home. Police quickly arrived and whisked Downey to the Apache Junction police station. Within minutes, Downey was arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder. Police seized the boyfriend's 9mm handgun and truck.

"She answered all our questions.....She seemed very comfortable with her decision, with what she did," Duncan said. "In her mind, she was led by the will of God to do this .... because her daughter was born out of wedlock."

Wednesday morning, Downey led police to a desert area south of De Barge Road at Lost Dutchman Boulevard. There, wrapped in a tarp and lying deep in a wash, police found Jessica's body.

Downey was calm, almost nonchalant, Duncan said. Though she had been arrested for drug abuse in 1994, Downey was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol Tuesday, police said. Neighbors, friends and relatives said Downey had no mental problems or any history of abuse toward her daughter or son, police said. She had no religious affiliations, Duncan said.

"She didn't hold back or deny the fact that she killed her daughter," he said.

Clutching a red Bible with her cuffed hands, Downey was led Tuesday afternoon into the Apache Junction Justice Court for her initial appearance. She sat down silently, set a Bible on a table and rocked gently in her chair until Justice of the Peace Corwin Brundrett called her name.

After Brundrett announced she would be held without bail and ended the hearing, she grabbed the Bible and held it high as she was led out of the courthouse.

"Do you believe in God? He's coming," Downey shouted at reporters as she was whisked to Pinal County Jail in Florence. "God didn't tell me to do this....I did this for myself."

Her son was turned over to Downey's grandparents. Downey told police her son was safe because she was married when her son was born.

Ladd, who could not be reached for comment, was "very emotional" Wednesday. He will not be charged in the death, Duncan said.

"He's blaming himself for the whole thing," said Thomas, a man who lives in a trailer next door and didn't want his last name publicized.

"Sometimes you don't want to say anything to get anyone in trouble if you care about them," he said.

"What she did was pretty hard," Thomas added. "But no one can tell what she was thinking at the time. Who's anybody to say she didn't hear any voices."

Mary Black, Helms' aunt, was skeptical.

"If she found God, she found a different god than every one of us knows," said Black, who is a practicing Catholic. Asked if she would pray for Downey at church this Sunday, she paused. "That's tough," she finally said. "Yeah, I probably will. I hope she finds the real God. But I don't approve of that as a means to get off for something you've done."

Ed Packard, Downey's father, declined to discuss the death with "The Tribune." He and other family members gathered at the Packard residence -- a pink stucco house on a private dirt road at the foot of a mountain north of Apache Junction. A man wearing a gun shooed reporters away. Jessica's father, an East Valley resident, could not be reached for comment.

However, a relative of the family, Marlene Branom, said Helms met with the Packards on Wednesday to make funeral arrangements for the girl.

"Steven is as shocked as we are," said Branom, Helm's aunt. "He doesn't know what happened."

Both Downey's neighbors and Helm's relatives gave conflicting descriptions of Downey's behavior. Some said she was a happy woman who spent all her time playing with her children. Others said she hung with a strange crowd and once abandoned her children at her parents house so she could leave to figure out what to do with her life.

Branom said Downey had always been a very loving mother to Jessica.

She never saw her yell or hit the child, who was a shy, sweet girl, she said.

"It's just totally out of the ordinary for the mother," Branom said. "She was always hugging and kissing on her."

Helms, who had custody of the girl every other weekend, is taking his only daughter's death very hard, she said.

"She was the center of his life," Branom said. "He was crazy about her."

Black said she watched Downey grow from a "spunky" little girl to the young woman who eventually had a yearlong relationship with Helms. Black said she had always known Downey as a good mother, and was surprised to see the same woman on television Wednesday in handcuffs, talking about God's role in the killing.

"She's not the Barbara we all know," Black said.

But neighbors at Downey's old address on Julep Street in east Mesa said Downey hung with a strange crowd of people who wore bizarre hairstyles and pierced their bodies. They had fights that drew police and threw loud parties. One man said his first encounter with Downey was when he reprimanded her for speeding down their quiet, residential block while children were in the street.

Her brother, Mike, told neighbors that about six months ago Downey dropped her children off at her parents' house and left, not returning for about two months.

Downey had no history of violence in Pinal or Maricopa counties. But she had a few brushes with the law, according to court records in those counties.

She was arrested in 1994 in Mesa on a marijuana charge. When she did not appear for a hearing, a warrant was issued for her arrest. Police caught up with her in Scottsdale in January 1996 and Downey

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