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Sons found drowned after mother commits suicide
By MATTHEW ROY, The Virginian-Pilot
October 3, 2002
Last updated: 6:04 PM

NORFOLK -- A woman is suspected of drowning her three boys, ages 4, 3 and 7 months, before leaping off the Campostella Bridge to her death.

The children were found side-by-side in bed early Wednesday, several hours after their pregnant mother, 24-year-old Sonita L. Barkley, was pulled from the Elizabeth River.

All of the evidence pointed to murder-suicide, police said, but they could not say what motivated Barkley to drown her boys and take her own life. The children were identified by police as Jebediah, 4; Abijah, 3, and Shereef, 7 months. Relatives, however, said the eldest boy's name was Jehdiah.

The grim task of identifying the mother and her children fell to her husband, Randell D. Barkley.

``How is all my whole family dead? How, how is everybody not here,'' he said in an interview with WAVY-TV. ``My family is gone, gone. The whole family . . .''

He also said he does not believe that his wife killed their children, herself and their unborn child. ``I can't digest that explanation,'' he said.

Police found no suicide note. Investigators said she drowned the children in their bathtub in Sewells Park Apartments near Wards Corner.

Sonita Barkley worked at a Texaco station and had been separated from her husband for two months, according to police. Court records indicate she had previously accused him of abuse. Police made no mention of that in an afternoon news conference.

``From relatives we have talked to, we have not received any information that she had been despondent, that she had any problems at all. Not the first instance has come up of that,'' said police Capt. Mike Young.

The first hint of trouble emerged at 5:43 a.m. Monday.

Barkley was spotted atop the Campostella Bridge. Police responded to calls that a woman was by the rail, and a car was on the bridge with its engine running, doors locked and flashers blinking.

Police said one caller went so far as to say, ``She looks like she is going to jump.''

Officers found a gray/silver Chevrolet Celebrity, but they could spot nobody from the bridge or from the riverbanks.

The license plate led police to a Sonita Barkley's previous address on West Little Creek Road. The car was impounded.

Around 5 p.m. Tuesday , workers at Colonna's Shipyard Inc. spotted a body floating in front of the company's drydock on the western side of its property. The company called 911, and authorities retrieved the body.

Homicide investigators took over the case Tuesday evening. They noted that two child car seats were in the vehicle. Investigators spoke with managers of the West Little Creek Road property and found out Sonita Barkley had moved.

At that point, police ran the name through a Norfolk police database and came up with an address on Sheryl Drive. No one answered the door.

Early Wednesday, around 12:30 a.m., police got the managers of the apartment complex to let them inside. In the one-bedroom apartment, they found the children dead.

Around 1:30 a.m., Barkley's husband arrived in a taxi. He had been attempting to contact his wife without success. He was taken to the Police Operations Center for an interview, and cooperated fully, police said. Around 9 a.m., he identified his wife and children.

Police say the children died sometime Sunday evening, and their mother died early Monday morning. It was unclear how far she was into her pregnancy.

Sonita L. Dunbar was born Aug. 14, 1978, to Stanley Langley and Glenda Diane Dunbar.

She transferred into Norfolk's public schools from Virginia Beach in September 1990, according to Norfolk Public Schools spokesman George D. Raiss. She attended Campostella Elementary for fifth grade and Lafayette-Winona Middle for grades six through eight.

Her records, Raiss said, were then forwarded to Open Campus, an alternative school housed at Green Run High in Virginia Beach. But Beach officials had no record of her attending any city schools.

She married Randell W.D. Barkley, a New Jersey native, in a civil ceremony in Norfolk on April 25, 2000. This was her first marriage and his second..

Court records show allegations of domestic violence surfaced in the marriage within the first year.

It was unknown whether that had any influence on what police said were Sonita Barkley's actions this week.

She had her husband arrested on March 31, 2001, after he pulled her hair, pushed her to the floor and banged her head several times, according to court records. He cursed at her, ripped her shirt and struck her in the mouth, the records say.

A Norfolk judge issued a protective order that barred Randell Barkley from having any contact with his wife. The judge checked the box, ``no exceptions.''

The incident occurred at the couple's former apartment in the 200 block of W. Little Creek Road. Court records also show that Randell Barkley accused his wife of battering him. He said in the records that she attacked him, punched him, choked him, scratched him and hit him in the groin. ``I haven't done anything to her,'' he wrote in a court motion.

Though Sonita Barkley was not charged, a judge dismissed Randell Barkley's allegations and convicted him of assault. He was sentenced to three months in jail, but the term was suspended. He also was ordered to undergo treatment through a domestic-violence program, court records say. He completed the program in January.

Randell Barkley has three children from his previous marriage. That marriage, which also had allegations of domestic violence, ended in divorce 15 days before he married Sonita. But court records indicate he and his first wife had been estranged for years.

Several of Sonita Barkley's maternal aunts and uncles gathered at a home in the London Bridge section of Virginia Beach on Wednesday. None wanted to comment.

Donald Spikes, who lives next door in Virginia Beach, remembered Sonita Barkley as a focused woman. ``She was always either working or at church.''

She attended New Jerusalem Church in Seatack, Spikes said, where his uncle is pastor. She helped with the youth group and performed with the step team.

She was a an outgoing and spiritual person, he said, often quoting Bible passages and trying to live by them.

Lynette Smith, the manager of Military Circle Texaco, said she had known Sonita Barkley for four months.

``I don't think she committed suicide,'' Smith said. ``To me, she didn't seem suicidal.''

Smith met Barkley when the woman applied for a job with Texaco, returning several times to check on the status of her application. Eventually, she was hired and sent to work at another station near Norfolk International Airport.

Barkley struck Smith as a strong woman. Barkley was just a child when her mother died, Smith said.

``She said she had been on her own since she was 16,'' she said.

Nothing, however, signaled desperation, Smith said.

Randell Barkley told WAVY that his wife had recently complained about problems in getting child care and about him spending too much time in a studio, writing music.

He said she told him: ``I want you to pick me over the music,'' he said. ``She just went to a dramatic level with it.''

Neighbors expressed dismay over the discoveries.

The apartments on Sheryl Drive house many military families. The complex consists of a cluster of yellow apartment buildings, each with eight units. The grass is neatly trimmed; mature trees and shrubs provide shade and greenery.

James Wideman said the children, especially the oldest one, would get excited when they spotted his dog. ``They're like, `Man, look at the dog!' '' he said. He shook his head sadly. ``It's a shock to me, man.''

Wendy Smith, who was visiting from Ohio, said she had seen the children in their window, waving at everyone who passed by.

Antoine Gordon said a family had only recently moved into the apartment. He'd see a man and a woman and the children, coming and going.

``There was nothing out of the usual,'' he said. ``They never drew attention to themselves. Until this happened, they were just like anyone else.''

Then he added, ``I'm going to church and I'm praying for this family and these souls, honestly.''

Staff writers Tim McGlone, Kristen King, Susan E. White, Carolyn Shapiro, Matthew Jones and Steve Stone contributed to this report.


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