Murder suspect was ordered to avoid elderly

Seven years ago, Barbara Clark pleaded guilty to stealing more than $5,000 from a 90-year-old man at the Durham retirement community where she worked.

A judge gave her a suspended sentence and ordered Clark not to work anywhere she would have access to elderly people's property or possessions for three years.

On Thursday, Clark was charged with first-degree murder, accused of fatally beating a 92-year-old woman who had hired her as a housekeeper. The woman had asked Clark to come to her Fearrington Village retirement center apartment to discuss stolen checks.

Doretta Walker, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Clark after her 2000 arrest, saw her on the news Wednesday night.

"I prosecuted that lady and told her not to work with the elderly, there she goes killing an old lady," Walker said. "When I saw her on TV last night, I said, 'I know that lady.'

"You should have seen my face."

Clark is accused of beating Margaret Murta to death, and seriously injuring her long-time friend Mary Corcoran, 82, and their neighbor Rebecca Fisher, 77.

Corcoran was in critical condition Thursday night at UNC Hospitals. Fisher was in serious condition.

On Thursday afternoon, Clark stepped out of the Chatham County jail toward a cluster of television cameras and reporters. Moving slowly in leg shackles, she was helped into an idling van and driven a few blocks to a small district courtroom. A crowd of people waiting for traffic court stared at the knot of journalists.

In court, District Attorney Jim Woodall announced a charge of first-degree murder, which can carry the death penalty, and two charges each of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serous injury.

Judge Charles Anderson asked whether Clark understood the charges against her. Represented by a public defender, she answered with a barely perceptible whisper and nod of her head. Her next court date is Dec. 17.

In an interview later, Woodall said the evidence will show "this was a deliberate and premeditated act." He said it is too early to say whether he will seek the death penalty.

"There are two other victims who are in very serious condition," Woodall said. "There is a potential for these charges to change. I certainly hope not.

"An injury that a younger person can recover from, that's not always the case when you're 77 or 82," he said.

Woodall also said he had gone to Murta's and Corcoran's apartment in Fearrington Village's Galloway Ridge community.

"I saw photographs of them, and it appears that they had spent time on trips and vacations all over the world," he said.

"And in a lot of those photographs, they were together."

Blood and pepper spray

Search warrants describe the Wednesday morning violence that shattered many residents' security in the sprawling retirement community eight miles south of Chapel Hill.

Just after 10 a.m., a Galloway Ridge employee called 911 and reported a breaking-and-entering. A few minutes later, he called again to report three people in the apartment who looked as though they had been hit in the head.

Galloway Ridge staff, deputies and emergency personnel arrived at what authorities have called a "horrendous" scene.

"All three females had sustained massive trauma," Sgt. Brandon Jones wrote in his application for a search warrant. There was blood in several places in the apartment and a can of pepper spray under a table, he wrote.

Deputies found Clark nearby, said Maj. Gary Blankenship, sheriff's spokesman.

She said she'd been asked to come help with a Christmas tree. She told a deputy that Mary Corcoran had given her a check for too much money, so she was going to write her a check for the difference.

She claimed that she left the room to get her checkbook, heard screaming, and returned to find a man beating the women, according to the warrants. She said she used her pepper spray and ran.

That sent law enforcement officers with rifles and a dog scouring the area. Authorities now say Clark lied.

They think Murta and Corcoran wanted to discuss money with Clark, and asked Fisher to come as a witness "when they confronted [Clark] about stealing and forging the checks," according to the warrants.

Clark turned on the women, investigators said, using pepper spray and beating them with a blunt object, probably a cane. Investigators saw what appeared to be blood on her shirt, according to the warrants.

'She was trustworthy'

Before the court appearance, Clark's husband walked into the sheriff's office and said he had information.

He emerged about 30 minutes later and said he wanted to "extend my deepest apologies to the victim's family."

"I'm just so sorry that it happened. And also it's not reflective on her family ... her father ... did not raise her to be like this," Howard Clark said. "There's some things that went on that I didn't know about."

A woman who said Clark cleaned her house Tuesday was stunned by her arrest.

"We have had her since my children were born; they're 10," Jodi Purich said. "We liked her because she was trustworthy."

Clark's father also expressed disbelief.

Loman Turrentine said he hadn't seen his daughter in about a year, and did not know when she started working for Murta and Corcoran. She has two children, he said. "I can't really believe she did this," he said.

When he sees his daughter, Turrentine said, "I'm going to ask her did she do it? ... Because I can't believe it."

(Staff writers Jesse James DeConto, Leah Friedman and Mark Schultz, news researcher Denise Jones and staff photographer Harry Lynch contributed to this story.)