Long before he was a mustached super sleuth in a trench coat, a fresh-faced Jimmy Barbee caught the eye of Hollywood in 1979.
After a penthouse audition in the old Macon Hilton, the eight-year veteran was typecast as one of two patrolmen sent to look for the main character in John Huston’s film “Wise Blood.”
“I never did understand that,” Barbee said recently of Flannery O’Connor’s tale of the fictional Hazel Motes. “Hell, I don’t know what that movie is about today.”
Motes, who has been struggling with good and evil while growing up in the South, comes home from war an atheist. He encounters a stranger in the city with “wise blood” who knows things he “ain’t never learned.”
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Intuition guided Barbee plenty of times in the nearly 45 years he chased the bad guys.
There was something odd, he thought, about a hippie-looking guy leaving what looked like a trail of M&Ms from a couple of Piggly Wiggly sacks he was toting downtown one Sunday.
“I’m delivering these pills to a doctor’s office,” he told Barbee.
“You need to lie down on the sidewalk and put your arms behind your back,” said Barbee, who knew he was lying.
The doctor’s office was closed on Sunday.
Catching the drugstore burglar helped earn him Officer of the Year from the Exchange Clubs only a couple years after first putting on the badge.
“I never got in trouble, and I always came to work,” he said.
Since 1981, Barbee has wrapped his brain around virtually every “whodunit” in the city.
“I don’t remember birthdays, but I can tell you the house number where somebody was killed 30 years ago,” he said.
He became a sheriff’s deputy with consolidation of Macon and Bibb County, and the disbanding of the city police department.
“Jimmy is one of those legends in law enforcement,” Bibb County Sheriff David Davis said at Thursday’s retirement ceremony for Barbee and 54 others. “His skills and his knowledge is pre-eminent amongst all law enforcement around here, and cold cases became his specialty.”
An unsolved killing that haunts Barbee happened just blocks away from where he grew up on Duncan Avenue in the old mill village off Holt Avenue.
“Any way you can die, I’ve seen it,” he said.
On Dec. 2, 1997, the body of LaToya Berrian was found on a trash pile near the end of Carling Avenue. She died of a blow to the head before someone set fire to her clothes.
Hardened by combat duty in Vietnam, the gruesome scenes do not faze Barbee.
“It’s not so much how bad it is, it’s the why,” he said. “Why on earth would you do this to somebody? That’s why I took up cold cases.”
HOT ON THE TRAIL
Up until Barbee put down the smokes nearly five years ago, huddling on breaks outside the detective bureau proved to be great inspiration.
“I used to joke and tell people we solved as many crimes backing up against that back wall and drinking coffee as we did at the desk,” he said.
There is no clear method to how he solves crimes, except to keep working until he does.
“You sit down and you talk with investigators and run a ‘what if.’ Then, boom, something gels.”
Sometimes it’s a stroke of genius that hits when the trail is still hot.
That was the case when a convenience store clerk was shot and killed during a robbery at a Napier Avenue convenience store.
Barbee and former Macon police colleague David Matthews were following the money -- pennies, nickels, dimes, for about 100 yards from the store to Brookdale Elementary School.
All of a sudden, the money trail stopped.
They realized the running robber likely slowed down when the school building hid him from sight.
“Stop running and the change stays in the cash register,” he said. “Running again, and the change flies out.”
Sure enough, they searched on the other side of the fence, picked up the path of coins and followed it to the suspect’s house.
Certain pockets of town have more invested in his memory bank of Macon murders. Every day on the way to and from work, he passed the old McDonald’s location near the corner of Northside and Riverside drives.
Seeing the large rocks near the road brought daily flashbacks to the slaying of Stephen Rose and Rick Kea, who were killed in 1989 in one of the most baffling of the unsolved cases.
“From Montpelier Avenue, I could go all the way to the mall and not see a street where I didn’t work a killing,” said Barbee, now 66.
Gray whiskers have conquered the formerly auburn mustache he grew in 1982, after police dress codes relaxed a little.
‘THAT’S ALL I’VE EVER DONE’
Not long after he started shaving, Barbee already was poring over military maps and strategy every Tuesday and Thursday during Junior ROTC class at Lanier High School.
Growing up in the neighborhood not far from Interstate 75, Barbee palled around with lifelong friend Gary Collins.
“We were family -- and a very tight-knit community,” said Collins, a former Macon police officer who has been chief of the Mercer University campus police department for 32 years.
“We were always into a little good and always with a little rowdiness,” said Collins, who was best man at Barbee’s first wedding.
Barbee admits to hanging a fellow by his ankles from a third-floor window at Lanier High School, but he managed to stay out of real trouble.
When they graduated, Collins suggested they enlist in the Army under the buddy system.
During 10 weeks together in training at Fort Benning, they were the first ordered to drop for push-ups. Collins was chided for chuckling, and Barbee reprimanded after his duffel bag fell over.
Their high school military training was soon apparent, and they became model students during demonstrations.
Collins, who later hired Barbee’s brother and daughter at the campus office, talks frequently to his old friend.
“He has a passion for his job. He really loves it, and he puts his entire heart into it,” Collins said. “He is a policeman, up and down and all around. His men will miss him greatly.”
The young soldiers were separated when Barbee deployed to Vietnam, where he was part of a crew on an 8-inch Howitzer.
“I know we killed 400 in one night, me and my five-man crew,” Barbee said.
The military training prepared him for what would lie ahead.
He became a police officer as soon as he was discharged.
“I served my country and served my city,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever done.”
On July 19, 1976, Barbee was investigating a knife attack on a woman on Railroad Avenue, on the other side of the interstate from his boyhood home. It was the only time he killed someone while on the force.
“The only one who took it personal with me had a gun on him, and he came in second,” Barbee said. “I told him ‘don’t pull that gun.’ ... He didn’t listen.”
Barbee’s defensive drive took over, and Joseph Holmes died that night.
“It’s like playing chess,” he said. “You try to stay one move ahead of the other person.”
A woman in his custody also was accidentally shot in the buttocks when Barbee was trying to handcuff her in May 1997. He also wounded a kidnapping suspect at Macon Mall in 2004.
Witnesses said Barbee, a lieutenant at the time, warned the man to stop and get on the ground. Jermaine Daune Taylor, then 26, turned toward him in an aggressive manner, waving his arms and reaching into his jacket before Barbee shot him once.
Barbee, who has two sons and a daughter, found crimes against children the toughest to shake.
In June 1991, Barbee and police officer Mickey McCallum loaded 6-year-old Taylor Fargason into a body bag on Interstate Parkway.
“He never left a stone unturned,” said McCallum, who also recently retired after 33 years. “He kept looking for new evidence to further the case along.”
About 18 months later, the girl’s mother was charged. Teresa Fargason was convicted and released from prison this year. She still challenges the evidence against her, and a judge has granted her request for new DNA testing.
“I learned a lot from Jimmy Barbee,” McCallum said.
Although Barbee has served stints in Internal Affairs and training, it was never all work and no play.
“He can put a smile on your face because he can joke and cut up in good humor, but don’t think that means he loses his focus,” Collins said. “He does that to brighten peoples’ lives so they don’t feel down. He’ll do that with his men and women he supervises, and he’s always done it. He’s a prankster and he likes to joke.”
Barbee left an opossum in the front seat of someone’s patrol car, but he has been on the receiving end, too.
He once found his back floorboard full of bullfrogs.
During a serious interrogation, one detective left the room abruptly to keep from laughing in front of a suspect on the verge of confessing.
Barbee had convinced the man they had the technology to do a retina scan that would look into his eyes and call up images in the man’s brain of what he had done.
The man, thinking there was no way out, spilled the beans.
“It worked, but it’s a once-in-a-career move,” Barbee said.
It’s something he’s passed down to others, including one of his two sons who are now deputies in Bibb and Putnam counties.
Barbee not only instantly flips the switch from frivolity to focus, but he also usually left his work at the office.
“I don’t bring it home with me,” he said.
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
Perhaps the same mechanism will help him adjust to retirement.
His only regrets are missing his colleagues and feeling like he has failed the families of the dozens of cold cases he’s leaving behind.
“Jimmy is a very caring person,” Collins said. “Policing is in his heart, but that heart goes out to victims, to their families. He cares for them. He wants to give them some sort of peace.”
One Christmas, Barbee gave a victim’s mother a card filled with enough cash to keep her water from being turned off during the holidays.
She returned the favor with a hot biscuit one morning as she stopped to check on her daughter’s case.
“I wish I could have solved them all,” he said.
His wife of five years, Brenda, wonders what will happen when murder victim LaToya Berrian’s mother calls again.
“I don’t know if he’ll have the heart to tell her, ‘I’m sorry, but you’ll have to talk to somebody else,’ ” said Brenda Barbee, who also recently retired from her job as a graphics specialist with Macon-Bibb Planning and Zoning.
While on a break from her job several years ago, she first noticed her future husband on the bench outside the former Macon police chief’s office at the Willie C. Hill Annex building where they both worked.
“I always said I was his consolation prize for going to internal affairs, because he really didn’t want to go,” she said.
If she couldn’t retire, he didn’t want to, either.
Now, he’s looking forward to spending all their days together and buying a lake house.
Reflecting on his career, Barbee doesn’t speak much of all the killers and criminals he caught. He was obsessed by those still out there, but feels he his leaving the files in good hands.
“Somebody down there is going to step right into my shoes, and they’ll take off from there,” he said. “This place is probably going to run better without me.”
His wife wants him to keep up his certification, just in case he wants to go back to work.
Barbee thinks he’ll be content taking the grandchildren to Disney World, building wooden furniture and fishing for some big bass with his wife.
Hitting the lake will be a little bit like catching crooks, he said.
“You consider that lure and that line a lead or a clue, and you just have to wait to see if something comes of it,” he said.
Lately, it’s been Mrs. Barbee who has the upper edge.
“She made an arrest on a fish,” he said. “I didn’t get nothing but a half-dozen escapes.”
There will likely be more stories to tell of the ones that got away.
Information from The Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303 and follow her on Twitternote>