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Satanism and Guilt-Free Murder in Iowa

On the evening of July 18, 2013, Kathy Barlas returned to her home in Mason City, Iowa, to find her adult son waiting in the garage in his underwear, dripping with blood. "Mom, I killed Satan," he told her.

Josiah Hesse

Josiah Hesse

Tom Barlas Jr.'s police mug shot. Photo courtesy of Cerro Gordo County Sheriff's Office

On the evening of July 18, 2013, Kathy Barlas returned to her home in Mason City, Iowa, to find her adult son waiting in the garage in his underwear, dripping with blood. "Mom, I killed Satan," Tom Barlas Jr. said to his mother. Did he mean he hurt the dog? "No, Mom, I killed Satan," he repeated. Kathy entered the house, heading toward her bedroom where she found her husband, Tom Barlas Sr., lifeless on the floor, bleeding from multiple stab wounds. He was dead.

When she returned to the garage, her son was gone. Calling 911, Kathy told the emergency operator that her son might be headed toward the Greek Orthodox Church of Transfiguration. The police eventually found Barlas, who resisted arrest, repeating "God and Jesus Christ," over and over. The cops used their tasers to subdue him, eventually arresting Barlas for the first degree murder of his father.

Last Thursday, a little over a year later, I drove through Mason City, Iowa—which, along with neighboring Clear Lake (the town that killed Buddy Holly), remains my hometown. I'd just flown in from Denver, attempting to begin a week-long vacation, when the news came over the radio that Tom Barlas Jr. was found not guilty of the murder of his father, due to his suffering a "psychotic episode" that prevented him from understanding the consequence of his actions.

It was a humid, grey afternoon—and drastically cold for August.

Adjusting the radio dial, I happened upon an Evangelical sermon, delivered by what sounded like a cranked-up auctioneer. I could almost feel beads of his sweat misting out of the speakers as he spoke with the urgency of being burned alive. "We are locked into a SPIRITUAL WARFARE!" he shouted as I drove past endless rows of lush cornfields. "The forces of darkness remain around us at all time, attempting to tempt us, trick us, trap us into arms of Satan. But the foot-soldiers of the Looooooord will be at your back in a moments notice. All you have to do is reach out!"

Putting these two things together, I couldn't help but wonder: If this is a community of Bible-believing Christians (as I know it to be), who think that "Heaven Is For Real" and demons walk among us at all times, then shouldn't they have at least considered the possibility that Tom Barlas's father really was possessed by Satan, and that his son had sacrificed his old man in order to heroically save mankind from the Prince of Darkness?

As a former resident of this area for 22 years, I am ultra-familiar with the preacher's use of the term "spiritual warfare." Ask any refugee of the Evangelical movement, and they'll tell you what it was like growing up believing there were angels and demons literally around us at all times, albeit inhabiting a spiritual realm we cannot see. Typically, children are reassured that their closets are free of monsters and the shadow on their bedroom wall is not a witch. But we children of Billy Graham Crusades are not only told that monsters are real, but given instruction on how to spot The Devil when he (inevitably) attempts to infiltrate our thoughts.

"Satan disguises himself as an angel of light," I'd read in Corinthians as a child, convincing myself that not even angels can be trusted. Many of the miracles Jesus performed throughout the gospels were exorcisms, and in Ephisians 6:12, it says, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against ... spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms."

As a coveted battleground in any political fight, Iowa is definitely a place that swings both ways. While it's the only state in the Midwest to have legalized gay marriage, it's also the winking bellybutton of the Bible Belt, with an above-average religious affiliation. In 1957, Mason City native Meredith Wilson wrote a musical about his hometown called "The Music Man." It was the story of a con man selling an invisible product, and when the town eventually catches on, a woman comes to the man's defense by suggesting it may have all been lies, but it made everyone so happy and optimistic for the future. In other words, who cares if it isn't real?

Despite having no historical evidence to support it, I've always had this theory that "The Music Man" was one long commentary on religion.

I have no shortage of dark memories associated with this state and its Christian Right communities. And so it struck me as odd that a court in my hometown would give Tom Barlas Jr. a not-guilty verdict—despite the universally accepted fact that he at least physically committed the crime. This type of thing is rare in Iowa, as well as the rest of the nation. According to the American Academy of Psychiatry, less than one percent of all trials end in a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict.

But with Barlas, the process of establishing insanity was remarkably easy. There wasn't even a jury trial; only a "trial by minutes," where a collection of reports and testimonies are presented to the judge, who then decides what to do based on the information given to him.

"Once the prosecution's psychiatrist agreed with our psychiatrist on Barlas Jr.'s condition, they couldn't reasonably continue to pursue this as a first-degree murder case," his attorney, Aaron Hamrock, tells me over the phone. "At the time, Barlas Jr. could not tell the difference between right and wrong. In his mind, he thought he was killing Satan."

Crazy, right? Believing that an ethereal Devil can inhabit a person's body? Who would believe such a nutty thing?

But the younger Barlas's behavior is not out of step with celebrated characters of the Bible. In Genesis, Abraham hears the voice of God instruct him to murder his son (spoiler: at the last minute God peaks his head out of the clouds and says "kidding!") Later, Abraham's grandson, Jacob, physically wrestles an angel.

When the prophet John was tripping out on the island of Patmos, his visions lead him to write the following in Revelation 19:18:

"So that you may eat the flesh of kings and the flesh of commanders and the flesh of mighty men and the flesh of horses and of those who sit on them and the flesh of all men, both free men and slaves, and small and great. And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies assembled to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army."

There is surely a more complex analysis of Barlas in the psychiatric reports presented to the judge in a sealed envelope, possibly something about schizophrenia or temporal lobe epilepsy (believed to have been the cause of Joan of Arc's visions) leading to auditory and visual hallucinations of a religious nature. But private medical records like that are not available to the public in a trial by minutes.

The only thing the people Mason City know is that Tom Barlas Jr. was a successful 43-year-old restaurateur who destroyed his father in the name of spiritual warfare, and is officially not responsible for the murder—because anyone who believes the devil can possesses a person's body is clearly insane. And by all accounts, the people of Iowa have no objection to this.

"There was a ton of support for him," Hamrock says of his client. "Tom and his father were truly best of friends. They would play cards together, they worked in the restaurant business together. Their family has lived here a long time and is well known in the Mason City area."

Hamrock explains that it's a different situation when you have a family or group of families demanding justice for a murder. Had that been the case, Barlas Jr. may have gone to trial for this crime. But here the victim and the defendant's family are on the same page—and, according to Hamrock, they decided to support the younger Barlas' defense.

"The outcome in this case was a huge step forward for people who suffer from mental illness throughout the United States," Hamrock tells me. "The state, and the government needs to help these folks, and prevent things like this from happening again in the future."

I do not disagree with the attorney on this. The US prison system is an embarrassment to the world, crippled in part by a justice regime that treats prisons as a de facto mental health care facility—with few ailments diagnosed and little to no treatment provided. Yet according to the American Academy of Psychiatry, more than 90 percent of defendants claiming insanity have a diagnosed mental illness, but only around 25 percent are successful.

After returning to Denver from Iowa, my first move is to call up crime reporter Alan Prendergast, who teaches journalism at Colorado College and has been reporting on the ethical dilemmas involved with mental illness and the justice system since the mid 90s (disclosure: he also used to be a colleague of mine at Denver's alt weekly, Westword). Confused as to why more defendants aren't given similar treatment—it worked so gracefully for Tom Barlas Jr., and yet prisons remain jam-packed with crazies—I ask about the legal definitions of insanity.

"There are all sorts of people who could be observed to be psychotic or deranged, but they don't necessarily meet the legal definition of insanity," Prendergast says. This definition is often defined by phrases like "not knowing right from wrong," and "unable to distinguish reality from fantasy," states of mind that take on a fuzzy definition when placed in the context of religion and murder.  

"Clearly, people who are delusional, someone who kills their kids and says God told them to do it, they have a chance with an insanity plea," he goes on. "In weird family tragedies, where there's a history of bizarre behavior or claims of demonic possession or someone thinking their kid is Satan, it's more difficult for the prosecution to establish that the defendant had a culpable mental state."

Ultimately, we should take comfort in the verdict of Tom Barlas Jr. A tragedy occurred, but the courts have made a proactive choice in trying to help a sick person, avoiding the intoxicating and blind pursuit of justice. Technically, he will be incarcerated inside Oakdale Prison, but he will be in the psychology wing, where he will be medically treated until the time comes when he is believed to no longer be a harm to himself or others. And then he will be set free.

Still, I can't help but pull my hair in frustration at this verdict. We live in a country that is constantly embroiled in battles over whether to place the Ten Commandments on some courthouse lawn—a collection of states endlessly referred to as A Christian Nation—and yet many of us refuse to consider, even for a moment, the prospect that the spiritual warfare we believe in so deeply might occasionally spill over into the physical realm.  

Long ago I "put away childish things" like belief in angels and demons, and I wish the rest of our nation's spiritual leaders would shit or get off the pot as well: Either stop tormenting children and the mentally ill with their assertions about a supernatural plane of pixies and goblins, or else go all in and start defending those who take Biblical teachings to their inevitable conclusion. If you believe the Bible to be the literal Word of God, then you at least have to accept the possibility that Charles Manson really is Jesus Christ, The Heavens Gate members really did reach the spacecraft behind the Hale-Bop comet, and Tom Barlas Jr. is a hero who may have succeeded in killing Satan by taking his own father's life.

Josiah Hesse is a journalist based in Denver, Colorado, where he covers the local music, comedy, marijuana, and political landscapes. Follow him on Twitter.