Liveaboard Hell: A Trawler Murder Story

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Burning Trawler

Generally, living aboard is a happy and healthy lifestyle, but anyone who has spent time on the waterways can recall the exceptions, though they rarely, if ever have risen to this level of horror. You can view the story of David Trauger and Karen Barnes two ways: Either as a real-life psychological thriller that ends in fire and death, or as a cautionary tale about how not to choose a liveaboard partner.

Here’s the short version of what happened: First Trauger lost his wife Karen and his Great Harbour 37 trawler in their divorce. Then he lost his mind.

In the early morning hours of August 13, David Trauger dressed all in black. He then motored a skiff alongside a trawler anchored on St. Marys River in Southeast Georgia. According to police, he crept aboard and murdered Barnes and her new male friend. Using gasoline or some other accelerant, he “skillfully” torched the vessel, lighting the night “like rocket motors” and effectively cremating the bodies inside.

The last moments in the lives of Barnes and her companion were recorded over an open line, a 911 call from Barnes’ cell phone.

Alerted to the blaze, St. Marys emergency personnel prodded the trawler closer to docks at the nearby St. Marys Boatyard, where firefighters were able to douse the flames, which had already burned the boat down to the rubrail. Police had the boat hauled and sifted through the ashes, finding pieces of two skeletons.

Two days after the murders, Trauger himself died in a hail of gunfire when he fired upon the Georgia police coming to arrest him, an act widely viewed as “suicide by cop.”

What follows is the long version. To research this story, PassageMaker obtained the Georgia Bureau of Investigation case records and interviewed nearly one dozen cruisers who knew the couple. The second part was easy because, having spent four years working as a marketing manager for the manufacturer, I already knew many Great Harbour owners that had spent time with Trauger and Barnes. I also interviewed Trauger’s lawyer in Brunswick, Georgia. And I invited former Florida police detective and long-time liveaboard Floy Turner to put what is clearly an extreme case into a useful perspective.

MET ONLINE

Trauger, 67, had a successful career in insurance, so he named his 2007 Great Harbour 37 Premium Time. By then he was divorced from his wife of 22 years and was looking for a new love. He met Karen Barnes, 55 at the time of her death, through an online dating service. Barnes was the banquet manager for a restaurant in Savannah, Georgia and Trauger swept her off her feet with the promise of travel and an exciting new lifestyle. They married on New Year’s Eve 2009.

By the time it was over, the saga of David and Karen had touched hundreds of people in the cruising community, including the close-knit ranks of the Great Harbour Trawler Association, the ex-pats of the Royal Marsh Harbour Yacht Club in the Bahamas, and boaters at Brunswick Landing and Jekyll Harbor marinas in Georgia, where Premium Time had been docked.

In the fall of 2010, the newlyweds took Premium Time to the Bahamas, buddy-boating with Paul and Sue Graham aboard the GH37 Odyssey, eventually wintering at Boat Harbour Marina in the Abacos with several other couples from the Great Harbour clan. David Trauger returned to the United States to help his friend Neil Ingram bring Ingram’s Great Harbour N37 Silver Queen to the Abacos. Ingram and the Grahams were to develop decidedly different views about the relationship between David and Karen, according to interviews with several people who knew them.

David Trauger wasn’t well liked. According to fellow cruisers, Trauger was subject to mood swings, exhibited “volatile jealousy,” and drank to excess. Ken Fickett, whose company builds the Great Harbour, told police investigating the murders that Trauger was abusive toward his wives and girlfriends and that he was “a whack job.”

Trauger’s relationship with his cheerful, friendly wife began to unravel on the Abacos docks, culminating in a drunken late-night domestic violence incident that left Karen with a broken arm, according to Karen’s close friend Sue Graham. Dock neighbors rushed aboard Premium Time to subdue Trauger, and the incident was thereafter referred to as “The Drama in the Bahama.”

“She didn’t know David was an alcoholic. He didn’t demonstrate that when she met him,” Graham says.

ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS

Karen returned to Georgia and David followed her aboard Premium Time. By April 2011, Karen was back living on the boat and David was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. And, according to Graham, Karen had one more condition: that David Trauger cut off all contact with his friend Ingram, who also lived aboard at Brunswick Landing. Trauger and Barnes then moved to nearby Jekyll Harbor Marina, because it has a swimming pool.

In March 2012, David Trauger transferred Premium Time’s federal documentation into Karen’s name, a decision he would later regret. After vacationing in Hawaii that same month, the two were divorced, and she went back to being Karen Barnes. This is where the story gets really interesting.

When Trauger and Barnes married, Trauger still owed his first ex-wife $235,000 from that divorce. Trauger and Barnes feared the first ex-wife would try to recover the money by executing a lien on the boat, which Trauger had bought for $558,000. The Trauger-Barnes divorce, according to attorney Crystal Ferrier of Brunswick, was a sham, an ill-conceived scheme to put Premium Time beyond the other ex-wife’s reach. Trauger and Karen Barnes would continue living together and remarry some time in the future…or so Trauger thought.

In June, Trauger traveled to his Pennsylvania insurance office on business. “He came back to the boat on Jekyll Island on the 22nd of June with wine and flowers in hand, and he found that the locks had been changed,” Ferrier says. A state trooper told Trauger he was not to go on the boat again and handed him a key to a storage locker where his personal possessions had been taken.

That’s when Trauger came to Ferrier’s law office in an effort to set aside his divorce to Karen Barnes and regain possession of his boat. A judge was scheduled to hear the case on August 14, the day after Trauger’s commando raid at St. Marys. Trauger was a no-show at the hearing.

Karen Barnes had moved Premium Time to St. Marys to hide from Trauger. She had help moving the boat from a neighbor at the Jekyll Island Harbor Marina. He was a local marine technician named Larry Ford, who would die with her on the boat. Ford, 71, was an employee of West Marine in Brunswick at the time and well liked by his co-workers.

Trauger stalked and threatened Barnes, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) investigators. In a police interview, Trauger’s banker quoted Trauger as saying that “if he had access to guns, they would have been blazing, and…he ought to kill and burn Barnes.” According to the GBI, Barnes and Ford bought matching Glock pistols for protection against Trauger.

GOLD DIGGER SCENARIO

Ferrier, a nine-year veteran of divorce court, insists that while events have proved her client was unstable in the extreme, she nonetheless believes Karen Barnes had “conned” Trauger out of his boat. “Even in hindsight, I believe this was just an old man who had some money and was duped. If she had divorced him the old-fashioned way, and said, ‘I’m divorcing you because you’re a mean old man,’ she never would have gotten the boat,” Ferrier says, referring to Trauger’s voluntary transfer of ownership.

No one interviewed for this article pretends to know whether Barnes and her new friend Larry Ford were sleeping together. Acquaintances say Ford was a nice guy helping out a woman in trouble, a woman who lacked the experience to operate and maintain a full-displacement trawler. Trauger, however, was not the kind of guy who was going to give Barnes and Ford the benefit of the doubt.

“I never saw this coming, but in hindsight, he didn’t have many friends or family,” Ferrier says. “My speculation was that in his mind he saw her and Larry sleeping together on his boat and he snapped. How far can you push a man before he has nothing else to live for?”

Trauger stayed in the area, living at motels, and then renting an apartment. Toward the end, he reconnected with Neil Ingram, who says he received a phone call from his old friend a week before the murders. “The gist of our conversation was basically the same as comments from his attorney, Crystal Ferrier, as published in The Brunswick News,” Ingram says. In the article, Ferrier offered her opinion, as she had in my interview with her, that Barnes saw ownership of Premium Time as a financial windfall.

GASOLINE BELOW?

My old boss, Ken Fickett, told police it would have been very difficult to burn the boat from the outside even using gasoline. Fickett had seen the video taken by folks at St. Marys Boatyard of Premium Time as it burned. Based on what he saw, the wood interior of the boat had to have been soaked with gasoline or the like. “I would challenge anybody to try to set one of those boats on fire with what’s on board there,” he says. “If you look at the video, the opening ports look like rocket motors.”

Police said the fire burned as hot as 2,000 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Besides skeletal fragments, police found a bullet, two shells, and parts of a handgun. Whose handgun, the police did not say. Whether the shells had been fired or cooked off, the police did not say. Were the victims still alive when the boat was set ablaze?

The 911 call from Barnes’ cellphone to local authorities is just an open line. No one speaks to the operator, but she reports she could hear sounds like someone being hit.

Based on the 911 tapes, here’s how police described the sickening final moments in the lives of Barnes and Ford: “The male on the recording sounds to be in great distress and agony. The male screams audible words occassionally such as ‘you bastard!’ and ‘why?!’ At the end of the recording is a deep voice which says, “How’d you get in here?”

Those may well have been Karen Barnes’ last words.

(This story is similar to one published in our sister publication Soundings in October 2012, except it incorporates information from the police investigation reports officially concluded in March.)

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