My first reaction was relief; I did not come across as a complete ass on television last night. Thank you, producers of the Dark Waters documentary, Burned, which was about a double murder that I had written about for Passagemaker and Soundings magazines in 2012 and 2013. Deemed an expert by the people at the Investigation Discovery channel, I was asked to appear on camera.
ID produces the kind of crime show that combines witness and expert accounts with actor re-enactments. Within the ID family there are several franchises, including Dark Waters, dedicated entirely to murders on boats. Burned told the story of David Trauger who killed his ex-wife and her friend (and possible lover) aboard a Great Harbour GH37 trawler anchored at St. Marys, Georgia. Burned refers to the fact that the killer doused the inside of the boat with gasoline and lit it on fire after having shot the couple.
No one asked me to vet the final product, nor did I expect anyone would. I saw the show for the first time last night. My reaction is mixed: Dark Waters gets an "A" for its portrayal of what happened leading up to the events of Aug. 13, 2012, but I give it an "F" for its theory of why the events happened; good on chronology, but bad on motivation, in my opinion.
Burned chose to portray Karen Trauger Barnes in a saintly fashion. My original reporting had been more nuanced. Regardless, the bottom line is that nothing this lovely woman did justified her murder. David Trauger was a monster. His daughter Darcy from a previous marriage recently wrote to me, and here’s what she had to say:
I need the public to know his whole story, not just the murders. It's so easy for people to read that he was just a jealous, alcoholic husband and chop up <sic> his murders to a violent rage. No one knows how violent he was his entire life. I know his childhood, how he treated my mother and I, and how his actions led my oldest half-sister to suicide.
In my opinion, the TV account of the murders just doesn’t hang together. Karen and David Trauger were only married a few years, yet she was awarded David’s half-million-dollar Premium Time in an uncontested and, dare I say it, amicable divorce. I can’t explain it better now than I had in a previous article so I shall quote myself:
Trauger owed his first wife, of 22 years, $235,000 from their divorce, and he and Karen feared that she would try to recover the money by executing a lien on the boat, which Trauger had purchased for $558,000. The divorce from Karen, according to Trauger’s lawyer, Crystal Ferrier of Brunswick, was a sham, an ill-conceived scheme to put Premium Time beyond the other ex-wife’s reach. Trauger and Barnes would continue living together and then remarry sometime in the future, or so Trauger thought.
Had it been a straightforward divorce with no secret side-deals, Trauger could have easily liquidated other assets to compensate Karen. It’s hard to believe based on my reporting that, with all the options at his command and his affluence, Trauger would have chosen to sacrifice his beloved GH37. For me, that just does not hang together.
According to the plot line, at one point, after the divorce (during which time the couple did continue to live aboard together), Trauger goes to Pennsylvania on business. When he returns to Georgia, Karen has had his possessions removed to storage, and police caution him to stay away. Premium Time’s locks have been changed. This drives Trauger bat-crap crazy. He becomes the monster that stalks and kills, and turns Premium Time into a bonfire. Police shoot and kill him in a standoff a few days later.
The TV reenactment and Karen’s sister, another on-camera presence, would have us think that Karen got the boat because she had left her previous life behind and Premium Time had become her home. To acknowledge that she had conspired with Trauger in a sham divorce (and then reneged) would play to a different "gold-digger" narrative, that she had ulterior motives all along, as Trauger (and his few supporters) had suggested.
In line with such a possibility, even if Karen had effectively committed fraud within a fraud, who can blame her? She was fighting for her life. Acquiescence to Trauger’s fake divorce stratagem may have seemed like the least bad option available: Take the boat and run.
I forgive Dark Waters, not that it needs it. Only the primary parties know the whole truth. So to me this is just a professional disagreement. The producers of the show told their story, and they’ve got their reasons. My years as a newspaper reporter and editor trained me to applaud when television gets anything right at all. Watch the show and decide for yourselves.