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Accused Craigslist killer Miranda Barbour had traumatic start in life

Jill Burke
Miranda Barbour and her husband Elytte Barbour are accused of the murder of 42-year-old Troy LaFerrara. Miranda Barbour spent the early part of her life in Alaska, where she was a victim of sexual abuse. Photo courtesy the Daily Item

First of two parts

The sensational headlines surrounding accused Craigslist killer Miranda Barbour portray a deeply troubled young woman. Her claims to be a practicing Satanist and that she killed not just once, but upwards of 22 times, gained immediate attention as people in four states where the supposed victims resided -- including Alaska -- began to question whether the newlywed teen mom’s story could be true.

Is Barbour seeking attention? Aiming for an insanity defense? Or is she earnestly using her confession and incarceration to protect the public from her self-declared murderous proclivities? Only time will tell.

Yet for all of Barbour’s grandiose claims, there is one aspect of her life story that is not in dispute -- the sexual abuse she suffered as a toddler by an uncle.

Barbour’s family suffered the same violent betrayal that too many families across Alaska experience: child sexual abuse carried out by someone they trust.

This, and the failed rehabilitation of her abuser offer a poignant reminder about the challenges in Alaska of keeping families and children safe. In this two-part story, we take a look at what Miranda went through, and how experiences like hers set children up for a life of challenge and hardship.

‘Uncle Rick’

Highly sensational, Barbour’s life’s trajectory is an outlier among victims of abuse. While many will struggle to have healthy relationships and cope with stress in healthy ways, sexual abuse does not predestine one to a life of crime. Still, the emotional and physical trauma Barbour suffered in the early stages of her life are known to haunt children for a lifetime. Child sexual abuse has lasting psychological impacts on its victims.

“Uncle Rick” was the secret tormentor in Barbour’s life. Back then, Miranda was the youngest daughter of the Dean family from North Pole, Alaska. When Barbour was almost 3 years old, her aunt and uncle, Melissa and Richard Fernandez, moved into the neighborhood, five houses away.

Miranda often spent weekends at her aunt and uncle’s house. “Uncle Rick” encouraged the sleepovers. Only later would young Miranda’s frequent complaints that her anus hurt, and once that her “pee pee” hurt, come to be understood for what they were -- the aftermath and evidence of multiple attacks in which she had been subject to anal and vaginal sexual penetration and fellatio. She had, in the words of the prosecutor, been “sodomized in every way imaginable.” It was one of the most physically extreme abuse cases the trial judge had ever seen, and it happened to a girl whom the judge described as “hardly more than” a baby.  

It devastated a family that had already made great effort to overcome a similar violation of trust and safety within the generations of their extended family. To Miranda’s mother’s dismay, it was happening again.

And it appeared it was happening at the hand of a calculating man who knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it.

‘Fun with my sister’s kids’

In Richard Fernandez’s personal belongings, investigators found pornography and a sexual abuse “how-to” manual titled “Fun With My Sister’s Kids.” The book “encouraged uncles, fathers and grandfathers to engage in unclassified felony sex acts with their young nieces, daughters and granddaughters,” according to a prosecutor’s description of it contained in court records.

This book described and recommended the very abuse of which Fernandez was accused of and for which he later accepted punishment. He pleaded no contest, a plea that allowed him to avoid trial and do time but without admitting he’d actually done anything wrong.

In another description offered by the prosecutor, the book offers a “stark reflection of an incestuous pedophile’s state of mind,” and “repeatedly portrays girls from twelve years old to infancy as enjoying and even craving full blown sexual relations with their uncles, fathers, and grandfathers.”

Most of Miranda’s family members pleaded for the toughest possible sentence for Fernandez, though they indicated they had forgiven Fernandez despite the devastation he had caused. One elder member of the family urged a medium sentence, as long as Fernandez successfully completed sex offender treatment. That man feared that without it, Fernandez would never change his ways, and that if left to sit in jail too long, he would develop an institutional mindset.

The judge sentenced Fernandez, who had his own young family and children to worry about, to 19 years in jail. He’d overcome his own family hardships, complete with its own history of sexual abuse, divorce and single parenting, to become a good provider for his wife and kids, according to testimony offered on his behalf during the case.

The judge gave Fernandez a break, offering five years suspended off of the 19 year term, to give the justice system leverage to hold over his head to try to keep him on the straight and narrow once released. It didn’t work.

Fernandez repeatedly found himself back in jail for violating his parole. And by the time he was first let out -- 2007 -- Miranda was preparing to head into her teens, where by her own accounts life as a runaway would deliver her into the hands of new predators and prostitution. Heroin would beckon, too, as would Satan worship, and sex rituals would rule her world. Eventually, the faraway girl who started her young life as a victim would turn the tables -- if she is to be believed -- by turning to murder and choosing victims of her own. 

‘Un-amenable to treatment’

Time and again, Fernandez, Barbour’s abuser, wound up back in jail for violating his parole. He’d served nine years and four months of his sentence before getting his first taste of freedom, but within two months had violated his parole. Which he did again eight months after that.

After three months in jail followed by five months out of custody, he landed back in jail again, this time for 16 months. His last experience as a free member of society would last just one year after that.

Fernandez seemed destined for a revolving door experience between incarceration and free society. According to court records, he wasn’t adequately participating in a sex offender treatment program, had visited a “porn store,” viewed pornography on the internet and failed to find full-time employment. More than once, he’d found ways to get online. He’d used computers at his church and in his room at his halfway house to seek out prohibited material.

One social worker who’d come to know Fernandez through a sex offender treatment program she ran saw in Fernandez someone who wasn’t ready to abandon behaviors that were impeding his rehabilitation. He was quick to blame, saw himself as a victim and wouldn’t take responsibility for his actions -- all factors that made Fernandez “un-amenable to treatment.”

By May 2011 he was back in again with more time to serve, and two months later he faced a new case altogether, this time for possession of child pornography. Investigators had found hundreds of images of child pornography on his computer, after probation and parole officers seized and turned Fernandez’s computers over to Alaska State Troopers.

Fernandez is now serving out a 40 year prison term in the pornography case -- 20 years to serve with 20 suspended.  He’s scheduled for release in 2035. He must also remain registered as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Fernandez’s rehabilitation was questionable from the start, according to the trial judge who oversaw the sexual abuse case against Fernandez.

His was a classic “incestuous case,” the judge said at sentencing. Fernandez presented himself as a man who looked and played the part of good father and uncle with a successful job and who supported his family, but who wound up hurting someone he should care about. The judge found him to be at risk for “sexual deviancy issues,” noting that they can sometimes be very hard to treat. Unlike a lot of people who come to court and recognize the seriousness of their behavior, Fernandez didn’t seem to be aware of it and certainly didn’t acknowledge it.

Separate paths

Still, the system in its own way took care of Fernandez. How it will deal with the little girl he hurt years ago, now an accused killer, continues to unfold.

After running away from home, developing a drug problem, bouncing in and out of mental health treatment and between the homes of her father, mother and uncle -- and getting pregnant -- she eventually landed in North Carolina, to be near her mother, and the place where she would meet her future husband and co-defendant, Elytte Barbour. The new mom worked there as a grocery store cashier before moving to Pennsylvania with Barbour, where the newlywed couple is said to have lured a man to his death through an ad on Craigslist. Investigators say the Barbours killed 42-year-old Troy LaFerrara, who had answered an ad Miranda Barbour placed soliciting herself as a paid companion.

In one version of the killing, Miranda said she stabbed LaFerrara after he started groping her, and that after the attack began, she blacked out. In another version, she claims she attacked Ferrara because he didn’t stop his advances after she told him she was underage. Although her claim to be 16 was a lie, his reaction to it had significance to her, she said.

Now, like her former abuser, Barbour finds herself in jail, a sexual victim herself turned self-professed sexual predator, using the promise of companionship to entice her victim, only to then use his sexual advances as an excuse to kill.

Next: Sexual abuse in Alaska by the numbers, and how this kind of early childhood trauma can affect a developing young person in significant ways throughout their teenage years and on to adulthood.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.