Judge pondering decision in case of husband's body kept in freezer

Barbara J. Watters

A woman arrested when Joplin police discovered that she was keeping her husband’s body in a freezer in her bedroom has taken legal action to get the body returned to her.

Barbara J. Watters, 67, filed a lawsuit against Joplin police, the city governement and the Jasper County coroner. The suit was moved to federal court this week by an attorney representing the police.

The suit alleges that the body of her husband, Paul Barton, is being kept by the coroner’s office in disregard of a letter seeking its return and that police continue to hold various items taken during the search of her home and discovery of her husband’s body in November that she also wants back, including the couple’s marriage license and a document granting her power of attorney with respect to her husband.

Watters says her husband suffered from a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease and died of the illness in their home at the age of 71, “terrified” that doctors might harvest his organs for research.

“We both believed that carving people up and using their organs is ghoulish and goes against God’s word,” Watters told the Globe in a recent telephone interview.

She maintains there was a doctor intent on getting her husband to donate his brain and spinal cord for research and that Barton signed an affidavit of refusal to prevent that. She said when her husband died in their home on South Vermont Avenue, she maneuvered his body into a freezer in their bedroom to keep anyone from harvesting his organs.

The police investigation found that the last time any neighbors recalled seeing Barton alive was in December 2018. Police believe Watters may have kept the body in the freezer for the better part of 2019.

She was arrested and charged with abandonment of a corpse. A judge dismissed the charge Jan. 31, noting that Watters’ actions suggested that she did not “abandon” the body as prohibited by law but simply sought to preserve it and keep it close to her.

The lawsuit filed in Jasper County Circuit Court on Watters’ behalf by attorney Austin Knoblock claims Watters is being denied her rights to the possession and sepulcher of her husband’s body.

“There’s simply no legal reason why they would continue to withhold his remains,” Knoblock told the Globe.

The lawsuit states that Watters “will suffer irreparable harm if Mr. Barton’s body is not returned to her in the condition in which it was seized.”

Watters expressed fears to the Globe that her husband’s brain and spinal cord may have been removed during the autopsy. The autopsy determined that he died of complications arising from Lou Gehrig’s disease.

According to Knoblock, his client has not been allowed to see her husband’s body since the autopsy was performed and the autopsy report provided to them did not include photographs of the body referred to in the report. He said Watters consequently does not know either the current condition of her husband’s body or its exact whereabouts.

Knoblock sent a demand letter March 26 to Coroner Rob Chappel seeking the release of Barton’s body to Watters. He said he was told the coroner was waiting on the advice of his insurance company’s attorney before responding to the request. When no response was forthcoming, he filed the suit on behalf of his client, Knoblock said.

Watters’ legal petition also seeks issuance of a death certificate, which it claims Chappel has declined to provide.

Chappel confirmed Friday that his office still possesses Barton’s body but declined comment on why the body has not been released or why no death certificate has been issued, citing the advice of legal counsel. 

Watters maintains that police have been assisting the doctor who wanted her husband’s brain and spinal cord for research, a claim that police have denied. Police reports show prior contact with Watters and her husband in 2018 out of a concern that she may have been preventing him from getting the medical care that he needed.

She told the Globe her husband “fired” his doctor in 2018 when the doctor refused to refill his prescriptions unless he signed papers donating his organs to research. Police and investigators from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services went to the couple’s home in June 2018 and asked to see Barton after Watters left a message on a police officer’s phone claiming medical malpractice and reporting her husband’s “firing” of his doctor.

Watters would not allow them inside the residence but did maneuver her husband to the door in a chair to facilitate their well-being check. Barton reportedly was unable to walk or talk but showed no bruising or other signs of abuse at that time.

Police concern with his well-being continued through the summer of 2018, during which officers were able to speak with Barton on one occasion and found him to be clean and apparently well tended. He expressed a desire to see a doctor at that time. Watters told them they were having trouble finding a doctor who would agree to see him because of their refusal to consent to donation of his organs.

Watters’ court action claims police acted outside the scope of their search warrant in seizing many of the items taken from her home when her husband’s body was discovered.

Besides the couple’s marriage license and a document assigning power of attorney to Watters, the lawsuit states that police seized an affidavit of refusal Barton signed with respect to donation of his organs and have not returned it either.

“They also did not return the freezer,” Watters told the Globe. “They said that was destroyed.”

She said police have offered her $500 to replace the freezer, but she wants the one they seized returned to her, damaged or not. The lawsuit states that police also have acknowledged damaging “beyond repair” a dolly that she told the Globe she used with the help of a ramp to maneuver her husband’s body into the freezer.  

Jeff Lehr is a reporter for The Joplin Globe. 

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