Bart Corbin: Double Deception
A dentist's wife is dead. It looks like suicide. But the case turns out to be far more sinister.
Jennifer Corbin was one of those people almost everybody liked, probably because she liked everybody. Tall, blonde and pretty, the 33-year-old mom thought of others before herself. She did everything she could to keep her small sons happy.
Married for nearly nine years, Jenn and Bart Corbin appeared to have everything: two healthy children, a lovely home in Buford, Georgia, a good marriage, admired professions (Bart was a dentist, while Jenn taught preschool part-time at a Methodist church). But tiny threadlike fissures had been creeping through the foundation of their marriage. By the fall of 2004, a divorce was in the works, and Bart was sleeping in a separate bedroom.
At 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, December 4, 2004, Steve and Kelly Comeau, who lived across the street, were startled to hear someone knocking at their front door. They were still in bed. When Steve answered, he looked down to see Dalton Corbin, age seven. His face was red, his cheeks streaked with tears.
“My mom isn’t breathing,” Dalton said, standing there in his pajamas. “My daddy shot my mommy. I need you to call 911.”
Skeptical, Steve Comeau nevertheless called 911, while Kelly followed Dalton to check on her friend and neighbor. She doubted that Dalton had actually seen what he described.
The Corbins’ overhead garage door was open, so Kelly hurried inside. She found the door to the kitchen unlocked, and headed down the hall toward the master bedroom, with the two boys trailing her.
In the bedroom, she could see Jenn lying diagonally across the bed. It was an odd position. Feeling a shiver of alarm, Kelly reached out to touch Jenn’s right shoulder. Could she be sleeping? Kelly pressed harder. There was no reassuring thrum of blood coursing there. The flesh was cold.
Jenn wasn’t breathing. Kelly saw a trickle of blood coming from her nose and a few bright red stains on the bedclothes. She glimpsed what looked like a pistol butt poking out from a coverlet. Feeling as if she were in the midst of a nightmare, Kelly backed away, careful not to touch anything.
“She was way gone,” Kelly later recalled to an investigator.
Jenn had been healthy and vibrant. There was no reason at all for her to have a handgun in her bed. As shocked as Kelly was by what she saw, her thoughts turned quickly to the two little boys. They were Jenn’s biggest concern, always. Now Dalton and Dillon had no mother. Kelly’s heart constricted.
She ran back to her house, taking the two boys with her, and soon heard the shriek of sirens. Only then did Kelly realize, as she tried to comfort the children, that she might have been in danger herself when she entered the Corbins’ house. She realized something else. There had been no sign of Bart.
One day well into her marriage, Jennifer Corbin had asked her sister and close confidante, Heather, “Do you ever wonder what your husband did or who he knew before you met him?”
Heather answered, “No. I know what Doug’s life was like.”
“I don’t,” said Jenn about her own husband’s life.
She had met Bart in 1995, when he was 31 and she 24, but she knew virtually nothing about his personal or romantic life before then. Whenever she asked him about his past, he wouldn’t meet her gaze.
It didn’t seem to matter at first. Handsome and dark-haired, Bart was tall — six foot three to her six-foot frame — which she liked. He was a practicing dentist and seemed a most eligible bachelor. They’d met at Barnacles oyster bar in Duluth, where she was working temporarily as a waitress and bartender while figuring out what to do with her college degree.
Like almost everyone else, Jenn was drawn to Bart’s wittiness. He could offer a quick and hilarious comment on almost anything. They began dating, and Jenn was in high spirits. When she introduced him to her parents, Max and Narda Barber, they were pleased, observing that he seemed to care a great deal for their daughter. Max found one thing off-putting: Bart’s conversation was full of profanity.
A few weeks after Jenn and Bart traveled to Italy for a romantic getaway, Jenn called her mother and asked if she was sitting down. As Narda remembered it, Jenn told her, “Bart and I have made a decision — and I’m pregnant.” She added, “We’re going to get married and have the baby.”
Narda expressed delight. “Jenn said she wanted a big wedding. And somehow we did it in six weeks — an outdoor wedding. Violins and all of that.” The couple were married on September 1, 1996.
What neither Jenn nor her family knew was that Bart had been seeing a married woman with two children — a woman he’d met through his dental business. He was also rumored to be seeing a woman 20 years older than he was. He continued seeing the younger woman all during his marriage. Another thing Jenn didn’t know: While studying dentistry at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, in Richmond County, Bart had stood out for having a very short fuse. Fellow students said that he was unpredictable, that anything could set him off. One even recalled Bart throwing his own class project against a wall, shattering it.
Students also remembered an imperious attitude. “Bart considered himself superior to others,” said one. “He was very egotistical.” His attitude was a turnoff for a number of women he met. But not for Dolly Hearn, who was a year behind him in dental school.
She had exquisite features, beautiful eyes and thick black hair, and was one of the secrets Bart kept from Jenn. Bart and Dolly had dated for about two years, but when she tried to end the relationship, Bart stalked her, not wanting to accept defeat. Though she contacted the police for help and reached out to others as well, Dolly’s life went downhill drastically.
On June 6, 1990, it ended abruptly. Dolly was found dead in her apartment of a gunshot wound to the right side of her head. It was an apparent suicide.
Bart was questioned in depth. He had a recent history of harassing her, including breaking into her apartment and vandalizing her car. Dolly’s father, Dr. Carlton Hearn, told investigators that Bart Corbin had caused his daughter a great deal of trouble in the last nine months of her life. “It would be wise to check him out,” said Carlton. He and his wife, Barbara, fully expected that Dolly’s cause of death would be changed to “malice murder” as the probe went on and that Corbin would be charged with the crime.
But that was not to be. In 1990 the Richmond County sheriff’s office had no blood-spatter experts. The gun used to shoot Dolly had been moved before any crime scene photos could be taken, making it almost impossible to reconstruct the scene. Though questions remained, Dolly’s case was officially closed, leaving suicide as the method of death listed by the sheriff’s office and “undetermined” by the medical examiner.
Dolly’s parents hired a private investigator to continue looking into her death. And the investigator found a number of people who had heard Bart Corbin talk about hurting Dolly after she broke up with him.
On the morning of December 4, 2004, two patrolmen swept the Corbin home, then waved the EMS team inside. The teams entered the master bedroom and found it just as Kelly Comeau had reported. The woman who lay across the bed had what appeared to be a single gunshot wound behind her right ear. The palm of her hand rested very close to the butt of the .38-caliber revolver. Medics checked her for signs of life. They found none.
Patrol Sgt. E. T. Edkin joined his officers and immediately saw that there was nothing they could do for the blonde woman. At first look, it appeared that she had killed herself. Still, with his years of experience working homicides, Edkin questioned whether this was, in fact, a suicide. With crime scene tape, Edkin set up a perimeter around the house and yard, and then briefed homicide detective Marcus Head, who took charge, about his suspicion that this death was not what it seemed.
Kelly Comeau now approached and asked if someone could get clothes for Jenn’s two boys — they were still in their pajamas. Officer Michelle Johns went upstairs and grabbed pants, shirts, shoes and socks from what was obviously the children’s bedroom. Glancing into another bedroom on the second floor, she saw the clothes of an adult male hanging neatly in the closet.
Crime scene investigators from the Gwinnett County police department and forensic staff from the medical examiner’s office began arriving. All sudden and/or unattended deaths were worked first as homicides, next as possible suicides, third as accidental, and only then as a natural occurrence. Nobody yet knew where the dead woman would fit. A search warrant was being obtained; detectives were trying to locate relatives of Jennifer Corbin.
Neither Kelly Comeau nor her husband, Steve, knew where Bart was. Kelly managed to find a number for his mother, Connie Corbin, who lived nearby. Steve called her at 8:45 a.m. “Jennifer’s been shot,” he said.
Connie then called her younger son, Bobby, and told him what had happened. He said that Bart was with him and he would break the awful news. Steve Comeau also called Heather, Jenn’s sister, who lived about 25 miles away. Heather collapsed in tears, crying out, “Jenn’s dead!”
“We ran through the house, collecting our kids,” recalled Doug Tierney, Heather’s husband. They headed for Max and Narda’s house. “In the car, I called Bobby back and said, ‘Where’s Bart? Is Bart with you?’ and he said, ‘Yes, he’s here, but he’s really, really upset.’ ”
Doug asked if he and Bart would be on their way over to the Corbin house. Bobby avoided answering. “Heather kept saying, ‘Go! Go! We have to take care of the boys.’ ” Doug asked Bobby Corbin again, “Are you on your way?” There was no response.
Doug couldn’t believe it. Surely Bart realized that Dalton and Dillon needed their father? Meantime, fighting panic and disbelief, Max Barber got in his car and drove as fast as he could to Jenn’s house.
Detectives at the scene kept expecting Jenn Corbin’s widower to drive up any minute. They assumed he would be crying and upset but that, like most fathers, he’d pull himself together and race to his children in a crisis. It was eight hours before Corbin called the detectives back.
By then he had “lawyered up,” according to Marcus Head. He agreed to meet at police headquarters to be tested for the presence of gun residue, but he would answer no questions — not even about securing his home.
Marcus Head spoke briefly to the young boys, who remained at the Comeaus’ home until their extended family could arrive. Dalton told the detective he had gone to wake his mother to fix breakfast and he had seen blood coming from her mouth. He had also seen the gun.
“I tried to call 911 from our phone,” he said, “but it didn’t work. So I ran to Kelly and Steve’s to get help.” The boys were questioned again later at police headquarters. When a detective asked Dalton if he wondered why his phone wasn’t working, the boy replied, “Maybe my dad cut it off.”
Arriving at his dead daughter’s house, Max Barber parked in the driveway for a very long time, waiting to talk to his son-in-law. Heather, who was still at her mother’s house, called 911. She was urgently hoping someone could help get Bart to the scene. She had her suspicions.
“The woman who answered at 911 was already convinced that Jenn had killed herself,” Heather recalled. “I kept trying to tell her that Bart did it, and she kept saying, ‘But, ma’am, you don’t understand what happened.’
“And I knew I did understand and she didn’t,” said Heather. Jenn had confided that she was beginning to be afraid of her husband.
Heather recalled that while having coffee together once, the two couples had discussed the TV coverage of the Scott Peterson trial. They had been transfixed by the seeming smugness of Peterson during the trial for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn child.
“We all talked about it,” Heather remembered. “I said something about Scott Peterson and how awful it was. And Bart replied, ‘Scott Peterson only got caught because he didn’t keep his mouth shut.’ That conversation stuck with me.”
Though Jenn tried hard over the years to make her deteriorating marriage work, in 2004 she made little pretense about how empty it was. Bart was emotionally abusive, and she wanted to be free of him, if only she could figure out a way that wouldn’t hurt the boys. Her best friend, Juliet Styles, knew of her struggles, as did her neighbor and friend Kelly Comeau and, of course, Heather. They were all pulling for Jenn to find some happiness.
Bart himself acknowledged that the marriage was unraveling. Jenn would not sleep with him, which distressed him. He’d always prided himself on being a good lover. He made pathetic, sometimes desperate, calls about the problem to others, including Heather and Doug, and his wife’s parents.
Sometimes Jenn talked to her mother about the issues with Bart. One day she told Narda forcefully, “Mom, he gives me the creeps. He makes my skin crawl. I cannot bear to have him touch me.”
No longer the self-assured husband who had spent years cheating on her with other women, Bart now clung tightly to Jenn. He would not allow a woman to leave him. When Jenn brought up the subject of divorce in early October 2004, he seemed to have expected it. But he begged her to stay in the house through Christmas. Couldn’t they have one more Christmas as a family, something to remember? For the first time, Bart apologized to Jenn, saying he was sorry if he’d hurt her. She agreed to stay over the holidays. That would mean two more months. She didn’t know how she was going to manage.
Only one thing gave her a bit of joy. Desperately lonely, she’d begun exchanging e-mails with someone named Chris Hearn, whom she’d met over the Internet on a game site. When she told Heather about this virtual friendship, her sister warned her, “You have no idea who this really is!”
But Jenn seemed to find comfort in it and exchanged literally hundreds of e-mails with “Chris.” The last name of this person — Hearn — meant nothing to Jenn, because she’d never known about Dolly Hearn, Bart’s earlier girlfriend. But when Bart found the e-mails and started reading them, he assumed Jenn had stumbled on Dolly’s suspicious death. He became enraged. After Thanksgiving dinner at Heather and Doug’s house, when he barely said a word to anyone, Bart unleashed his anger at Jenn during the car ride home. He hauled off and hit her in the face.
Their seven-year-old, Dalton, cried hysterically. But Dillon somehow managed to sleep through the whole thing.
Jenn fled to her sister’s house and went ahead with divorce plans, but on December 3 she told Heather, “I have to go home or I’ll lose our house.” Bart filed his own divorce papers. He was behaving erratically, according to his brother and his friends. He’d tear off in the night in his car. Evidence would also show that he made a secret drive to Alabama — returning with a gun.
As Jenn’s family braced for her funeral, the probe into her death widened. Investigators had been learning about the terrible dissension that marked the last weeks of her life. They spoke with many people close to Jenn and Bart. Friends, family and neighbors told stories of fear, upset and a marriage going downhill fast.
While the Gwinnett County detectives worked to determine how and why Jennifer Corbin died, Richmond County sheriff’s detectives Scott Peebles and DeWayne Piper carried out a parallel probe into Dolly Hearn’s death, now 14 years in the past. Atlanta-area media that were keeping abreast of the Jenn Corbin case had quickly reported information about the Hearn case. Detectives in both jurisdictions noted similarities and started connecting the dots. The public also knew that young Dalton Corbin had blurted out that his father had shot his mother, though District Attorney Danny Porter of Gwinnett County didn’t feel that the seven-year-old’s certainty would be enough yet to order an affidavit for an arrest warrant.
Despite the circumstantial evidence in Jenn’s death, there was still no proof of murder. The gun found in her bed had been wiped clean of any fingerprints, as had the murder weapon in Dolly Hearn’s case.
Two days before Jenn’s funeral, Kevin Vincent, an investigator with the DA, drove to Bart Corbin’s dental office in Dacula to search for information. The office was closed. A sign said there had been a death in the family.
An attorney whose office was next to Bart Corbin’s told Vincent that he’d last spoken to Bart on Friday, December 3. The lawyer said that Bart occasionally bartered dental work for legal advice. The lawyer knew from personal experience that Corbin had a volatile temperament, and he often heard Bart shouting at his staff right through the walls.
The attorney said that Bart had asked him “nervously” on the afternoon before his wife was shot about which of them would be legally responsible for paying the mortgage on their house if he and his wife divorced. “I told him that it would be the one of you who could most afford to pay.” That would be Bart, who earned more as a dentist than Jenn did as a teacher.
The lawyer observed that Bart had been acting strangely that afternoon. “He said to me, ‘Everyone told me not to marry her. I should have listened, but it will all be over soon.’ ” At the time, the lawyer thought that Bart was speaking about the upcoming divorce.
Investigators made a door-to-door sweep of the Corbins’ closest neighbors. Bart’s explosions of temper were well known. A nearby neighbor said that on one occasion he had even felt it necessary to step in to protect Dalton from Bart’s anger. Investigators also learned that even though he’d filed for divorce, Bart seemed consumed with pain and rage in the days before his wife died. If they needed to find someone with a motive for murder, Bart was a likely candidate. He’d been obsessed with getting Jenn back.
Still he refused to talk. He continued going to his dental clinic and had lunch most days with the married woman rumored to be romantically involved with him. Deputies and investigators were tracking him.
In Augusta, Scott Peebles and DA Danny Craig were especially interested in the 1990 statements of Dr. Eric Rader, who had been Bart’s office mate in dental school. Rader said that during the late winter or early spring of 1990, Bart Corbin confessed to him that he had come close to killing Dolly Hearn. “He said he waited in the parking lot of Dolly’s apartment,” Rader recalled in a statement. “He had a gun. He told me he was planning to shoot her.”
Now, in 2004, Peebles located Rader in his clinic near Atlanta. Did he remember making that statement back in 1990? “Yes,” Rader replied. “I remember distinctly that [Bart Corbin] told me that.”
A grand jury heard the evidence, including how Corbin had confided to a friend that he’d staged the perfect murder. By December 22, an arrest warrant charging Bart Corbin with murder was issued by Richmond County.
Notified there might be an indictment, Gwinnett County police officers hoped to arrest Corbin at his office, a relatively private venue. No one knew how this man, given to violent rages, would react. On that Wednesday morning, while Bart saw patients, a four-man surveillance team waited outside. When the indictment came through, they were told to stand by.
About ten minutes to noon, Bart and the woman he was seeing left the dental clinic together and walked toward a white Chevy Suburban. Bart slipped into the passenger seat, and the woman began driving. As she stopped in traffic, officers moved in. They surrounded the vehicle, opened the passenger door and shouted to Bart to raise his hands. He put up no struggle as he was removed from the car and handcuffed.
Bart was surprised when he learned he was under arrest on a warrant — not out of Gwinnett County, but from Richmond County. The grand jury there had handed down a sealed warrant charging him with felony and malice murder in the death of Dolly Hearn.
And then, on January 5, 2005, a grand jury indictment came down in Gwinnett County. After all the physical and circumstantial evidence had been reviewed — including a trail of cell phone tower hits that showed Corbin had been in his own neighborhood around 2 a.m., about the time his wife was determined to have died — Bart Corbin was charged with one count of malice murder, one count of felony murder, and one count of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
If found guilty of both Jenn’s and Dolly’s murders, Bart Corbin could be sentenced to death.
The two young Corbin boys hadn’t seen or heard anything. They had been upstairs sleeping at the time of their mother’s death.
Investigators knew where the gun used to kill Dolly Hearn had come from: Her father had given it to her for her own protection. Bart Corbin had been in Dolly’s apartment when she died, according to the evidence, and that gun had killed her. But where had the murder weapon in Jenn’s case come from? As the dates for the two trials approached, Danny Porter’s chief investigator, Jack Burnette, and his men, Mike Pearson and Russ Halcome, used the latest in forensic technology to link the .38 revolver that killed Jenn to an old friend of Bart’s in Alabama.
Richard Wilson sat nervously in the interview room, facing the prosecutors’ teams from Georgia. He lived in Troy, Alabama. Yes, he said, he had given Bart the .38 revolver. Bart had called him and said that Jenn “was fooling around on him” and that he was frightened he might be in danger. “He needed a gun to protect himself,” Wilson said. “He asked me if I had one, and I did, so he came here to get it.”
When the gun — the one taken from Jenn’s bedroom — was handed to Richard Wilson, he studied it and said, “That certainly looks like it.”
On September 15, 2006, nearly two years after Jenn died, Heather and Doug Tierney drove to the Gwinnett County justice center in Lawrenceville. The gallery was packed with the two women’s families, along with investigators from Gwinnett and Richmond counties, the district attorneys and their staffs. The families had agreed that they could accept a plea bargain — as long as Corbin publicly admitted guilt.
Bart Corbin walked in between his attorneys, dressed in a suit. His dark eyes burned holes in his pale face. He rose to face Danny Porter and stared at him. Porter stared back. Danny Porter described the morning of December 4, 2004, and how a seven-year-old boy awoke to find his mother dead from a gunshot to the head.
“Did you, in fact, commit the offense of malice murder?” Porter asked.
Corbin’s forehead tightened. “Yes,” he answered.
It didn’t seem fair that he wasn’t required to say anything more.
Only Danny Porter and Judge Michael Clark had a front view of Corbin’s face as he stood there. “There was no reaction,” Porter recalled later. “It was like looking into the eyes of a shark.”
Then Danny Craig, the district attorney from Richmond County, rose to face Corbin. “Do you further admit that you committed the murder of Dolly Hearn on June 6, 1990?”
“Yes,” said Corbin.
He was sentenced to two terms of life in prison. According to the plea bargain, the sentences are running concurrently, with credit given for the 19 1/2 months Corbin spent in jail awaiting trial. He will be eligible for parole consideration in 14 years, but it’s hardly likely he’ll get out so soon.
Danny Porter said, “I don’t think Bart Corbin will ever see the [outside] world again. He won’t have a realistic chance of parole for 28 years.” If he should be paroled at that time, he’ll be in his 70s.
Dalton and Dillon Corbin, now ten and eight, live with their aunt and uncle, Heather and Doug Tierney, in a house filled with cousins, sunshine, paintings, music, and dogs and cats. They often call Heather Aunt Mommy. Heather breaks into tears whenever she speaks of Jenn. She probably always will.
Dalton is extremely bright and still carries within him a fear of his father. Dillon is a far less intense child; he was younger when his mother was shot. Neither of the boys has asked to visit their father in prison.