Patreon Episode Link: BONUS CASE #4 – Judith Barsi | Sleuth Be Told on Patreon
Today we are talking about Judith Barsi. I don’t know if you guys know who she is, but she was huge in my childhood. She was a child actor and she was in a bunch of things, but I know her best from her role as Ducky in The Land Before Time. Ducky was my favorite character and when I grew up and learned what happened to her, I was crushed. Her story also goes to show that even though from the outside looking in it may look like someone has it all, that may not be the case.
Judith was born June 6, 1978, in Los Angeles. Her parents, Jozsef and Maria Barsi had moved there after fleeing Hungary during the Soviet takeover. Maria was enamored by the stars in Hollywood and wanted her daughter to be able to have what they had. She was determined to give her that life and made it a point to teach Judith about posture, poise, and how to speak. Her brother, Joseph Weldon, didn’t have the same optimism as Maria though. He told her that she was wasting her time and that the chances she would succeed were only 1 in 10,000.
Maria didn’t listen though and it paid off because one day when they were out ice skating, Judith was noticed by a crew that was filming a commercial. They were enchanted by “the petite blonde girl effortlessly gliding on the ice” and invited her to join their commercial. At this point she was five, but she was on the smaller side, so the crew actually thought she was three. This was her in and things only went up from there. She was cast in dozens of commercials and began appearing on TV shows like Cheers with Ted Danson. She also got a role in Jaws: The Revenge and as a little girl murdered by her father in Fatal Vision.
She was very small and petite which meant that when she was 10, she was still playing roles of a 7 or 8 year old. This is helpful in the entertainment industry because she had more experience under her belt and could do more than a 7 or 8 year old while still looking the part for the role. She was so small in fact (3’8”) that she started receiving growth hormone injections through UCLA to help encourage her to grow. (Now, I guess Hollywood is Hollywood, and it’s all about the looks and glamor of it all, but it really gets under my skin, no pun intended, when I hear or read about these young girls that are made to do, or undergo all these “treatments”, medical or physical just for a chance at success. I mean they are so young, they don’t understand the long term effects, not that anyone is even trying to explain it to them. Often, from the outside it seems it’s the parent trying to live vicariously through their child, for whatever the reason.)
Everything seemed to be going great and she was bringing in about $100,000 a year. In today’s money that would be equivalent to about $240,000 today. Her success made it possible for her parents to purchase a three bedroom house in San Fernando Valley. But of course, nothing is as simple as it might seem at first glance. While Judith was having lots of success and her mother was working hard to keep things moving forward for her, her father was doing the opposite.
He had been working as a plumber, but by 1985, he started skipping out on work and sitting at home drunk. He also didn’t want Maria to work which means that their child was the only one providing for them. Judith wasn’t making the big bucks yet, so they had to go on welfare until sometime in either 1986 or 1987 when Judith was making enough to support them.
Judith’s career was taking off, but Jozsef’s drinking was getting worse. He was an abusive drunk, so as the drinking got worse so did the abuse. He was also extremely paranoid and had their house surrounded by a high fence that could only be opened from the inside. He was arrested three times for drunk driving and in December 1986 it had reached the point where Maria filed a police report. She said that he had threatened to kill her, choked her, and hit her. However, since there were no signs of physical abuse, she was convinced not to press charges. (I believe CA has mandatory arrest laws now when it comes to domestic violence, not that the system is perfect, we are dealing with human beings after all, but there are now stricter laws in place to ideally make it easier for victims of domestic violence to report, press charges, and get a restraining order if necessary.)
After this close call, he did stop drinking for a little bit, but it didn’t last long. He was constantly threatening Maria and Judith, and even made comments to neighbors about wanting to kill them. One of his friends or neighbors, depending on the source, said that Jozsef had told him hundreds of times that he wanted to kill Maria. He said that he would try to calm him down and say, “if you kill her, what will happen to your little one.” He obviously thought that this would reel him back, but Jozsef would respond with “I gotta kill her too.” (I saw in an article in the LA Times, this was a conversation he had with a fellow plumber and friend by the name of Peter Kivlen. And, that “Little One” was his nickname for Judith.)
On one occasion, he had grabbed a kite from Judith and when she was worried he would break it, called her a spoiled brat who didn’t know how to share and proceeded to smash it into pieces. Then, when she was getting ready to go to the Bahamas to film for Jaws: The Revenge, he held a knife to her throat and told her that if she decided not to come back, he would cut her throat. When they visited her uncle, her mom’s brother Joseph in New York, he overheard him say to her, “Remember what I told you before you left.” This on its own might not seem too strange, but it caused her to immediately burst into tears. (Abusers often try to use manipulation and threats to control their victims, because they feel the loss of control. Judith and Maria didn’t “need” him. He wasn’t supporting them on any level. I mean, they had to go on welfare, because he wasn’t making enough, when he was working, and then was living off his young daughter and her success. And, he knew that. But a man who is spending his days drinking away his sorrows, likely knowing he’s but a shell of a man, especially when he migrated from Hungary where the man is supposed to be the breadwinner, he had no actual control, so the threats were what he used to try to control them. He was a pitiful, drunk. I also read that he grew up in a rough, industrial area of Hungary, and said he had no parents. If he is to be believed, because he lied about other things he told people. Including that he killed a man in NY during a brawl and served time for it, however there is no record of this at all. )
The abuse had reached a point where it was starting to affect her day to day life and she was showing outward signs of extreme stress like plucking out her eyelashes, pulling out her cat’s whiskers, and gaining weight. She would tell her friends that she didn’t want to go home because “my daddy is drunk every day, and I know he wants to kill my mother.” (Poor kitty cat. The abuse was even stretching to the family pet now.)
Her agent, Ruth Hanson, even got involved when in May of 1988, shortly before an audition, she became hysterical. She said that is when she realized how bad it was, because she was so hysterical she couldn’t talk. Hanson insisted that she see a child psychologist and when she did, the psychologist reported the case to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, but nothing really came of it. Maria told them that she had plans to divorce Jozsef and move out, so it wasn’t pursued. On the flip side, she was telling friends that she couldn’t leave because she was afraid he would come after them and kill them and that he had threatened to burn the house down. (This was a case where Maria Barsi had friends, neighbors, relatives, even people from the industry who were trying to help her, but she always turned them down. Maybe it was pride or the stigma that existed around domestic violence. )
She did seem to be taking some steps towards escaping though, as she started doing things like renting an apartment in Panorama City. It was closer to the studios so she could escape while they were filming, but this was only during the day and they would go back to the house at night. Maria’s friends were urging her to move forward with the divorce and to stay at the apartment, but she was worried about losing their home and belongings. (I bet if she was able to see the future, she would certainly change her mind about superficial belongings and a house that could be replaced. But hindsight is 20/20, as it is for all of us.)
On July 27, 1988, at about 8:30 am, one of their neighbors was watering her garden when she heard a loud bang coming from the Barsi home. She said, “I heard an explosion and I saw smoke rising from the house. My first thought, as I ran in to call 911, was, ‘He’s done it. He’s killed them and set a fire in the house, just like he said he would.” Another neighbor said that he took his garden hose and opened a rear sliding door, but couldn’t get through the smoke to fight the flames.
Unfortunately, the neighbor who called 911’s assumption was correct and Jozsef had followed through on his threats to kill Maria and Judith. It is believed that on either the 25 or 26, most likely after realizing that Maria planned to leave him, he entered Judith’s second floor bedroom and shot her in the head. He then shot Maria in the same way when she came running down the hallway in response to the noise of the gunshot. I couldn’t find anything about what happened in the time between him killing them and lighting the house on fire, but he poured gasoline on the bodies and lit the house on fire before going to the garage and shooting himself. (This is just so sad. And, what makes it even sadder, is that it didn’t have to end this way. I have mixed personal emotions about this whole case in general. Materialism, excuses, wasted time. I don’t like to victim blame, so I won’t, but the true “victim” in all of this is young Judith Barsi, who had no say in the choices that were made, but instead, was an innocent pawn in a very violent game between her parents. For which she paid with her innocent life. In the LA Times article I referenced earlier, it was reported that after Judith Barsi missed an appointment at Hanna Barbera Productions, on Monday July 25th, her agent, Ruth Hansen, contacted Joe Barsi, and as he’s done in the past, lied about why they missed the meeting. He said a big car had come to take them both to San Diego. The next night, Tuesday July 26th, Joe Barsi had another conversation with Ruth saying that he had decided to move out of the house, but he wanted to stay until he could “say goodbye to his little girl”.)
Judith had already recorded her voiceovers for her parts in The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go To Heaven so those were released posthumously. Don Bluth, the director of both of those films described Judith as “absolutely astonishing.” He said she understood verbal direction, even for the most sophisticated situations and said that he had intended to feature her extensively in his future productions. The closing credits song for All Dogs Go to Heaven, ‘Love Survives,’ was dedicated in her memory. One of her most memorable lines was from The Land Before Time where she said “yep, yep, yep” and that was inscribed on her gravestone along with “our concrete angel” which is in reference to a popular song about child abuse. The headstones were a later addition as both Maria and Judith were originally buried in an unmarked grave, but in June 2004 a fundraiser was set up to get headstones. All donations after the gravestones were covered went toward donating Beanie Babies to hospitalized children.
Some people have said that Judith haunted the house she was killed in after the family who bought it reported feeling a dark presence around them. They said that the garage door would open and close by itself and cold spots could be felt throughout the home. They also said that their daughter who slept in what had been Judith’s room began to suffer from horrible nightmares. (Or they told her about, or she heard them talking about the history of the house, and it manifested itself in her dreams. More logical explanation, since as you all know, I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits.) They ended up being on the show Murder House Flip where designers, psychics, mediums, and homicide detectives help owners get over the horrific things that happened in their homes. They had a big makeover and focused on bringing light in and brightening the home, and apparently this worked as the family said that afterwards they felt the negative energy that had been dealing with was gone.
Patreon Episode Link: BONUS CASE #4 – Judith Barsi | Sleuth Be Told on Patreon
Accessed April, 2022. https://www.the-sun.com/news/1588892/ghost-child-star-judith-barsi-haunting-home-murdered/
Accessed April, 2022. https://landbeforetime.fandom.com/wiki/Judith_Barsi#cite_note-2
Accessed April, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Barsi#Filmography
Accessed April, 2022. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-07-28-me-9912-story.html
Accessed April, 2022. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-08-07-me-382-story.html
Accessed April, 2022. https://allthatsinteresting.com/judith-barsi
Accessed April, 2022. https://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/haunting-tale-child-star-judith-22404359
Accessed April, 2022. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0058279/bio