MAYS LANDING, N.J. — It had been just another July day on the Ventnor boardwalk in 2018 when simmering family grievances erupted into violence on the eighth floor of Vassar Square, a high-rise with a pleasant pool and a popular breakfast shop.
On Tuesday, inside a cramped Atlantic County courtroom, a tearful Heather Barbera, 43, pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and murder in the deaths of her mother, Michelle Gordon, 67, and her grandmother, Elaine Rosen, 87, with a police baton inside their condominium that day.
Answering questions from her attorney, James Leonard, Barbera laid out in painful detail how, she said, her mother first struck her in the head with a flashlight after a verbal fight that became physical.
She said she then grabbed a nightstick that had been a service weapon belonging to her deceased father, a former New York City police officer, and struck her mother repeatedly in the head.
She said she attacked her grandmother after the 87-year-old woman tried to intervene.
“Do you agree that your grandmother attempted to intervene in the struggle between you and your mother, Michelle Gordon?” Leonard asked Barbera, who remained seated, her handcuffs in front of her.
“Yes,” Barbera replied.
“Did she do so by trying to grab your arm to try to get you to stop assaulting your mother?” Leonard continued.
“Was your mother incapacitated at this point?”
“Would you agree that in response to your grandmother attempting to stop you from further assaulting your mother, you in fact struck your grandmother ... repeatedly in her head and body? Is that correct?”
“Yes," she said.
Barbera, a mother of two, now faces 42 years in prison — 12 on the manslaughter and 30 on the murder charge — and is not eligible for parole for 40 years.
Her uncle, Richard Rosen, watched from the second row of the courtroom showing little emotion. It was Rosen who traveled from New York to Ventnor on July 8 and discovered the bodies inside the apartment.
But outside the courtroom, Rosen called Barbera’s account “a lie” and said he was hoping her plea would come with a possible sentence of 60 years, not 42 years.
“My sister was taken completely off guard, and my mother had just walked out of her bedroom,” Rosen said. “She did not intervene. None of the neighbors heard screaming. Everything [Barbera] said was a lie.”
Barbera’s grandmother was a Philadelphia native who moved to New York in 1950 and married a wedding musician. Her mother was a patient-care technician.
All remaining charges against Barbera, who was arrested in July 2018, by police in New York City, were dropped, including robbery. Police said she stole cash and credit cards from her mother after the killings.
Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon Tyner said he hoped the guilty plea would give relatives “some semblance of justice.” He noted that Barbera will be in prison into her 80s.
“Even with that type of plea she’s getting a better fate than her grandmother received, a woman who lived into her 80s, that she had to die like that at the hand of her granddaughter,” Tyner said outside the courtroom.
As for Barbera’s version of the killings, Tyner said: “That’s her story.” He said prosecutors would have been prepared to present a “much different version" of events had the case gone to trial.
Leonard, Barbera’s attorney, said in a statement after the plea: “Every aspect of this case is a tragedy starting with a very dysfunctional family dynamic and ending with the violence that took place inside that condominium. An absolute horrific series of events that ended tragically for everyone involved.”
Rosen, outside the courtroom, said he had not spoken with Barbera since the killings and did not believe her to be remorseful.
He said he found his mother’s body right outside her bedroom and did not believe she had been intervening, as his niece described. He said on the 911 call he suspected it was his niece, whom he described as a drug addict who fought relentlessly with her mother.
Rosen said he had warned his sister and mother not to let his troubled niece live with them at the sunny Vassar Square Condominiums on the boardwalk in Ventnor, where the women enjoyed simple Shore pleasures like a lunch at Annette’s on Dorset Avenue.
“I told them not to let her in,” Rosen said in an earlier interview. “My mother didn’t want her in. My sister pushed it.”