Heather Barbara is charged with murder, possession of a weapon and robbery

By Christine Pelisek
July 20, 2018 05:06 PM
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Credit: Richard Rosen

It was still early on July 8 when Richard Rosen headed to his mother’s apartment building in New Jersey, unaware of the violent scene he would soon discover.

Despite repeated calls, he had been unable to reach mom Elaine Rosen or his sister, 67-year-old Michelle Gordon, so he decided to check on them in person, hoping all was well. Perhaps, Richard thought, they had just stepped out to go shopping or grab a bite to eat.

He learned the truth as soon as he arrived about 10:25 a.m. to Elaine’s eighth-story apartment in the Vassar Square Condominiums, in Ventnor City: From the entrance, he could see the bodies of both his mother, 87, and his sister.

They had been fatally beaten with a night stick.

“I opened the door and had to turn away because of what I saw,” Richard, 50, tells PEOPLE.

Elaine had been living in the condo for several years, after her home in Brooklyn was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

“A very sweet lady,” she loved her apartment and taking trips to nearby Atlantic City, to gamble and eat out, her son says. “We were very close.”

Gordon, a patient-care technician, had moved in to help care for their mom, according to Richard.

“They were very good people and I am very upset by the whole thing,” he says. “It is unimaginable.”

Speaking to PEOPLE days afterward, Richard does not go into detail about the crime scene he found beyond noting that it was “very bad.”

And, he says, he was immediately certain he knew who was responsible: Gordon’s daughter, 41-year-old Heather Barbera, who had been living with the two women for around three weeks after she moved from Mississippi.

“No one else would do such a thing,” Richard says.

Authorities quickly agreed: Three days after the slayings, on July 11, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office charged Barbera with two counts of first-degree murder, third-degree possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose [nightstick] and first-degree robbery.

As to motive, Richard suspects it was financial.

“Maybe they had an argument over money and she went nuts,” he says.

Prosecutors (who declined to comment to PEOPLE beyond confirming basic details of the case) allege that after Barbera fatally beat her mother and grandmother, she stole their credit cards and cash and then traveled by bus to N.Y.C., according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Police officers there arrested Barbera on July 11 at 7:36 p.m. at the Midtown Manhattan Port Authority after they tracked her down through the credit cards she had allegedly been using, the Inquirer reports.

The paper further reports that Barbera allegedly confessed to the killings.

She remains in the custody of N.Y.C. officials pending her extradition to New Jersey. A court hearing in her case is scheduled for Aug. 8 in Manhattan. An attorney for her could not be reached for comment.

Until she was caught, Richard says he lived in fear that Barbera might cross his path.

“I was afraid to go to my own house,” he says. “I don’t know what she is capable of.”

‘It Was Really Noisy and Crazy’

Richard says he had warned his mother and sister about letting Barbera stay with them — “I didn’t want her in the apartment, there have been other issues in the past” — but that he “never expected this.”

About a week before the slayings, however, Mike Miller, whose family owns an apartment in the same condo building, says he witnessed a heated altercation between Barbera and her mother in the valet area.

“The two of them were arguing pretty loudly,” says Miller, a staff editor at Entertainment Weekly (which, like PEOPLE, is owned by Meredith).

“[Barbera] was cursing out her mother in front of several tenants waiting for their cars,” he says. “She was really causing a scene.”

When Gordon went back inside the building, Barbera allegedly told Miller’s father, who was also present, that “everybody fights.”

“Look, we’re family. We fight,” Miller remembers her saying. “All families fight, but then we make up.”