Thursday, July 25, 2013

BTTF# 19: The Tragic Death of Child Actress Judith Barsi in Canoga Park Remembered 25 Years Later

 Image courtesy Suaviterinmodo Flickr page.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner 1988 article. Image courtesy Suaviterinmodo Flickr page.
Hello Magazine 1988 article showing Judith's corpse being carried out while two police officers on the left weep in sorrow. Image courtesy Suaviterinmodo Flickr page.
Welcome aboard the Delorean! 

Marty McFly here to take you on a journey to the former Judith Barsi family home at 22100 Michale Street Canoga Park (West Hills). The Delorean has the required plutonium plus some random garbage in the Mr. Fusion reactor ready for this trip. The time circuits are set to August 25, 1988 (25 years ago today) and the flux capacitor is......fluxxing. The engine is running (not stalled this time) so we need to hurry. Hang on, as the ride can be a little bumpy as we travel back in time.

Let me start off by saying that this is a tragic story to tell which was just as difficult for me to write as when my father passed away in May 2013 but yet I never knew Judith Barsi. I apologize for starting off your day on a sad note but history cannot be ignored and the more we learn, the better off we theoretically should be. 

The name Judith Barsi might not ring a bell but in the mid to late 80's she was an up and coming child actress starring in 72 commercials,  4 TV movies, six big screen film including two animated movies, and made several TV guest appearances. She had appeared in Jaws IV: The Revenege, The Land Before Time, All Dogs Go To Heaven, Punky Brewster, Growing Pains and Fatal Vision where she played a daughter murdered by her father which would eerily foreshadow her future.

Barsi was born to Hungarian parents, József "Arizona Joe" and Maria (Virovacz) Barsi. The real-life-villains.wikia.com site describes Judith's father best: 
Joe was a Hungarian-American plumbing contractor and banjo/fiddle musician who was best known as the father of child actress Judith Barsi. Burdened by low self-esteem, stemming from mockery over his Hungarian accent and the social rejection he suffered in Hungary, József developed a drinking problem and a paranoid personality which was to torment him throughout his life, culminating in him murdering his wife and daughter before taking his own life.
Joe was born on November 26, 1932 in a "[rough] industrial" area of Hungary, during the reign of Admiral Horthy. An illegitimate child, József never knew his father, and suffered from social rejection and bullying by other children and from his own school teachers. His first daughter, Ági, later speculated that József resented his mother for allowing his father to abandon him, and consequently viewed all women as "whores".
Joe Barsi. Image courtesy Real Life Villians.com.
Joe was originally married to Klara (maiden name unknown) sometime in the late 50's in France after escaping the 1956 Soviet occupation of Hungary. He had two children, a son named Barna (1957 - 1995) and a daugther named Ági (1958 - 2008). Joe developed a drinking problem and began to physically abuse his wife. The family moved to New York in 1964 where Joe began to abuse his son, Barna, which prompted Klara to divorce and move to Arizona sometime in 1969. Barna would later commit suicide in 1995. 

Joe, Klara, Agi, and Barna. Image courtesy Real Life Villians.com.
Joe moved to California where he worked as a plumber and met Maria, a waitress, in a Los Angeles bar known as a meeting place for immigrants. Maria was also a Hungarian immigrant that fled after the Soviet occupation and suffered from pyschological and physical abuse from her father. Joe would pay for his drinks with $100 bills which caught the attention of Maria as she sought security at that time. 

Joe and Maria. Image courtesy Real Life Villians.com.
Joe and Maria would later marry sometime in the 70's and their only daughter, Judith, was born on June 6, 1978. Maria was an aspiring actress but never caught a break so she began grooming her daughter to become an actress which was a 1 in 10,000 success rate and would eventually be discovered at a San Fernando Valley skating rink (not sure which one but I would like to speculate that is was Skateland in Northridge but dont quote me). 
Joe and Judith. Image courtesy Real Life Villians.com.
The judith-barsi.com memorial site described Judith when first meeting an agent as:
She was mistaken for a three-year-old child. Judith was cute, precocious, intelligent and a lot of fun to work with. They signed her on immediately. 
Afterwards, Judith Barsi's career took off as she earned an estimated $100,000 per year (or roughly $200,000 in 2013 dollars) by her fourth grade year. This extra income helped the family purchase a modest suburban ranch style home in Canoga Park bordering on West Hills. The home was located at 22100 Michale Street which measures 3 Beds/2 Baths on 1,663 sqft on a total lot size of 0.26 acres built in 1960. The home was purchased sometime in 1985 for an unknown price as the property records dont go that far back but if  I had to speculate, it would be somewhere around $120,000 to $150,000 which Judith's salary could pay for in almost one year. Judith attended Nevada Elementary School but would miss school so much because of her acting schedule. 

After the home was purchased, Joe was so paranoid that he had a wrought iron fence with spikes built around the property.  When talking with neighbors, he would keep the conversation to a minimum and was very secretive. However Maria would talk to the neighbors and some of the other stage moms who would hear the horrible stories of Joe. 

The pictures below are from a recent home listing where the current owners unsuccessfully tried to sell the home for $699,000 on November 13, 2007 through May 15, 2010. These pictures should not be interpreted as when the Barsi's were living in the home as it has most likely been upgraded since 1988. 










Images courtesy Number1Expert
And this is when the story gets depressing and sad according to Wikipedia:
As Judith's career success increased, József became increasingly abusive, jealous and paranoid, and would routinely threaten to kill himself, his wife, and daughter. His alcoholism worsened, and resulted in three separate arrests for drunk driving. In December 1986, Maria reported his threats and physical violence toward her to the police. After police found no physical signs of abuse, Maria eventually decided not to press charges against József.
After the incident, József reportedly stopped drinking, but continued to threaten his wife and daughter, which included threats of cutting their throats as well as burning down the house. He reportedly hid a telegram informing Maria that a relative in Hungary had died, in an attempt to prevent her and Judith from leaving America. Physical violence also continued, with Judith telling a friend about her father throwing pots and pans at her resulting in a nosebleed. Due to her father's abuse, Judith began putting on weight and exhibited disturbing behavior, which included plucking out all her eyelashes and pulling out her cat's whiskers. After breaking down in front of her agent during a singing audition for All Dogs Go to Heaven, Judith was taken by Maria to a child psychologist, who identified severe physical and emotional abuse and reported her findings to Child Protective Services (CPS).
The investigation was dropped after Maria assured the case worker that she intended to begin divorce proceedings against József and that she and Judith were going to move into a Panorama City apartment she had recently rented as a daytime haven away from József. Friends urged Maria to follow through with the plan, but she resisted, reportedly because she did not want to lose the family home and belongings.
According to a National Enquirer article, Maria had rented a $700 apartment at the Regency Premier located at 8525 Tobias Avenue #314 Panorama City, CA 91402 which is directly across the street from the Panorama Mall. I am not sure why she had picked this location but it wasnt far enough from Joe as he had suspected that Maria was moving out and followed her one day. He noticed her carrying moving boxes into the apartment and asked her about it where Maria replied that she was giving away some items to some friends. Maria suspected that Joe didnt believe her and sensed things were getting worse. She even tried to make the house look like a pigsty to force Joe out as he was a neat freak. But she wanted to maintain her home and belongings and didnt want to lose it including her child's acting career. She had also been waiting on a $12,000 tax refund check that she didnt want Joe to get his hands on and probably needed the proceeds to support Judith and herself living on their own. Judith's co-star from Growing Pains, Tracey Gold, even tried to help out but Maria resisted. On Monday July 25, 1988, Judith had an appointment with Hanna-Barbera which she missed. 
Regency Premier Apartment Building 8525 Tobias Avenue Panorma City. Image courtesy Hotpad.com
The paragraph below from Wikipedia describes the horrifying final day for Judith and Maria:
Judith was last seen riding her bike on the morning of Monday, July 25, 1988. That evening, József shot Judith in the head while she was asleep in her room, and then shot his wife, Maria. József spent the next two days wandering around the house, and said during a phone call with Judith's agent on Tuesday night that he intended to move out for good, and just needed time to "say goodbye to [my] little girl."He then poured gasoline on the bodies and set them on fire. After incinerating the bodies, József went into the garage and shot himself in the head with a .32 caliber pistol. On August 9, 1988, Barsi and her mother were interred in unmarked graves at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
Judith Barsi Death Certificate. Image courtesy Find A Death.com
Roughly two months after the Barsis death, the LA Times reported on September 7, 1988 that the CPS was scolded by a county advisory panel for dropping its investigation of threats of violence against Judith and Maria Barsi. The outcome of the investigation was that more funds be allocated so that social workers are not overburdened and that before a case is closed, the home should be visited and/or the child interviewed. 

The same organization that was setup to prevent and fight against such abuse failed miserably and they still continue to do so. Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but there are stories still reported today where women and children face constant threats and abuse. Take for instance, the story of Michelle Kane who was hiding at a friend's house in West Hills from her abusive husband, Michael Kane. On Saturday June 15, 2013, Michael stormed the West Hills house and stabbed Michelle to death in the front lawn. Luckily, the two children were not hurt in this tragedy. Michelle had sought help from the LAPD the previous day but no luck. In a strange "this is a small world" thinking, the Kane family townhome is located a few blocks from the former Barsi home. 

In 2004, thanks to the fundraising efforts led by Nancy Kelly and with the gratitude of many fans, headstones were purchased for Maria and Judith which can be seen below. 

Judith Barsi grave at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. Image courtesy Find A Grave.com 
Maria and Judith Barsi grave at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. Image courtesy Find A Grave.com
One side note, there is supposedly a head shot of Judith Barsi showing the gunshot to the head but that can be possible because her body was literally incinerated. For those that are curious, you can view the photo at findadeath.com. If anyone can confirm that the image is legitimate, please let me know. 

Now its time to fire up the Delorean and go back to the future.  The Barsi home was sold by the survivors of the Barsi family for $124,000 on September 14, 1989 which was 13 months after their deaths. The home changed hands a couple of times where it was last sold on July 12, 2001 to Francisco and Ruth Bernal for $272,000. The property records are shown below which show Maria Barsi at the very bottom. As mentioned earlier, the Bernal family tried to sell this home from 2007 through 2010 and we will keep our eyes and ears open if the listing pops up again. I wonder if there are any ghost stories from this home. 

Lastly, if this story has touched you in some way, you can support the Judith Fund at judith-barsi.com and/or the Child Help USA Organization which is for the prevention and treatment of child abuse. 

At the very bottom, the name Maria Barsi can be seen for the sales transaction of their Canoga Park home. Image courtesy Propertyshark.com
The 10 minute new story below is a must watch which captures all the details of this story. I am not sure of the original source but I believe its from one of those crime shows. 



And the home as it looks today:




You can view more SFV history and BTTF posts here

Sources:

Three Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide by Gabe Fuentes. Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1988.

A Script of Fear: Repeated Threats by Father of Child Actress Carried to Tragic End by John Johnson and Gabe Fuentes. Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1988.

Barsi Probe: Judge Asked to Reveal Files on Slain Child by John Johnson. Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1988.

Local News in Brief: Child-Abuse Files Ordered Opened. Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1988.

Panel Scolds Agency in Girl's Death by Gabe Fuentes. Los Angeles Times, September 7, 1988.

A Lesson Learned from Family Tragedy by Sherry Barger. Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1988.

Local News in Brief: New Unit Urged for Child Welfare Cases. Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1988.

Child Actress Judith Barsi: A Life Cut Tragically Short by Denis Noe. TruTV.com, December 2, 2012.

Judith Barsi Photo Gallery -- Fanpix.net

Judith Barsi -- Find a Grave

Judith Barsi -- Find a Death

József Barsi -- Real Life Villains

Judith Barsi -- Wikipedia

Judith Barsi -- Suaviterinmodo Flickr Page

Judith Barsi -- Memorial Site (www.judith-barsi.com)

Judith Barsi -- Memorial Site (judithbarsi.dc-lundberg.net)

Death of a Family - Judith Barsi's Story. Youtube video uploaded on September 13, 2009.

Canoga Park Home Redfin Lisitng

Canoga Park Home Blockshopper Listing

Judith Barsi Home - Propertyshark

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