cover_story (2007-07)

It's a long ride from Knoxville to Williamsburg, Ky. in the trunk of a 2004 Nissan Altima. Not so much if you're riding out the 75-mile-or-so journey in the front seat of the sedan with the CD player and the Fosgate speakers pumping and the air on full to gentle the heat of a mothering May sun. But with your body heaped in some gross caricature of the fetal position in a stiflingly hot trunk, your head lying in a small pool of your own blood up near the base of the left rear wheel well, the Altima's 245-horsepower V6 thrumming incessantly in the seat of your gizzard....

That's one awful speculation as to what might have happened to noted Knoxville hairdresser Byron Barker, who disappeared in May of 2005, only to have his car turn up in the back parking lot of a cheap motel in Williamsburg, a town of little more than 5,000 in Whitley County, around 20 miles north of the Kentucky state line on I-75. Police in Williamsburg found almost nothing inside the Nissan to indicate the whereabouts of the owner of the car--not so much as a highway map in the glove compartment--nothing other than that telltale bloodstain in the trunk, which subsequent DNA testing identified as the blood of Barker himself.

Detective Steve Still at Knoxville Police Department may have some notion of whether Barker actually rode all the way to Williamsburg in the back of his own car, or whether the bloodstain was the result of some misadventure that took place later in the trip. But if he does, he's keeping mum, as the investigation is still open and will remain so until Still, a resolute, redheaded bulldog of a man, determines that he has done everything he can to fulfill some sort of unspoken obligation to the Barker family.

It's a terrible question to consider: What really happened to Byron Kent Barker, the charismatic gay bodybuilder-hairstylist whose last known sighting was May 3 of 2005? It's unlikely that he'll show up anywhere upright and breathing now, roughly a year and nine months from the day his gray Nissan was found abandoned behind a Williamsburg Super 8 Motel, and police are treating his disappearance as a homicide case, rather than a simple missing persons investigation.

What's known is that Barker's life had taken some ugly turns in the year or so leading up to his vanishing, a series of bad deals and bad drugs and bad people that suggest the possibility of any number of treacheries--maybe an unpaid debt; or a soured drug deal; maybe even a speed trip gone terribly wrong.

Barker's Nissan was reported abandoned by employees at the Williamsburg Super 8 in early May of '05, when they noticed the car had gone unmoved for several days. Williamsburg police hauled it to a local impound lot, where it sat for a week before a lot attendant finally took matters in hand and went rifling through the Altima in hopes of finding some way of contacting the wayward owner. He found only the saucer-sized bloodstain inside, which he immediately reported to Williamsburg Police Detective Wayne Bird.

It was May 19 that Bird was called in to inspect the Nissan's bloodied trunk; that same morning, Barker's sister-in-law Anita Barker filed a missing person report with police in Knoxville, worried that Byron was gone from his apartment in the Country Oaks complex off Papermill Road, and hadn't spoken to family members since May 3.

From an NCIC license plate trace that identified the car as Barker's, Bird called KPD and compared notes. What followed was a manhunt by Tennessee and Kentucky police that included cadaver dogs, a helicopter search along a 50-mile stretch of I-75, and an exhaustive canvassing of local hotel employees and logbooks.

It was all to no avail. "The first 48 hours after a homicide--and we treated it like a homicide--are the golden window of opportunity," says Still. "After that, leads dry up. Evidence disappears. And there had been over two weeks elapsed before we even got the missing person report."

Nonetheless, Still continued the investigation, a dogged search that has consumed hundreds of man hours, and has seen the investigator--whom one observer likens to actor Stacy Keach, in southern Appalachian guise--familiarize himself with Knoxville's gay culture, in particular the online chat room and dating scene of which Barker was reportedly a fixture. But the trail of Barker's increasingly dissolute personal life has seemingly brought forth more questions than answers.

An Oak Ridger by birth, Byron Barker made his bones in hair and high fashion in the 1980s, when he moved to New York City to study with Suga, a Japanese stylist who operated his own world-famous celebrity hair salon on East 57th Street in Manhattan. Suga was a regular contributor to the covers of glamour rags like Cosmopolitan and Vogue and Harper's Bizarre , and was credited as the architect of the "wedge" haircut figure skater Dorothy Hamill famously sported in the 1976 winter Olympics. Barker apprenticed under Suga for a few years, at a salon with a celebrity client list that included the likes of Candice Bergen, Lauren Hutton and Faye Dunaway.

Barker eventually returned home and established himself locally in the early 1990s, working for Salon Visage owner Frank Gambuzza, a former New Yorker himself, who had a keen appreciation for Barker's pedigree and his talented shears. "It was pretty powerful stuff for a Knoxville guy to land a position with Suga back then," says Gambuzza. "And when Byron came back, he was as good as you get, in the upper 10 percent of hairdressing talent anywhere in the world."

What's more, Gambuzza liked him. "He was a very polite guy, very articulate," he continues. "Byron knew art and culture and literature and travel. He was a pretty sophisticated kid. And because I'm a New Yorker and knew the New York hair scene, we kind of connected in that way."

In fact most people who knew him seemed to like Barker; he was charismatic, outgoing, clever, and sometimes generous to a fault--a quality that served him ill when his fortunes later took a turn for the worse and lecherous "friends" gathered 'round like vultures to carrion.

He had a dark side, too; Barker had had a drug problem, an addiction to cocaine that he was able to beat back, staying clean for the majority of his professional years in Knoxville, up until the final stanza prior to his disappearance.

He was also given to poor judgment where his personal life was concerned. Barker was HIV positive according to one close friend, and a regular in the gay.com online chatroom some gay men hereabouts use as a means of meeting and making dates. "He hooked up with people online, which I always felt was dangerous," says Michael Wilhoit, a friend who went out with Barker on a couple of occasions in the early going, and would later report on his disappearance for Out & About Newspaper , a gay publication based in Nashville.

And Barker had perhaps more than a touch of vanity, though that was hardly an egregious fault. A fitness fanatic, he entered a handful of local and regional bodybuilding contests beginning in the latter half of the 1990s. Having left Salon Visage to start his own hair salon in the Bearden area in the mid-'90s, he was a regular Metro Pulse advertiser, fond of posing in his own advertisements in tight shirts and muscle tanks to show off his carefully honed physique.

But it was a vanity well earned. "He was all business in the gym, very focused," says Clayton Bryant, a personal trainer and former local gym owner who helped Barker prepare for a couple of bodybuilding contests. "He was a hard worker, always wanting to get bigger and stronger and look better."

Bryant adds with a chuckle that his perfectionism in the gym was not much removed from the perfectionism he showed in the salon. "He was definitely what you would call an artistic professional," Bryant says. "He almost wanted to fix your hair the way he wanted it, not necessarily the way you wanted it."

At the peak of his professional success, some sources have estimated that Barker was earning a six-figure income as Knoxville's own celebrity hairdresser. He kept a nice home in the Westwood area, where he lived in apparent contentment with Coco and Catman, his beloved Siamese cats.

But even then, some friends say they saw signs of trouble ahead. The men Barker dated were sometimes ill chosen. Paul Kelly, who became close friends with Barker after working as his personal trainer, recalls witnessing a handful of destructive relationships; there was "J", a married man with whom Barker had an on-and-off relationship for several years, and who was always out of pocket and looking to Barker for help. And there was "B", another apparent lover who seemed to inevitably prey on Barker's weaknesses. Kelly says he believes these men stole from Barker on some occasions, even breaking into his home at one point. He believes that one of them was instrumental in his eventual relapse onto cocaine.

"They weren't true friends of Byron; you knew they were always there for the wrong reasons," says Kelly. "Byron would try to help them, and they would just use him. He was a giving person, and he sometimes got taken advantage of by people."

As the East Tennessee Bureau Chief for Out & About Newspaper , Beth Maples-Bays picked up on the Barker story after Wilhoit left the publication. She has a long memory of other noteworthy Knoxville "gay" crime cases, instances where apathy and privilege seemingly circumvented justice, where the perpetrators of brutal violence against gay men were never apprehended, or were caught but never punished. There was the suspiciously timed murder of gay club owner Joseph Weir circa 1981; the slaying took place shortly after Weir notably refused to give up the lease to his Europa club downtown in the interest of "cleaning up" the center city in preparation for the 1982 World's Fair, and remains unsolved to this day. There was the murder of James Fleenor, a UT nursing school student apparently slain in the mid-1980s by someone he picked up at the Carousel, the long-running Fort Sanders gay bar; and that of Frank "Francine" Wilson, a white collar worker by day with a nighttime gig as a drag queen, the suspected killer of whom managed to disappear despite having been arrested and arraigned.

And worst of all, there was Joe Camber, a local gay activist who was choked to death in the looming shadow of the University of Tennessee's Carolyn P. Brown University Center by a strikingly handsome young man he met at the Carousel. The perpetrator, Chad Conyers, was the scion of a well-heeled family, and received judicial diversion and what amounted to a suspended sentence. When he eventually left Tennessee for his family home in Virginia Beach, even his supervised probation was jettisoned because a Virginia court refused to recognize Tennessee's right to enforce it.

If there's a single bright spot in the disappearance and apparent death of Byron Barker, Maples-Bays says it's that Barker hasn't been written off as just one more dead gay. "The GLBTQ community asserted itself in the Camber investigation," she says. "We got to know the police better, they got to know us better. I know that when Byron had disappeared, there was a real effort by KPD to communicate with me."

Most of all, she credits Still, an implacable sort who has kept the Barker investigation open well past the point that many detectives would have thrown in the towel and tossed his paperwork in the abyss of the cold case file.

"From the start, he admitted he knew little about the gay community and he did his best to enculturate himself," she says. "He did the research required to be culturally competent about gay men. He did his best to interact with people who could give him a perspective on gay male life in Knoxville, and he did it on his own initiative."

Still now has a file close to a foot high concerning Barker's disappearance, though there's precious little of it he can share since the investigation is still open, and he still has hopes that somehow someone will tip their hand and let on that they know more about the case than has heretofore been released in the press. He does allow that he's spent "hundreds of hours" on the case, touched in no small way by the concern exhibited by Barker's family. (The family has consistently used Still as a de facto spokesman for all media requests.)

"They're a close family; their vigilance is the reason we were contacted about his disappearance as soon as we were," he says. "His family are good people, and they deserve our best efforts."

Still affirms most of the things Barker's friends and acquaintances say about him--that he was a gifted hair stylist, well-liked, and that his online activities yielded a great deal of fodder for investigation.

"He was given to setting up rendezvous online," Still acknowledges. "He lived a lifestyle that was at times fast-paced... sometimes pretty rough."

The most notable point of investigation Still will discuss concerns a roommate, Brett Baker, with whom Barker shared his Country Oaks apartment shortly before his disappearance. A young man in his early-to-middle 20s (Barker was 47 at the time of his disappearance), Baker was considered a person of interest in the case, and his behavior around the time of Barker's vanishing continues to be a source of speculation.

According to the KPD missing person report dated May 20, 2005, Baker had told family members that Barker had departed for a drug rehabilitation facility in Kentucky. Det. Still later discovered that Baker had removed many of Barker's possessions from the apartment and sold them, this only days removed from Barker's disappearance.

"It was something we looked at closely," Still says. "Your roommate is missing. So why are you selling all his stuff? He came in and talked to me several times."

His interaction with Baker ultimately bore no fruit in the investigation, although Still eventually charged him with felony theft in connection with Barker's missing property. Still says Baker, who slipped out of town without warning but was later picked up in Dayton, is scheduled for trial on those charges later this spring.

It's hard to pinpoint when exactly things started to go terribly wrong for Barker, but Paul Kelly believes it was somewhere within the last year or so prior to his disappearance, when he apparently fell prey to the seduction of old habits and relapsed on cocaine. "I remember the first time it happened, because he told me how bad he felt about it," Kelly says. "He had been clean for years and years. When I knew he had used again, that's when I kind of saw a downward spiral with him."

Barker had been training for bodybuilding contests again with Bryant, but the workouts suddenly stopped. Usually a muscular 5'9" and 180 lbs., Barker's weight plummeted, by some estimations as low as 120 lbs. Rumors abounded that he was in heavy debt; he lost the home in Westwood, sold most of his furniture, and moved to the apartment in Country Oaks. He lost his salon, too, and friends say he had resorted to cutting hair out of the apartment.

"One of my training clients had been getting her hair done by Byron, and one day she tells me, 'I'm just not going over there to that apartment again,'" Bryant recalls. "She said it was shady, that somebody knocked on the door and that he left her sitting in the chair at one point so he could go outside and do something out of sight."

There was also violence, and more personal tumult. Bryant says one of his acquaintances lived across the street from Barker in Westwood shortly before he lost the home. One afternoon, she heard a commotion coming from Barker's yard, and went to her door in time to witness a man knock Barker to the ground and threaten to "bash [his] brains out all over the neighborhood with a baseball bat" the next time he came to the house.

Kelly also recalls that Barker called him for help on at least one occasion because one of his associates had given him a merciless beating. "I went over there, and his face and body both were black and blue," Kelly says. "He called me because he was hurting so bad. It was pretty heinous.

"About two months before he disappeared, I went over to the apartment to check on him, and he was a wreck. He obviously didn't have any money for cocaine, so he was real jittery. He couldn't focus, like he had really bad ADD. He was skinny and pale; he looked deathly. I told his roommate [Baker] to take care of him. And that's the last I saw of him."

There were signs that Barker was trying to pull himself out of despair, but in the throes of a vicious cocaine relapse, he was fighting an uphill battle.

About two weeks before Barker disappeared, he called Frank Gambuzza and made a dinner date with Gambuzza and his wife at Bearden's Bonefish Grill, ostensibly for the purpose of discussing a possible return to Salon Visage. Gambuzza had heard reports of Barker's struggles, but didn't ask too many questions: "It seemed kind of a sensitive thing, because it's never good when you have to go backwards. I didn't want to ask what had happened, because it would have probably been somewhat degrading for him to have to explain."

Gambuzza said Barker maintained that he was doing well after his relapse, and that he was in good spirits. But he was surprised when Barker ordered drinks with his dinner--not a good sign, given that cocaine addicts can rarely return to a life of successful moderate drinking.

"I sensed that he was a little preoccupied," Gambuzza says. "He didn't seem at ease. What my wife and I both sensed was that he seemed to be trying to start over again, that he was really scrambling to get it together. And at the same time, I sensed a little bit of disconnect.

"I think there was discontent on his part that if he came back to work for me, he would have to work his way back up the chain of command. We left things without saying 'yea' or 'nay', but I sensed that what he wanted, we couldn't provide."

Two weeks later, Gambuzza and his wife were on vacation in Italy when they received word that Barker had disappeared.

And so it goes; Knoxville's most gifted hair stylist having seemingly vanished from the face of the earth with nary a trace other than a single bloodstain in an empty car found derelict behind a budget motor lodge in southeastern Kentucky. A bloodstained car, and plenty of futile speculation, as to how a strong man with a gift and much to live for could fall so far so fast.

Based on his exhaustive legwork, much of which may never be made public, Still has a strong feeling about how Barker probably vanished, and which of his various associations are likely connected to the subsequent appearance of his Nissan Altima in Whitely County, Ky. "But it's strictly my opinion, and not enough to act on," he says. "At this time, I have to say that I have no suspects."

Nor can he fully explain the ineffable sense of duty that has driven him to keep the case open well beyond the point of ordinary investigative diligence. "I have no intention of closing this thing anytime soon," he says. "I will return calls; I will follow up leads. I've done everything I know to do, but obviously I missed something. It's extremely important for me to solve it."


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