CHARLOTTE — The first-degree murder trial of Chauncey Sterling of Rock Hill began Wednesday with tearful testimony from the victim’s widow. It ended with a dramatic account from the defendant, who said he changed his mind about robbing Robert Barber after stalking him for several blocks.
But then everything went wrong.
“I froze,” Sterling testified. “In all the time I was following him, I was pumping myself up that I can do it. … I just panicked when I came upon him. I couldn’t do it.
“That’s when he turned around.”
They struggled over the gun, Sterling testified.
“I pulled away, and he lunged toward me, and I fired. I don’t know why I fired.”
Barber, a 64-year-old hospital executive who was married with two stepsons, staggered onto a lawn on Mullens Ford Road in South Charlotte and collapsed. Sterling ran.
It was around 10:15 on a rainy morning, April 22, 2011. A couple of hours later, Debbie Barber was on lunch break from her nursing job and heard on TV that someone had been shot in the neighborhood where her husband was taking a morning walk.
She testified that she frantically tried to reach him on his cellphone.
She telephoned a neighbor. Was Bob working in the yard?
“No,” she said the neighbor told her. “But there are a lot of policemen at your house.”
As difficult as it was for Debbie Barber to recount how she found out her husband was killed, the most emotional moment of her 20-minute testimony came at the very end. Prosecutor Clayton Jones showed her a photograph of Barber’s face taken at the Mecklenburg Medical Examiner’s office, then Jones quickly turned the photograph over.
“That’s Bob, my husband,” Debbie Barber said. She bowed her head and wept.
‘I was scared’
Sterling, 20, was arrested two days after the shooting and admitted that he killed Barber. He said he saw Barber leave the Caribou Coffee on Fairview Road and followed him down the street.
His testimony Wednesday in Mecklenburg Superior Court for the first time revealed his internal conflict leading up to the confrontation.
He said he had spent the night at his sister’s Charlotte apartment across Simsbury Road from the coffee shop.
“I woke up with a feeling I never felt before,” Sterling said. He said he felt depressed and confused; the mother of his two young daughters, ages 1 year and 1 month, was unemployed, and he needed money to help support them. But he hadn’t worked in a year. He had depended on family members for money to buy diapers, wipes and clothes.
“I was tired of asking people,” he said. “I felt like I needed to man up.”
So the next morning, he said he stole his sister’s handgun out of her closet and went out looking for someone to rob.
He didn’t find anybody so he returned to the apartment. Around 9:40 a.m., he went out hunting again.
He said he saw Barber walk out of the Caribou parking lot onto Simsbury Road. Sterling said he followed him about 18 to 20 feet behind.
“I was still undetermined,” he testified. “I was contemplating whether I should do this or I should not. I was scared. I never did this before.”
It began drizzling. Sterling said he stopped for a minute or two, then convinced himself to try it. He caught up with Barber, and when he got about five feet away, he said he pulled the gun from his pocket. Then, he claimed, he changed his mind.
“I couldn’t take no money from this man,” he testified.
That’s when, he said, Barber turned around.
Their final conversation
Debbie Barber recounted how her husband had asked her to wake him that morning even though he didn’t have to go to work. He had Good Friday off.
He kept a busy schedule. He filled in as interim CEO at hospitals acquired by Carolinas HealthCare Systems, where he had worked for about 20 years. He also taught health administration at several colleges and was a mentor to many students around Sterling’s age. “Dr. Bob,” they called him.
Debbie Barber usually stopped for coffee on her way to work at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. That morning, he joined her.
Afterward, he wanted to walk the nearly three miles home for the exercise.
She later called to warn him about a big downpour that might be heading his way. He called back around 10. He had stayed at Caribou, reading the newspaper and waiting out the rain. It was letting up, he said, and he would be starting for home.
“I didn’t get to talk to him very much because I was taking care of a very sick child,” she testified, regret in her voice.
Gunshot to his chest
Michael Sullivan, medical examiner for Mecklenburg County, told jurors that Barber died from a gunshot wound to his chest.
He said the bullet entered Barber’s right shoulder, passed through both lungs and his heart, exited his body and then re-entered through his upper left arm. A second bullet went through his upper right abdomen and out his left lower side.
Glenn Berry, who lived near where Barber was shot, testified that he heard two shots and went outdoors to see why.
Barber lay face down in the grass. On the advice of a 911 operator, Berry grabbed some T-shirts to apply pressure to the wounds. But before he could, he said, authorities arrived. Barber was declared dead at the scene.
He was wearing his trusty pedometer. He had walked about half a mile.