End of Watch: The Death of Officer Ray Lynn Barnes

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Officer Ray Lynn Barnes

Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Florida

End of Watch Saturday, November 21, 1987

The rural country of west Florida doesn’t look like much to most people. It is stuffed with longleaf pines, water oak, southern magnolia and persimmon. Closer to the ground is the undergrowth: gallberry, sweetbay, titi, and redbay. The vegetation is so thick that a person can’t see 100 yards in front, especially near swamps.

To a native west Floridian, though, it is beautiful. It is full of deer, wild boar, squirrels, and rabbits, all good for eating. In warm weather, though, it is also fraught with alligators and poisonous snakes.

He was from Dorcas, only six minutes up the road. He had spent his entire life in these same woods. He grew up hunting here, and fishing here in the Shoal River. So, it was only natural that he would become a Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission officer – a game warden.

But Officer Barnes wasn’t a tough, gritty, in-your-face type-guy. He was a laid back, friendly guy you would expect to invite you over to his house for some sweet tea on the front porch.

His name was Ray Lynn Barnes and that is what everybody called him. As a matter of fact, you didn’t call him by his first name “Ray.” He was “Ray Lynn.” He was like that -unassuming. You just liked the guy.

November days are sometimes cold in Florida, but not that cold. But the weather on November 21, 1987, was cold…well for Florida. It got down to 35 degrees at 7:00 AM. It was enough for Ray Lynn to be wearing a jacket.

As Ray Lynn was driving his unmarked police cruiser along where Laird Road turns into Richardson Road late in the evening, his mind was on getting home to his wife and two girls. Thanksgiving was coming up the next Thursday. It was only five days away, and he was looking forward to spending time with family and overeating, like you’re supposed to do.

Then he saw a vehicle – probably a hunter’s – parked near the Shoal River bridge. He got out to make one last check with the hunter and ensure he was legal. Maybe chat with him also as to how the hunting was going. Ray Lynn liked to do that.

It wasn’t long. He soon found a man in the woods – Steven Strange – with a 12-gauge shotgun, the preferred weapon to shoot deer with in the thick swampy woods of west Florida.

Steven Allen Strange lived a short ways from the Shoal River bridge, in the community of Mossy Head. Even though the small community is limited to a few houses and businesses along U. S. Highway 90, everyone for miles claims to live there. While Dorcas lay about two miles northwest side of the Shoal River, Mossy Head lay on six miles to the southeast.

Officer Barnes carried the weapon of choice for law enforcement officer during that era – a .357 magnum revolver. While it wasn’t as large as a Dirty Harry .44 magnum, it carried quite wallop. The gun was on his gun belt, always part of his uniform. So, when he got out of his cruiser, he was ready to use it, even if he didn’t think he would have to.

When he met Steven Allen Strange, Officer Barnes, in his usual, easy-going way, greeted the hunter. What Strange knew and Officer Barnes didn’t is that he didn’t have a hunting license, and he had made his mind up that he wasn’t going to go to jail.

Shoal River

The conversation between the two is not known. What is known, though, is that a struggle ensued. Strange’s shotgun got stuck in the dirt and malfunctioned. It blew the barrel up when Strange fired it, probably at Officer Barnes. The explosion injured Barnes in the leg. Barnes then pulled his .357. Strange lunged and overpowered Officer Barnes, taking the handgun. He shot Barnes in the chest. Then, he shot him again in cold blood in the head. The last glimpse of life that the officer had was his beloved woods that he grew up in. Barnes died immediately.

Frantic, Strange ran to his hunting partner, Kenneth Collars, and said “I just murdered a man!” Collars later said that he tried to talk Strange into surrendering to the police, but the murderer refused.

The men left the scene. A few minutes later, an anonymous phone call was made to the Walton County Sheriff’s department. The caller reported the murder of Officer Barnes. Deputies raced to the scene, which was on the Walton-Okaloosa County line. When they arrived, they found the dead body of a fellow officer. Later in the night, Strange turned himself in to the Walton County Sheriff’s Office. He admitted to killing a man. He was arrested for murder.

Woods near Mossy Head, Florida

In Florida, misdemeanor – minor – crimes are often dealt with quickly, especially if there is no objection to the story the prosecution gives the judge. In any case, a misdemeanor seldom goes longer than 90 days. Felonies – major crimes – usually work along a six-month timetable. In order for a trial to go longer than that, the defense must waive the Speedy Trial rule. In a murder case, the trial doesn’t usually begin until 8-9 months after the arrest, at the earliest.  

In this case, the murder trial took place ten months later, on Wednesday, September 29, 1988, in Defuniak Springs, eighteen miles east of the murder scene.

Prosecutor Drew Pinkerton laid out the case for the jury. Defense attorney Dee Loveless then began to paint a different picture as Steven Strange sat at the defendant’s table and wept loudly. Loveless contended that, when Officer Barnes approached Strange on that fateful day, he was wearing a camouflage jacket over his uniform, covering his uniform, badge and gun, and he was driving an unmarked vehicle. Strange didn’t know he was an officer. When Barnes asked for his hunting license and reached to take his gun away for protection, Strange thought he was trying to steal from him. The struggle began over the shotgun, which went off and injured Barnes. When Barnes pulled his revolver, Strange thought he needed to defend himself, so he grabbed for the gun. During the fight, the gun went off twice – once in Barnes’ chest and once in his head.

Drew Pinkerton countered by lifting Barnes’ jacket and showing that there was no blood on it. The uniform was covered in blood. Pinkerton explained that if the jacket had been covering the officer’s badge, it would have a bullet hole through it and covered in blood. Otherwise, the badge would have been showing, proving that Strange knew he was a lawman.

The jury didn’t buy the murderer’s story. They found him guilty of First-degree Murder. But when the day came for the sentencing phase, Defense attorney Earl Loveless motioned for a mistrial on the basis that Judge Wells had given the jury a dictionary to use in deliberation, which was not in evidence. Sadly, the judge granted a mistrial.

Four months later, on Monday, January 30, 1989, the second trial got underway, this time in Pensacola, with Judge Lacey Collier presiding. Judge Collier is a smart, meticulous judge who allows no nonsense in his courtroom. As a result, the trial went along without a hitch. Overall, it was pretty much the same as the first trial. When the case was handed to the jury this time, however, they couldn’t agree on a verdict. They deliberated nine hours before Judge Collier finally declared a hung jury, which means that this one ended in a mistrial also. Later, it was discovered that all but one of the jury members felt that manslaughter was the correct verdict. One holdout was convinced that Strange committed first-degree murder.

Judge Lacey Collier

Another four months went by – four agonizing months for the family. Finally, the jury was chosen for Trial #3 on May 1, 1989, under the watchful eye of Judge Collier once again. This time, the prosecutor played the tape from when Strange first called the police. In the conversation, he said he had no doubt that the victim was a law officer. Suddenly it was easier. The jury found Strange guilty of third-degree murder.

On June 8, 1989, Judge Collier sentenced Steven Strange to spend 35 years in State Prison. Didn’t happen.

He was paroled on October 31, 2004, with the hope that he had turned from his criminal ways. Nope. A year later, he was arrested again and charged with Resisting an Officer With Violence.

After his second release, it appeared that he still hadn’t been rehabilitated. He was again arrested in 2007 for Felony DUI and Fleeing a Law Enforcement Officer. This time, the judge was fed up. Strange was sentenced to 30 years. He is scheduled to get out in 2044.

Officer Barnes, a favorite game warden, was survived by his wife and two daughters.

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