Here’s a repost of a grisly true crime book I read and reviewed in 2009. I am reposting it as/is here. Incidentally, Burl Barer once commented on my original blog. He responded to a rant I wrote about being frustrated by writing, but also noted a positive review I had written of his work.
Mom Said Kill… and unfortunately the kids obeyed
I’ve often heard it said that people who want to become parents ought to be subjected to a licensing process. We license people before they can legally drive cars. We license people before they can legally practice certain professions. We even license dogs. But when it comes to raising children, arguably one of life’s most challenging jobs, it sometimes seems the least qualified people are first in line for the position. Such was the case for Barbara Opel, a mother of three who lived in Everett, Washington. Barbara Opel had always impressed upon her children the importance of minding their mother. With their help, along with that of several other teens and pre-teens, Barbara Opel plotted 64 year old Jerry Heimann’s murder. Burl Barer writes about the shocking case in his 2008 book, Mom Said Kill.
In 2001, Barbara Opel and her kids, 13 year old Heather, 11 year old Derek, and 7 year old Tiffany, were living with Jerry Heimann, a generous, kind-hearted man who had needed help taking care of his 89 year old mother, Evelyn. Jerry Heimann was managing the pain of his terminal cancer and his wheelchair-bound mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Barbara Opel’s weapons: her kids and her temper
Heather Opel was an attractive girl. Naturally athletic and a good student, she seemed to have a good future ahead of her, even though her mother had a reputation for being “mean”. Heather and her brother, Derek, had been denied access to their father, William Opel, ever since their parents divorced in 1991. Their sister, Tiffany, was the product of another relationship.
Heather was involved in sports, which her mother always attended. She was widely known among the other parents, kids, and the coach as having a “hell of a temper”. Evidently, Heather Opel had learned at an early age never to question her mother under any circumstances, lest she suffer dire consequences. And yet, despite her allegedly fearsome temper, Barbara Opel had more teenaged friends than adult friends.
Building up to murder
On April 7, 2001, Marriam Oliver, one of Heather’s friends, approached 17 year old Jeff Grote at a skating rink and told him that Heather thought he was cute. The next day, Heather Opel and Jeff Grote had sex in Derek Opel’s bedroom. When they were finished, Barbara Opel gave Jeff permission to spend the night with Heather. A couple of days later, Barbara finally sat down with Jeff to have a serious chat, but she didn’t want to talk about the consequences of having unprotected sex. Instead, Barbara Opel proposed murder. She wanted Jeff’s help in killing her employer, Jerry Heimann, claiming that he had been cruel to Heather.
At first, Jeff Grote refused any part of Barbara Opel’s plan, but the ever persistant woman kept nagging him, demanding that he find someone to carry out the deed. She offered him cash and a new car, and told him that after they killed Heimann, they could get their hands on the $40,000 in his bank account. For Heather’s help in the murder, Barbara Opel promised a new bike.
Jeff Grote came through with a few friends and on April 13, 2001, Barbara Opel’s gang of teens and pre-teens savagely attacked Jerry Heimann with knives and baseball bats. Once Heimann was dead, they doused his body with corrosive acid and dumped it. Seven year old Tiffany helped her mother in her unsuccessful attempt to clean up the mess. They took Heimann’s furniture and helped themselves to his checkbook. They left Heimann’s mother in her wheelchair, where she sat alone without food, water, or heat. Evelyn Heimann’s grandson, Gregory Heimann, found her eight days later, starving and dehydrated. He had shown up at the house looking for his father, who was supposed to meet him at the airport. It was to have been their first visit in five years.
Mom Said Kill is a very well written and researched account of a shockingly brutal murder. Of course, what makes this case more shocking than most is that it was perpetrated by children. Besides her daughter, Heather, and Jeff Grote, Barbara Opel managed to get several other young teenagers involved in the crime. Most of the teens, including Heather, ended up being tried as adults for the murder and will now spend many years in prison for following Barbara’s orders. Thankfully, Barbara Opel is also now forever behind bars.
Burl Barer does a good job explaining the case. He also adds in some interesting commentary about brain development in adolescents and teenagers, pointing out that teenagers are not able to think as adults do and see the consequences of their behavior. For example, Barer explains that a fourteen year old may not have the capacity to understand what it means to spend twenty-five years in prison, nor may they understand what “the right to remain silent” actually means. Aside from his account of this case, Barer also explains how traumatic brain injuries and alcohol abuse during pregnancy and before adulthood can affect brain development. Sixteen pages of black and white photos are included.
Barbara Opel was, by Barer’s account, also a victim of child abuse. Besides having been raised in an abusive environment, Barbara’s mother apparently drank a lot of alcohol during her pregnancy and had worked in a dry cleaning store, which exposed her to chemicals that may have affected Barbara’s brain development before she was born. Even as Barer demonstrates how horrible Barbara Opel’s crimes are, he also shows how she, too, was a product of the cycle of abuse. Nevertheless, while I could understand feeling some slight empathy toward Barbara Opel, my overwhelming reaction to this story was disgust and sorrow, for the senseless way Jerry Heimann died, for the grief his survivors have been forced to endure, and for the children, most of whom had no criminal record before the murder took place.
One additional personal note…
I have to admit that reading Mom Said Kill made me very uncomfortable. My husband was once married to a woman who, in many ways, reminds me of Barbara Opel. Reading this book made me feel some compassion toward my husband’s two daughters, neither of whom have spoken to him in years after disowning him at their mother’s behest. This book reminded me that many teenagers, particularly younger ones, just aren’t capable of thinking as rationally as adults are. Part of being a teen is making stupid mistakes, which may include challenging authority when it’s unwise to do so or not knowing when to question authority. On the other hand, this book also shows what can happen when the cycle of child abuse and neglect isn’t broken. And that’s why, besides compassion toward my husband’s kids, I also feel uneasy about their futures.
Anyway… I wholeheartedly recommend this book to true crime fans.
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