Trial opens for man in mail-order bride's killing Lester Barney is accused of stabbing his wife outside their son's day-care center.

Posted: August 17, 2005

Alla Barney was always in and out quickly when picking up her son from the KinderCare Learning Center in Mount Laurel. So it troubled the center's director, Virginia Eberling, when she saw Barney's car in the parking lot as she closed up Sept. 29, 2003, about 20 minutes after Barney had left.

"I peeked in the window," Eberling told a state Superior Court jury in Mount Holly yesterday. "She had a big red hole in her neck and slash marks."

Eberling's testimony capped the opening day of the trial of Lester Barney, who faces up to life in prison if convicted of murder in his estranged wife's stabbing.

Prosecutors allege that Barney, 60, of Cherry Hill, was upset about a restraining order granted against him that day. Alla Barney, 26, of Westmont, had said her husband tried to strangle her during an argument. The judge in the case also extended temporary custody of their 4-year-old son, Daniel, to her.

It was the latest of their court battles. Lester Barney had filed for divorce a few months earlier, first alleging infidelity, then amending the complaint to allege extreme cruelty. Alla Barney had come to the United States from Ukraine in 1998 to marry him after they met over the Internet.

In his opening statement, Burlington County Assistant Prosecutor Robert VanGilst said Lester Barney had arrived at the day-care center before his wife and waited "like a lion stalking his prey."

As Alla Barney put Daniel into the car, her husband pounced from behind with a knife, VanGilst said. "It was an unprovoked attack by a man with murder in his heart," he told jurors.

Defense attorney Mike Riley deferred his opening statement until the state finished presenting its case. In pretrial hearings, Riley told the court that he might argue that his client acted in self-defense. During a break yesterday, he said he would present witnesses to support that contention.

VanGilst seemed to anticipate the move, telling jurors that "this was not a defendant acting out in self-defense."

After the attack, Lester Barney drove Daniel to the home of people the Barneys knew from church and asked them to look after Daniel for a few days. Witnesses will affirm during the trial that Barney confessed before leaving, VanGilst said.

Barney was arrested in his Mercedes-Benz a few hours later in Cherry Hill after police put out an alert on his car. He was taken to a hospital after a one-hour standoff in which he superficially cut his chest with a knife.

The murder weapon has not been found.

On cross-examination, Riley tried to show Barney had agreed to extend the custody arrangement until a permanent schedule could be developed.

He portrayed his client as a doting father who spent a lot of time at his son's day-care center and Alla Barney as a short-tempered mother.

Stacy Norcross, an assistant manager at KinderCare, testified that Alla Barney once struck Daniel in the head after dragging him to the car by the collar. She was angry that she had been called from work to get Daniel because he was ill, Norcross said.

In pretrial hearings on whether the dragging could be introduced to jurors, Riley said it demonstrated "aggressive behavior" typical of Alla Barney that prompted her husband to use force to defend himself the day she was killed.

Riley said he planned to put Lester Barney on the stand.

Daniel, now 6, is staying with Lester Barney's brother and his wife in Ocean County. Lawyers say they do not plan to have him testify about the attack.

Alla Barney's mother, Natalya Markova, traveled from Ukraine to attend the trial. She said she would not speak to reporters until it was over.

Yesterday, as a crime-scene photograph of her slain daughter was shown on a large monitor, she clutched the seat in front of her before putting her head in her hand and stroking a framed photo of her daughter as she wept silently.

Contact staff writer Joel Bewley at 609-261-0900 or jbewley@phillynews.com.

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