Denise Barger was supposed to attend a Father’s Day barbecue the night she was beaten to death in her Berwyn home.
But at the last minute, she texted a niece to say she wasn’t feeling well.
Her throat had been bothering her for a while, her brother Mike McDonald recalled, and the medicine Barger had been prescribed to treat it “knocked her out.”
The next morning, June 17, 2016, McDonald arrived at Barger’s colonial home on Heatherstone Drive. Every weekday, he would drop off his Norfolk terrier there. When Barger didn’t answer the door, McDonald found his spare key and let himself in. “Denise,” he called out, over and over, as he walked through the home.
Perhaps, McDonald recalled thinking, his sister was just in the bathroom, out of earshot. When McDonald went upstairs and entered the master bedroom, he walked into the scene of a murder that nearly two years later remains unsolved.
“I still see what I saw that day,” McDonald said, “every time I blink my eyes.”
Barger was lifeless on the floor beside her bed. When McDonald called 911 around 8:40 a.m., he told dispatchers his sister was bleeding from the head and cold to the touch.
Barger was pronounced dead in that bloody bedroom, and her picturesque 3,000-square-foot home became a crime scene. Authorities found a rear deck door open on the first floor. McDonald told police his sister usually locked all the doors before going to bed.
Barger died of blunt-force trauma, the medical examiner determined. She suffered a broken nose and seven broken ribs. Her brain was bleeding. Bruises on her arm signaled that she may have been grabbed, according to the autopsy report.
But, who would have wanted to kill the 62-year-old widow?
Barger worked as a patient safety liaison for the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, and previously served as risk management director for the Main Line and Jefferson Health systems. For about a decade, she had lived in Daylesford Estates, which sits between Routes 252 and 202 about five miles from the King of Prussia Mall. She had been preparing to move to a townhouse in the neighboring Daylesford Lake complex. A townhouse would be smaller, more manageable for her, McDonald said. And besides, Barger had a Shore home in Avalon, where she enjoyed spending time with her extended family, he said.
A week before Barger died, McDonald said his sister made a comment that stuck with him. She said her Daylesford Estates home “had been nothing but bad luck.”
It was where her husband, Thomas, had died suddenly three months before at the age of 64, McDonald said. The two had always been a perfect match, first as friends at Cardinal Dougherty High School and then as partners, he said. They had been married for more than 35 years.
Now McDonald’s sister, too, was gone.
On the day her body was discovered, authorities found a trail of blood from Barger’s deck to a backyard fence that separates her yard from that of a neighbor, David Bookstaber, police records show.
That same day, Chester County detectives interviewed Bookstaber, a 42-year-old Yale-educated husband, father, and Air Force veteran. They wanted to know if Bookstaber had seen or heard anything unusual on the day of his neighbor’s death, or perhaps unknowingly captured a clue on the surveillance cameras he had all around his house. They also asked about Bookstaber’s right hand, which appeared “badly swollen,” investigators later said, with an injury consistent with having struck something. Bookstaber told authorities he had poison ivy, which caused his hand to swell, law enforcement officials said.
Hours later, authorities obtained a search warrant and descended on Bookstaber’s home. They found blood on a sink and on a light switch in the garage, according to documents law enforcement officials compiled after the search. In the mudroom, they found a pair of Sperry men’s boat shoes that appeared to match bloody tread patterns on Barger’s bedroom floor, the documents say. And they learned that Bookstaber’s home surveillance system — which included several exterior video cameras — had not been working in the days leading up to his neighbor’s death, documents show.
The day after Barger’s body was discovered, authorities said, a police dog tracked the scent of blood from Barger’s bedroom to Bookstaber’s garage door.
Through his lawyer, Joseph P. Green Jr., Bookstaber said he had no knowledge of the crime and hopes the person who killed his neighbor will be brought to justice.
“He has no involvement,” Green said. “He hasn’t committed any crime.” When asked about the findings from the search warrants, Green emphasized that it had been nearly two years since authorities gathered that information. He declined to comment further.
This week, Chester County First Assistant District Attorney Michael Noone said the investigation of Barger’s death is “active and ongoing” and urged anyone with information to contact police.
Law enforcement officials have talked with friends, neighbors, and associates of Barger’s. They have studied the crime scene, and pored over forensics, the autopsy report, and the results of several searches of Barger’s property and her neighbor’s.
Noone declined to say whether his office had any suspects or had identified possible motives.
As the two-year anniversary of Barger’s death approaches, McDonald is trying to hold himself together so his sister can get justice.
Since he walked into that crime scene, McDonald said, he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He thinks of his sister many times a day.
“It’s just tough to lose somebody like that,” McDonald said. “Really, really tough.”