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The Miami Herald, (FL)

March 1, 1997

Author: FRANCES ROBLES And MANNY GARCIA Herald Staff Writers

[]Until last week, Barry Rankin’s only notoriety was elaborate Christmas decorations — more than 20,000 lights would illuminate his Southwest 107th Street house each holiday season.  “Everybody says this looks like a very happy home,” his wife Margery told The Herald in a 1989 Christmas story about their decorations.

And it was.

Rankin, 49, was a Miami firefighter and Vietnam veteran who enjoyed fishing in his spare time, sometimes catching up to 120 in a day. He jogged every day, waving even at neighbors who lived blocks away. Margery, 45, was an up-and-coming educator on the cusp of breaking into national circles.

With their only child April, they hosted neighborhood fireworks shows on New Year’s and the Fourth of July.  No one expected them to be involved in violence.   That all changed Feb. 20, when a startling discovery in the Rankin home thrust the firefighter and his family onto the front page.

Barry and Margery Rankin disappeared that day. Their bed was soaked in blood.   From the start, family members believed Barry Rankin had killed his wife of 20 years. The question was: Where was the couple?  He was found dead three days later at the Days Inn in West Palm Beach, naked, self-inflicted slashes to his arms. He left no note. It was another two days before Margery Rankin was found off Interstate 95 in a field 20 miles away, still wearing her silk housecoat.   Her body was so decomposed that so far doctors have not figured out how she died. Police believe Barry Rankin stabbed her.   Only half the tragedy was a surprise. For months, Rankin’s family and friends had been fearful he would commit suicide. They never suspected he planned to take Margery with him.

“He was sad, quiet, shaky, depressed,” said Robert   “Bo” Webber, a Miami firefighter and long-time friend.  “But I will tell you one thing: He never, ever mentioned or hinted at harming Margie. Never.”

No criminal background

There was nothing about him that would ever suggest homicide.  Born George Barrington Rankin, he was nicknamed Barry at birth because his father’s name was George. His daughter’s friends called him  “Uncle Barry.” Rankin joined the Miami Fire Department 26 years ago, when he was just 23. Before that, he had worked part-time at the LeJeune Golf Course, as a librarian, a shipping clerk and served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.   Shortly after joining the fire department, he volunteered for kitchen duty. For at least the past decade, in addition to fighting fires, he was in charge of preparing all three meals for the 15 people on his shift.

In return, he got out of odd jobs around the station and did not have to chip in for food. Sometimes he brought part of his fish catch to the station, which he would sell to the squad or fire up for dinner.  “Barry loved to cook for the guys,” said Fire Capt. Jerry Guardarrama. “This isn’t the Barry that we knew.”

Cited for work, efforts

Rankin’s personnel file depicts a dependable employee with positive reviews from his bosses and the public.  In 1983, Sherrie Garfield of Coconut Grove wrote the department to commend  “the outstanding men” who came to her rescue when she lost control of her vehicle and slammed into a concrete wall in front of the Coconut Grove Hotel. She was trapped and without a pulse when Rankin and his crew arrived.  Rankin helped free Garfield from the car so paramedics could rush her to the hospital.   “He helped save my life,” Garfield said last week, learning for the first time that Rankin was among the six firefighters who responded to her crash.  “I had been following this tragedy in the news and had no idea. He certainly did a wonderful job, and I am grateful for him helping save my life.”    In 1990, Fire Chief C.H. Duke honored Rankin for achieving perfect attendance during 1989.

Knocked unconscious

His decline started Oct. 21, 1995, six days after his 48th birthday.  While fighting a blaze that destroyed the Charade restaurant in Coral Gables, a large fire hose unreeled, snapped and threw Rankin off his feet. He fell on his head, knocked unconscious. He came back to work three weeks later, apparently well.   It wasn’t long before his colleagues at Station 8 in Coconut Grove noticed otherwise. He was pacing around the station at night, unable to sleep. He would get uncontrollable shakes and muscle spasms.    “He wanted to be the tough guy. He was like, `I’m OK. I’ll work,’ ” said his friend and co-worker Lt. Rick Ash.  “After a while we had to say, `Barry, go home. You can’t work like this.’ Then it became obvious he couldn’t work.”

Mood darkens

A deep depression followed. A man accustomed to fighting fires and reeling in 60-pound dolphin was stuck at home. He was on a bevy of drugs and anti-depressants that he believed were making him sadder and sicker.   The medicines made him so nauseated he could no longer even fish. He told friends every time he went out on the water, he felt a burning sensation from his shoulders to his head.   “He became more quiet, moody. You could see on his face that something was bothering him,” Ash said.   “He was tortured — extra tortured for the last year of his life.”    Ash remembers trying to get his friend to open up. His friend would answer with a few words.   “How you doing?” Ash would ask.

“Existing,” Rankin would answer.    “Can I get you anything?” Ash would offer.  “Got a gun?” his friend would reply.

Sent to doctors

About eight months after the accident, Rankin’s colleagues were calling Deputy Fire Chief Frank Rollason, who heads the city of Miami’s Risk Management Division.   “Frank. Barry’s having problems”,  Rollason remembers Ash saying in June.  “I said, `Let’s get him a doctor.’ ”   Rollason said he referred Rankin to city case management nurse Connie Kreps, who set up an appointment with a neurologist. The neurologist said the sleep disorder could be consistent with a head injury.   “We sent him to 15 different doctors,” Rollason said.   “He saw psychiatrists, neurologists and psychologists.”   Rankin’s daughter April, now 18, said her father was distraught and blamed the drugs doctors prescribed. He said he could not stop his mind from racing and had not slept a full night in more than a year.   “These drugs were killing him a little bit every day,” April Rankin said.

Wife’s search

While her husband deteriorated, Margery Rankin kept much of it to herself. She plunged into her work.   “Margery’s a very reserved person,” said Ana de Mahy, her partner in a divorce mediation service.  “She wouldn’t have discussed personal matters with people outside the family. She would just say Barry’s under treatment, or he went to see someone.”   Dr. Doryn Davis Chervin, who worked with Margery Rankin at the Education Development Center, said the wife tried to find solutions.   “She really was trying to find help for Barry and find answers, and her work became an anchor for her while so much was unknown about what was happening to Barry,” Chervin said. “Sometimes you’d talk to her and she’d say they’d had a really bad day.”   Rollason acknowledges that Rankin got progressively worse. A city case worker assigned to get him help said a psychologist wanted to admit Rankin to an in-patient mental health treatment facility, but he would not go along.

Seeking answers

His colleagues on the A-Shift took Rankin’s suicide and the death of his wife hard. On Monday they demanded answers from the city’s risk-management division: Why didn’t they do more for him? What else could have been done?   Rollason and Fire Chief Carlos Gimenez immediately drove to Station 8.   “We continued treatment with him up until the Friday before the week he went away,” Rollason said.  “Everyone is frustrated, and I am as much as they are.”

Colleagues are left with memories: fishing trips to Bimini on high-powered cruisers, passing Barry on the way. He’d be alone, standing on his 18-foot boat, wrestling with a dolphin.  They remember his spaghetti, the only dish he prepared that nobody liked. It made them all sick.   They remember a firefighter who never gave up on a blaze.  “He never said uncle,” Ash said.  Said April Rankin:   “He was sweet, the most passive person. He would never hurt a fly. I got my love of animals from him.”   Metro-Dade homicide detectives assigned to the case said Rankin appeared to have collapsed mentally from an onslaught of problems: the injury, being out of work and unable to fish, all the while married to a woman on the cusp of a great career. He feared she would leave him.

“He was hooked on antidepressants. He was out of work and couldn’t even go fishing anymore — his favorite thing to do,” said Sgt. Tony Monheim. “I think lots of things kept heaping on him. I’m no psychologist, but I guess it just caused him to snap.”   Herald staff writers Arnold Markowitz, Henri E. Cauvin and Charles Rabin contributed to this report.

Record Number:  9703050329