LAWRENCEVILLE - It was Monday night when police in Troy, Ala., came to a startling realization.
In their efforts to link Dacula dentist Barton Corbin with the .38-caliber revolver used to kill his wife, investigators had failed to check records of the Troy Police Department's dispatch calls. The revolver had been described by defense attorneys as a "phantom gun," because there was no evidence to show how it got into the Corbin home the night Jennifer Corbin was killed.
The only record of the gun's existence revealed it had been shipped to a hardware store in Birmingham, Ala., several years ago.
Troy police also had a record of a 2002 request to check whether the revolver had been stolen. It is common for citizens to ask for a background check on a gun after purchasing it from someone, said Troy Police Chief Anthony Everage.
Police suspected Richard Wilson, a longtime friend of Corbin who lives in Troy, had purchased the gun and later given it to Corbin. Corbin's cell phone records showed he traded several calls with Wilson between Nov. 29 and Dec. 1, 2004. During that time, police suspected Corbin traveled to Alabama to obtain the weapon.
But when questioned about the gun shortly after Jennifer Corbin's death, Wilson told investigators "he didn't want to get involved" or "he couldn't help them with that," according to court documents.
Investigators thought the person who asked them to check if the gun was stolen in 2002 might be Wilson, but they couldn't be sure. A system of making digital recordings of each dispatch call had been implemented only a few years ago, which officers assumed was after the request was made.
"Then we realized Monday there was a possibility we had this recording backed up on disc. That night the officer came down here and went looking for it and found it," Everage said.
Although the recording didn't say who requested a background check on the gun, it did indicate which officer handled the request. A quick phone call to that officer took the investigation a step further, Everage said.
The officer said it wouldn't have been unusual for Wilson to ask him to check the gun history. Armed with the new evidence, Everage decided to question Wilson one more time. On Tuesday, he went to the small motor repair shop Wilson owns.
Wilson, whom police describe as an upstanding, well-respected resident of Troy, admitted without hesitation he was the one who contacted them about the gun in 2002, Everage said. Everage pleaded with Wilson to tell the facts, whatever they were, and let a jury decide whether Corbin was guilty or innocent.
"He and Bart Corbin had been friends and known each other for many years," Everage said. "I'm sure he didn't think that a friend of his would do what he was accused of doing. Sometimes we think if we ignore things, they'll go away. But things like this don't go away and you finally have to face reality, and he did. He realized it had come time to tell what he knew."
Wilson reportedly told police that Corbin called him and asked for the gun Nov. 29, 2004. The following day, Corbin drove to Alabama to retrieve it. Wilson said Corbin claimed he wanted the gun for protection.
Wilson's statement was so potentially damaging to the defense's case that its impact was felt immediately. Someone passed a note to Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter during jury selection midmorning Tuesday, notifying him of the development.
Porter then interrupted jury selection, asking to be excused from the courtroom. He arranged for a day-and-a-half-long break in jury questioning and the next day traveled to Troy to personally obtain a videotaped statement from Wilson. It would be the final nail in the coffin for the defense's case.
On Friday, Corbin pleaded guilty to a murder charge in his wife's death, admitting he used the revolver to fire a single bullet into her head on Dec. 4, 2004. He also pleaded guilty in connection with the 1990 death of Dorothy "Dolly" Hearn, 27, a former girlfriend and fellow dental school student at the Medical College of Georgia in
Corbin received a life sentence, and it will be at least 18 years before he is eligible for parole, Porter said.
Prosecutors said there were striking similarities in the slayings. After his romance with Hearn and later his marriage to Jennifer began deteriorating, Corbin was unable to accept the breakup. He began harassing the women and he eventually killed them, Porter said. He then staged their deaths to look like suicides.
Corbin got away with it in 1990 - Richmond County police were never able to bring charges against him despite their suspicions. But when Corbin's 33-year-old wife turned up dead 14 years later in virtually the same circumstances, the Hearn case was reopened.
Ultimately, two pivotal pieces of evidence in the Jennifer Corbin murder, the gun and Corbin's own cell phone records, which showed he was in the vicinity of his Buford home when Jennifer died, brought the defense to its knees.
Defense attorney Bruce Harvey admitted Friday that the gun was the "straw that broke the camel's back."
Porter credited his own investigators along with the Gwinnett County and Troy police departments in their dogged pursuit of justice for the victim's families.
"They were instrumental in locating and tracing the gun and placing it in Corbin's hands three days before the murder," Porter said. "It put Corbin in a position where he had no other alternative but to plead guilty."