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Free fallin': Family says alleged bank robbery was a desperate act in a life that had spiraled out of control


Columbus Police Department officials detain Ashby Barton at the Community Counseling Services building on Main Street in Columbus on Feb. 6. Inset, Jessica White and Barton.

Columbus Police Department officials detain Ashby Barton at the Community Counseling Services building on Main Street in Columbus on Feb. 6. Inset, Jessica White and Barton.


William Browning



When Ashby Barton came to Columbus two weeks ago to enter treatment for his addictions he hoped to bring a photograph of his late girlfriend. 


The picture was taken before she died in a December car crash. The relationship was an emotional high point in the troubled 24-year-old's life, his family members say. Having a picture from that happy time, Barton felt, would help steady him toward sobriety. He put it in a box, along with some other items.  


But Barton's mother, who drove him from Grenada to Columbus on Feb. 5, forgot the box. She promised to mail the photograph of Barton's late girlfriend to him at The Pines and Cady Hill Recovery Center. 


She never got the chance. 


Roughly 24 hours after checking into the treatment facility on Main Street, Barton was in police custody, accused of robbing a Columbus bank that sits less than a block away. 


Authorities say he walked into the Renasant Bank lobby a little after 2 p.m. on Feb. 6, handed a note demanding money to a teller, then fled on foot with an undetermined amount of cash. He was apprehended without incident less than an hour later inside the treatment facility, according to police. 


Barton has been charged with robbery, a felony carrying a maximum possible penalty of 15 years behind bars. 


Authorities say he tried to get away after being taken to the police station but did not make it out of the building. He has been charged with felony escape, according to the Columbus Police Department. Because city officials declined last week to make available Barton's charging documents, it is not known what penalty he faces for the alleged escape attempt or if he has an attorney. 


Police Chief Selvain McQueen did not respond to questions regarding the case. 


Barton, who remains in custody at the Lowndes County Detention Center, has a preliminary hearing scheduled for April 17, according to Latasha Key, criminal investigations secretary with the police department. 


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In an interview last week, Barton's mother, Lee Barton, said by the time her son called her from the jail on the evening of Feb. 6, she had already been told about the alleged bank robbery. Before he could say much she called him a "idiot," she said. 


"I told him, 'The best thing you can do is go back to your cell and hang yourself,'" she said. "Then I hung up on him." 


Lee Barton, 46, regrets saying that. She wrote her son a letter afterward, she said, explaining that she overreacted. 


"I totally failed him," she said. 


Ashby Barton has struggled with heroin addiction, according to family members. His parents divorced when he was young and he lived with his father and his grandparents in Winona. His father could not be reached for this story. 


His mother described him as a sensitive child growing up. To other people, she said, he probably appeared normal. 


"But to me," Lee Barton said, "Ashby had a hole in him." 


She blames herself. 


Lee Barton has struggled with addiction. From 1998 to 2001, she was in a federal prison in Florida for manufacturing methamphetamine. Asked when her son graduated from high school, she did not know. According to his Facebook page, he graduated from Winona Christian School in 2007.  


Some time after school, Barton went from smoking marijuana to using heroin "like overnight," his mother said. 


He has run afoul of the law before, but for "petty" things, his aunt, Dodie Copeland, said. Running stop signs. Shoplifting. Last year he was arrested in Baldwyn on a felony drug charge, according to his mother. Circuit Court clerks in Lee and Prentiss counties last week said they could find no charges against Barton on file at those courthouses, however. The Baldwyn Police Department did not respond to messages. 


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For a stretch, beginning about a year and a half ago, he seemed to have his life on track. It coincided with his relationship with Jessica White, a 27-year-old mother of two from Baldwyn. They met through a friend. She was a widow. It was his first serious relationship. They moved in together and Barton got a job, his mother said. 


"He had hope in his life," Copeland said. "Then she died." 


White died in the early morning hours of Dec. 9 when the Toyota Corolla she was driving was struck by an 18-wheeler, according to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. Barton's family members say White was driving to see Barton at the Lee County warehouse where he worked when it happened. 


"I know he blames himself," Lee Barton said. 


Two days after White's death, Ashby Barton posted this on his Facebook page: "You completed me and now that your gone I have a hole in my heart and a knot in my stomach you made life great and fulfilling for me and now it's just hollow. I want my best friend back." 


Compounding Barton's grief, his family said, was the fact that in January 2013 the grandmother he lived with in Winona for a time, Patsy Stoker, died at 75. 


Barton entered a "downward spiral" of depression following his girlfriend's death, his aunt said. He moved to Hernando to live with her and his mother. He would stay in bed all day. He would borrow his mother's Ford Taurus claiming to be job hunting and stay gone for days at a time. The drug problem resurfaced. He needed rehab and to deal with his grief, Copeland said. 


Family members pooled together $500 worth of deposit money to get him admitted to The Pines and Cady Hill Recovery Center in Columbus. It is not a lockdown facility. Self-admitted clients, which Barton was, can leave when they like. 


Patricia Thornton, clinical coordinator at The Pines and Cady Hill Recovery Center, declined to comment. She also would not confirm that Barton had been a patient. 


His family believes Barton's alleged bank robbery near downtown Columbus was not the act of a brazen criminal but that of a depressed and lost drug addict. 


"It wasn't about financial gain," Copeland said. "It was about giving up on life." 


Copeland said Lee Barton's cellmate in federal prison was a convicted bank robber. Ashby Barton had heard stories, Copeland said, about federal prisons teaching inmates trades. She believes her nephew might have tried to rob a bank in order to face federal charges so he could wind up in federal jail. 


"He told me, 'I just don't want to be a bother to anyone,'" Copeland said. 


Deborah Madden, public affairs specialist at the FBI's Jackson field office, did not respond to messages seeking comment. 


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Rick Jones, administrator at the Lowndes County Detention Center, denied a request from The Dispatch to interview Ashby Barton last week. 


In the envelope containing the letter Lee Barton wrote her son after hanging up on him, she placed a picture of Jessica White. She wanted to make good on the promise she made Barton at the treatment facility. Inmates are allowed to have up to five photographs, Jones said. 


Letters sent to inmates are screened for inappropriate communications, though, and Lee Barton's letter contained curse words. 


Jail officials returned the letter, and picture of Jessica White, to her.


William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.



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