In Mothers & Murders, Ellison chronicles the domestic disputes that took place between Judith Barnett and Howard Witkin before Witkin’s death.
In 1981, Katherine Ellison, then a 23-year-old journalist, sat in the same California courtroom as Judith Barnett, a stay-at-home mother of three and president of her local chapter of Hadassah. Barnett was there to support her husband at the time, who was on trial for the contract murder of her ex-husband.
According to Ellison, Barnett was the kind of woman who wore kitten heels and a single strand of pearls around her neck while carrying a Louis Vuitton tote bag. From an outsider’s perspective, Ellison says, Barnett seemed like the ideal Jewish mother– one who volunteered at her local synagogue during her free time, made casseroles for friends and neighbors, and showered her children with attention.
Yet the well-dressed, doting mother had secrets. She was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole for helping to plot that same murder of her ex-husband.
“When I first met her, I thought she was the quintessential nice, Jewish mom,” said Ellison. It was only when Barnett would later sue her, she said, that she saw another side.
Ellison’s book, Mothers & Murderers: A True Story of Love, Lies, Obsession and Second Chances, tells the story of the tumultuous murder trials she covered while working for The Mercury News in San Jose. Published in fall 2019 by WildBlue Press, the book details both the Singer-Barnett murder case that spanned a period of 14 years and Ellison’s career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter during that time.
In her book, Ellison recounts the murder that took place in March 1980, while Barnett and her husband at the time, Robert Singer, were living in Grand Blanc, a suburb of Flint. Singer hired a busboy working in his restaurant to murder Barnett’s ex-husband, Howard Witkin. The busboy then recruited his childhood friend to help carry out the killing in the San Francisco Bay Area where Witkin lived.
The book also covers Ellison’s largest professional mistake as a journalist — a reporting error that took place during Singer’s trial in 1981. In one of her articles for The Mercury News, Ellison accidentally attributed the plotting of Witkin’s murder to both “Judi and Robert Singer,” before Judi had actually been implicated in the crime. Barnett went on to sue Ellison for $11 million as a result of the error.
Barnett’s roots go back to the suburbs of Detroit, where she moved around several times while growing up as the stepdaughter of former Detroit fire commissioner and entrepreneur Robert Adell. Adell owned a successful car parts manufacturing firm, and helped to elect Jerome Cavanaugh as mayor of Detroit in 1962.
For the Jewish community in the San Francisco Bay Area, the trial was high profile. And Jews packed the courtroom.
“The trial completely divided the synagogue, and they brought that right into the courtroom,” Ellison said.
At the end of a long and drama-filled first trial, in 1982, Singer was convicted of arranging Witkin’s murder. However, several years later, Singer, whom Barnett had since divorced, implicated Barnett in the murder, explaining that she had persuaded him to kill her ex-husband due to panic over an ongoing custody battle.
In Mothers & Murders, Ellison chronicles the domestic disputes that took place between Barnett and Witkin before Witkin’s death. According to Barnett, Witkin, who had a drug problem, wished to take their three children, including their 2-year-old, to vacation on a houseboat.
When Witkin refused to cancel the trip at Barnett’s request, Barnett attempted to put an end to Witkin’s visiting privileges. As a result, Witkin filed for joint custody of their children. Witkin was murdered two weeks before their custody case appointment.
In the end, Ellison said it was Barnett’s commitment to maintaining the persona of the perfect Jewish mother that fascinated her and so many others.
“There are so many families who are hiding secrets,” said Ellison. “People resonate with the story of this woman, who was all about facades and presenting this false front for years.”
Even after the trial, Ellison said Barnett carried on with her image of an upstanding family. At one point in 1991, before she had been implicated in the murder, she moved to West Bloomfield, where she sent her two sons to Detroit Country Day School and told her neighbors that her ex-husband died in a car accident.
But by that time, Barnett could no longer contain her biggest secret. In her book, Ellison explains that after 10 years in prison, Singer’s lawyers offered him a plea bargain that would reduce his sentence of life without parole. As a part of the deal, Singer had to take responsibility for his role in arranging the murder of Witkin. He also had to implicate his former wife, Barnett, as the real mastermind behind the murder. Barnett was arrested in 1991 and convicted of first-degree murder in 1994.
After Barnett was convicted and went to serve her sentence at the female-only Central California Women’s Facility state prison in Chowchilla, her commitment to a perfect image, and the Jewish faith, never wavered, Ellison said. Even after suing Ellison (a suit she later dropped due to mounting legal fees), Singer still allowed Ellison to interview her in prison and sent her cards for the High Holidays. Singer also maintained her religious activities from within prison. “She claims to be the first bat mitzvah in the history of Chowchilla prison,” Ellison said.
After serving a sentence of 25 years, Barnett was released from prison in October 2019. Her sentence was commuted by California’s then-Governor Jerry Brown.
Today, Ellison wonders whether Barnett has ever been honest with herself about her involvement in her ex-husband’s murder. During her parole hearing last summer, Barnett suggested she had behaved like a “Psycho Barbie,” but she insisted she never planned to have Witkin killed, according to a Mercury News article written by Ellison.
Ultimately, what Ellison has learned from Barnett’s actions, and her book, is the value of self-awareness. “We shouldn’t be so confident that we know all there is to know about ourselves,” she said. “It’s very important to question our own motives and give some time to look honestly at ourselves.”