A former head of the Union County Republican Party was arrested Tuesday and accused of threatening to harm Gov. Mike Easley, but the man said it's all a big misunderstanding.
Prosecutors say John Barker of Monroe threatened bodily harm against Easley, a Democrat, after a run-in with a state agency. But neither the Wake County district attorney nor the warrant for Barker's arrest detailed what he said or with which state agency he tussled. The alleged threat came by phone on Aug. 6, and was reported to Easley's security detail.
"It's just a total misunderstanding," Barker said in a phone interview. "The whole reaction is so out of proportion to what happened."
The retired metal manufacturing teacher, who said he has a physical disability, said the incident occurred as he battled with the state about his state employee health insurance policy. After multiple phone calls to try to get some money returned to him, he recalled saying to a phone attendant at the benefits office: "What do I have to do to get your attention? Shoot the governor?"
He thought nothing more of the conversation until Tuesday, when a Monroe police officer told him he had a warrant for his arrest. Barker said he thought it was a joke and didn't recall what threat he had made.
Barker is charged with communicating a threat to an executive officer, a felony that usually brings probation or community service. The maximum sentence would be 12 to 15 months in prison. He was released from the Union County jail on $10,000 bond.
"I've got to be sort of delicate about this, because these are evidentiary matters. But clearly the governor's security detail took this seriously," said Wake County prosecutor Colon Willoughby, who handles cases involving elected officials. "This wasn't two guys sitting on the porch at the Y'all Come Back Saloon talking about that son-of-a-such-and-such governor, saying `I oughta kill that guy.' It appears to be on a much different plane than a casual comment or barroom chat."
It was unclear why there was a delay between the alleged incident and the warrant, which was issued Aug. 30, and the arrest.
Barker led Union County Republicans for a year, ending in March 2003. He also did work for State Sen. Fern Shubert, a Union County Republican who ran for governor this year, and Jim Snyder, a candidate for lieutenant governor this year who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002.
Barker is an active member of the Central United Methodist Church in Monroe, said Eddie Goodall, who became county party chairman after Barker. He's had health problems in recent years, said Irene Brown, a Republican activist in Union County.
"He does have his weird moments," Brown said. "He'd tell you his family owned all the vineyards in Northern Italy. It was dream tangents. No one thought that it was true; we just laughed and went on."
Brown said such statements were infrequent. "We never thought of it as dishonesty. It wasn't something we were ever worried about," she said. "We just played along. He's not aggressive or threatening at all."
Union County commissioner Stony Rushing, who clashed with Barker during his tenure as party chairman and tried to have him ousted, said Tuesday's arrest saddened him.
"I really, really hope John didn't do this," Rushing said. "If he did, I hope he can get the help that he needs."
Barker said he's perplexed by the whole matter, wondering why state officials thought a disabled 60-year-old who can't drive might be a threat from 140 miles away.
"I think I understand why the state employee union endorsed the opponent," he said.
In July, Timothy Bryan Larrimore, a 35-year-old from Winnabow, pleaded guilty to threatening to shoot Easley. A judge sentenced Larrimore to up to eight months in prison, suspended upon three years of supervised probation.